The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 28, 2011

Old Delhi and That

Dr S. Y. Quraishi, Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of various scholarly works on Urdu poetry, recently was at the Nehru Centre. So was I. He was launching his latest book - Old Delhi, Living Traditions. Various dignitaries dignified the occasion, and there was some amount of 'Fancy seeing you here' and 'Mwah-mwah' and 'Monika's* done an excellent job, eh?'

The book launch itself comprised a brief bit of unwrapping a copy of the book (though copies of it were already on a table for all to see) and a sequence of speeches, followed by a question-and-answer session. There were a couple of laudations by old associates and friends of Quraishi, and then the man himself took the stage. 

His audio-visual presentation had images from his book accompanied by a self-deprecating set of remarks. He mentioned that his family had been denizens of Old Delhi for close to five hundred years. He was born in 1947 and studied at the Anglo-Arabic school (itself founded in the 17th century) and then at St Stephen's college (well-known for being my alma mater), all famous institutions. He talked about the great spice bazaar of Khari Baoli, and the paper merchants of Nai Sadak, and specialist foodie alleys, and the beautiful havelis.

Speaking of havelis, he talked about one beautifully restored one. Chunnamal's haveli was named for a wealthy-as-heck merchant who, when the British, upset by the 1857 native uprising and blaming it on the Muslims, decided to blow up the Fatehpuri Mosque, bought it for Rs 20,000, saving it for his fellow citizens of Delhi. A score years later, he handed it back to the Muslims (for, said Quraishi, a nice little profit, no doubt).

Chunnamal was the wealthiest man in Delhi in the 1860s, and the first to have a telephone and a car. It is not clear who he spoke to over the phone, of course, if he was the first.

I asked Quraishi if he had some interesting stories to recount of his family's five hundred years' history in Delhi. He didn't answer the question; instead, he discussed how he knew his family had been in Delhi that long. He came, said he, of a long line of scholars, and they kept records, and they could trace their ancestry twenty-seven generations. Furthermore, 'Quraishi' meant 'of the (tribe of) Quraish', which was, of course, the Prophet Muhammed's clan. So there would have been a father-to-son linkage back from Arabia all the way to India, and his ancestors may have dwelt in various parts of the country before they settled in the imperial capital in the 16th century.

Quraishi also mentioned V. S. Naipaul. The only book by Naipaul he had read, said he, was India: A Wounded Civilization. The only reason he read it, said he, was that Naipaul had mentioned him by name, which he considered a great honour. Someone had told him once that Naipaul almost never referred to people by name in his non-fiction books. So honoured was Quraishi that, in fact, he had only read that one paragraph from all of Naipaul's books.

He also said that he was a big fan of William Dalrymple's books. The one on Delhi, said he, was excellent, beautifully written. If he had a complaint, it would be that |Dalrymple had never interviewed him.

(*) Monika, in case you are wondering, is M. K. Mohta, the director of the Nehru Centre, shortly to be the Indian ambassador to Poland. Under her aegis, the Nehru Centre was a hotbed of cultural activity. We await to see how energetic her successor turns out to be.


Anonymous said...

I guess he didn't get to the point where he got angry with Naipaul then;P You don't really know how to respond when you meet people like that, do you?

Fëanor said...

People like Naipaul, do you mean?

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