July 10, 2016

Of Cities and Culture: Raza Rumi's Delhi by Heart is a fascinating look at the history of the subcontinent

As a Pakistani I feel that I am not lonely on planet Delhi.

Raza Rumi’s Delhi by Heart is a rambling, chaotic conversation with Pakistanis and Indians alike, all of them eager and willing to engage in lively debates. As Rumi walks through the streets of Delhi, talking about anything and everything, this book takes us along with him, meeting the people he meets, tasting the food he eats, and drinking in all the different versions of fact and fiction that define this city. 

“Those who would have saved Delhi have allowed it to die because they believed that the city could survive even if their only concern was their own well-being. It was a fatal mistake. Cities are sensitive creatures. They have a soul.” 

This book is exactly what it sets out to be: a conversation about Delhi. And while non-fiction has never interested me in the slightest, some of the parts in this book were so fascinating that I found myself constantly texting my best friend, pointing out all the parts I related to, all the new revelations about old, familiar things, and all the ways in which I was forced to look at the shared history of the subcontinent in a new light.

This sort of re-assessment, when you’re forced to look at things you thought you knew all about, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this book. Raza Rumi (whose last name made every single one of my acquaintances pick up the book with vivid interest), chooses his topics with the air of someone eager to understand and explore. Though hasty and sometimes messy, his account of his explorations are often imbued with a wide-eyed interest that is hard to resist. Whether he’s talking about the homoerotic undertones in Sufism...

The master-disciple closeness in Sufism cannot be fully understood from the ‘outside’. Rumi and Shams, Hazrat Nizamuddin and Khusrau, Sarmad and Abhay Chand, Jamali and Kamali, would appear as avant garde men of their times (as society did not take to them very kindly) for they expressed a particular same-sex intimacy, which may convey homoerotic undertones in contemporary studies of their relationships.

...or the numerous changes in music that have occurred over the previous decade, Raza Rumi retains the air of someone who has enough knowledge to carry on an interesting dialogue but nonetheless wants to know more. 

This is the ‘Dard-e-disco’ phenomenon. The days of ‘Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein’ are perhaps over.

Another allure that this book presents is the deconstruction of Pakistan’s image itself. Because Pakistan and India were one for so long, it’s impossible to separate the history of Delhi without talking about Pakistan as well. In these situations, Rumi manages to wind his narrative around both the countries, connecting their languages, culture, and history time and time again.

In Pakistan the secular khuda hafiz has been thrown out by Zia ul Haq’s Arab-centric Islamization, leading to a sort of cultural purge in the dear homeland. While life and linguistics have also changed in India, there are still little enclaves where the old world exists.

This is a constant repetitive theme throughout the book, the existence of history right alongside the present. Rumi comes back to this time and time again, talking about the historical relevance of the previous day’s architecture, languages, food, and music among other things. In this vein he also talks about the blatant manipulation of historical narratives by those with self-centered intentions - political parties, religious groups, nationalists, etc - or those who believe history has less to do with the truth and more to do with what the public needs to believe.

“Every country should write its history from its own point of view. Our history books have been written from a Euro-centric view because we are a colony for so long. History books should instill a sense of pride in the young mind and should be rooted in our culture.”

Horrified at this mistreatment of facts, Rumi quotes scholars, public figures, court records, textbooks and discussions about textbooks to explain how there has been a systematic battle fought for the right to decide who studies what version of history, and how particular groups are still fighting to prevent large-scale stereotyping of whole populations. 

“History is not to serve as a handmaid of a particular school of thought. History must be impartial and objective. To rewrite history according to the views which are popular or which are necessary for bolstering up nationalist edoism or jingoism, is perversion of history.”

But Rumi’s historical account doesn’t just have to do with an era long gone by. In this book, the past is always lingering next to the present, in the places he visits and the people he talks to. Time and again he returns to the idea of how events of the past have shaped mindsets, grievances and hostilities in the present. And one of the most major events that appear in this book’s narrative is the 1947 separation of the subcontinent into India and the nascent state Pakistan. 

Delhi was drained of 3.3 lakh Muslims and 5 lakh non-Muslims from the newly created ‘Pakistan’ rushed in. This was chaotic for the city… a City of Empires turns into a vast refugee camp reeling in the pre-monsoon heat and humidity of Lahore and Delhi.

All Pakistani and Indian students have studied about the events of that year. No history lesson is complete without it, but it’s safe to say that the versions we’ve studied are different. In Pakistani textbooks, Hindus were wily, mischievous and prone to violence and destruction. One can only assume that Muslims are presented the same way in Indian textbooks. Rumi repeats what has so often been quoted everywhere: that both Muslims and Hindus were equally prone to terror and fear and the terrible, all-consuming confusion caused by the careless drawing of the boundary lines in 1947 which led to horrible acts from both sides. Repercussions of the acts of six decades ago still echo in current policies, tensions, and stereotypes that Pakistanis and Indians frequently indulge in.

The victims were also the perpetrators or at best, silent participants in the 1947 violence. What does it mean to inherit these ghosts and blood stains? They have so far, clouded rational judgements in the new states.

This collision between religions is at the core of all Indian-Pakistani relations (a fact regularly repeated at my home whenever my parents refer to all Indians as Hindus and I vociferously remind them that there is still a significant Muslim minority in that country). Raza Rumi uses this to explain how, at one time in history, Muslims and Hindus lived side by side together in harmony.

The intimate residence together, side by side, in the same city of Musalmans and Hindus, has brought about a noticeable amalgamation of customs and usages among common peoples.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all was always well and good. Such an intrinsic link between the two cultures meant that it was nigh impossible to separate one from the other, especially in cases of religious conversion. As Rumi points out, it is not always possible to remove your past in order to move ahead.

To be fully acceptable in Muslim society, a Hindu convert had to shed his Hindu identity and cultural moorings. But this was difficult and has remained unachievable. An intense cultural amalgamation was at the core of society and separateness was impossible.

Nevertheless, Delhi has a vivid and illustrative history of Muslim rulers which hugely influenced the spheres of art, architecture, and language of the city’s society. This is portrayed, in part, by the still-surviving buildings of the Mughal era such as Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort, etc. which dot the city’s landscape. In the same manner, multiple Muslim communities also exist within the city but sadly enough the state of the Muslim community in India is pathetic. 

The 140 million Muslims in India have no credible secular leadership and, worst of all, no direction to move out of their ‘inner siege’...over 55 per cent of Muslims lived below the poverty lines within the national average of 35 per cent.

In these respects, another one of my ignorantly-held preconceptions were shattered when Rumi talked about the caste system in India. According to him, the caste system isn’t only restricted to Hinduism, as is more commonly believed. Other minority religions in the country including Muslims and Christians also practise it, partly because it is a deeply ingrained social system.

There is an unspoken agreement of the Dalit reality in India. The caste system, with a history of more than 3,000 years in India, has deepened the social segregation rooted in the dehumanizing principle of purity and impurity.

This revelation of the fact that Muslims in India also practise the system was juxtaposed by Rumi’s further comparisons of the caste system to Pakistan’s own system which creates classes of different orders based on occupation. So the janitor, sweeper, and cleaners are as clearly delineated in Pakistani system as are the untouchables in India. 

Casteism is not dead in South Asia and India is not the only country where it persists. Pakistan’s hierarchy of biradaris and village society still maintains old divisions despite the Islamic faith and its emphasis on equality.

This idea, that things in both countries have less to do with religion and more to do with the prevailing culture is a common thread in this book’s narrative. This contradiction is apparent in even as basic a thing as the right to eat certain types of foods.

Despite the Hindu tents of vegetarianism, one sees defiant youth eating meat. The vegetarian identity is a construct at best and an inherited cultural rather than religious compulsion. 

It’s these little tidbits of cultural observation that give this book its flavour. I could go on and on about Rumi’s conversations on language and the curse of Urdu’s poetry fading through translation, on gender and how Delhi’s past is largely defined by men, on cultural destruction and how preservation of heritage is not really emphasized much in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. All of these conducted among the company of people as fascinating as Sadia Dehlvi, Khushwant Singh ,or Quratulain Haider among others. This scrutiny of the past and the present, both of Delhi as well as of Pakistan, provides us with an interesting account of the current times and the socio-political climate we live in. 


At the heart of this book is a traveller, and Rumi makes no pretensions about how he is taken by surprise, time and time again, between the similarities in Delhi and Lahore. 

I spot a gardener and ...ask him to name the trees. Most of them turn out to have the same names they have in Pakistan. I chide myself for my silly assumption that somehow trees would change their names if they were to move out of Lahore.

If one reads this book like a textbook, expecting proper topics arranged in order, then this is not for them. This book is like a diary where Raza Rumi’s every thought spills in tandem, coupled by facts and assumptions and a healthy dose of speculation, written by a person amazed by the city of Delhi. Only if we see it through Rumi’s eyes, willing to feel both sadness at the passing of time as well as retaining hope for the future, can one enjoy this book truly. Recommended not only for those who want to read about Delhi but also for history buffs, non-fiction fans and every Pakistani history student ever.