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Monumental love

Author: admin

Monuments are often considered mute spectators to history’s marvels and misgivings, but many untold stories are hidden in their ruins. Acclaimed scholar and writer Rana Safvi’s fascination with monuments is evident in her latest book, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi (Harper Collins; ₹ 799; 322 pages), the second in the Where Stones Speak trilogy that chronicles Delhi’s languishing monuments. The book also reinforces the fact that “Monuments are not the only form of heritage but are the most visible on the landscape and their destruction is more dramatic than of other forms of heritage,” to quote historian Romila Thapar.

A postgraduate in history from Aligarh Muslim University, Safvi has authored Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi and Tales from the Quran and Hadith and translated Syed Ahmed Khan’s Asad us Sanadid and Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Gadar. Though a student of history, Safvi also keeps pace with the times and is significantly active on social media. As a blogger, the 61 year-old’s penchant for Indian food, culture, heritage and tradition is evident on FOR Website: www.ranasafvi.com. On Twitter, she actively promotes Urdu poetry with the hashtag #Shair. In an email interview with Suparna-Saraswati Puri, the Delhi-based author talks about the need to preserve history through monuments. Excerpts.

What triggered your fascination with historical monuments?

I grew up hearing khandhar bata rahe hain imaarat shandaar thi, meaning the ruins speak of the splendour of the monument. I’ve always been fascinated with old monuments though I couldn’t really understand that pull or put it in words. It’s only during a heritage walk in 2013 with Delhi Karavan in Mehrauli that I realised I wanted to tell the stories the stones hold in their hearts. It’s on that walk that I decided to write about Delhi.

How long did it take for the book to evolve?

I had actually intended to write a book on the lines of Gordon Hearn’s Seven Cities of Delhi but from an Indian point of view. However, when I researched for Historical Trails in Mehrauli I found over 50 monuments in the first city itself and realised it needed a dedicated book. That took a year to research and write. The Forgotten Cities of Delhi covers five cities and much more in between, so it took me two years. As I visit every monument at least once and often a number of times, that’s time-consuming. I researched Historical Trails in Mehrauli in the summer heat but now I’m more careful using summers to write and winters for fieldwork. The canvas this time was huge, and hence time-consuming as far as surveying and research was concerned. I’m very excited every time I set off on a voyage of discovery. For me, each monument is a discovery of a time gone by!

Do you think our understanding of India’s expansive history is skewed?

India has more than 4,500 communities, each with their own history, legacy and distinct culture. We rarely realise India is a civilisational society and its history is expansive. When we talk of history, we usually see it in terms of wars, power struggles and certain rulers. Today, even that understanding is skewed by what is called the left, right and centre lens by which historians view it. Attempts are made to interpret and sometimes change history to fit in a particular narrative. So we find exaggeration of aspects that suit that narrative and negation of what doesn’t.

Given the neglect of our monuments, do you agree that Indians are not heritage-proud?

I think it’s a problem of plenty. Countries that don’t have an ancient past often preserve the most trivial of things, whereas we, with such a glorious past and ancient civilisation, are quite blasé about it because we are used to seeing it all around us. We are never taught to take pride in our built heritage though we keep talking of our cultural heritage. However, preservation of that legacy is always left to others, as we feel no sense of ownership over it. I feel it’s only when schools and children are associated with monuments that things will change. They need to feel a sense of kinship and ownership.

What were the challenges you faced while working on your book?

My challenges were basically during fieldwork, as many monuments were encroached or inaccessible. In many places, the locals were inhospitable or openly hostile. But I’m not one to give up easily. Apart from one, I visited all the160 monuments I’ve described.

Do you think we need to include monumental history in our curriculum?

Yes, we need to. We also need to make history far more interesting. History is unpopular in schools because of the resistance to rote learning of the subject. We forget that ‘story’ is an important element in the word. Research-based anecdotal history is something students are unlikely to forget. And monuments are a great way of weaving in those stories.

Your body of work is filled with a host of remarkable characters from sultans to saints. Were you to select a critic for this book, who would it be and why?

I feel history has short-changed Sultan Raziya. I have tried my best to give the ruler her due. In this book, I’ve tried to rest the controversy surrounding her grave by citing from the 14th century Tarikh-e-Firoz Shahi. I would love if I could hear her critique and perhaps get a nod of approval, however slight it might be.

Tell us about your family.

My husband and our two children are very proud and supportive of my work. I started writing very late in life and now they ensure I’m not hampered in any way and take care of all my domestic responsibilities, so that I’m free to write, travel and explore.

What are your other interests?

I love cooking. I find it very relaxing. Nowadays, I love to travel too.

Photo: Syed Mohammed Qasim
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
September 2018