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Review: Travelling Back to Mir Taqi Mir’s Delhi of Circa 1733

S Irfan Habib reviews Saif Mahmood’s tribute to Delhi’s poets, ‘Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets’

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7 min read
Image of leading 18th Century Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir, against the backdrop of Delhi, used for representational purposes.
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Saif Mahmood’s Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets is about Delhi’s most well-known poets and I cannot claim to be one who has any expertise in the area.

However, I fell in love with the book and its collective biographical approach, which is called ‘prosopography’, used here to write a vibrant history of the city.

Another attraction for me was the author himself and his charming facility with both Urdu language as well as literature.

Mahmood’s wit and aplomb is a treat which I have relished several times over the past few years. Obviously I avidly looked forward to this book since I came to know about it.

This is not the first book about Delhi; there have been several authoritative works on the city by historians like Percival Spear and Narayani Gupta as well as by writers like Khushwant Singh and others. Even Muraqqa-i-Dehli was written by Dargah Quli Khan in the 18th century itself, giving graphic details of the politics and life of the city.

In the early twentieth century, Bashiruddin Ahmad came out with a set of three impressive volumes called Tarikh-i-Waqiat-i-Darul Hukumat-i-Dehli. However, none of them wrote the history of Delhi through the lives of its poets, as Mahmood does in this book. He covers almost two hundred years of history of Delhi from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. He goes through the eight complicated lives with lucidity and ease, keeping the reader informed and entertained throughout the book.

One of our foremost historians of modern India, Professor K N Panikkar emphasised in his writings, that Mughal decline apart, the eighteenth century was not really a dark age in India.

It was a century of cultural and literary vibrancy, which continued to flourish despite the depleting and vanishing patronage. This century produced the masters of classical Urdu ghazal which includes awe-inspiring names like Sauda, Dard, Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Zafar, Zauq, and Daagh. Beloved Delhi narrates their lives and poetry so vividly, and Mahmood weaves the portrait of the city in an elegant language with charm and erudition.

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A New Order Rising from the Ashes of the Old

The book begins with an insightful introduction, which actually sets the tone for the following chapters of the book. It helps the reader get the flavor of the unpredictable politics and life in the city.

The old order was crumbling and the new, gaining ground. The British East India Company got a foothold after the battle of Plassey in 1757, making their presence felt in Delhi as well. 

They appeared on the scene as de facto rulers, reducing the Mughal Emperor to the illusion of de jure sovereignty. The Mughal Emperor was virtually a pensioner of the British but was allowed to indulge in his poetry and even in expensive amusements till he did not pose a threat to the British authority.

Yet, the Mughal Emperor's name was still required to give political legitimacy to the de facto power of the British. For the populace, the Emperor was still a shadow of God and the Refuge of the World. His birthday was still an occasion of state celebration and his recovery from sickness was still joyously welcomed at the functions of ceremonial ablutions – the Ghusal-i-Sehat.

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‘Nativisation’ of the British

There was a sizable section of the British as well, who were somewhat swept away by the encapsulating ambience, of the vibrant Urdu culture that seemed to mesh so effortlessly with the life-style of the Indian nobility. The British officers had little hang-ups in interacting on almost equal terms with the nobility, poets, intellectuals and merchants of the city of Delhi.

They fraternised through various institutions like the Delhi Bank, the Municipal bodies and the famous Archaeological Society.

Most of the Europeans lived in the rented houses in predominantly Indian localities like Daryaganj and Kashmiri Gate. It was very much unlike other presidency towns where a total racial segregation could be seen from the beginning itself.

There was a discernible nativisation of the British, though culture, the umbilical cord with ‘home’ was assiduously preserved. Some notable figures in this category were men like Sir Thomas Metcalfe, British Resident in Delhi; Colonel James Skinner – born of a Scottish father and a Rajput mother – William Fraser, British resident in the 1830s and a friend of Ghalib; Sir David Ochterlony, known popularly as ‘Akhter loony’, twice resident of Delhi and many others.

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British Presence Wasn’t a Major Threat to Delhi’s Ethos

Thomas Metcalfe, had built a typical Indian haveli-like mansion on the outskirts of the city, on the banks of the river Jamuna. He used to sit on the 'Chabootra' outside the house with his hookah, like any other Indian nawab of the time. Unfortunately, this heritage building is out of bounds today for the common people, being a DRDO office.

Col Skinner's townhouse was at Kashmiri Gate, which, despite all its Anglican pretensions, had hamamghars in the Mughal Style and a Zenana perfectly 'native' in style. Some of these early British officials were well versed in Persian classics. Charles Metcalfe was one of them. William Fraser was as fluent in Persian and Arabic as any other native and had a good collection of books. A good number of them composed poetry in Persian and Urdu and even adopted takhallus (pen name) such as Alexander Heatherly’s Azad, General Joseph Bensley’s Fana, George Puech’s Shor etc.

So one can say about this early phase that the British presence was acknowledged to the extent it was unavoidable, but “it never seriously threatened – at a socio-cultural level-the self-assured, indigenous ethos of the city”.
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So this was actually pre-1857 Delhi where the relationship with the British was more relaxed. The mushairas and nashists continued to be organised and the patronage and encouragement to the poets still existed. As Mahmood rightly points out, these gatherings “soon became an important institution of Urdu literature, offering poets a secular space to not only showcase their poetic talent but also vent their anger and frustration with political, social and economic affairs.”

These mushairas continue to occupy a central space in Urdu poetry all over the world, and over the past two centuries a set of customs were laid down which have been followed all these years.

However, we see that the secular space Mahmood talks about is being compromised most of the time. A mushaira now invariably begins with tilawat-i-Quran or a naatiya ghazal, which is surely an innovation and also a reflection of the changing times. All those who rightly stress that Urdu is not the language of a particular community need to ponder about this branding.

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From Sauda to Dehlvi

There is a general consensus that the Urdu language was born in the eighteenth century Muslim army camps. Mahmood debunks this theory through his meticulous research, convincing the reader that Urdu as a language has existed for centuries.

The book begins with the master satirist Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, moves to the suave Hakim Momin Khan Momin, and ends with the ultimate romantic, Mirza Khan Daagh Dehlvi.

Out of these eight lives, it is only Ghalib who sounds somewhat familiar to even those who have interest in Urdu poetry. Most others are truly revelations, at least their lives if not poetry. When life becomes unlivable and insecure in Delhi, Sauda migrates to Awadh and carries his sarcasm and satire along. Saif narrates a story which depicts the persona of Sauda for us. After hearing the continuous boasts of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s hunting of a lion, he sent a following couplet to him:

Yaaron ye Ibn-e-Muljim paida hua dobaara
Sher-e-Khuda ko jis ne bhelon ke ban mein maara

It was a serious pun on Asaf-ud-Daula’s Shia faith where Ali is known as Sher-e-Khuda and Ibn-Muljim was his assassin. Thus, Sauda was not only fearless but also mischievous, and the “voice of the voiceless”.

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Time-Travelling to a Delhi of Yore

One of the beauties of this book is that Mahmood transports the reader back into the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries, and does that effortlessly. Mir Taqi Mir comes to Delhi in 1733 and lives in three localities – Kucha Chelan, Chandni Mahal and Matia Mahal. All three are still around but they are not the same as Mahmood so vividly describes.

There are interesting asides as well. Kucha Chelan is an area where the nationalist Asaf Ali lived and it is here in 1941 that M A Jinnah launched his paper Dawn, which is still the most popular paper of Pakistan.

This is also an area where one of the uncles of Syed Ahmad Khan used to live, whose house was looked at with curiosity as it had strange objects hanging all over. They were actually astronomical instruments as he was an expert astronomer.

We know that most of the men of letters sought some patronage to survive and to stay creative. Mahmood brings this out with sensitivity and humour.

Mir Taqi Mir often fell short of patrons in Delhi and finally had to create a sort of barter system to survive-writing a verse or two for the pharmacist if he needed medicine or do the same with a cloth merchant if needed to buy clothes.

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Saif Mahmood gives us a beautiful book, rich with anecdotes and historical facts about the city and personal lives of the great poets.

This book adds immensely to our awareness about Delhi and its colourful past. He writes about the history of the city as a storyteller, unburdened by the professional constraints of a historian. The book is a wonderful celebration of the city and its poets – both of whom seem to be lost in today’s all-encompassing cacophony.

(S Irfan Habib is a well-known historian. Till recently he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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