Review of Swapna Liddle’s The Broken Script: Tumult and change

Drawing upon various sources, Swapna Liddle writes a luminous account of the history of Delhi from 1803 to 1857 relevant to contemporary times

Published - February 10, 2023 09:02 am IST

Delhi in 1860, as seen from the palace gate.

Delhi in 1860, as seen from the palace gate. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

For the middle of the 19th century, it could be well said: “Those were the best of times; those were the worst of times.” One way of life was coming to an inexorable end; the other was waiting to be born. The rebellion of 1857, considered by many as the First War of Independence, not merely marked the end of a way of life, it also, in a sense, marked a departure in the way of ‘seeing’ things.

The Broken Script is a luminous account of a tumultuous period in the history of Delhi — from 1803 to shortly after the Great Revolt of 1857 — when the city was under the sway of the East India Company.

Rebel sepoys during the Great Revolt of 1857. 

Rebel sepoys during the Great Revolt of 1857.  | Photo Credit: Getty images

Two worlds were fusing and merging; the old Mughal order had still not fully disintegrated and the new colonial enterprise was waiting to take shape in all its brutality and majesty. Delhi, and by extension large swathes of Hindustan, were still ruled by the titular Mughal emperor from the imperial capital, though both the power and prestige as also the territories and assets were slowly and steadily being nibbled away by the Company.

The trading post established by the British East India Company at Surat.

The trading post established by the British East India Company at Surat. | Photo Credit: Getty images

New power centre

Swapna Liddle, already very well known in Delhi for her many interventions on the city’s monuments and social history, has written an exhaustive account of this half-century of tumult and change. Drawing upon diverse sources — literary, cultural, social, political — she writes of the emergence of a new power centre with the establishment of a Resident at the Mughal Court who moved from adviser to ‘de facto rulers of the city’. Drawing its title from this sher by Qadir Bakhsh ‘Sabir’, her book devotes much attention to the destruction of a way of life, a deliberate and brutal effacement, causing one to pause a while and draw comparisons with present times and the travails being visited upon this city in the guise of urban renewal:

Bas ke bedad se toote hain makaan-e Dehli

Ho raqam khat-e shikasta se bayaan-e Dehli

So unjustly have the buildings been razed in Delhi,

It is fitting to inscribe in the broken script, the account of Delhi.

Swapna Liddle

Swapna Liddle | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Of the period under study, Liddle writes: “Its cultural and intellectual life has been written about in clichés that were as contradictory as they were simplistic: it was simultaneously viewed as a cultural high point and an age of decay. It was characterised sometimes as a period of ‘twilight’, at others as a ‘renaissance’; and as if to somehow reconcile the two, as the last flicker of a candle before it goes out.” Going beyond binaries and tired tropes, Liddle sees this late Mughal city as the sum of its many parts: as a civilisation clinging to its tehzeeb and culture yet willing to embrace modernity in different ways and degrees — be it through the introduction of print culture and the publishing of translations of scientific and educational books by Aloys Sprenger through the Vernacular Translation Society; as a society making space for the innovations emanating from the Delhi College influencing the cultural and intellectual life of the city’s elites; or the many experiments in the form and content of Urdu ghazal that shone like burnished gold under the tutelage of the Delhi ustads.

The ‘Company period’ in the history of Delhi has been studied before but seldom, if ever, has it been written about with such empathy, such zeal to present the larger picture, to bring in diverse strands to knit a narrative that is richly detailed and marvellously textured. Written in felicitous prose, Liddle’s story of Delhi is as readable as it is informed.

The Broken Script; Swapna Liddle, Speaking Tiger Books, ₹899.

The reviewer is a writer, translator and historian.

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