Life has its ways of teasing you. Not by design, certainly by chance, I ended up with stories of two cities over the past fortnight. Actually, two tales of two-and-a-half cities considering Raza Rumi’s Delhi by Heart has frequent interludes of Lahore, clearly ruled by the author’s love and memories of the city. There are few such deflections in Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats, a “short biography of Patna”.
Rumi’s Delhi by Heart conveys the impressions of a Pakistani traveller, admittedly one whose roots go back to India. Amitava, of course, hails from Bihar, and though long settled in the U.S., speaks about Patna, and indeed many other parts of the State, as someone who understands the pulse of the place. Indeed, the very fact that he writes about Patna calls for celebration. As we veer dangerously towards one-world-one language-one-culture syndrome, States and cities, tenaciously holding on to their peculiarities, are being cast aside. Indian authors writing in English have not often paid much attention to Patna. Amitava’s is probably the first biography of the city. And he does pack a punch. There are stretches when he is sedate like a river in the plains. For instance, when he talks of Pataliputra, Chandragupta Maurya and later when there is mention of Aurangzeb and one of his favoured nephews. Or when he waxes about Sher Shah Suri, “the Great Afghan”, under whom art and literature thrived in Bihar. Or when he takes pot shots at fellow Biharis, who measure geographical distance in time, not kilometres. In between, he provides enough evidence that rivers in the plains run deep. That is when he tells us that Chanakya is dubbed as India’s Machiavelli even though he preceded him by 1800 years! And Bihar lost its pride of place in history because “Delhi had obliterated Patna”. It is a stinging statement on the way our history is written, the way youngsters are always provided selective, even distilled information. For instance, if it is about ancient India, the headlines are all for the Guptas; if it is about medieval times, it has to be the Mughals. The Pandavas, the Quli Qutb Shahs, bring up just a footnote.
Talking of distilled information, Rumi too suffered a similar fate. Back in Pakistan, there is a certain caricature of an average Indian that is provided by the media. And Rumi, like countless others, grew up with misgivings about India and Indians. They manifested in a lurking apprehension when he landed in Delhi or when he ventured out to discover the city without the ubiquitous tour escorts.
“Wasn’t India responsible for dismembering the Pakistani state in 1971,” he wondered. For long years, Delhi, indeed India, was the ‘other’. What helped Rumi enormously was his ability to unlearn quickly and the time he shared with Indians in neutral territories across the world. Yet old fears have their ways of resurfacing at the most unexpected of moments. Rumi’s did when he arrived in Delhi. But soon, he discovered as a Pakistani, he was “not lonely on planet Delhi”, the city of 22 sufis, called Little Mecca by some. Rumi chooses to bring us a masnavi of Amir Khusrau to show the grandeur of Delhi. Khusrau wrote, “Noble Delhi, shelter of religion and treasure/It is the Garden of Eden, may it last forever. A veritable earthly paradise in all its qualities/ May Allah protect it from calamities.”
A Pakistani praising Delhi, even if he borrows the words of one of our own? Rumi makes my day. Later in the book, he provides points to ponder by reminding us that the total share of Muslims in the civil services is a little over two per cent in India, and the only place they are over-represented are in the jails. A shade disturbing, such facts, but they help take Rumi’s book above a feel-good, thump-your-chest exercise.
Much like Amitava, who has a disturbing take on the Musahar, the rat-eating community of Bihar, and at another place tells us about the anomalies of the coaching system in the State today. With such nuggets, Amitava exposes a city, a State. Likewise for Rumi.
As for me, I am not complaining! Tales of two cities and then a half! I could not have asked for more.