In Review: Once There Was a City Named Dilli by Intizar Hussain

Delhi is in a perpetual cycle of becoming and being unmade.

After our feature on studying language in South Asia on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence, we focus once again on the complex social and linguistic landscape of the subcontinent. Sneha Khaund reviews Man Booker Prize shortlisted author and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awardee Initizar’s Hussain’s loving, nostalgic account of Delhi that has been recently translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah and published by Yoda Press. The Pakistani author (1923-2016) is widely recognized as a great Urdu writer and was a regular literary columnist for Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn. He migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was created by partitioning colonial era India into the two nations of India and Pakistan. Hussain’s acclaimed novel Basti, published in 1979 and later translated into English, addressed the history of Pakistan and the subcontinent. As this review argues, the issues of secularism and language politics are as important in contemporary times as they were during the Partition. 

As I reflect on the themes of the book I wish to dwell on in this review, my attention is interrupted by bits of information pouring in through news channels and the internet. A self-styled godman has been convicted of raping two of his former disciples. His followers are spread across Haryana and Punjab, neighbouring states of Delhi where I am writing from. The judgement has come fifteen years after the charges were made, during which period he has cultivated a flamboyant personal image, complete with movies and music videos. On Friday, the time leading up to the verdict was fraught with tension as the media speculated whether his followers would riot if he was convicted. The police had emergency preparations on stand-by, including three stadiums to hold people after arrests. Violence erupted after the verdict, as feared, and at last count, thirty people have died. Curfew has been imposed on parts of northern India and there has been an internet block-out in certain parts so that rumours don’t spread and incite fresh violence.

The deafening silence in the wake of violence in the modern state—whether it is Darjeeling, Kashmir, Punjab, or Haryana—is with what Intizar Hussain begins Once There Was a City Named Dilli. Hussain starts the first chapter by saying that he had arrived in Delhi “two and a half or three years after Partition” (3) and had headed to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin where he was taken aback by the silence that greeted him instead of the usual hustle and bustle. His surprise will be relatable to modern day readers familiar with the shrine of the Sufi saint in the heart of Delhi that draws throngs of devotees and tourists alike and is located close to one of the busiest railway stations in India. We wonder if a hush has fallen over the city in the aftermath of the violence of Partition, but Hussain draws a larger arc of history.

As he searches in vain for the nineteenth century Urdu poet Ghalib’s grave while the melancholy scream of a lonely peacock tears through the “dusk of that sad evening” (6), he is struck with amazement at how many times the city has been plundered and resettled. Thus begins Hussain’s quest to write the history of Delhi as a series of plunders, conquests, settlements. “Who were the settlers, who were settled?”, he writes. As scholars such as Romila Thapar have shown, these are complex questions because they carry within them the issue of who is the legitimate citizen of India. Both colonialist and nationalist historiography have been guilty of perpetuating the perception that Islam came to India by way of the sword, through figures such as Nadir Shah and Timur. Hussain then proceeds to draw up a historical narrative of the city from the time of the mythical Pandavas of Mahabharat, the period of Islamic dynasties, the colonial era where India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta in 1911, ending finally with the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century that eventually led to the creation of two nation states—India and Pakistan.

Far from answering the question of who can be credited for settling the city of Delhi and who can be termed its inhabitants, Hussain does the opposite. By providing a history of constant movement and change in regimes, Hussain writes a history of un-settling. He unravels the tight strings containing the power and potency of a linear historiography to erase the relevance of the question he asked himself at the very beginning. The title of the fifth chapter, ‘One City, Five Commotions’ is therefore quite telling. In the chapter, Hussain adheres to Ghalib’s classification of Delhi as Delhi into five ‘commotions’ namely, The Fort, Chandni Chowk, the daily gathering at Jama Masjid, the weekly outing at the Yamuna bridge, and the annual Phoolwalon ki Sair fair. Contemporary readers will recognize these areas to constitute what is referred to as ‘Old Delhi’, where the city used to be before it spread to include the parts designed by Edward Lutyens to make it the new capital of colonial India and in more recent times, the sprawl encompassing larger portions, including parts of neighbouring states that form the urban hubs constituting the ‘National Capital Region.’ One might say that this association of Indian locales with chaos and crowds forms the mainstay of Orientalist tropes such as the Eastern bazaar. However, Hussain’s depiction performs the function of democratizing the writing about these spaces by disassociating them from a statist or ruler-centric approach. He universalizes the jumble of activity across centuries such that it becomes a defining characteristic of the city, placing Delhi in a perpetual cycle of becoming and being unmade.

M Asaduddin has written about the failure of an early generation of Pakistani writers to formulate a ‘pure’ literary tradition for Pakistan that helps to conceptualize it as separate from India and about Initizar Hussain’s attempt to draw upon the mythology of the subcontinent to articulate patterns of common human experience. Asaduddin is rather harsh in his criticism of Hussain’s idealisms, calling such efforts “facile optimism” that “can rarely stand up to adult scrutiny.” It has to be admitted that Hussain’s admiration of the courtly culture of the high Mughal era is quite clear and rather uncritical. Historical work, particularly of the subaltern studies field, has shown that Mughal rule has often  been despotic. Hussain devotes several chapters to elaborating the generosity of the Mughal rulers and their wives and it might not be incorrect to say he views the past with rose-tinted glasses, to the point of constructing it as a golden ideal.

The tendency to depict the city as having no fixed form and the leaning towards an idealization of the high Mughal era are therefore much at odds. I am led to wonder if it is important to resolve this tension. Perhaps it is symptomatic of Pakistan’s struggle to forge an identity independent of India, a task all the more urgent for the first generation of Pakistani citizens to which Hussain belonged. Rakshanda Jalil is kinder than Asaduddin in saying that Hussain chose to “imaginatively revisit a syncretic, tolerant pluralistic past in a search for meaning, to find out why the tide turned so irreversibly, and why a revisit in real terms often becomes so difficult.” Hussain is pragmatic enough to maintain throughout that changes and upheavals are nothing new to Delhi such that he describes the beginning of Queen Victoria’s rule after the revolt of 1857 that sounded the death knell for the Mughal dynasty as, “The future is that of New Delhi. How long will it cling to its past? How much longer will the titmouses, parrots, mynahs, partridges and pigeons be sold on the stairs of the Jama Masjd? Within half a century yet another doomsday would assault her. There is nothing new in this. The passage of time has been playing this game for ever.” (243) However, it is interesting to note that Hussain expresses regret that the divisions between Hindus and Muslims became stronger and reinforced by colonial rule. For example, he observes that while earlier Hindus and Muslims of Delhi had worn the same attire, with the deepening of British rule, Hindus and Muslims adopted different dress and even caps “as if in a contest.” (242) This is in stark contrast to the era of Mughal rule when monarchs would patronize various faiths, including celebrating Nauroz to honour their Iranian ancestry.

Initizar Hussain’s factual accuracy might not be very reliable at all times and the translators have taken care to point out in footnotes where his account is at variance with historical research. The value of the idealization the past lies in, as Jalil says, imagining a syncretic Indian cultural system. Events such as the violence that was unleashed after the Ram Rahim verdict mentioned at the beginning of this essay and ongoing controversies such as the ban on beef consumption in certain Indian states show that the hardening of communal identities strikes at the heart of the Indian nation. Hussain’s novel points towards a uniquely South Asian brand of secularism that is built on the fundamentals of a composite social fabric. In an increasingly polarized communal situation where this notion of secularism is under threat, Hussain’s characterization of  the constantly changing nature of cities is a timely reminder. The translators put it best when they write that Hussain’s narrative of Delhi’s past is “an articulation of a memory that has lingered on.” (xi)


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