History of Delhi

Sawaneh-i Dehli by Mirza Akhtar Gorgani – Book Review

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Delhi, the capital of India, boasts the greatest historical riches. Its recorded history is at least as old as the Greco-Romans, if not older. And phenomenally, the famed city has continued to hold its sociopolitical significance even in the 21st century. Sadly, the history of Delhi is also the most misunderstood and misused. Most of the millennials and beyond have read about Delhi only in school textbooks, and the rest of it comes to us either from stories, fables, Bollywood, or WhatsApp University. 

Out of all the historic events that have taken place in Delhi, the Revolt of 1857 is inarguably the most present in modern Indian conscience. And the figure that resonates with the Revolt is the last Emperor of India, Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Bahadur Shah II, popularly known as Bahadur Shah Zafar. Sawaneh-i Dehli (history of Delhi) was originally penned by the last Emperor’s grandson, Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani. 

The book may have a contested accuracy, but what it leaves on you is the emotion. Imagine a young kid, born with the golden spoon, the could-be heir to the Mughal Throne, but had to live and die unknown. Keep that pain in mind and read this review of Sawaneh-i Dehli.

What Sawaneh-i Dehli (History of Delhi) is About

The background of Sawaneh-i Dehli (history of Dehli) is quite a tragic one. After the Revolt of 1857, several members of the Mughal royal family were either killed or imprisoned. The emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, himself was imprisoned and exiled to Rangoon, where he passed away in the garage of a British officer. Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani, grandson of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, and son of Prince Mohammed Bakht Khan Miran Shah, managed to flee the Red Fort and take refuge in villages beyond Delhi. 

While living an anonymous life in Kairana, Mirza Ahmad Akhtar felt the urge to record the history of Delhi as was in his memory. The primary motive for doing so was to make his poor sons, Mirza Muhammad Shah, and Mirza Masood Shah, aware of the lost glory of their family and the city they once ruled. In the process, Sawaneh-i Dehli turned out to be a pocket-book of the history of Delhi, which every admirer of India’s past glory must have. 

Sawaneh-i Dehli is a byte-sized history of the empires that ruled Delhi. From the ancient Hindu empires to the viceroys, Mirza Akhtar documents his beloved city’s history with passion, emotion, and sadness. The final product is something that every Indian should appreciate, acknowledge, and revere. 

What I Liked About Sawaneh-i Dehli 

The first thing that’s pretty clear after reading this beautiful book is that religion, no matter how much the politicians want you to believe, has a minimal part to play in the bloody wars that occurred. History has been witness to Hindu kings killing other Hindu kings, and Muslim emperors killing other Mulsim emperors. It has always been about power and wealth, something that hasn’t changed to date.  

I loved the way the author describes the Delhi and its various dynasties. Snippets about monuments every dynasty built, their state at the time of writing the book, and their concise history make Sawaneh-i Dehli a history buff’s delight.  The next time I visit Delhi and tour the city, I’ll have a much deeper appreciation for the monuments that stand today in ruins. If you’re among those who only see the Red Fort or Humayun’s Tomb at best, do read this book. Make notes, if necessary, and carry them while roaming around Delhi. A week won’t be enough to explore the capital henceforth, at least not for me. 

Then there’s the translation. Sawaneh-i Dehli is translated by the award-winning scholar Ather Farouqui. The man’s literary prowess, especially while translating works from Urdu, serves as a strong reminder of why he won the Sahitya Akademi Award. The language is so rich, the narration so engaging, that even Mirza Akhtar would have appreciated it. While the book has several couplets translated from Persian and Urdu, the entire book has a poetic feel to it that is hard to explain. 

One Problem with Sawaneh-i Dehli, and It’s a Big One

The book is perfect in literary aspects, almost impeccable. But where it’s problematic is in the accuracy of the history it documents. One can avoid minor issues with dates and names. But the problem lies with the appeasement of the British. 

Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani would have witnessed first-hand the Revolt and the subsequent barbaric atrocities the British Raj inflicted. Yet the grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar praises the killers of his kith and kin, with almost a shameful vigour. He claims that peace prevailed during the times of the British, pre and post Revolt. He advocates that the British Raj was committed to the betterment of the Indians, including the Mughal royal family and the emperor. 

However, as is apparent as the sun, the British Raj committed the most heinous crimes against Indians before and after the Revolt of 1857, killing hundreds and thousands across north and central India. Thumbs of weavers were broken, which became symbolic of the unholy socioeconomic plunder the company carried out in the sub-continent. And yet, Mirza Akhtar, the one who himself saw the dark side, holds the British Raj in high regard. 

That said, the other side of the story could be that Mirza Ahmad Akhtar could have done this under pressure. For him, passing the history of Delhi to the next generation was of utmost importance, and pleasing the British could’ve been a small price. It is also a possibility that there was some tampering with the original text, as the original copy that the translator uses is not in the best condition. Whatever the case may be, readers must avoid the praise of the British Raj in the book. It has been sufficiently evident over the years that the British Raj only wanted to confiscate India of its riches. 

Final Thoughts on Sawaneh-i Dehli (History of Delhi)

Sawaneh-i Dehli is a must-read for those interested in the history of Delhi. If you are a true history enthusiast or a student of history, you simply cannot ignore the long-lost book penned by a prince who fell from grace. Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani was among the few descendants of Bahadur Shah Zafar who survived the wrath of the British Raj. Get this book today just to read what the prince-turned-ascetic had to say about Delhi, the crown jewel of every major empire that set foot on Indian soil. 

A word here for Roli Books, publisher of Sawaneh-i Dehli and several other important works. Roli recently completed its 40 years, realizing the vision of its founder, Pramod Kapoor. We interviewed Priya Kapoor, the Managing Editor at Roli, a couple of years ago and were impressed with her vision for Roli. And now, after reading Sawaneh-i Dehli, I am pretty sure that the legacy of Roli is likely to survive and thrive, no matter what the prevailing political dispensation may be. 

Over time, Roli has published significant books, including the autobiography of the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar ‘Badshah’ Khan. Publishing authentic historical works like the one at hand takes courage, and Roli has that in plenty. 

Buy the Book: Sawaneh-i Dehli by Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani

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