When a city has been capital for 1000 years and more and when it has been ruled by scores of dynasties it is bound to leave behind memories, happy and sad, violent and placid, memories of grandeur and austerity, of colour and joy and also memories of pain and destruction.
Delhi has more than its share of these memories left behind in writings about Delhi in memoirs, journals, and novels, in travelogues, in prose and in verse also in racy journalistic pieces and in heavy and laboured biographies.
There is an endless list of the kinds of texts that were produced on Delhi including histories of the rulers and their conquests, life inside the palaces, accounts of the royal courts, pen-sketches of the leading lights of the city, accounts of the lives of the common people, life in the streets, accounts of the rebellion of 1857 written both by supporters and opponents. There are texts on Delhi, its monuments, its ruins, its festivals, customs and rituals of various communities. Accounts are present of major or minor political movements, guides on starting businesses and acquiring skills, recipe books, writings about the language of the street and the language spoken by women who remained behind closed doors.
There were texts like Muraqqa-e-Dehli by Dargah Quli Khan a most remarkable work on Delhi as it was just before and after its sack by Nadir Shah; there were the Tazkiras -- biographical notes on poets- like Meer Taqi Meer’s Nukaa’t- us-Shua’ara; compilations of letters of poets like Ghalib ‘s Ood-e-Hindi, Asaar-us-Sanaadeed on the monuments of Delhi by Syed Ahmad Khan; AalammeinIntekhab-Dehli by Maheshwar Dayal and countless others.
The accounts go back centuries from the Sanskrit text on a stone tablet recovered from the Palam Baoli, built at the time of Ghyas-ud-Din Balban or those written in medieval accounts like the Rihla of Abû Abdullah Muammadibn Abdullah popularly known as Ibn-e-Batuta, a contemporary of Mohammad bin Tughlaq, Tareekh-e-Ferozeshahi by Zia-ud-Din Barni, Tughlaq Nama by Khusrau, Tareekh-e-Ferozeshahi by Shams Siraj, Tareekh-e-Farishta by Mohammad Qasim Farishta. Accounts left behind by Jean Baptiste Tavernier and Francois Bernier, both contemporaries of Shahjahan and later texts written by the British and a diverse array of Europeans, each bringing her own perspective on this eternal city.
Many of these texts are so heavily biased that you wonder at the remarkable insensitivity of the authors to anything that does not fit into their own frame of reference. The practice of writing about the city, its history and its people, with preconceived ideas, to select what fitted well in the picture that the author wanted to portray and ignoring everything that did not, was not something unique to the Europeans. Many ‘natives’ too employed the same techniques and so the general approach followed by authors like Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad in describing the rebels of 1857and those fighting for India’s freedom in the early decades of the 20 Century, does not differ significantly from the writings of contemporary colonialist historians.
And yet, despite their ideological tilts, all these texts are important resources for any serious student of Delhi. Therefore this large collection of texts needs not only to be preserved but also made available to researchers and to lay readers interested in understanding the city and its history.
Many of these books like the Muraqqa-e-Dehli by Dargah Quli Khan originally written in Persian and translated into English by Professors Chandra Shekhar and Shama Mitra Chenoy are very difficult to procure and it is the same about a large number of books on Delhi. Many of the earlier works on Delhi are available only in Persian and Urdu and anyone not familiar with these languages faces a real uphill task in trying to find pre-19 Century works on Delhi in Hindi or English.
The absence of a central library and research facility focused on Delhi is a serious drawback and a matter that needs to be attended to on an urgent basis. There are a large number of manuscripts in Urdu and Persian scattered through libraries and personal collections, the latter are being damaged and lost or are being surreptitiously bought and sold.
The readership of both Persian and Urdu is decreasing rapidly and there is need to initiate steps, on an urgent basis, to actively promote the teaching and learning of these languages in order to create a readership for these books and to have a wider network from which researchers and commentators / translators for these texts can emerge.
There is need also to create a system where translations of these texts are made available to readers of other Indian languages including English. Something like this was done in the early 19 Century except at that time texts were being translated from English into Indian languages. There is no harm in trying to reverse this trend now.
There is a proposal to convert the Chandni Chowk Town Hall into a public library; it would be great if it was to develop into a centre where manuscripts and miniature paintings, other texts, rare books, old maps, photographs, political pamphlets, posters and such other memorabilia could find a home, a home that would welcome the researcher and the lay reader alike, a library and research institute that befits a city like Delhi. Dare we hope?