The sixth city of Delhi has often been regarded with a healthy dose of sentimentality, through a plethora of books populating the bookshelves of the lovers of Shahjahanabad, much the same way that its characters still inhabit the streets of Chitli Qabr and Gali Qasim Jaan.

One of these lovers was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh fame, the celebrated author of the Asar-us-Sanadid. His successor, in a manner, is Rana Safvi. The Where Stones Speak trilogy started its winding route tracing the history of the cities of Delhi in Mehrauli. But it was the final volume of this trilogy, Shahjahanabad, that was the most awaited — for its subject is very much a living city.

This is what Safvi manages to capture in a palimpsest whirling between the different layers that make up what we call Purani Dilli. It is by no means Shah Jahan’s story alone, for after him came generations of the later Mughals, the hordes of Nadir Shah, the East India Company, and the fires of 1857.

Na tha shehar Dehli wo tha chaman-i Dilli
sab tarah ka tha wahan aman
wo khitab iska toh mit gaya
faqat ab to ujda dyaar hai

Delhi was not simply a city – a garden it was
What shall I say of the peace that it had
They have erased all its repute
Now it is simply a place laid waste.

Living lives in living cities?

The last volume in the Where Stones Speak trilogy asserts with its title what elevates it book above the others in the series – it talks about a living city. With the notable exception of the Qila-e-Mubarak (today’s Lal Qila), this statement holds true for the entire narrative. For, unlike the other cities preceding it in the space we call Delhi, Shahjahanabad remains a location inhabited by families whose roots on the banks of the Jamuna date back to the 17th century.

To present this living fabric of heritage through a book of popular history is daunting, therefore, and must necessarily come from a place of deeper understanding – one that a cursory visit to the ubiquitous Jama Masjid or a meal at the now mainstream Karim’s Hotel cannot provide. Only an individual steeped in every morsel of nihari found in the city, every faded inscription in the lost monuments of every qatra, could possibly have this skill.

In other words, only Rana Safvi.

Safvi’s reiteration of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb

Accounts or books pertaining to the city of Shahjahanabad have traditionally tended to focus on its inauguration by the Emperor in 1648, as well as landmark events along the lines of the invasion of Nader Shah from Iran and the tragedies of 1857. Naturally, these narratives focus almost entirely on the inhabitants of the Qila – an error Safvi does not commit. While the city’s centre is undeniably the royal fortress-palace at the end of the broad avenue of Chandni Chowk, The Living City of Old Delhi attempts, and succeeds spectacularly at peopling this settlement.

The author achieves this in several ways, one of which is through conversations with the current inhabitants of historic locations that are found throughout the trilogy. In this case, these inhabitants may be passive observers to how the city has undergone changes. Every tailor, every chaiwallah is a courtier in the darbar of the hallowed Mughal city.

This is not to say that the watershed events in the city’s history are erased; they appear as the background against which the tale of the city itself is told. This is most definitely a history of Shahjahanabad with its people, and not a simple narrative of political and military history.

Safvi also explores the alternative religious traditions and minorities that contributed greatly to the tale of the city, most notably the Jain merchants with their historic temples alongside the often-forgotten Shia community of Shahjahanabad. These communities are major characters in the stories that the work recounts, and almost always appear in interaction with the other inhabitants of the capital.

One such striking monument is the shrine near Chawri Bazaar dedicated to the patron god of the Kayastha community, Chitragupta. Given that the community was renowned for its Persian and Urdu scholarship at the court of the Great Mughals, it is scant surprise that the temple of Chitragupta only has inscriptions in Urdu: a scenario few can visualise in this age of sacrosanct, compartmentalised identities. The very stones of the newest “Old Delhi” can, and do, speak.

Safvi’s gaze reveals a certain kindness that has previously been lacking in describing subjects considered taboo in the old city. The traditional response to what does not conform to the cisgender, heterosexual world is often conveniently whitewashed so as not to sully the “pure” image of a location. This is not the case in The Living City of Old Delhi – a case in point being the tomb of the 17th century Sufi, Muhammad Sa’id Sarmad.

A mystic from Kashan in Iran, he fell in love (ishq-e-majazi, love for god’s creation) with a youth in Delhi by the name of Abhai Chand. This element of homoeroticism that was all too common in India’s premodern past is often erased so as not to court a backlash. It would be easy to repeat the same time-tested formula, but Safvi unabashedly tells the truth. By giving a voice to individuals and communities from the margins, she does justice to the mission of providing a more representative account than usual of the city of Ghalib and Zauq.

Zabaan, then as now

In the style now acknowledged as Safvi’s trademark, no section of the book is unadorned by a relevant sher or prose from the rich Indo-Persianate heritage that is characteristic of the land of Hindustan. The effect? Apart from the current generation of Shahjahanabadis, past reflections by inhabitants of the Mughal capital appear too. Well versed with the essential tools of historical context, the author captures the essence of a city that is as fluid as the Qila’s Nahr-i Behisht.

Another factor to to be appreciated is definitely Safvi’s acknowledgement of modern Shahjahanabadis who helped her in this work. One of the most most notable mentions is of Abu Sufiyan of Purani Dilli Walon ki Batein. The documentation of the unique dialects of Shahjahanabad is reflected in the section on Matia Mahal, where Begumati Zabaan (the language of the ladies of the household) and Karkhandhari Zabaan (the softened variant of Urdu found in the walled city) are described. These small elements of quotidian life, which are usually not mentioned in literature on the Mughal city, add a three-dimensionality to the normally well-traversed path of simply listing the monuments of Shah Jahan’s city and their back stories.

A book that lives up to its name by making stones speak is rare indeed. A book that manages to combine this with the testaments of a living city is even more rare. While the tone of describing the events of 1857 and the fate of the House of Timur do fall into the trap of glorifying the early modern past of India at certain points, this esteemed successor in the tradition of Syed Ahmed Khan’s Asar-us-Sanadid holds its own and manages to narrate the story of the greatest city of the Mughal polity with great focus and finesse.

The concerned lover of Shahjahanabad can only hope that what happened to Delhi in 1857, a few years after the writing of Syed Ahmed Khan’s account, does not repeat itself in a time of tyranny.

Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi, Rana Safvi, HarperCollins India.