The Forgotten Cities of Delhi review: Poetry among the ruins

A historian brings alive the landscape of old Delhi by recounting oral traditions around monuments and their prevalent narratives

Published - July 21, 2018 07:20 pm IST

DhūñD ujDe hue logoñ meñ vafā ke motī

ye khazāne tujhe mumkin hai kharāboñ meñ mileñ

Look for the pearls of fidelity among uprooted folk

It is possible you find these treasures amidst ruins

- Faraz Ahmed “Faraz”

It is only appropriate to begin the review of Rana Safvi’s remarkable book, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi , with a sh‘er , because her book is so full of poetry. Her entry on each monument she covers, and there are several hundred of them, is prefaced by a couplet or a stanza, mostly in Urdu, many by the best of contemporary Urdu poets. If this seems unusual for a book on the monuments of Delhi, this is because it is. Most of the extensive literature in English on the monuments of Delhi tends towards the prosaic, drawing on Western (specifically British) antiquarian traditions of looking at monuments from a visual, art-historical perspective, as objects of a tourist’s gaze. Safvi’s book, on the other hand, draws on the Urdu tradition of writing about the material remains of Delhi’s past, especially on Bashiruddin Ahmad’s remarkable Waqiat-e Dar-ul-Hukumat Delhi .

Recording a destruction

Bashiruddin Ahmad’s magisterial book was written and published almost exactly a century ago, in 1919, when the landscape of Delhi was being transformed rapidly — and undemocratically, with much public unrest — by the construction of British New Delhi. In the face of this destruction, Bashiruddin Ahmad wrote a book very different in content and spirit than Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s famous Asar-us-Sanadid .

Not only did his three volumes cover far more buildings, documenting everything for posterity before it vanished, the spirit in which they were written about was very different. Bashiruddin Ahmad liberally used Persian and Urdu poetry to frame his descriptions of the monuments he wrote about, thus foregrounding an emotional connection to the monuments he was describing, enlivening these monuments for the reader.

Rana Safvi does the same, though her selections of poetry are quite different. And like in Bashiruddin Ahmad’s book, the landscape of historical Delhi that she describes is one that is alive .

Writing about the Tohfewala Gumbad in Deer Park, for instance, Safvi notes, “I visited it soon after Holi and there was colour on the graves. It’s the custom of the locals to go and offer colour at mazars as they consider them peers , patron saints.” The book is full of moments like this, moments in which the continuing significance of these monuments for the local communities around them is plainly stated. Safvi also recounts many oral traditions around several of these monuments, histories prevalent among local communities, which do not appear in any other comparable work on the monuments of Delhi. This approach to these monuments as living spaces can also be found in Syed Mohammad Qasim’s lovely photographs, which liberally illustrate this book. In many of these photos we see the monuments not in isolation, but foregrounded by the people, animals, and everyday objects whose lives are intertwined with these buildings. And like Bashiruddin Ahmad, Safvi does not shy away from writing of Delhi’s historical landscape as also a sacred landscape, a landscape of continuing devotion at temples, mosques and dargahs. In several places in the book, Safvi shares her own spiritual relation to the historical landscape of Delhi. For instance, when writing about the Dargah of Bibi Fatima Sam in Kakanagar, “It is said that Bibi always answers the prayers of a mother and I go there often to pray, especially for my children.”

An act of devotion

To write about the historical landscape of Delhi as also a landscape of devotion is a radical act, especially given how “secular” conservation policies have dominated the ASI’s approach to Delhi’s landscape, and worship has been actively prevented in many of Delhi’s historical mosques and tombs after Partition. This secular conservation paradigm has not only not succeeded in preserving this historical landscape — hundreds of monuments have disappeared or been encroached upon in Delhi since independence — it has also led to growing public apathy about built heritage.

In the book, Safvi doggedly traces many historical monuments which have been encroached upon and turned into toilets and trash heaps, especially in some of the “urban villages” of south Delhi. I cannot imagine such a fate happening to these monuments if they were still considered sacred spaces. Safvi’s book is an invitation for us to change the public conservation about conservation and Delhi’s built heritage.

Given the importance of this book and its achievements, I would argue for a better organisation and layout for future editions of the book, particularly the sequence in which buildings are presented. The section on Siri, for instance, encompasses buildings which range chronologically from the 13th century to the 16th, and geographically from Adhchini (near Mehrauli) to Kaka Nagar (near Mathura Road and the Purana Qila). This is a huge area, and there seems to be no clear principle as to why the monuments are organised in this particular order. Bashiruddin Ahmed wrote his book imagined as guiding the viewer through a series of expeditions with Shahjahanabad serving as a central point of reference.

In contemporary Delhi, of course, such a unitary centre is hard to imagine. A map or a series of maps would have been extraordinarily helpful in helping readers locate themselves in this altered geography.

The Forgotten Cities of Delhi ; Rana Safvi, HarperCollins, ₹799.

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