From twilight to twilight in Delhi....
`THE TWILIGHT of the Moghuls', Percival Spear's magnum opus, appeared in 1949 after his return from St. Stephen's College, Delhi, to Cambridge. It followed Ahmed Ali's `Twilight in Delhi', a novel that interlinked the events of the Mutiny of 1857 with the life and times of a nobleman, Mir Nihal, right up to 1919, after World War I ended. But Ahmed Ali's masterpiece was mostly fiction, with a veneer of history. Spear's book is a well-researched treatise that gives glimpses of the lives and times of the last Moghuls.
Spear also wrote a historical sketch of Delhi and a book on its monuments. Most of his work, except the last named, has been compiled into the "Delhi Omnibus'' and brought out by Oxford University Press, along with essays by R.E. Frykenberg, Philp Mason, Athar Ali, Buruch Lawrence, Hamida Khatoon, Stephen Blake, Satish Chandra, Christopher Bayly, Narayani Gupta and some others on Delhi through the ages. Narayani's "Delhi Between Two Empires'' -- the Moghul and the British - is also included for good measure.
As one browsed through this mine of information on a lazy October afternoon, one was transported to the imperial zenana in the Red Fort, once called Qila-e-Maualla- and then to the Walled City, where in the late 19th and 20th centuries flourished the Jalas and Saths, in hakims of Ballimaran, Ajmal Khan, Mahmud Khan, Abdul Majid Khan, besides Ali brothers, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, the nawabs of Loharu, Basai Darapur, Faridabad and so many other places, and those domiciled in the old city like Nawab Zainuddin and Nawab Surayya Jha, as handsome as his name.
Distant drums sound pleasing to the ear. Delhi looks like some enchanted place in those times, with all its crudities, violence, uneasiness and the urge for independence surging within a halo of nostalgia which not even communal strife could tarnish.
The blinding of Shah Alam, the once youthful Shahzada Ali Gohur who signed the Dewani of Bengal with Robert Clive, by Ghulam Qadir Rohilla, the roguish son of Nawab Zabasta Khan, makes one almost hear the shrieks of the old Emperor.
He was thrown hungry and in great pain into the dungeons of Salimgarh and Bidar Bakht, a prince from the Salatin quarter of the fort -- reserved for poor relations of the king -- put in his place. But that unfortunate youth was literally pushed out by Qadir because of his impulsiveness in running away to the bazaar to fly a kite. In his place Mirza Akbar, Shah Alam's second son, was put on the throne. But the Marathas of Mahadji Scindia returned to Delhi to pursue Ghulam Qadir and executed him brutally. So the old king was back on his throne, though not a free agent.
Akbar did succeed his father as Akbar Shah-II in 1806 but did not like his eldest son Abul Zafar, who was later to be known as Bahadur Shah Zafar, as he wanted Mirza Jahangir, son of his second wife, Begum Mumtaz Mahal, to be the heir apparent. Akbar Shah, fed by gossip by his favourite queen, charged Zafar with unnatural vice. Even if the charge had some substance, it was not a vice unique to Zafar. Many other Moghuls, including the founder of the dynasty, Babar, had in their youth professed a fondness for boys.
But as they grew up they changed and married many times over. So did Bahadur Shah, whose famous queen, Zeenat Mahal, several decades younger, did not appeal to him only because of her tomboyish charm as she caught floating paper kites on the terrace of her haveli in Lal Kuan. In our own times actress Liz Hurley may be proud of her schoolboy-like rump but nobody has ever suggested that any such consideration weighed with Zafar when he chose a pretty city girl to occupy the place of his old Begum Taj Mahal.
Spear gives many glimpses of the zenana and of the court, the intrigues of the Marathas and the British, as also of Moghul courtiers out for quick fame and profits. That period was known as Gardi-ka-Waqt because ominous clouds of unrest darkened the Indian horizon in the aftermath of the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali. The whole country was in disarray because of the tottering Moghul throne. Eventually the British, so far acting from the sidelines on reports from their informers like Major James Browne, occupied Agra and Delhi following the campaign by Lord Lake in 1802-1803. Then began the era of Ochterlony, Fraser, the Metcalfes, the skinners overshadowed by the Mutiny, which the printers devil has made into "Munity'' in Chapter VIII.
From that time up to 1931, Narayani Gupta gives us an exhaustive account, which nevertheless makes good reading. After incidents like the shoe sellers' riot, we are thrown into the hurly-burly of life in pre-Mutiny and post-Mutiny times. Anybody who was somebody in those days finds mention and you see the goings on in the havelis and the streets, not leaving out bazaar and kitchen gossip. The communal overtones, the break-up of the old order and the emergence of the new one is all there in "Delhi Through the Ages''.
Now when one visits Chandni Chowk, Ballimaran, Chawri Bazar, Paharganj, Daryaganj, Civil Lines or Connaught Place, one scarcely knows what all happened there and that even the dull and drab Basai Darapur, with its ESI Hospital, was once the principality of a nawab whose grandson played a major role in the affairs of the Walled City in the 1930s, when a bloody communal riot broke out in Chandi Chowk.
Like Spear, one would like to conclude with Kipling's famous lines: "The tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart''. The captains and the kings may have departed but as Spear remarks again, "Dilli dur ast.''
That was actually what Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia said about 700 years ago. For us too Delhi, older than Rome, has more to offer. There are other captains, other tumults and other issues to shout about. For isn't history a repetition of past events? Time will invest our mundane age too with the stamp of Delhi's perennial aura, which did not disappear even with the departure of the grand Moghuls.
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