History Reviews

‘Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi’ review: Jinn masjid and other fragments of Old Delhi

Rana Safvi begins her book, the final volume of a trilogy on Delhi, with the prehistory of Shahjahanabad, named after its royal patron, Emperor Shah Jahan, in the 17th century. Where the city was planned was not a wilderness but one that had seen pockets of habitation, from the grave of Razia Sultana which is close to Bulbuli Khana to the Neeli Chhatri on the Nigambodh Ghat where Emperor Humayun added a pavilion. Salimgarh fort also stood on an island in the Yamuna, built by Salim Shah, son of Sher Shah Suri. The same Salim made a baoli or step-well known today as Khari Baoli, the site of the largest spice market in Asia. This prelude actually reveals the structure of the narrative, where various layers, from the ancient to the modern, are seamlessly woven together.

‘Palpable past’

The reason for this is simple: Safvi wants her readers to feel the ‘throbbing city with a palpable past’, where they should not merely appreciate the massive fort built by the Mughal emperor but also catch a glimpse of the Mughal bagh that existed before English-looking lawns replaced it or the havelis that have now become warehouses.

The city’s residents and their perceptions of the living old city also liberally pepper the text and make for a superb read. Sunehri Masjid, for instance, which was built in 1747 on the orders of Nawab Qudsia Begum is regularly described by old residents like Sadia Aleem and Amit Mitra as being a jinn waali masjid. Aleem remembers that “as children we were told stories that people were slapped by jinns if they dozed off while listening to the Quran” while Mitra as a school kid thought that the “jinns could even report you to the schoolteachers for playing hooky!”

The delightful storytelling is grounded in research as is evident when Safvi traces the travails of monumental memorabilia. The Akbarabadi mosque, named after a wife of Shah Jahan, stood in the old Faiz Bazar area and was demolished by the British in the aftermath of 1857. The calligraphic panels on it — done by the very man whose inscriptions adorn the Taj Mahal — survived and reached a scrap dealer in Aligarh. They were bought and presented to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan for the mosque that would be constructed for students, when he set up the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, now known as Aligarh Muslim University.

Tamarind tree library

If the destruction of large parts of Old Delhi continues at an unstoppable pace and looms large over the book, equally, there are stories of how some of its dedicated women and men have tried to conserve heritage in their own ways. The setting up in 1994 of the Hazrat Shah Waliullah library in the Pahari Imli Mohalla — named after a tamarind tree that no longer exists — is an example of this. Realising that this part of the city had fallen way behind in education, Mohammad Nadeem, a resident of old Delhi, and his friends opened the library. Today, it has as many as 25,000 books in Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Urdu and English which range from original works of Zaq and Zafar to an Urdu translation of the Bhagwad Gita.

A different kind of discovery is being attempted by two other residents, Sadia Syed and Abu Sufiyan. who are reviving an idiomatic language used by Shahjahanabad’s ladies called Begumati Zabaan. This is done through the Purani Dilli Walo ki Baatein Facebook page where Sadia “doubles as WinkiPhuppoo, posting short, humorous scripts on daily life.”

Rana Safvi’s enthusiasm and knowledge about Delhi is staggering and her talent as a raconteur is bound to make her readers want to immediately go out and explore Shahjahanabad’s lanes and monuments — with her book in hand.

Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi; Rana Safvi, HarperCollins, ₹999.

The writer’s recent book is Ten Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India. She is professor of History at Ashoka University.

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