Book Excerpt: Delhi in Historical Perspectives by Late Professor K. A. Nizami and Dr Ather Farouqui

An interesting glimpse of this book- Delhi in Historical Perspectives by Late Professor K. A. Nizami and Dr Ather Farouqui based on the fascinating and chequered history of the city of Delhi. (Oxford University Press, 2020)



Like the personality and thoughts of Ghalib, the history of Delhi had two distinct periods. The events of 1857 caused a dramatic break from the past for Delhi and its inhabitants. In its 800-year-long history, Delhi had changed its form many times—Siri, Kilokeri, Tughlaqabad, Ferozabad, and Shahjehanabad to name but a few of its incarnations—but each was an added layer which seamlessly connected with the past. The events of 1857 shattered the historical links with the past and Delhi was, as English poet Matthew Arnold has said in a different context, ‘wandering between two worlds, one dead the other powerless to be born’. Ghalib too suffered the tribulations of Delhi. The old Delhi was breathing its last and the new had not yet been conceived. The Ghalib from before 1857 was entirely different from the the one after it. For the inhabitants of Delhi, it was difficult to make sense of a present that bore no relation to the recent past. Ghalib opens up his wounds to friends thus:

Saheb, do you understand what the matter is and what has happened? That was a birth when both of us were friends and there was an exchange of love and affection in our dealings with each other. Together we recited our poetry, compiled our works … suddenly the times changed; no more were those friends, that cordiality, mutual discourse, happiness. Afterwards there was the rebirth, albeit the forms of the two were exactly the same. That is, the city where I am bears the name of Delhi and the locality of Ballimaran is also the same, but I do not find the friends of my earlier birth.

A man who speaks of two births still sees Mir Mahdi climbing up staircases and hears the echo of Yusuf Mirza’s voice. This was the psyche of a man of deep sensitivity assailed by a social typhoon upsetting the very purpose of his life. The slings of outrageous fortune turned Ghalib into an elegy personified:

ُ ّمید
منحصر مرنے پہ ہو جس کی ا
ُمیدی اس کی دیکھا چاہیے
ہوچکیں، غالب! بلائیں سب تمام
ایک مرگِ ناگہانی اور ہے

1. A letter to Mirza Hargopal Tafta of Sikandrabad, 5 December 1857, in Khaliq Anjum, ed., Ghalib ke Khutoot , Ghalib Institute, New Delhi, 1984, pp. 266–7.
2. A letter to Mir Sarfaraz Husain, 1858, in Khaliq Anjum, ed., Ghalib ke Khutoot , Ghalib Institute, New Delhi, 1985, p. 762.

One whose only hope is to die,
Fathom the state of his desperation!

O Ghalib, your disasters are done with,
What remains is your sudden death.

The decimation of Delhi resulted not only in the destruction of the political order but also marked the end of a civilization and the annihilation of an ethical structure nurtured jointly by Hindus and Muslims for some 300 years. Poets had once written satirical laments about Delhi, but now was the time to write its elegy. What Khusrau had described as Revered Delhi (Hazrat-e Dehli), a sanctuary of religion and justice, was now ‘Deceased Delhi’. A poet breathing in such a claustrophobic atmosphere was bound to feel completely hopeless. Before 1857, Delhi was an integral part of Ghalib’s personality, but the Delhi of later years was a graveyard of lost hopes. Ghalib’s own relationship with the Mughal court had been beset with a thousand complications, but he was still attached to the heart of Delhi. The last Mughal ruler had indeed been a helpless man, although in the eyes of the common people, the fort remained a symbol and a focal point around which the city’s culture and its aspirations flourished. After 1857, the same Ghalib who had once lived with honour and some contentment, despite facing hardships, could be seen knocking at the doors of nawabs and ingratiating himself with English officers.

In the words of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, it was an irony that a person like Ghalib, who was so proud of his art, was forced to make submissions before a greenhorn officer with his head bowed in acquiescence. Ghalib had once incurred a debt of Rs. 40,000–50,000 but it was then a symbol of his status and he had enough self confidence to turn down the advice of Nasikh to go over to Hyderabad for employment at the Deccan Court. But now Ghalib’s patience gave out when he ran into a debt of a mere Rs 800. He exhausted himself making humble submissions before the nawab of Rampur. A man who had thought it beneath his dignity to accept office under Bahadur Shah was now saying:

وه دن گئے جو کہتے تھے “نوکر نہیں ہوں میں
Gone are the days when I used to say, ‘I am no one’s servant.’

He was now telling Kalb-e Ali Khan with humility and helplessness:

خیرات ِ خوار محض ہوں نوکر نہیں ہوں میں
I live merely on doles, not that I am even a servant.

In such a ruthless times, the weight of circumstances burdened the shoulders of a sensitive poet such as Ghalib. He could not help saying with a heavy heart:

اے تازه ِ واردان بساط ہواے دل
زنہار! اگر تمہیں ہوس ناے و نوش ہے
دیکھو مجھے جو دیدۀ عبرت نگاه ہو
میری سنو، جو گوش نصیحت نیوش ہے
O new arrivals in the realm of the heart,
Beware the yearning for wine and the arts.
Observe me and be warned if you are wise,
And be prepared if you are to heed my advice.

The decline of Mughal rule began in the 18th century and by the dawn of the 19th century, the Mughal emperor was no more than a figurehead. However, political decline and the resulting instability and withdrawal of patronage had not stopped literary and intellectual development in society. On the face of it, this may look like a contradiction, but it is true that instability and churning give rise to great literature and philosophical thought. Compton-Ricket assessed English literary and intellectual movements and wrote,

‘The great flowering of English Renaissance was not the moment when Drake and Hawkins were defying Philip of Spain. After the defeat of the Armada came the triumph of Shakespeare.’

If it is true that defeat of the Armada led to the flowering of Shakespeare’s thoughts and skills, it would not be far from the truth to assert that the intellectual giants among the Muslims of India rose to prominence at the time of the sunset of Mughal rule. Shah Waliullah, Ghalib, and Sir Syed were the products of this age of political decline. The society that gave birth to them was undeniably still full of robust moral and intellectual potential. Shah Waliullah’s Madrasa Rahimia was the fountain of knowledge and academic excellence when the Battle of Plassey was under way in Bengal. The madrasa run by Shah Waliullah enjoyed unparalleled fame as a centre of learning. The highly acclaimed works of Ghazali, Razi, and Ibn-e-Rushd were eclipsed by the works of Shah Waliullah, if one were to quote Maulana Shibli Nomani.

Excerpted with permission from Delhi in Historical Perspectives by Late Professor K. A. Nizami and Dr Ather Farouqui .Published by Oxford University Press India, (2020)

About the Author

Late Professor K.A. Nizami was Professor and Vice Chancellor, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University; He was also the Indian Ambassador to Syria from 1975-77 Dr Ather Farouqui is the General Secretary, Anjuman-i Taraqqi-i Urdu, New Delhi.

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