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Drifting down memory lane

Drifting down memory lane

Call it Delhi, Dehli or Dilli, the city has haunted its dwellers whether they have moved elsewhere temporarily or have migrated to another country. “Dilli jo ek shehr tha aalam mein intekhab,” [Dilli was once a city of excellence the world over] lamented Mir Taqi Mir in a nostalgic mood when he moved to Lucknow after Delhi was ransacked by the invader from the north-west, Ahmad Shah Abdali. Though born in Agra and having taken refuge in Lucknow where the king of Awadh invited him to join his court, Mir pined for Delhi till he died in 1786, but not before he penned the ultimate line of a brief but highly poignant poem: “Hum rehne walay hain usi ujrey diyar ke” [I belong to the place that now lies in ruins].

Another distinguished Dilliwala, Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi, was inspired to write about the city after he left his beloved abode in 1947 when Delhi went through yet another upheaval. He wrote two priceless books: Dilli ki Bipta, about the riots that shook the capital of India, and Ujra Diyar, a highly readable collection of his reminiscences, borrowing the title from Mir.

One book on Delhi, which can be read in a single sitting, is Dilli ka Phera [A trip to Delhi] by Mulla Wahidi, who was born on May 17, 1888, and studied in some of the best educational institutions of Delhi, but could not pass what were known as the Entrance exams (later rechristened the Matriculation exams) even after two attempts. He was rescued from depression by the well-known Sufi scholar/prose writer Khwaja Hasan Nizami when he took the 15 years younger Wahidi under his wing, ushering him into religion and literature alike.

Dilli ka Phera is not a travelogue in the real sense of the word. It is merely a trip down memory lane. On his way to Delhi, 11 years after he had migrated to the newly created state of Pakistan on Oct 27, 1947, Wahidi makes a brief stopover in Lahore and meets old friends. He goes to Data Darbar and Badshahi Mosque. The railway journey from Lahore to Delhi is not half as comfortable as the one from Karachi to the capital of Punjab, but in his excitement and expectations he ignores the rigours of train travel.

When in Delhi, Wahidi visits places he frequented or lived in before his migration to Pakistan. He visits the mausoleum of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya more than once and offers early morning prayers at the Jamia Masjid, Delhi. He goes to the Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb and is relieved to find that it has been restored to its former glory soon after it was desecrated by rioters. Mohandas K. Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, he says, were behind the restoration.

Wahidi, however, is basically a people’s person and draws satisfaction from interacting with other human beings. He renews contact with his old friends, visits the houses of those who are no more in this world and goes to their graves to offer fateha. He has a series of lunches and dinners, quite often tea, with his old friends and acquaintances. One person who qualifies to be mentioned in some detail is the Congress Party leader Aruna Asaf Ali, widow of his late distinguished friend Asaf Ali who was the first Indian ambassador to the United States. Aruna plays hostess to Wahidi more than once, and is held in high esteem by one and all. (To those who don’t know, one may mention that Aruna, who belonged to a Hindu Bengali family, married a Muslim who was 21 years her senior. It was he who inducted her into freedom fighting. Well after Independence, she was posthumously decorated with the Bharat Ratna, her country’s top civilian award.)

What one misses in reading the book is that the writer doesn’t, as a flashback, recall in a page or two what made him cross the newly created border between India and Pakistan, unlike many of his friends who stayed behind. He should have also written about the perilous journey that he, like thousands of others, undertook in those tumultuous times.

One last word: Wahidi’s prose is simple yet effective and the dialect in which he communicates belongs to the cultured people of Delhi from the pre-Partition period.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 25th, 2016

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