Delhi shaped South Asia’s Muslim identity, Pakistani author says

September 18, 2013

Raza Rumi is based in Lahore, but the public policy specialist and Friday Times editor’s new book is based in another milieu entirely. “Delhi by heart” is a kind of travelogue about a city that is the source of a shared heritage that spans hundreds of years.

By his own admission, it is a “heartfelt account” of how a Pakistani comes to India, an “enemy country”, and discovers that its capital has, in fact, so many things common with Lahore.

“I wanted to write the biography of Darah Shikoh, the great Indian Mughal prince,” Rumi said. “While researching for that, and while visiting Delhi all the time, I felt really it merits a Pakistani version as well because for these five years we have been so much cut off and we have misunderstood each other so much that it is time to sort of build bridges. Hence the book.”

Just two days after the book came out in July, there was fighting on the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir that resulted in the deaths of five Indian soldiers. Relations between the neighbours have since been strained, and there have been reports of cultural and religious exchanges being cancelled.

This backdrop and the past 66 years of separation, mistrust and aggression have forced Pakistan into recasting its history and its heritage in ways that create a blind spot where India used to be, Rumi noted.

“Is this Indian music or Pakistani music? Is it Indian food or Pakistani food?” Rumi said. “For example, the poet Ghalib, the greatest of Urdu poets, is Ghalib an Indian or a Pakistani? It’s very difficult. Amir Khusro, who gave us the Urdu language as we speak (it)… the kind of language that is popular in Bollywood… is he Indian or Pakistani? So Pakistan had a harder task to create an identity and it’s still grappling with that.”

Traveling to Delhi, he said, sharpened this impression. The first thing he noticed, and which reminded him of home, was the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, which he could hear throughout the city. Then there was the Mughlai food, the qawwali music, the Urdu and Hindi languages with their origin in “Hindustani,” and the shared heritage of Mughal architecture and the common Punjabi character of both cities.

After about a dozen visits to attend various conferences and do research, he sat down with a pile of notes and wrote a book that builds on the shared past and common culture of south Asia. “I think it’s a mix of travelogue and personal narrative with a bit of history thrown in.”

In the beginning, he said, he worried that Delhi is a city that foreigners and Indians have written about at length. He also doubted that anyone back home would be interested in reading about Delhi. He was wrong, he said.

“When I gave the chapters to my father to read, I thought he would object to my whole search for common history and kind of challenging the state narrative of nationalism but, quite interestingly, I found him to be most supportive of the idea …”

There may be differences between the two faiths and countries, but according to Rumi, “through the 1000 years of their shared experiences and interaction, the two did develop a certain composite culture. That composite culture, in many ways, still survives in India.” So much so that despite the political acrimony between the two countries, Rumi sees hope for the future in Pakistan. And Delhi gave him a glimpse of that future.

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The author would have done better had he delved into the psyche of Pakistan which now considers itself ethnically, culturally and religiously a derivative of the Middle East. That it was once part of India is airbrushed regularly by the all powerful military which propagated the myth that one “brave” Muslim soldier was equal to ten “cowardly” Hindus. This myth was buried after the venal Paki army suffered four defeats at the hands of India. Civilian Governments too have been on the anti India band wagon as they have always had to humor both the army and rabid mullahs to survive in office even when “democratically” elected.

Given this backdrop, Pakistan has drifted away from its Indian roots, notwithstanding the immense popularity of Hindi films and movie stars in Pakistan and the desperation of Paki cricketers (now not allowed because of hostilities between India and Pakistan) to be hired by the owners of the teams competing in the ultra rich annual Indian Premier League cricket tournament.

Its civil society too is vastly different from India – far more overtly religious, conservative, reconciled to authoritarianism both by the army and mullahs, feudal landlords, politicians, army Generals and mullahs firmly in control of most of its wealth in a sea of poverty and generally unsympathetic to the fate of severely victimized non Muslims (including Shia and Ahmedia Muslims, not only Hindus, Sikhs and Christians).

The writer can wax eloquent about a mythical “composite culture” of India and Pakistan. It is just as unreal as is the desperate, indeed pathetic attempt of Pakistan to get the rich Arabs to treat them as their ethnic cousins. In realty, Arabs show their open contempt for Paki Muslims who are dark skinned, short in height, smaller built than Arabs and whose facial features are identical to that of Indians. Along with Indian Muslims, Paki Muslims too are made to pray from roads outside mosques in the Middle east !! This hurts Pakis real bad as Arabs whom they held in high regard for having exported Islam and “liberated” them from Hindu domination of undivided India treat them with barely disguised contempt – mainly for their poverty but also because Arabs have never considered Muslims from the Indian Sub Continent or Indonesia or black Africa on par with themselves.

Schizophrenic Pakistan muddles through this ethic confusion along with lawlessness a bankrupt economy and an existential crisis. Raza Rumi chose the easy way out by recounting fables about a non existent “shared” past, long disowned by Pakistan.

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