When I got the book Celebrating Delhi, my instant reaction was: what is there to celebrate about a city that had no soul? Anyone who goes around Delhi’s restaurants and hotels on New Year’s Eve will find thousands of sleek cars parked outside, with their owners spending virtually lakhs of rupees at every table, while thousands sleep, in the peak of winter, on pavements, in corridors and underneath flyovers. When the huge spenders come out and drive home, they do not register the spectacle of misery around. With such dead souls dominating the power structure of the city/state, would any of its features be worth applauding?
Nevertheless, there are quite a few aspects of Delhi’s past and present that are both interesting and instructive in their own ways. The book deals with some of them. Facets of Delhi would have, perhaps, been a better title for it. Its 11 compilations of lectures deal with different items.
The piece that stands out for its originality, insight and innovative approach to the study of history is “The Pir’s Barakat and the Servitor’s Ardour: The Contrasting History of Two Sufi Shrines in Delhi”. In the backdrop of the general philosophy of Sufism and the faith associated with the shrine of Qutb al-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki, the author, Sunil Kumar, on the basis of his first-hand experience, describes how two hitherto little-known shrines of Khwaja Maqbul Shah, Saket, and of Jalal al-Din Chishti, Jahanpanah, have emerged from the obscure pages of history; how the old character of the former, its “magical mysticism”, has given way to “stones and mortar” of doctrinal Islam; and how the latter has kept its Sufi core and also prospered by manipulating new forces. For serious students of history, a study of this piece is a must.
Upinder Singh’s piece “Discovering the Ancient in Modern Delhi” is no less impressive. It is marked not only by a sense of balance and precision but also by a dignified respect for the remoteness of Delhi’s past. She shows how rich Delhi is in pre-historic remains and how these remains could be animated by imagination. She also provides a fascinating account of the transport of two Ashokan pillars to Delhi and highlights the manner in which some remnants of the ancient past of the city have got woven in its medieval and modern texture.
Khushwant Singh’s piece “My Father the Builder” bears the stamp of his delectable style. It covers the first lecture in the series and I was invited by the organisers to preside over it. In my introductory remarks, I referred to a story about shifting of the two foundation stones from Kingsway Camp to Raisina Hill. This story was told to me by Sir Sobha Singh a few months before his death in the course of my talk with him in the Punjabi programme of All India Radio. Khushwant interrupted, saying, “We should not take such stories of his at face value. In the old age, my father had started romanticising his past.” Only Khushwant Singh could be so candid. His narration of various events is also clear, concise and crisp.
William Dalrymple’s write-up “Religious Rhetoric in the Delhi Uprising of 1857” is characterised by his painstaking scholarship and simplicity of approach. He highlights the little-known facts that one of the major causes for the failure of the 1857 uprising was the persistent tension between the “overwhelming Hindu sepoys” and, “militantly Muslim mujahedin”. He brings out how some of the “jihadis wanted to be martyrs for the faith just as well by killing a Hindu as by killing a firangi”.
The pieces on “Toponymy”, “Avenue-trees”, “Dilli Gharana, “Cuisine” and “Language” are perceptive, informative and useful in more than one respect. But Dunu Roy’s article “City Makers and City Breakers” is disappointing. It should not have a found place amidst the scholarly pieces. It is replete with denunciatory statements that are not backed by evidence. He shows no respect even for the Supreme Court. His observations about the “forcible” relocation of 1.5 lakh squatters’ families in 1976 stand contradicted by contemporaneous records. In the elections to the Delhi Municipal Corporation and Metropolitan Council, held in 1977 soon after the general elections, the re-settlers overwhelmingly voted for Indira Gandhi’s party. Would they have done so if force had been deployed against them? At that time, Indira Gandhi’s party lost in almost all the constituencies except those that covered the resettlement colonies. But Roy ignores all the documentary evidence available in the offices of the Election Commission, the Delhi Metropolitan Council and the Delhi Municipal Corporation. He relies merely on his simulated anger.
On the whole, the book makes a laudable contribution to the study of Delhi’s past and present. It would have added immensely to the value of book had there been at least one piece dealing with the soul of Delhi, its “inner controller”, its underlying forces of mind and matter, which have pushed the city sometimes in one direction and sometimes in the other. The piece could have shown how this city has been a symbol of power and prestige in India; how it has been loved and nursed, coveted and desired, ravished and conquered, neglected and despised; and how all these imprints of history now stand woven in its physical and spiritual texture.
The reviewer is former governor of Jammu & Kashmir, former minister of communication and former minister of urban development, poverty alleviation and tourism and culture
Edited by Mala Dayal