Historian Rana Safvi provides a rare glimpse of Delhi over the ages through translations of four Urdu narratives.
It’s always a joy to read noted historian Rana Safvi’s rich narrative of Delhi, a city she has made her home for the past couple of years now. Her books are often a continuation of her popular blog, Hazrat e Dilli, which talks about her great passion and love for Delhi’s culture, food, heritage and traditions. Her last book, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, provided an in-depth tour of Delhi’s archaeological history. But what sets her latest book apart from her previous works is that, for City of My Heart, Safvi chose to translate four Urdu narratives into English.
The book is a somewhat tragic recollection of famed royalty that withered away with time. The four translations are neatly divided into four chapters, spanning the period of turmoil that led to the Revolt of 1857 and culminated in the fall of the Mughal empire. The book starts with an introduction to Delhi, where its first reference is as the city of Indraprastha, the city of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.
The first translation is that of Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi’s Dilli ka Aakhri Deedar, which is titled The Last Glimpse of Dilli. It highlights such things as the celebrations that marked the coronation of emperors, how Eid and Dussehra were celebrated by everyone with equal pomp and show, and the way royal courtesans played Holi in front of the emperor. It’s a brilliant reflection of how Mughal emperors preserved the composite Hindu-Muslim culture, known as ‘Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb’, which we have lost over a period of time. The summer, monsoon and winter seasons that adorned Delhi are also described vividly—there’s a brilliant section, in fact, that describes how with every change in season, the city would drape itself in a new colour.
Munshi Faizuddin’s Bazm-e-aakhir, or The Last Assembly, describes the last days of the Mughal empire. Written 28 years after the end of the Mughal dynasty, one of the highlights of the text is the description of the royal delicacies served to emperors. Safvi has done an exemplary job of explaining each dish and wherever she hasn’t been able to find a modern-day equivalent of an ingredient or such, she has let the original flavour be retained.
In Glimpses of the Exalted Fort (Qila-e-Mullah Jhankhinan by Mirza Ahmad Salim ‘Arsh’ Taimuri) and Tears of the Mughal Begums (Begmat-ke-Aansu by Khwaja Hasan Nizami), she provides glimpses of a Mughal court under Bahadur Shah Zafar and the coronation of King George V.
With the city as the main protagonist, these first-hand accounts by various writers provide deep insight into how the royals and their subjects experienced life during and in the aftermath of the Mughal rule. As we traverse through the four translations, one can feel a gamut of emotions, ranging from joy and pleasure to sorrow and deep loss. City of My Heart is a must-read for anyone who loves history or Delhi.