City of my heart: Accounts of love, loss and betrayal in nineteenth-century Delhi
By Rana Safvi
Published : Saturday, 22 December, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 2296
Reviewed by Farah Yameen
There seems to be a tacit agreement among memoirists of Delhi since the 19th century to suffuse their writing with an impossible romance. From petty Mughal officials to the footloose travel writers of modern-day Delhi, they all seem to agree with the poet Zauq that dalliances with this city tend to be chronic affairs. Mir, Ghalib, Sauda, Zahir Dehlavi, Maheshwar Dayal, Ahmed Ali, Intizaar Hussain are all enamoured by an undefined nostalgia that they continue to seek in their city, which always seems more glorious in its immediate past than the present.
The four descriptions of Delhi in Rana Safvi's City of My Heart are no different. The first of these is from the famous 'Deputy Nazir Ahmed' of the The Mirror of Beauty fame (translated from the Urdu by S.R. Farooqui) published in 1934. The second is by Munshi Faizuddin in 1885, a bureaucrat who had access to the workings of the Mughal court before 1857. Their mutual efforts to evoke a sense of glory and loss make them read like replicas of each other, suggesting that the city did nothing but celebrate festivals while Bahadur Shah was still the emperor. The other two reminiscences are more maudlin in tone. But only in mourning the (fictional) utopian Delhi that's been lost. Begamaat ke Aansu recounts the plights of various princes and princesses from the Mughal court after the fall of the empire, including a letter from Bahadur Shah to the Prince of Wales. But it is Qila-e-Mualla ki Jhalkiyan, attributed to a 16-year-old descendant of Bahadur Shah, which is the most interesting. The opulence of the other accounts can be tiring. But here the romance is of a different hue-rich with palace intrigues.
In her preface, Safvi sticks to the scripted nostalgia written by her predecessors. Sample this: 'Life in Delhi had an élan of its own and every day was a celebration'. This is to describe a time when the emperor of Hindustan was living off a pension from the British and his sons were deep in debt to the local halwai. If anything, it was a time of profligacy. But Shahjahanabad borrows its charms from writers who have bestowed it with a utopian aura. As a historic city, it is not unique in this respect, and one can hardly blame Safvi for following a tradition that is at least two centuries old.