Disclaimer: I received the review copies of these two books from Rupa Publications. However, all opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced.
Every once in a while, a non-fiction book falls into the hands of a hardcore fiction reader/lover and it changes their perspective. I know this for sure because it happened to me recently, all thanks to the magnetic city of Delhi wherein I have made my new home.
Having moved to the national capital recently for my studies, I was obviously very intrigued to check out the multitude of historical monuments that dot the Delhi skyline. I even have a list of the places I wish to visit and slowly I am making my way through it.
And so, getting my hands on both of these books has been a boon! They have invoked the sense of history in my mind as well as made me understand the profound diversity in culture that existed even in this very tumultuous history. It has been an exciting journey — reading both these books one after the other.
Delhi, in Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City
By Adrija Roychowdhury
The first book that I picked up from between the two books that I shall share today, was this one. I had first come across this book on bookstagram (the Instagram community for books) and had been totally intrigued! Add to the fact that I was a new resident of this historical city, my interest was piqued. I reached out to the publishers and they were kind enough to send me a copy of the book.
Now, one may ask, as they obviously should, what this book is about. For the best description, I think this synopsis from Goodreads does justice:
To tell us the story of Delhi, journalist Adrija Roychowdhury takes a deep dive into the legends behind the names of its many streets. ‘Delhi, in Thy Name’ is a compelling account of the many emotions, aspirations, desires, identities, histories, and memories that went behind the naming of places in the national capital of India. From the crevices of Chandni Chowk to the arcades of Connaught Place and the quarters of CR Park, the book delves into the little secrets that went behind naming Delhi, as recounted by the people of the city.
Exhaustively researched and passionately told, the book is an attempt to decode what the act of naming and renaming means both to those in power and to those being governed. The book provides a key to Delhi, opening its doors to the readers in the very way that the city likes to think of itself — as alluring, energetic, infuriating, lyrical, nostalgic, frustrating, unforgettable, magical.
I thought that getting to know Delhi via the way the different places are named, and the histories behind the very naming of each, was a unique way of telling the story of this city. Like I have also repeatedly mentioned, I am new here and so I am gobbling up every fascinating fact I can! From Chandni Chowk, and Connaught Place, to Chittaranjan Park and Shaheen Bagh (and many more), this book explores the nitty-gritty of the naming histories of these iconic places.
While one imagines that non-fictional writes lack the imaginative essence (and I am guilty of it), it was truly not so in this case! Roychowdhury proved me wrong! For, to weave the words as she did, bringing up the image of Mughal Delhi, Delhi under British Era, post-Partition Delhi, and the Delhi of today, require great skill, and the author has certainly delivered. I was taken on a journey both in terms of the temporal, as well as the spatial. I was amazed but I also of course learned a lot.
In school books, Indian history often ends at Partition. What happened after that — to the refugees? How and where were they re-established? Did the places and cities we know now, exist back then too? Or were they newly formed? These questions often arose in my mind (but unfortunately, I did not seek any definite answers), and as I read this book, many of those questions were answered.
The author also has shared the information (or rather, the stories) that were shared with her, by the various inhabitants of these places — and it is always interesting to see how views today can differ. People are often possessive when it comes to their histories, and religion and culture often influence the way a history is claimed by a community. That was definitely an interesting aspect I could make out from the stories that people shared.
I also visited the Jama Masjid finally! It had been on my list of places to explore in Delhi, for the longest time, and this book finally gave me the push. I also tried to recreate the cover and had a ton of fun doing it! I have thoroughly enjoyed (and learned from) this book. And I shall definitely recommend you to pick it up!
A Saint, a Folk Tale and Other Stories: Lesser-Known Monuments of India
By Rana Safvi
Another fabulous book I read this month is this glorious compilation of the histories of some lesser-known historical monuments in India. The reason I was initially interested and requested this book from the publishers was because of the author!
In late 2019, I had read another book by Rana Safvi — City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century Delhi and I had simply fallen in love. It was perhaps the first non-fiction history book (about Delhi and its history, as well as history in general) that had made me realize how much I wanted to move to Delhi and explore it. And perhaps this realization transformed into a subconscious manifestation and fast forward to 2021, here I am in Delhi.
Nevertheless, I had ‘discovered’ Rana Safvi and I knew I would explore more of her works. This year when I saw this book and read its synopsis, I knew it was for me. And I am glad the team at Rupa sent it to me! Before I share more of my reading experience, here is a synopsis:
In ‘A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories’, acclaimed author Rana Safvi takes the reader into secret, hidden parts of India beyond the usual tourist destinations. The often-overlooked monuments of India are rich with history, architecture, and scenery begging to be explored. The book takes you back in time and on a journey to explore the vast architectural heritage of India.
Discover the secrets that Khusrau Bagh hides in its heart, marvel at a Queen’s forgotten resting place, listen to the folk tales and fables embedded in the structures and walk down the poetic path to some of the places where the great poets sleep, with the hope that the book sets the reader off on a journey of their own.
I absolutely loved the diversity that was this collection of monuments! As someone who cannot possibly travel much due to the pandemic (and to be honest, due to my status as a financially broke student), this book provided much-needed solace to my restless heart. I took this book everywhere — I read it on the metro (and almost missed my station), I read it while lounging in the winter sun, and I read it while cozying up under my quilt. Many of the stories shared in this collection were actually of places (and people) that were previously unknown to me. I did not know about the existence of some of these people, but most of the time, I had no knowledge of the historical places associated with them.
Rana Safvi’s writing mesmerized me in 2019 and it has mesmerized me now again! I wanted to visit all of the places she did mention but there was only one place that was accessible to me. And so, one fine day I made my way to Sultan Raziya’s Tomb in Delhi. In the first place, I had never explored this part of Delhi before — the arteries and veins of Old Delhi. But thanks to this book, I did! And I will never forget it!
History as well as historical politics — this book included it all and has a really fascinating intertwining of these two aspects.
I end today’s review, by reiterating that if you are interested in any of these areas, you will greatly benefit from these two books that ought to be treasured. I certainly will, and perhaps in a year, will go back to re-discovering these places. One day, I will also perhaps visit some of these places (all over India as well as within Delhi) and think of the imagery that had been invoked for me by two talented and such knowledgeable authors (and their magical pens) at the end of 2021.
Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.