The most original storyteller of the Indian side of the 1857 revolt says the idea of history has been forced by the elite on the masses
As the most original chronicler of the Mutiny of 1857 makes the passage from Jamia Milia University to the Saket Mall, he peers out at the current ghadar on the streets. “This city has never stopped being under construction,” he says, “for centuries.”
The tamasha over the Commonwealth Games, the unpreparedness of Delhi and the prevalent corruption are familiar to Mahmood Farooqui: his Besieged: Voices From Delhi 1857 chronicles a similar, if far more historical, upheaval. Unlike conventional histories of the Mutiny, Farooqui’s compilation collects the voices of Vaziran, one of the city’s more influential courtesans, documents the arrests of lunatics (and the rounding up of Bengalis), records a soldiers’ court arraigning corrupt officials and other fascinating minutiae. It is, in its own way, a subaltern history; which is why Farooqui is perversely delighted to be lunching at Brown Sahib, the Anglo-Indian and Bengali cuisine restaurant in Saket’s MGF mall, writes Nilanjana S Roy.
His new BlackBerry rings every three minutes or so. Within weeks of the launch of Besieged, Farooqui’s wife, Anusha Rizvi, hit the headlines because of her excellent debut as director on the Amir Khan-backed film, Peepli Live. Farooqui, co-director of the film, used to either the quiet life of the historian in the library, or the civilised acclaim that greets his dastangoi performances, is handling Bollywood-ishtyle stardom for the first time, and it’s left him a little dazed. “Anusha appeared on Indian Idol so she’s spotted now, recognised,” he says. “But it has its good side. Our paan-wallah has given us extra credit for this month.”
The Dilli he’s written about and the Delhi he knew as a student are both, says Farooqui, in the past. The boy from Gorakhpur won a place in Doon School, and spent his college years at St Stephens’ studying history, and theatre — not the stylised plays that the English Shakespeare Society staged, but incendiary Indian classics like Mahabhoj. “The generation that passed out of college has a homogenous memory of the time — the advent of TV serials, the intelligentsia, the Nehruvian hangover. But that bhadralok world has moved on to big cars, money. And wine.”
Farooqui has a wonderful speaking style, the passion and clarity of the historian blending with the oratory of the professional dastangoi — the storyteller whose only props are a makeshift stage and a mike, and who can make his voice soar without either, if necessary. He interrupts himself frequently: “Am I going off on a tangent? I’m going off on a tangent, aren’t I? Stop me if I go off on a tangent again.”
Walking into the Saket Mall, surrounded by chic women in Prada and far more middle-class, cheerful young couples, Farooqui continues with his exegesis of Delhi. “So the city — the city has expanded in a mind-boggling way,” he says. “It’s amazing how Delhi continues to become new and how fast and how quickly. Forget the previous centuries. 1911, a new Delhi; 1947, a new Delhi; 1982, Asiad and television, a new Delhi. Mid-90s onwards, there was the new Delhi again — bars to go to, everybody had a car! And now in the last five years, the physical landscape of the city has been transformed. The city’s elite have become more democratised, but everyone is a celebrity — we no longer have film stars, or authors, you’re either a big celebrity or a minor celebrity.”
He is clearly, courtesy Peepli as much as Besieged, somewhere in between. On the escalators, I hear the girls behind me giggle: “Wasn’t he on TV?” Yes, he was, and given that Peepli Live is about the relentless invasion of TV into every aspect of our lives, he finds this both amusing and alarming.
Brown Sahib is a small and quiet oasis in the middle of the mall’s mercantile madness, currently empty. A waiter in a splendidly formal pleated dhoti brings us two aam porar sherbets — green mango sherbet in shot glasses — and we settle to the business of ordering lunch. Throughout the meal, Farooqui will unconsciously do what performers always do — shift his chair to face his lunchtime companion, not his plate.
The Memsahib prawns and the smoked hilsa arrive; the latter, to my dismay, insufficiently deboned and insufficiently caramelised. Brown Sahib, where I’ve had some excellent meals previously, isn’t on form today. The restaurant is decorated in a kind of shorthand Bengal Lite — Bankura horses, Satyajit Ray posters, old-fashioned talcum tins and British-era soap dispensers in the unisex bathroom, a short, potted history of Anglo-Indian Calcutta on the walls.
Farooqui has worked with William Dalrymple, as a researcher on The Last Mughal — the project overlapped with his own work into Shikastah Urdu translations. Most of the documents in Besieged are drawn from the “hundreds of small biographies, with no claimants” that he found in the 1857 archives. He calls the lack of translation or excitement about these and other forgotten records a “third world lack really”.
“I suppose I was writing Besieged for Dilli, but I don’t really know for whom,” says Farooqui, following my line of thought. “We’re living with a loss of our sense of history — it’s a universal moment. Move out of the salons and go to the streets, whether you’re in London, New York, Delhi, and the average person has no sense of history. Why should he? We live in a contemporary present where what happened two years ago is retro, so who are the takers for history?” My “monsoon khichudi” special arrives, with besan pumpkin and aubergine fritters on the side; his mustard hilsa arrives, but without the steamed rice.
“Dalrymple’s way of writing history is very useful — he is not addressing the arguments of the past or the future, he is writing within a period, about that time.” I offer Farooqui my khichudi, since the rice is still missing, and he continues. “My account of 1857 reclaims the Indian version of history, which is based on a simplistic, populist understanding: the Angrez came and looted our country. So I have bypassed the big debate — what did the English really do, how was India created and constructed? Instead we’re having a desi argument about the virtues of desiness and the vices of foreignness.”
Farooqui is warming up nicely, as the rice arrives and allows him to tuck into the hilsa, with another wonderful rant. He insists that he is not a historian (“I have studied history, I am very interested in history, but being a historian is tied to scholarship in a manner I am not — there is a certain idleness of spirit that refuses to go away.”) But his real theme is who Delhi belongs to, and who are the true heirs to the history of 1857. He settles the first question with swiftness: “Delhi belongs to no one — it never has, it doesn’t today, not the Gujjars, not the migrant workers. Perhaps the people who see Delhi as their city are the international artists and writers — it’s become a global choice, whether to live in Delhi or New York.” He contemplates the plastic chutney, made of translucent slices of papaya. “Or both. Ideally.”
How important is it, then, to reclaim history — the Indian view of 1857, for instance? Farooqui’s argument is that our sense of history as a necessity, as “the most integral part of human heritage”, is not more than 200 years old — it’s an Enlightenment concept. As he’s wandered through the city, performing dastangoi in its best-known monuments and forgotten gallis, he has arrived at his own doubts. “I am not sure I can talk about protecting tombs and monuments from, say, squatters, on the grounds that it’s a collective heritage, that we should have respect for history,” he says. “That collective heritage is unequally shared. For 200 years, the elite have tried to force the idea of history on the masses, and the masses have escaped history.”
He breaks off to marvel at the bhappa doi — steamed, baked yogurt — which is hands down the best part of the meal. “This,” he says happily, “is better than any kheer or firni I’ve ever had. Do you know why Indian Muslims can’t handle meat the way the Europeans cook it? Because in India and Asia we cook meat like a vegetable, with plenty of sauces and masalas — we don’t like the smell of the meat to come out.” It’s another classic segue from Farooqui; his mind moves in connected, beautiful tangents, which will make him a historian and writer to watch for the future.
On the way back to Jamia, Farooqui pulls out his BlackBerry sheepishly. “I broke my first BlackBerry,” he confesses and after some prodding, explains it had to do with the media storm around Peepli Live. “All right, all right, I’ll say it into the tape recorder. I broke a BlackBerry in anger at the commercialisation of Indian cinema. I smashed it on the floor, with force.” He thinks about it. “You can’t be seen with a BlackBerry if you’re writing subaltern history.”