Ahmed Ali was a Delhi based author poet and diplomat. Born in the first decade of 20th century, he was witness to the changes that took place in Delhi and undivided India as the freedom struggle was taking shape. He must have been a poet as the language of his book indicates, falling into a sought of romanticism every now and then.
The book is a story of Mir Nihal’s family based in Old Delhi or Shahajahanabad. It talks about the last 20 or so years of his life and his family, which is a large extended family along with friends and neighbors. There is elaborate description of the times in Delhi in the first two decades of the century. Again the contemporaries may not have felt anything special in the book, as it was a mere description of the day to day life of those days, but today it gives us the glimpse of a life in those days. We tend to look at those days as something majestic when everyone lead a luxurious life and all they did for living was to enjoy life, while like every other time in the history of human kind, there were hardships and prejudices that people faced every day. Author paints a very balanced picture of the joys and sorrows of the people of Delhi. He takes a slice of people from various walks of life, of all age groups and genders and talks about what they looked forward to and what they detested. What is very distinctive about the book is its poetic language, which is something that is very obviously missing in the contemporary writing.
There is an elaborate description of kites as they danced in the sky. There is depiction of the protagonist’s relationship with his pigeons. How he nurtures them, plays with them every day, mourns their death and how he looks at them longingly in the sky. There is also an emotive description of his relationship with his mistress and his dejection after her death. There is an explanation of the whole phenomenon of men having mistresses and spending their evenings with them. The wife was the one who came to your family and helped you carry your family line. She has to carry husband’s family line and behave like a good woman, remain in purdah and spend her life with other women in the family zenana, an area marked for women. Their life revolved around taking care of the house and bringing up children and are often ignored by their husbands and compensated by gifts of fine clothes and jewellary. Mistress on the other hand provided the much needed companionship to men, including intellectual stimulation as these were well trained if not well read women. They knew various arts and crafts, and the most important being the art of entertaining men, through their singing dancing and poetry. Most of them were poetess themselves or at least they had good knowledge of the poetry and could recite them well. They were not just prostitutes merely offering the physical pleasures. Come to think of it, today people are looking for a combination of a wife and mistress in their partners, I am not sure if these contradicting requirements can be met in a single person or not. Plight of women which seems very pitiable today but was probably an accepted norm during those days is also described very sensitively. Surprisingly there is no mention of polygamy in any of the families at that point in time.
There is lengthy description of all the traditions and rituals that are followed by a muslim family both on daily basis and also on occasions like marriages, deaths, child births and religious festivals. Every detail of every ritual is described. You can literally visualize things as they are happening in the story and the language of the book helps in this. There is the world of Hakims and Fakirs who punctuate the lives of ordinary people now and then.
There is a dreaded description of the Delhi heat, how everything changed including the tempers of the people in Delhi. How it impacted the pigeons, daily routines, eating habits and moods. This may not have changed since then. Delhi is almost like a dead city during its summer months. When it is summer you often wonder what is it that still keeps this city going? Description of heat comes so often in the book that you realize the terror that it must have caused even in those days and how uncomfortable it made the citizens of Delhi. Surprisingly he also talks about the filth that existed in the streets of Delhi, so this is not really something new that we see today.
Then there is an underlying love the people of Delhi have for their city, a city built by their forefathers and the culture that they are proud of and which flourishes within the walls of this city. They are proud of their language and the influence of other languages, specially the English worried them. As and when Delhi falls to British, they attribute various factors to it, some being superstitious like building Mohammad Shah’s grave between the grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir Khusro, who they said was put in between the lover and his beloved.
The writer was made to stay in Pakistan as he happened to be there at the time of partition and was not allowed to come back to Delhi. He obviously longed to be here and live again in his favorite city, but am not sure how much will he feel the connection with it now, now that culture would have undergone changes making the Delhi almost unrecognizable for people of his generation.
A very interesting reading if the life and times of Shahajahanabad intrigue you.
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