Infidelity, thy name is Dilli

<i>Once there was a city named Dilli</i> by Intizar Husain and translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah, is a portrait of the author’s beloved Dilli – a city which has been built and destroyed several times

 Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images &nbsp;
Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Intizar Husain

From time to time numerous cities were settled on the land of Dilli. But not one of these cities was loyal to its founder. While talking to the writer of the City of Djinns, a frail old English woman remembered the era gone by when New Delhi was founded. She remembered her father who was strongly against the idea of the new construction. He used to say that the money being wasted on the new construction could be better spent on something more worthy. In reality he had heard this old saying about Dilli which he never forgot. The saying was more in the form of a prophecy according to which whoever built a new city on the land of Dilli, would very soon have to lose it. So when the entire story of the construction of New Delhi began, this English gentleman would sadly recite a Persian couplet which mentioned the prophecy and fall silent. The frail old English woman was also saddened by her recollection. She said, ‘My father was right. Whoever settled a city on this land had to wash his hands off the city. Pandav Brothers, Prithvi Raj Chauhan, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, Shahjahan—in short, this happened to anyone who settled a city on this part of the earth. This had to happen to us too, so it happened.

If this was the history of Dilli, how could Shahjahan be an exception? And when fidelity is not an ingredient of the ghutti of this city then why should the lack of it be considered a fault of Jahanabad or indeed its peculiarity? Still, it is amazing how rapidly times change and how hastily Jahanabad turned its sight away from its founder.

Just 10 years ago Emperor Shahjahan had set foot in his city with such pomp and splendour. What a magnificent entourage it was! The king graced the Peacock Throne. What a display it was with which the court was convened, and what a spectacular moon-lit celebration followed! This was 1648 AD. Now it was 1659 AD. That court, the moon-lit celebrations are now all historical tales. Today a new coronation and a new court are being arranged. The one who founded this city is sitting imprisoned in Agra. Here in Jahanabad a new procession is on and a new celebration is being arranged. It is so spectacular that the celebrations arranged for Shahjahan dim in comparison. This is the celebration of the crowning of his rebel son. The rightful heir to the throne, Darashikoh had been defeated. Aurangzeb has emerged the victor.

With this victory Aurangzeb became Auranzeb Alamgir. He stepped into Jahanabad with great show and pomp. His procession began moving towards the Red Fort with a dazzling display. Tambourines and heralding drums pulsate at the head of the procession. Swaying elephants are queued up behind them. On each elephant’s back there are runners made of bead-worked brocade. Their feet are shackled in silver chains. Royal flags unfurl on their backs. Following them is a queue of horses. Gold and silver saddles are tied on their backs; the reins are studded with precious stones. Behind them are soldiers with naked swords in their hands. Next are the rows of the noblemen. Go past these rows and you see Aurangzeb riding on a grand elephant. On his right and left, at the front and back are fully armed soldiers. Gold and silver are being showered on him from above...

A new era of the Mughal Empire began with this coronation and the vibrant culture of Jahanabad was enhanced. But now the colour of blood has tinged this grandeur. The new city was still unacquainted with this colour. Dara, of course, had to be beheaded. But death was hovering over the head of a Sufi too. Aurangzeb’s rein proved lucky because it gave Jahanabad a martyr.

The city had received mausoleum shrines and khanqahs of the Sufis in inheritance from the earlier Dillis; it was now provided with a martyr’s shrine thanks to Aurangzeb. The stairs of the Shahjahani mosque had begun to be occupied by hordes of bizarre people. But one of them was the strangest. He was possessed, lost in the knowledge of supreme centredness, free from the material world, bereft of clothing. His nakedness became his most distinct identity. Darashikoh was a God-ordained devotee of the sages. He saw this possessed person and was smitten by him. The possessed man also had such deep love for Darashikoh that the friendship of the prince and the faqir became exemplary. Religious leaders and jurists have always challenged Sufis and the possessed. Where would they have had the heart to tolerate this stark naked crazed man who sat picketing the stairs to the mosque? But they could do nothing while Darashikoh prevailed. After his death they got their chance. They began complaining to Aurangzeb that Sarmad speaks against the Shariya. Without doubt this was ground for capital punishment.

Aurangzeb was even more uncompromising than the religious leaders. Moreover, Sarmad’s connection with Dara throbbed like a thorn in his heart. Eventually he got into an argument with the faqir. He asked, ‘Why do you go around naked?’ Sarmad gave him this portentous reply,

Aun kas ke tura kar-e-jahan bani daad
Mara hamein asbab-e-pareshani daad
Pushaand ne libaas har ke ra aib-e-deed
Be aibaan ra libaas-e-aryaani daad

The entity that bestowed kingship
That became an instrument of distress for all of us
Whoever he thinks is flawed, he covers with cloth
The one without blemish is attired in nakedness

How could Aurnagzeb have tolerated such a reply? He took a decree from the jurists and beheaded Sarmad.

In the area adjacent to the mosque there was already a mazar of Harey-Bharey Shah. Next to it a martyr’s mazar was built. God knows who Harey-Bharey Shah was! It is said that he was the teacher of Sarmad.

Whether it was the colour of Sarmad’s blood that did it or Aurangzeb’s own discriminatory policies which assured that he could never sit on the throne comfortably, a time came when his time in Jahanabad was over. Captivated by the idea of attacking the Deccan he left for the journey of the black miles. The charge on the Deccan took more and more time and Jahanabad’s lustre kept getting dimmed. It had to get dim. How long can a centre of power with an unoccupied throne retain its vitality? When the king left the city, so many things left with him. All kinds of nobles and plebeians, dubious and dapper, dullards, braggarts, who had added to the charm of the city left—some along with the Emperor, others when required by him. Jahanabad became increasingly desolate. You could say that Dilli’s water had flowed to the Deccan and the return was not in sight...

Excerpts taken with permission from Yoda Press; Pg 261

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