City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in 19th Century Delhi
By Rana Safvi
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729615
277pp.

As rightly noted by the late Shamsur Rahman Faruqi in his foreword to the book, Rana Safvi’s City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in 19th Century Delhi contains key documents to understanding the society, culture and politics of the Red Fort during a period much maligned by comprador historians as effete and decadent when, in reality, it was a time of intellectual vibrancy and social harmony.

A respected scholar with a master’s degree in mediaeval history from the Aligarh Muslim University, India, Safvi is a firm believer in the Ganga-Jamuni tradition and passionate about documenting India’s rich cultural heritage via her books, articles, blogs and videos.

Safvi shares that, when researching for an earlier project, she came upon several monographs published by the Urdu Academy, Delhi, and decided to translate four books that would present the truth of a city whose syncretic harmony showcased the best of two very different ways of life.

Three works chosen for translation are Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi’s Dilli Ka Aakhri Deedar [The Last Glimpse of Delhi], Munshi Faizuddin’s Bazm-i-Aakhir [The Last Assembly] and Arsh Taimuri’s Qila-i-Mualla Ki Jhalkiyaan [Glimpses of the Exalted Fort]. These provide glimpses of life inside the Red Fort during the reign of the last two Mughal emperors.

An intimate chronicle of a crucial era in the Subcontinent — often painted as effete and decadent — reveals the intellectual vibrancy and social harmony as lived by the denizens of Delhi’s Red Fort

The fourth work is Begumaat Ke Aansoo [Tears of the Begums]. These stories, as collected and retold by Khwaja Hasan Nizami, feature eyewitness accounts of the escapes of Mughal princes and princesses and their subsequent fate.

Safvi explains how Delhi was built and destroyed repeatedly, and that remains of seven ruined ‘cities’ still exist. The first city having some recorded history is “Laal Kot”, or the Red Fort, built in 1052 CE by Anangpal Tomar II, who chose the Aravalli Hills in Mehrauli as his headquarters. This was expanded further and came to be known as “Qila Rai Pithora.”

Alauddin Khilji built the city of “Siri” in 1304. Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq built “Tughlaqabad” in 1321. In 1326, Ghiyasuddin’s son Muhammad enclosed Mehrauli and Siri with a wall to create “Jahanpanah”. Muhammad’s cousin Firoz Shah Tughlaq built “Firozabad” in 1354. Mughal emperor Humayun built “Dinpanah” in 1534, which Sher Shah Suri expanded and renamed “Sher Shah Garh”. The seventh city was “Shahjahanabad”.

Over the years, new settlements pushed earlier ones further back into history: Firozabad became Old Delhi after Shahjahanabad — considered ‘new’ Delhi — was founded. In turn, when Britain’s King George V moved the capital of British India from Calcutta in 1911, Shahjahanabad become Old Delhi and Imperial Delhi became New Delhi.

The siege of Delhi and de facto takeover by the British in 1857 annihilated a city as well as a unique way of life. The Ganga-Jamuni people who lived there either perished, were exiled or left struggling to survive. No records made by the common people of Delhi exist, perhaps because they did not anticipate a time when the Mughal dynasty no longer ruled over the Subcontinent. Court journals and records of the 1857 ‘mutiny’ survive, but they contain little about ordinary people’s ordinary lives within the walled city, or even of the royals within the Red Fort.

Safvi quotes from Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi’s Dilli Ka Aakhri Deedar that the “Mughals not only conquered Hindustan, but made it their beloved home. Just as an individual beautifies and fills his home with treasures, they filled their new home with their language, administration, architecture, way of living, music, poetry, cultural pursuits and their knowledge of art and science, and took it to new heights. That is why all their subjects were always happy and festive.”

People mill around outside Delhi’s Red Fort, which is now a popular tourist spot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site | Wikimedia Commons
People mill around outside Delhi’s Red Fort, which is now a popular tourist spot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site | Wikimedia Commons

Aghai Begum, also called Nani Hajjan, served as an attendant to a royal lady in the fort. In Dilli Ka Aakhri Deedar, she comments on the drain of wealth and the public’s condition: “Earlier, earning was less, but we had more purchasing power. We earned peacefully and ate in peace. Now there’s always some problem or clamour around us.

“The monsoons are good, the harvests are plenty, the bags are full of grain, yet we starve and face famine. It’s as if there’s perpetual famine, and why not? If there’s a war anywhere in the world, it’s we who suffer. We produce the grains, yet others enjoy it. Our wealth is sent [to the British] and we are left naked and starving. Earlier, whatever was produced here was consumed here. Money stayed within the house and everything was fine. We could earn, spend, save or do whatever we wanted to do with it.”

Nani Hajjan’s Delhi thrived on the bonhomie between two religions: “Muslims were ready to sacrifice their lives for Hindus and the Hindus couldn’t live without them. If one was the bridegroom, the other was his best man.”

But then, the city became a ghost of its former self. Enmity seeped into the very bones of the frightened people. Hostility between the two communities surged to a never-seen-before high. Dignified dispositions and cordial graciousness disappeared. “The city is no longer Dilli — it is now Delhi. People have become unprincipled and corrupt; one has to merely tempt them with money and they will demolish either the Kaaba or a mandir. Yet, they show off as if they are street-smart and wise. Wherever one casts one’s gaze, one finds a perfect face, who is imperfect in faith.”

Dilli Ka Aakhri Deedar was published in 1934. Although he didn’t experience it himself, author Dehlvi grew up hearing about the Mughal way of life. However, his observations on communal harmony during Mughal rule, and its subsequent transformation into discord by the late 19th century, are instructive considering the recent debates on whether the Mughals enforced large-scale conversion, were barbaric towards Hindus, and whether they looted or enriched India.

In Bazm-i-Aakhir, Munshi Faizuddin describes the morning ritual at the palace: after morning prayers and a recitation from the Holy Quran, the royal physician would check the emperor’s pulse and announce his good health. After a refreshing drink, the emperor would visit the durbar [court] and the first proper meal of the day would be served at noon.

This is also mentioned in Mrs Meer Hassan Ali’s 1832 book Observations on the Mussulmauns of India, which Safvi mentions in the ‘Translator’s Note’. It is stated there was no provision for breakfast during Mughal times. The first substantial meal was eaten at 10-11am; the second was dinner. Before and between them, only betel leaf and hookah were enjoyed. This was standard practice until the adoption of British food habits.

Some of the most fascinating chapters in the book describe festivities and celebrations. Take the ladies’ day in the garden: tents were put up near a flowing river, which had small boats tethered to its banks. Palace guards ensured no strange man came near the royal folk. Commoner children and women set up shops on the grass.

The emperor arrived in a carriage drawn by female porters and gave orders to “plunder the baagh [garden].” Immediately, all the royal ladies and children would begin to run around, filling bags with lemons and bananas. They peeled sugarcane and threw rocks at the mango trees, while agile maidservants climbed the trees and ate the fruit straight from the branches.

Nauroz, the ancient Persian new year, was celebrated with great pomp by the Mughals, who has modelled their court on the Persian empire. Festivities began after astrologers chose the colour for the new year and all royals dressed in that particular colour.

Muharram was deeply revered. Mourning began as soon as the Muharram moon was sighted. Water dispensing stations were set up. The emperor put on a kafni — the green garment worn by fakirs — and became the fakir of Imam Hasan and Imam Husain. A green bag filled with cardamom, fennel and poppy seeds was tied round his neck. He prayed at the dargah before consecrating food.

The Hindu festival of Salona, or rakhsha bandhan, is described with an intriguing story. Alamgir II was killed by his vizier and his body thrown in the Jamuna river. A Hindu lady en route to morning puja [prayers] was shocked to recognise the body as the emperor’s.

A search party found the distraught lady guarding the corpse, the murdered emperor’s head cradled in her lap. In gratitude, Alamgir’s heir, Shah Alam II, declared her his sister. Thereafter, every year for Salona the lady tied a string of pearls around his wrist; Shah Alam reciprocated with clothes and gold coins. For years to come, women from the Hindu lady’s family came to tie a raakhi on the wrist of the Mughal emperor and other princes in a ritual that continued until the last Mughar emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled from the Fort.

Safvi’s intimate chronicle of a crucial era in the Subcontinent’s history is filled with such edifying treats, giving a look into not just what happened and when, but how it affected the human beings living through it.

The reviewer writes short fiction in Urdu and is currently working on her first novel

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2022

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