Delhi is many cities of the past and present in one big city. Its pastness and eternality never cease to interest journalists, writers, tourists and ordinary city walkers. Delhi in Historical Perspectives, a short book, all of 170 pages, by the famous historian Khaliq Ahmad Nizami (1925-1997) has been given a new life by its translator, and one can add, editor, Ather Farouqui.

In fact the translator-editor not only translates Nizami’s text in clear and accessible language, but also pays careful attention to getting translations of difficult Urdu and Persian verses into a poetic English, seeking help from the Persian scholar Sharif Husain Qasemi. Farouqui has also provided references for many details in the text.

Too often academic writing on history is so dull that it dissuades an ordinary reader from making satisfactory progress. Farouqui has provided a sense of narrative and flow to Nizami’s text, making the book an interesting read for a lay reader. However, though the translator expresses his discomfort in transplanting the culture-specific terms in Nizami’s Urdu original “in another verbal space and linguistic matrix”, Farouqui’s use of the names Altamash for Iltutmish, or Abdul Malik Osami for Abdul Malik Isami does not go down well with English readers of history.

Delhi in Historical Perspectives consists of three important chapters on the historical and cultural legacy of Delhi: “Delhi under the Sultanate”, “Delhi under the Mughals” and “Ghalib’s Delhi”. The book, originally consisting of two chapters, was first published in Urdu as Auraq-e Musawwar, Ehd-e wusta ki Dilli by the Department of Urdu of Delhi University in 1972. Its second edition, Dilli Tareekh ke Aaine Mein, was published by Adam Publishers with an additional chapter in 1989.

It is not a book of political history. Rather, its subject is the mixed cultural history of Delhi – its literature, songs, music, and rich philosophical traditions, especially how they have been shaped by the influence of Indian Muslims. Nizami is known for his pioneering work on Sufism, and, like most educated people of his generation, he possessed a literary sensibility which is on full display in his heavy reliance on Persian and Urdu literary sources to better understand the mystique of Delhi culture.

As a cradle of civilisation, Delhi has always been a destination for seekers of knowledge. With its plethora of scholars and educational institutions, artists and artisans, and the regular influx of a variety of people from different places, Delhi’s cultural landscape has kept evolving over a period of many centuries. Each of the major and minor decisions taken by the rulers, nobles, scholars and religious teachers of Delhi have added new sediments.

Almost every ruler of Delhi not only built a new palace for himself but also contributed in a sense to the rich architectural history of the place. This book provides many vignettes and anecdotes to understand this cultural wealth. In the present fraught times, with history going into the hands of semi-educated filmmakers, overzealous television producers, motivated bloggers and irresponsible Whatsapp historians, the value of this book cannot be overestimated.

This book also unintentionally takes issue with the crass and vulgar representation of many important historical figures of medieval India in popular forms, the kind exemplified by Sanjay Leela Bansali’s film Padmavat, or the routine demonisation of the Mughals in popular discourse.

Delhi under the Sultanate

Nizami records that Timur was so impressed by the buildings of Delhi that he took away a large number of masons to Samarkand, the reason many old buildings in the two cities bear resemblances. During the Sultanate period the Jamuna river, inhabited by people on both sides, was a very busy place with boats providing a means of conveyance, like they did in the Tigris of Baghdad.

Most houses in Delhi at this time were single-storied, and the climate of Delhi was very hot during summers. Barani (1285-1357) in Tareekh-e Feroz Shahi has noted that “People hang necklaces of onions round the neck to protect themselves against sun stroke.” But Delhi’s tanks, wells and baolis provided some respite. Water was so important in Delhi that people gathered around water tanks for social gatherings and often mushairas were organised around hauzes (water tanks).

Similarly, Delhi had a good number of inns and gardens during the Sultanate period. Shams-i-Siraj Afif, a historian of the times, notes that Sultan Feroz Tughlaq developed as many as 1,200 gardens in Delhi.

Delhi has also been a welcoming city for people fleeing from different places, and has in turn been enriched by its new inhabitants. Quoting the 14th century historian Abdul Malik Isami’s Futuh-us Salateen, Nizami notes how Delhi welcomed men of letters, tradesmen, and artisans who came from Arab lands, Khurasan, Bukhara, – and even China fleeing the rampaging armies of Chengiz Khan.

Baghdad’s loss was Delhi’s gain and it became the international centre of Asia during the Sultanate period. The multicultural and multinational dimension of Delhi, which reached its peak during the reign of Alauddin Khilji, can be gauged from the fact that Balban established as many as 15 localities for people of different nationalities.

Nizami provides a rich portrait of the multi-faceted Amir Khusrau, whose love of India is unparalleled. Khusrau credited India for the origin of all knowledge, including the discovery of zero, and lauded the ability of Indians to pick up the languages of other countries. A polyglot, he found a certain flavour, a certain namak (salt) in all languages. Khusrau studied Hinduism deeply and highlighted parallels between Hinduism and Islam.

Delhi under the Mughals

After being removed from its preeminent position after the devastation caused by Timur’s invasion, Delhi had a new city in the form of Shahjehanabad, built by Shahjahan, in 1638. Life in the Red Fort then became a world in itself, promoting all possible arts. Thus tailors could stitch such fine dresses that they were fit for only one night’s use. New cuisines were perfected, for which Delhi is still famous. Most importantly Meena Bazaar, which still exists in the Jama Masjid area, became a very interesting site of recreation.

Most Mughal nobles had built palaces for themselves, but the ordinary houses followed a similar pattern. The division of the city into lanes, bazaars, chowks, katras, kuchas (narrow lane), and chhattas (covered streets), which remain in old Delhi, took place during this time, and these places were named after nobles. Interestingly, the French traveller Bernier, who visited Delhi during Shahjahan’s rule noted the absence of the middle class, and found that people were either very rich or poor.

Nizami dwells on the flowering of religious learning during the period of the later Mughals. It is interesting to note that Delhi’s political decline during the reign of the later Mughals is matched by its cultural and literary progress. Madrasa Rahimia, which would later become “one of the first centres of the freedom struggle”, was an educational hub which influenced other madrasas. Nizami also mentions the work of important Islamic scholars like Shah Waliullah, Shah Abdul Qadir, and Shah Abdul Aziz.

For Nizami, “ the greatest accomplishment of Mughal Delhi was its synthesis of Hindu and Muslim culture.” There was little to separate a Hindu elite from a Muslim one in terms of dress and lifestyle. Quoting Mustafa Khan Shefta’s (1809-1869) Gulshan-e Bekhar and his contemporary Qutbuddin Batin’s Naghma-e Andaleeb, Nizami refers to 61 Hindu poets writing in Urdu and 80 Muslim poets in Hindi. Both thecommunities had the same places of recreation.

Obviously, the revolt of 1857 and its brutal suppression changed a lot of things. It is remarkable, notes Nizami, that “elegies to Delhi written soon after 1857 do not mourn so much the eclipse of the Mughal Empire as they do the decimation of the civilisational ethos of the time.”

Ghalib’s Delhi

In its long history Delhi has had many layers – Siri, Kilokri, Tughlaqabad, Ferozabad and Shahjehanabad – which seamlessly merged with one another. However, Nizami mourns, the events of 1857 completely marked a break from the past. In the final section of the book, he sees how Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s poetry and letters capture the decline and devastation of Delhi, as also the changing patterns of life in his beloved city.

Recalling the people who faced very cruel deaths at the hands of the British rulers, Ghalib wrote: “I am swimming in the bloodied waters of this city.” In a letter written to Chaudary Abdul Ghafoor Surur in 1860 he expressed his pain thus: “ I am not able to muster up courage to present the account of the devastation and demolition of houses and mosques. I am sure the builder would not have taken such care in building the city as the destroyers have taken for its destruction.”

Such was the misery that, as Ghalib recorded, the women of the Red Fort were forced to enter prostitution. Ghalib, who ironically has become an industry for publishers, academics and writers in our times, worried worried whether he would have a warm quilt during the harsh winters of Delhi.

It is one of the paradoxes of history that great literature and serious philosophical thought have often flourished during turbulent periods in history. Nizami notes how, despite economic decline and social disintegration, “Delhi retained the cultural richness jointly built by Hindus and Muslims”.

There was no dearth of gaiety in festivals, and there were clubs for kite flying, archery and swimming attended by both the communities at this time. Diwankhanas were the venues of poetic and intellectual gatherings . Nizami compares the evening sessions there devoted to intellectual activities to salons in Europe where great ideas have flourished. “The diwankhanas of Sehbai, Momin, Azurda, Nayer, Ashraf, and Hasrati were cradles of literature and scholarship”.

If Ghalib puts things clearly in his letters, his poetry is often so philosophical and abstract that it defies easy interpretation. However, as Maulana Azad has pointed out, it is not possible that a poet of Ghalib’s sensitivity would remain unaffected by the events of 1857. Nizami makes a case for a serious study of Ghalib in a historical perspective, believing that “Ghalib too was tossed around by the turbulent waters and his suffering, emotions, and sensitivity shaped the contours of his poetry.”

It is also a timeless feature of Delhi that, even as we read Delhi in Historical Perspective, more history, whether in the form of Central Vista Redevelopment Project or the farmers’ protests, is being added to the place every day.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui, Professor, Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

Delhi in Historical Perspectives, KA Nizami, translated from the Urdu by Ather Farouqui, Oxford University Press.