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