‘Delhi By Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani traveler’, by Raza Rumi, an Islamabad based policy analyst and writer, is a fascinating read. The book dwells into the intricacies of cultural assimilation and sheds light on how his experience as an impartial traveler to a city such as Delhi, managed to debunk and challenge the myths and narratives from an ultra conservative right in Pakistan, about its adversary.
His compilation is a fusion of historical information and considers magnificent examples of how differences can or should be bridged between the people of the subcontinent with reference to Sufi Saints and erudite sages, of whom the latter, graced the landscape of the subcontinent for decades. In a book launch in the prestigious Serena Hotel in the heart of the Adobe of Peace, Mr. Rumi quoted the 13th century Sufi saint, whom he witnessed as a survivor for a mind boggling 700 years in the city, as an example of prime advocacy for acculturation of different and diverse groups in the region, who have been divided on ethnic, lingual and religious lines. Hence it comes to no one’s surprise that the city of Delhi is considered by the writer to be the citadel of the subcontinent’s history alongside cities such as Lahore.
The reading session at Serena was organized by the Asian study group and was met with active participation from a diverse pool of experts, analysts, members of the academia and the youth. During the session, the writer constantly mentioned how he felt at home, while traveling through the unique landscape of Delhi, which oozed with pluralism and a secular environment. His reference to these aspects was a direct contradiction of the narratives spewed by ‘India-Bashers’, of whom many consider India to be a hegemonic nation, hell bent on defying the idea of pluralism and instead resorting to promoting concepts such as ‘ Hinduvta’. In response to a question raised by the audience, on his opinion about the hostile environment in Delhi, he replied with a smile by saying:
“I found that the common, shared past and present were far more potent than imagined hostility…….”
The fact that Raza travelled through the landscape of Delhi as an impartial traveler, with a mindset which was devoid of bias, was instrumental in ensuring that his compilation spoke volumes about how myths and stereotypes were nothing more than political constructs. In addition, his family’s strong connections with Sufism as a concept and a practice, is one of the prime reasons as to why he became strongly affiliated with Delhi’s cultural richness and diversity, which he considered to be similar to Pakistan. He also sheds light on the concept of the subcontinent as an ancient ‘Indo-Persian civilization’ which had an overarching character and was characterized by a commitment to pluralism and secularism by its inhabitants. According to Raza, the seeds of animosity and hatred are political constructs, which have been used to split a civilization, which was a model of peaceful coexistence.
Yet to say his compilation is a travelogue would be to consider Albert Einstein to be a scientist. It would be a criminally bare claim to make. ‘Delhi by Heart’ is a deeply researched compilation, which considers socio-economic, historical and religious events in the region which all boils down to secularism and pluralism, which the writer has supported with factual evidence. The narrative of the book also rests on the story of a civilization which has borne the brunt of plundering, religious indoctrination and ‘ethnic centrism’, but continues to exist in true essence. To understand it however, would mandate a keen perspective that is devoid of religious biasness and hostility, which Raza has harbored throughout his visit to Delhi.
However, despite Raza’s admiration for the city of Delhi, he is not in love with it which he has made clear in a number of book launches for his compilation. In fact it is his love and infatuation with the Indo-Persian civilization, which he considers to be a model of pluralism and diversity. His narrative on Delhi considers every aspect of the city from a historical and impartial perspective, where he advocates that the unique nature of the populace prior to partition is what defines the cultural fabric of the city, which inevitably lays credence to his claim about the people of South Asia belonging to one overarching civilization.
The hall at Serena during the reading session on the 4th of December, 2013, was packed to the hilt, as an everyone hailing from diverse backgrounds were in eager anticipation as to what Mr. Raza’s compilation had to offer. One important aspect of the book that the writer considered was his meeting with arguably the finest Urdu novelists of the 20th century, Qurratulain Hyder, before the latter passed away in 2007. That meeting, according to Rumi, reaffirmed the fact that the indo- Iranian civilization quoted in ‘Delhi by Heart’ continued to fade away and its existence was being jeopardized by mutation and ignorance throughout its history. At the same time, Rumi gave plenty of hope to those who had questions about the future of acculturation and peaceful coexistence that the civilization is not lost yet and it is up to the people of the subcontinent to continue to coexist peacefully in order for its roots to stay strong and unhindered.
“The civilization is in peril, but our lives of traditional harmony continue and we need to cherish them……” he was quoted as saying in response to a question about the future of this concept of an overarching civilization.
The writer however, did not dismiss the concept of the nation state but in fact acknowledged that India and Pakistan are two separate sovereign entities. He expressed his desire that both countries should shun away their differences and feuds and promote an environment which is conducive for trade, cross cultural interaction and exchange of good will, between the people of the subcontinent which have Indo-Iranian routes.
His book, ‘Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveler’, considers all these aspects from a humble, articulate and well informed perspective, which the writer possesses. For those who hail from the subcontinent and believe in peaceful coexistence, this book is a must read.