Neither Here nor There: The Shifting Identities of Raza Rumi

by  and Caitlyn Christensen  /  May 18, 2016  / No comments

Writing His Roots

How did the process of writing Delhi, as you did in this book, change your understanding of the city?

The book is essentially about Delhi, but it also became a means to show my identity as a South Asian Muslim. I realized that my own culture and identity was linked to the city of Delhi. But the city was no longer a city that we claimed. India and Pakistan have been rivals since Independence in 1947 from the British rule. The book became an exciting project: here I was trying to trace and to locate my cultural roots in a city that was no longer accessible, no longer part of the national framework.

At the same time, by doing so I was also challenging the exclusive, particular Pakistani nationalism. Pakistan defines itself as a place which is not India. Everything that is not Indian is by default Pakistani; and this is partly fictional.

More importantly, when I entered into the process of writing Delhi by Heart, I realized that actually constructing a narrative in a new city, a place I didn’t know that well, is difficult. The writer has so many challenges in claiming linkage to that place while not being a part of that place.

How did Delhi’s landmarks encourage your use of metaphor and figurative language?

When I visited Delhi for the first time, it was 2005, and I was working for the Asian Development Bank. I went for work with a big team. All day long we would be in this five-star hotel or in a government office working on a project on our laptops. In the mornings I would wake up early and go for a walk or a run with a guidebook to see the sights.

What struck me was that the monuments of Delhi, the spatial form of Old Delhi and historic Delhi, were all very metaphorical. So I would stand at a crossing waiting for a car to move, and I would look at the right, and there would be an old monument. I would look in front and there would be this stunning medieval archway. And on the left I would see a modern colonial building. And all of that, that architecture, turned into a life-sized metaphor for my past. And that’s what really fascinated me.

My favorite landmark is a place called Humayan’s tomb, who was the second Mughal emperor, and he’s buried there. He had a very short rule and an unfortunate life, but his son, Akbar the Great, built a huge, royal, beautiful monument, which is actually said to be the inspiration for Taj Mahal. Humayan’s tomb is the original concept and the aesthetics are raw as well. By building that monument, Humayan’s son was actually announcing the start of the Mughal dynasty, which went on for then centuries and achieved a lot of grandeur and did many social and political experiments. But then interestingly the last Mughal Emperor was also captured from Humayan’s tomb in 1857, when the British crushed a mutiny or rebellion by Indians and established the final rule over the country. It’s a beautiful monument with gardens and fountains and you can walk and you can get inspired. At the same time, is has this whole metaphorical meaning. It is the start and end of a dynasty. And guess what: the British colonial rule was also kind of formally starting from that point. It’s all very much the kind of spatial metaphor over-layered by history and politics.

This was a travel into unknown territory and that’s what fascinated me

In the preface to Delhi By Heart, you say: “Unlearning was a rare gift that I am tremendously thankful for.” What do you want your readers to unlearn in reading this book?

Much of Delhi by Heart is my personal journey and discovery of a composite identity. While I’m talking about society and the ancient past and monuments and shrines, I’m also talking about me shedding some of the prejudices that I had received from my formal education in school.

Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Pakistan has constructed its identity and nationalism in opposition to India. Some Indian hyper-nationalists also do that — everything that is Pakistani is not Indian. It’s that kind of silly, arbitrary, imagined line which challenges almost a thousand years of history of Hindus and Muslims living together in South Asia. And which just one event like the Partition of India in 1947 cannot really undo, although it may begin a new process of “modern” nationalism.

Unlearning was that particular part where I unlearned many, many prejudices or negative stereotypes about the neighboring country and “enemy” country. This was a travel into unknown territory and that’s what fascinated me, and led to the book.

In that line I wasn’t preaching to readers, but suggesting that a lot of received wisdom, or officially sanctioned truths that we often hear through society and institutions such as education, must be challenged. And one way to challenge them is actually to have your own personal process of learning and unlearning. This is even valid in our individual and personal lives — things we do, repeatedly in our relationships and our homes, in our personal affairs, or just to ourselves. When we are being true to ourselves, we need to unlearn some things that we imbibed.

How did you decide on the story’s shifting structure?

I did not think of the structure when beginning. I started off in a very personal sort of way. The first two chapters were all about me, and the idea of travel and crossing a boundary and stepping into an unknown, new domain. I realized that I needed to do more. It is a book on the city, so my reader needed to know more about the city: its key features, its highlights, and its architecture. At some points I said, “Okay. I have to lock in the structure of my writing and cannot take any more liberties with my writing.” Otherwise, I would never have been able to finish that book, because it just kept changing.

I set essential areas or themes that I was going to explore. Once I decided on those I said, “Now maybe I should just fill in all of the empty spaces, the annotated bibliography or outline.” I completed that, and then I imagined myself as a reader. Often, I would read my draft through the eyes of a reader who didn’t know too much about the place, or who knew too much about the place. Both are potential readers. There are people in Delhi who know their city very well, so I was wary that I should not come across as bumbling fool. Then I also realized that there are the people who don’t know too much about it, so then, I had to ask, “Is it the right level of information or is it too much?” So I switched roles both as a writer and a reader.

It is nonfiction, so I want to be clear but then I also want to be practical. My style changes and shifts, from very deeply personal musings and existential rants, to standard observations. Then I gave into another kind of narrative, where it becomes a conversational story. That has been noted by a lot of reviewers of the book and by all of the readers who reached out to me, saying that what they valued about the book was the continual shifting and my use of multiple genres.

I do intend to move to fiction, hopefully, at some point, because all those stories are also there. But I personally feel that there is a lot of fiction being written, particularly from South Asia and Pakistan. But not many creative nonfiction books come out or are actually published. Fiction is kind of exalted in literary world, but it also has its limits. With nonfiction work, one can actually directly address some of the themes that one would indirectly address in fiction. I wanted to be more direct while I was writing this book.

What would you have written about Delhi if this was a work of fiction?

I would have more written about a character I mention in some detail in the book: Prince Dara Shikoh who was a late 17th century prince, son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. Dara, who is well known, was the eldest of Emperor Shah Jahan’s sons and the successor to the throne, but his younger brother Aurangzeb was a more devout, puritanical Muslim, who took over the throne after killing him and his other brothers. It was a bloody battle for succession. Dara was whom I was actually researching. He was an amazing character, very ahead of his times. You must read in the news today about all of these interfaith conferences taking place, interfaith workshops, etcetera. Dara did that in the 17th century and he assembled leading theological experts from all religions. He got sacred texts translated: the Old Testament Bible, the Hindu sacred text into Persian, which was the official language. And he tried to find common ground between these various faiths. He was intrigued by the question of how the narrow vision of a clergy leads to a very strict definition of a religion and its adherence, and creates religious conflict, which has been a source of wars and violence in human history.

Dara was also a patron of the arts, and wrote a lot poetry himself. Imagine a royal prince having all the time to write and write, to be a poet, a memoirist, a chronicler, a translator, a debater. The murder of Dara was actually killing the secularist spirit of the Muslims in India. Now Aurangzeb, who took over, is celebrated by the state of Pakistan as the hero because he’s this good, devout Muslim who killed his pantheistic or blasphemous brother. And the reality is that Dara was not a blasphemer. He was trying to present a more secularist, more inclusive version of Islamic faith and practice in India, which I guess is relevant — and much needed — even today.

Continue reading this article on page 3

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.