In these present times, we are reeling under the surfeit of material that purports to be – and in many cases, passes for – history. Within the academic domain itself, Ranajit Guha had pointed out this trend, back in 2005, tracing the prodigious manufacture of monographs, research papers, books and periodicals largely to the great upsurge of interest in the past in South Asian nations, in the wake of the Second World War and decolonisation.
In the decade-and-half that has followed Guha’s article, this “excess of history” has in fact sustained and widened, particularly in India – a good deal of it, middling to diminished in quality– pulp fiction set in historical periods, films, television and web-channel series, not to mention statist and programmatic attempts at revisitations of history, all of it vying for attention, with more serious or academic publications, rooted in authenticity.
But even on the front of academic research, there is a challenge. A shift towards “short-term history”, the sharpening of focus to very specific events, via a continual shortening of both timeframes and locales – a vogue in historical research that Jo Guldi and David Armitage have been pained to note in The History Manifesto. Taken to its logical conclusion, history-writing risks becoming hyper-specialised, like the natural sciences, and losing its claim to informing governments and policy-makers, and engaging a wider readership. Ultimately, its valency is threatened.
One possible answer to this, proposed by Guldi and Armitage themselves, is a return to “long-term history”, which, they show, can be served not only by chronicling the grand sweep of history in terms of epochs, but also by continuing to train the lens on a particular geographic locale and deepening the focus over a far longer timeframe.
It is this latter project that seems to be exemplified by Rana Safvi’s Delhi trilogy – Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi; The Forgotten Cities of Delhi; and Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi. The distance between the oldest crumbling ruins of Mehrauli and the sprawling environs of Shah Jahan’s Delhi is less than twenty-five kilometres – but Safvi peoples it with structures and stories that speak of the rise and fall of dynasties over several centuries, the clash of civilisations, the organic modes whereby present-day populations and habitations negotiate a distant past, the ravages of time, and of human neglect.
Throughout the trilogy, the tone is curious, observant, empathetic, but never seeps into the sentimental. The reader, not subjected to a regime of induced nostalgia, can explore and introspect at their own pace.
Where Stones Speak is the story of Mehrauli, the oldest of Delhi’s seven cities, the erstwhile capital of both Tomar and Chauhan kings, subsequently the Dar ul Khilafat of the slave dynasty. Safvi leads the reader from the rocky Qila Rai Pithaura to the dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, from Zafar Mahal, the last great monument built by the Mughals, to the holy waters of the Hauz e Shamsi, each structure a living memory of an era dissolved in history.
The Forgotten Cities of Delhi explores historical trails in Siri, Jahanpanah, Tughlaqabad, Firozabad, Din Panah, Shergarh and Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, dotted with tales from era that was arguably the richest in Delhi’s archaeological history – Shahjahanabad and Firozabad at one end, and Jahanpanah and Siri at the other.
The final book in the trilogy, Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi describes the magnificence of the fort and the city through its buildings that are a living monument to the high noon of the Mughal empire. The magnificent Qila-e-Mubarak, more commonly known as the Red Fort, that was once the heart of Shah Jahan’s empire, with gardens, palaces, water bodies, mosques and temples, forms a dual focal point for the book, for the structures as well as the tales that emanate from them.
The key reason that Safvi’s treatment of “long-term history” is so endearing, informative and yet accessible, rewarding re-readings, is that she engages with her subject on multiple levels, much like the imbricating architectural layers of the city itself. Visually, each book is clearly seen to be the product of a creative partnership.
The most immediately appealing engagement is the way the photographs and the text interact with each other, reflecting Safvi’s collaboration with photographer Syed Mohammad Qasim. Throughout the trilogy, the photographs work with the text in what can aptly be called a jugalbandi, sometimes illuminating it, especially in the case of the colour photographs in Where Stones Speak, often accentuating an observation in the narrative, and on a few occasions, even continuing the task of narration, where the text ends. There is a distinct and deliberate gravitas in the selection of a muted grayscale for the photographs, reinforcing the subtly contemplative feel to the books.
The second is the prominent role played by poetry, as an essential segment of the trilogy’s dramatis personae. From the high-Persian of Mevlana Rumi to the Khaliq-e-bari of Amir Khusrau and the conversational modern-day Urdu of Ahmad Faraz, the couplet, excerpts and complete poems reproduced as part of the narrative are more than just a testament to Safvi’s love of shairi or the tasteful placement of textual interludes.
Each quotation is curated with specific intent. In many instances, they begin the narrative to an entry, setting the tone and mood, so that Safvi’s text proceeds fluidly and directly from it, without need of much elaboration. Often, as in the case of mausoleums, they serve as secular and emotive epitaphs, supplementing the Quranic inscriptions carved into the tombs. At times, as in a Khusrau couplet that refers to the capital as “Dehlu”, it sheds light on the etymological source of how the city came via Dehlui or Dehli to its present name.
The third engagement is with the people she encounters in these places – local habitants, tourists, history and architecture enthusiasts, photographers, tourist guides and local “experts”. What takes place as a result of her interactions is the perpetuation of oral traditions, transposed into text. But there is also the experience of observation, of contemporary city life brushing shoulders naturally, unthinkingly, with the past, and a meditation of the inevitable process of decay, under constrained or apathetic conservation agencies.
But fascinating insights also come to light. One such instance is her visit to the tomb of Sultan Ghari, better known as Prince Nasiruddin Mahmud, the son of Sultan Iltutmish. Around five kilometres from Mehrauli, and built in circa 1229 CE, it’s the first Islamic mausoleum to be found in India. A pious and sagely man in life, the Prince’s memory is venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike. Safvi writes: “The day I visited the tomb there was a man performing a Surya puja outside the gate. Later, when he was done, he applied tilak, marked a swastika on the gate with red vermillion paste and poured some oil below the Quranic inscriptions on the gate.”
Finally, and at its most personal, there is her engagement with the stones, pillars, inscriptions, dust, the very sum and substance of giant edifices and ruins that Safvi is so attached to. In this regard, she walks in the legacy of a solid tradition that goes back at least a century, to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Asar-us-Sanadid, Bashiruddin Ahmad’s Waqiat-e Dar-ul-Hukumat Delhi, The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi, by Carr Stephen, as well as Monuments of Delhi, by Maulvi Zafar Hasan – a debt Safvi acknowledges gratefully.
However, the reading of her trilogy accords a different register, for two reasons. First, she does not attempt to make an exhaustive compendium of structures and monuments, but offers the tactile, lived-in reality of a walker, making one’s journey through by-lanes and bustling traffic, to explore a distant past amidst the present and new.
The second reason concerns Safvi’s very motivation for creating the trilogy. For most professional authors, writing stems as a labour of love. With Safvi, it is also an act of love, each visit, each entry, to treat stones and monuments not only as sentient humans, but as dear members of a vast extended family. A few years ago, Safvi had told this reviewer that she would feel real physical pain when she witnessed the dilapidated state of many of the medieval structures in and around Delhi, pain when an ancient rock carving was broken or withered into dust.
More recently, between waves of the pandemic outbreak, when public parks and monuments had been opened temporarily, she had shared a photograph from her visit to Zafar’s palace – the delicate carving and stucco worn away to a gaping hollow, the underlying brickwork exposed, helpless and pitiable. “See the state of Zafar’s palace” – said her accompanying message. It is this same affective sensibility that Safvi brings to the printed page.
In 2021, Ira Mukhoty, in the epilogue to her book, Akbar: The Great Mughal, evoked a feeling of great poignance, in describing her visit to Akbar’s mausoleum in Sikandra. But Safvi’s task is decidedly harder – to sustain several layers of feeling through years of research and drafts, across three books and nine hundred pages.
In some of the entries, such as the fate of the Red Fort and its environs in the aftermath of the British crushing the rebellion of 1857, Safvi chronicles the fate of buildings to their present form. But she takes especial care in bringing to life the ingredient stone and stucco of her subject, in the active and vivid reconstruction of the buildings and monuments, as they were in their prime.
This is how the first chapter of Shahjahanabad begins: “In this book, we will go on a journey into the Qila and the city that was and now is. But first let’s go back in time. In your mind’s eye, come for a walk with me in the Qila that was.” A description of the once-opulent Diwan e Khas, bordered with gardens, follows.
Here, Safvi’s approach conforms to what Muzaffar Alam considers to be one of the essential conditions of “historical imagination” – to not only use proven and authentic source materials when describing aspects of the past, but to possess the ability to transport oneself back into time, to be able to inhabit it, and by corollary, to think and feel with the sensibilities of someone living in the 13th or the 17th century.
Throughout the trilogy, there are numerous references to the land on which the successive cities of Delhi were built, the soil in which flower beds were planted, the gravelly ground into which once-powerful edifices break, splinter and erode to dust, the numerous excavations undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, in search of historical evidence for Delhi’s mythical past.
There is a subtle hint of secrets and stories that the earth holds that we are yet to discover. And it is in such moments that the benchmark of time in Guldi and Armitage’s “long-term history”, eight centuries in Safvi’s case, dissolves into a time more atavistic and planetary, more mysterious than the lost capital of the Chauhans, more ancient than Indraprastha, a “deep time”, in the sense that Dipesh Chakrabarty deploys the term in his most book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, the time of an earth that has provided nourishment through the ages and now is itself in need of healing.
If the stretch of road, from the eloquent stone-debris and mausoleums of Mehrauli to the heat, dust and incessant white noise of the living city of Shajahanabad, were a metaphor for time – then Safvi is surely its constant gardener.