Delhi has exuded an aura of mysticism and merriment since ancient days. With time it grew to be the nucleus of some mammoth structures of power. As it became the hub of multifarious cultural strains its magic grew. Mirza Sangin Beg’s Sair-ul Manazil in tandem with its translation by Shama Mitra Chenoy makes that invisible emanation visible. Delhi in Transition presents the complex aspects of the vicissitudes of fortune of the city of Delhi in a paradoxically simple narrative. This work knowingly or unknowingly revolves around the idea that Delhi’s diversity represents the soul of Indian civilization. It aims at highlighting those chapters of Indian history that deal with the flowering of an unprecedented quest for understanding a city and its people in the context of the immediate and the unknown. It is the very first detailed and exhaustive translation of Mirza Sangin Beg’s Sair-ul Manazil. Shama has compared the four known versions of the text; including the original manuscript located in Berlin. Sangin Beg was commissioned to write about the city of Delhi by William Fraser. The book was completed in 1821. If this historical gem of a narrative is a lighthouse that guides seekers of Delhi, then Shama’s work definitely adds to its brilliance.
In an astutely written introduction the author recreates a solid and multidimensional backdrop to the Sair-ul Manazil. She surveys the medieval and early medieval works, which inform readers about the Delhi of their times. A comparison of these narratives helps in gauging changes in the mind-set of authors and the resultant changes in selection and presentation of information. Thus biographies, autobiographies, panegyrics, hagiographies, travelogues, albums and poems are scrutinized. Situating Sair-ul Manazil is facilitated by a review of works of the same nature that preceded or followed it. Going beyond a matter-of-fact approach Shama discerns the circumstances under which these works were written. For example Sair-ul Manazil was written when two arrangements of governance and power co-existed in the city. While the Mughal power was comatose, the British power under the aegis of the East India Company was on the ascendant. From Sangin Beg’s personality to his book’s purpose, title, style, content and impact, Shama surveys it all. She writes:
‘Commissioned work notwithstanding, Sangin Beg’s approach towards it completely belies the notion of conspiracies, guidelines or prior discussion of any methodology of work or portrayal of the city within a particular modality. It is possible to start with the premise that his geographical and sociological knowledge of certain parts of the city and the environs was excellent. In order to accomplish his task he took many walks within the city and among the people who occupied its spaces. Hence the city, the people, and their multitudinous habitations formed a very important dimension of his work. There was no attempt to privilege buildings over people or even to “monumentalize” them. That Sangin Beg had a near erratic approach to his work is evident in excessive details for some parts of the city and lack of information about the others and a cursory mention of some…. He had internalized the idea that the British were the political masters by virtue of which they were both the government and the patrons. The kind of work they wanted from him was probably never going to be commissioned by anyone from the indigenous society. There were paeans in praise of the new benefactors but nothing for the Mughals as such, though he prefixed honourable titles before the ruler. He eulogized the British, praised their sense of justice and fair play, and saw them in no uncertain terms as the rulers. He compared them favourably in his account with exemplars across cultures, Solomon, Nausherwan, the emperor of China, but not with any of the Mughal rulers. In his vision the British were not found wanting vis-à-vis such yardsticks.’
Besides Sair-ul Manazil, Shama’s discourse on Saiyid Ahmad Khan’s Asar-us Sanadid and Dargah Quli Khan’s Muraqqa-e Dehli is quite comprehensive. In a subsection entitled ‘Through the Prism of Asar-us Sanadid’ she compares Sair-ul Manazil with Saiyid Ahmad’s classic work. This comparison goes a long way in situating the Sair-ul Manazil in the flow of time. Another subsection, ‘Larger Appeal of Local Traditions’ unveils Delhi’s socio-cultural plurality. The narrative is peppered with nuggets of information about medieval saints and monarchs. ‘Frailties and Strengths of Sair-ul Manazil’, another subsection, exhibits Shama’s objectivity in dealing with the text. She lists its weaknesses with the same panache with which she counts its strengths. The historian in her is occasionally discomfited by the chronological and historical mix-up of facts by Sangin Beg but the latter’s work has enough hard facts to make up for momentary distractions.
In the chapter, ‘The Narrative of the Manuscript and Its “Copies” and the Saga of Urdu Translations’, Shama has discussed the various copies of the book: The Berlin Manuscript, the British Library Copy, the Red Fort Museum Copy, the National Archives Copy and the Published Persian Text. An attempt is made to understand the statics and dynamics of the Sair-ul Manazil. Interpolations, additions and deletions are examined. The Urdu translations are also critically analysed:
The manuscript and its copies are not independent of each other; hence it would be difficult to call the different variants ‘manuscripts’. The Red Fort version can be said to resemble the Berlin manuscript or the British Library variation. However bits of information about people, places and inscriptions special to and different in both the Berlin and British Library versions are not traceable in the Red Fort copy. On the other hand, many new additions made to the Red Fort adaptation were not copied in the Archives version to which some new information was added.
In the course of this discussion Shama poses some very interesting questions and seeks answers to them as she researches each and every one of the copies:
In the scenario where the author himself was not responsible for bringing about the changes, then who suggested or ordered changes to the text, change of the name of the patron, removal of many names and addition of a few others, indiscriminate removal of several inscriptions and Quranic verses, the termination of the text before it ended or adding to the text much beyond its intended conclusion? Who decided that the manuscript copies will contain different sets of extra information?’
The Style Key which precedes the translation is a guide par excellence. It is an indicator of the dedicated hard work which has gone into this all-embracing translation, which brings all the versions/copies of the Sair-ul Manazil together in a single flow of words. Shama has used markers like script style, bold, small caps, underline, double underline, bold and underline, small caps and underline, small caps and bold to indicate which copy has supplied which piece of information. Corroboration of information from more than one manuscript is also indicated. Designs of brackets signify comments of earlier researchers. Shama’s presentation of Sair-ul Manazil is complete; like a full circle. She gathers pieces from every possible version, weaves a tapestry of information but codes the pieces in such a way that they can be separated from the whole in a jiffy.
The three appendixes; A note on paintings, ‘Chhatri and Inscriptions’, give a perfect finishing to the picture that the Sair-ul Manazil paints. The Glossary is enriched by informing the readers about the pronunciations of the listed words. However, it is the index which is truly fascinating. Structured in subheadings like: ‘Delhi: Cities and Palace-fortress Complexes’, ‘Holy Relics in Delhi’, ‘Individuals mentioned in the Sair-ul Manazil Along With Their Professions and Goods Available in Delhi’ it is a beautifully designed icing on the cake. It makes the book easy for researchers as well as lay readers.
As a mine of information Delhi in Transition presents a city as a story teller. And it is a story well told. It argues that long after their builders pass away cities stay to convey legends to posterity. This text prompts readers to notice whispers of history flowing softy through the roads, streets, parks, doorways, halls, ceilings, roof tops and moreover through celebrations, dialects and relationships. It is a powerful reminder that the most magnificent edifices that were created will one day be in ruins unless they are nurtured and saved consciously. This includes socio-cultural structures on which edifices of human relations rest.
Farhat Nassreen is Professor, Department of History & Culture, Faculty of Humanities and Languages, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi.