Feb 21, 2019

City Of My Heart - A Book Review

Delhi is supposed to be the heart of India and Delhi’s heart beats in the Red Fort.The Red Fort has been a witness to many things – The rise and fall of the Mughal Empire,the British invasion of Delhi,India’s independence movement and finally the moment when the flag of an independent India was first unfurled from it.
Living in Delhi we have always taken the Red Fort for granted. It has always been there, defining Old Delhi’s skyline, a part of our history and heritage. We have all visited it, know the basic history, how it was built by the Mughals, how it was turned into British barracks after the 1857 revolt. But how much do we know of the people who actually lived inside the Fort and the kind of life they led. It was not only the Mughal emperor who resided there, the red fort was a city in itself housing thousands of people. A peak into their lives would give us such a fantastic idea of the life in that era.

Rana Safvi’s book “City of My Heart does just that. It gives us a unique and never seen before glimpse into the lives of people who lived inside the fort. The book is a translation from Urdu of four narratives written by people who had a very deep insight into the life within the Red Fort during the twilight years of the Mughal Empire. 

The first three books; Aakhiri Deedar (The Last Glimpse of Delhi) by Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi, Bazm-e-Aakhir (The Last Assembly) by Munshi Faizuddin, Qila-e-Mu’alla ki Jhalkiya’n (Glimpses of the Exalted Fort) by Arsh Taimuri all have colorful snippets about the daily life of the emperor, the antics of the queens and princesses and others living in the Fort as well as the intrigues and jealousies that form the intricacies of every court. It also describes in detail about the festivities and celebrations and how “Delhi was a gay and lively city where every day was Eid and every night was Shab –e Barat”.

It is very clear from these narratives that though the Mughal Empire was at a decline, culture and literature thrived and Delhi’s people were considered to be the epitome of etiquette and grace. What I found the most interesting to read was how some festivals unique to Delhi such as the Phool Waalon Ki Sair came into being and how both Hindu and Islamic rituals and festivals mingled together and created a very cohesive, pluralistic way of life.

The last book, aptly titled Begamat kein ansoon (Tears of the Queens) by Khwaja Hasan Nizami describes the life of royals who fled the fort after the British took over it after the 1857 revolt. Most of the inhabitants were captured and hanged at the kotwali chabutara where the present day Gurudwara Sisganj stands. The ones who survived lived a life of abject poverty and misery.

The book has been translated from Urdu. Urdu is a flowery language full of nuances and idioms and is not easy to translate. Rana Safvi has done full justice to the translation, even better she has left some idioms and phrases as they are in Urdu (providing a footnote of course) so that those of us familiar with Hindi and a bit of Urdu can get the full flavor of what the writer is trying to say.

Before I read the book, I had an opportunity to attend a heritage walk to Red Fort by Rana Safvi. Reading the book was delightful as her translation is flawless but it was the heritage walk with her that actually brought alive the Fort for me.

At the start of the walk Rana Safvi told us that the Red Fort was originally called Quila e Mubarak and represented the zenith of Mughal grandeur, money and architecture. But slowly as the Mughal empire declined, the Mughals themselves started using the jewels embedded in the walls and it’s gold and silver panelling to fund themselves.The last straw was when the British took over the fort after the revolt, built barracks and started demolishing buildings they felt were not required.Had it not been the intervention of Lord Canning the British would have changed the face of the fort completely. To feel and experience the actual grandeur of the fort Rana asked us to see the Jain Temples in Old Delhi. The paintings and art there is very similar to what the Red Fort had at one point of time.

As she took us through the Fort, telling us stories and narrating snippets from the book, the noise and the pollution of modern Delhi slowly receded and we were transported into a bygone era.

Red Fort was no longer just a cluster of buildings.They came alive as she described each one as it once was.We felt as if we were witnessing the Diwan e khas in all its imperial glory,with the emperor sitting on the peacock throne surrounded by courtiers. The Rang Mahal and the Heera Mahal were no longer bare empty walls but lavish living quarters full of gold and silver and precious stones and brocade and lush carpets. We could almost see the Nahar –I – Bihisht ( The river of paradise) as it came through the marble flooring to form a graceful fountain. We could almost taste the dishes in the royal kitchen as Rana described them and hear the laughter of the royal ladies as they flitted through the Hayat Baksh Bagh dressed in their finery.The anguish that we felt as she described the British taking over the fort and turning the beautiful garden into barracks was very real !

The Red Fort no longer looked over busy a road teeming with vehicles, we could see the Yamuna flowing from it’s pavilions and the citizens gathered on it’s sandy banks for their first glimpse of the emperor or to watch the sports that were played there every winter.
Rana peppered her talk with interesting tit bits like how the royal women spoke in a “Begmati zabaan” that was full of idioms but beautiful to hear and how the emperor released a Neelkanth bird (considered auspicious to Hindus) every Dushera.

Rana is a passionate Historian and a story teller par excellence. Her knowledge is based not only on her translations but her very extensive research and study of Delhi and it’s Quila –e Mubarak.

Her attempt through her walk and her book to show us a Delhi that was once the epitome of the Ganga Jamuni Tehzib and a perfect example of social and religious cohesiveness is truly commendable.


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