From jinn mamu to the king of serpents, historian Rana Safvi’s book “The Forgotten Cities of Delhi” combines the real with the supernatural, taking its readers on a journey through the corridors of time. The sequel to her book “Where Stones Speak”, this book brings together riveting anecdotes with surprising facts about the nation’s capital and the many monuments dotting it— living witnesses to the interplay of light and shade across the city.
At a book reading session in Gurugram’s DLF Club 5, the author was in conversation with Asif Khan Dehlvi, founder of Delhi Karwan, and photographer Syed Mohammad Qasim whose evocative and imaginatively captured photograph became the cover of the book. Safvi regaled the audience with folklore and history from the pages of her book, such as the many names that Delhi was bestowed with. From Delu in 50 BC, it became Dhilli under the Tomars (after 700 AD), and later was reverentially referred to as Hazrat-e-Dehli , finally shortened to Dehli . It was only under the British that the city became ‘Delhi’, in accordance with the rules of the English language, where the letter ‘h’ cannot be placed before ‘l’. The word ‘Dehli’ itself carried a reference to the city being the ‘Dehleez of Hindustan’, or the threshold of India.
“The Forgotten Cities of Delhi” is sprinkled with myriad such engrossing details, in particular about the syncretism of the city — markedly visibly in the Indo-Islamic architecture. How many of us, for instance, know about the tomb that is decorated with Swastikas? The book uses four hitherto unexplored books as its sources, including two Urdu ones: Sir Syed’s “Asaar us Sanadeed” and Basheer ud Din Ahmed’s “Waqeyat-e-Dar ul Hukumat e Dehli”. The third is an out of print book which the author procured from the United States. “I’ve used these books along with my own experiences, plus more research,” says Safvi. But the defining part of the book is its style, which is akin to a personal journey.
Safvi narrates how a reader messaged her and said that reading the book was like taking a walk with her. Conducting heritage walks through the city is an art the author has mastered, and she makes a conscious attempt to write as if she were describing things during one of those walks, weaving in elements of the supernatural, such as jinns and fairies. One is reminded of the “City of Djinns” by Dalrymple, which has quite similar elements. But Safvi concurs, “He has written it from a very British point of view and a western sensibility. I am writing it as someone who’s steeped in this culture, who has spent her entire childhood listening to these tales. Mitti mein doobi hui hoon,” she emphasises.
Her book is connected to the mitti or earth in more ways than one. Her trips to the various de-listed monuments didn’t always present the prettiest of sights. The Zamarrudpur monuments, for instance. “That was the one most difficult to reach,” says Safvi. “We had to walk through narrow gullies and mounds of garbage, and one of them could only be reached through a lavatory. Also in Begumpur, there was so much filth because people used to come in the mornings to do their business. I had to throw away my shoes after I came back!” she exclaims. There’s also the tale of the man in Zamarrudpur who kept trying to keep her from taking photographs, and when she returned the next day, snapped at her with: “Aap phir aa gayin!”
The locals around these places are apprehensive of anyone trying to take photographs, for they fear that the authorities would demolish the numerous structures that have cropped up around them. Most of these monuments are de-listed though, and nothing can be done to conserve them. But public awareness is very important, says Safvi. At the very least, people need to be made aware of the presence of these receptacles of history in their midst. She also has an interesting and novel idea for the conservation of lesser known monuments: asking schools to adopt one of these.
“I talked to the principal of Vasant Valley. She said she wanted to adopt the Sultangarhi monument. They can then build programmes around it as well — quizzes, brochures, heritage walks. But ASI wasn’t ready for this.” Safvi explains, adding, “The only way forward for people to save these monuments is when they consider a sense of ownership. Apnepan ka ehsaas. For that we need children to get associated with it.”
But what significance does history have for a nation’s present and future generations? Is the past really important for those moving into the future, their sights set on the horizon? “These monuments and heritage are a living history,” emphasises Safvi. “If we do not appreciate and understand our living history we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.”