Names, they can be pretty misleading. For instance, we had a Mughal emperor — I use the words with a spirit of abiding generosity — called Shah Alam or the Emperor of the Universe. There was a small thing though: Shah’s alam extended to around half a kilometre around Mehrauli!
Or take Shahjahanabad, Shah Jahan’s capital. Again the Mughal emperor is given credit for founding the city that had, at one time, 14 gates. But look a little closer, parts of Shahjahanabad preceded the arrival of the Mughals in the country by some 300 years. The best proof comes from the dargah of Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani, the 13th Century sufi. The gate near the dargah was named after the sufi. There is a little legend as to why the sufi was called Bayabani. Bayaban translates to wilderness, and Delhi in the 13th Century was nothing but wilderness beyond Mehrauli on the one end, and a little stretch in and around what is now called Dilli 6. The sufi occupied a patch which led to the forests, hence the name Bayabani.
The thought of the sufi came back to my mind as I picked up Charles Lewis and Karoki Lewis’ Delhi’s Historic Villages, a book so rich in pictures that you could just click photos of the pages and come up with a collage of your own! Yet if you linger on, read the text, quietly you would be reminded of Khushwant Singh’s book on the Capital, Delhi: A Portrait. Of course, nobody can argue that Lewis Senior — the father has done the writing, the son the pictures — is blessed with the literary flourishes of the irrepressible Singh. But in his own way, Charles spins a surprise. Little known tales come laced with details stemming from sustained research. Quietly, slip out many gems. And before long you realise that the city you claimed to be born in, the city you call your home for many years, is actually quite foreign to you. For instance, the chapter on Khirki. No, I did not open it because of the controversy surrounding Somnath Bharti’s midnight visit to the urban village. I opened it because Khirki reminded me of my own days as a research scholar a few decades ago when I went monument hunting across the city and once found a faded newspaper clipping on Khirki masjid. Here though, there is nothing that is faded. Lewis uses the eye of a navigator as he leads the reader to the village that is a part of a sprawling metropolis yet in its own way a self contained world, a world that in many ways takes you back a couple of centuries. “Khirki can be reached from Begumpur and Sarvpriya Vihar by following the old winding Malviya Nagar Road, past the Lal Gumbad Tomb prominently situated in an open space on the left adjoining the Panchshila Rendezvous restaurant,” Lewis explains in detail, helped all along with Karoki’s photos of the city you see every now and then yet manage not to observe.
It is an approach that is consistently found in every chapter. If in the chapter on Chiragh Delhi — strangely not called Chiragh Dilli here — the author tells us that the village owes its name to Nasiruddin Mahmud Roshan Chiragh Dehli, a sufi who succeeded Nizamuddin Auliya as the head of the Chishti sect in 1324, in the section on Masjid Moth comes an interesting anecdote. “The mosque came by its unusual name (moth is a kind of dal) when Sikander Lodi and his wazir Miyan Bhoiya attended the Jami Mosque one day. A bird happened to drop a seed of the moth plant which the sultan inadvertently knelt on. ‘When he rose up, the Wazir saw the moth seed. He picked it up and said to himself, ‘A seed so honoured by His Majesty must not be thrown away, and must be used in the service of God’.”
The seed was sown, it multiplied, the money from its sale was used to build a mosque. Hence the name.
The book treads waters familiar and unusual with equal ease. The photos tell their own tales, the narrative takes you to the times gone by, and, in many cases, long forgotten. Worth picking up this Penguin publication, even if the expression “Delhi’s villages” seems odd to many, more so for those who feel Delhi is limited to Lutyens’ city, a generation that feels malls and multiplexes are what Delhi is all about! Think again guys. Names, as I said at the beginning, can be misleading. Bayaban, moth ki masjid, Khirki, bhuri bhatyari….they are as much a part of our Delhi as Connaught Place, Mehrauli or Rajpath. Time to take off your blinkers!