Rana Safvi Posts

Book Post 48: 22-28 Oct 2019

Book Post 48 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

29 Oct 2019

Book Post 12: 23-29 September 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 12 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

1 October 2018


Interview with Rana Safvi

Rana Safvi is a writer, blogger and translator. She documents her passion for India’s Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb [ culture] via its food, customs, festivals, monuments and clothes. She has recently published The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, the second book in her Where the Stones Speak trilogy, published by HarperCollins India. I interviewed her via email. Here are edited excerpts. 

I was in my teens when my father got posted in Agra and as we lived very close to the Taj Mahal that was the venue for our evening walks. That was the first time I felt the pull of stones and wished they would speak. At that time I had no idea that one day I would end up writing about these very stones or that Delhi would be the place that would beguile me. But they say that childhood passions never go away and I am lucky that I got an opportunity even if very late in life to fulfill those dreams. My trilogy Where Stones Speak is the fulfillment of those dreams of listening to stones and making them speak.

Somewhere along the journey of the first book I became a full time writer and I find it deeply satisfying on a personal note to be able to say all the things, which were, buried inside me somewhere waiting to come out. I’m lucky that I got a chance but I would urge everyone to hang on to his or her dreams. It’s never too late. I started at 55 years of age when my friends were retiring and I enjoy it. Staying busy also keeps me feeling very young.

Apart from this trilogy I have also translated Dastan-e-Ghadar: Tale of a Mutiny (Penguin Random House India) and Tales from the Quran and Hadith ( Juggernaut Books) and by God’s Grace, I have two more translations coming up later in the year.

  1. Why embark on this ambitious project of a book trilogy on Delhi with the first on Mehrauli Where Stones Speak and the second on The Forgotten Cities of Delhi? What is the third book going to focus upon? What sparked off this project? 

Delhi was never a destination for me till 2012 as I used it more as a transit point while visiting relatives in UP. At the time I was living in the Gulf.

It was only when my daughter shifted to Delhi that I started staying here for long periods of time. I had visited a few major monuments like Red Fort and Qutub Minar as a student but that was about it. Around the same time, I met the founder of Delhi Karvan, Asif Khan Dehlvi, who conducts heritage walks. I was part of his first walk in November 2013. He told us many stories from Urdu books written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I realized that the books describing Delhi in English were either very dry and dull or written from a very British perspective in aftermath of the Uprising of 1857. There were no books with historical anecdotes and research especially from Urdu sources. As at that time I was relatively free and monuments are something I’m extremely passionate about I decided to write the books.

I have covered the seven medieval cities of Delhi till 1857. The first city was Mehrauli, which was the subject of the first book: Historical Trails in the First City of Delhi, Mehrauli. The second book, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi describes the five subsequent cities of Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad and Dinpanah. Since this is a vast area and covers almost all of Delhi, I have added all the other areas which may not strictly have fallen within these cities but were built in that era. I have also included monuments from other cities such as Kilokhari and Mubarakpur Kotla which have been swallowed up by urban development. I have described these 14 cities in detail in the first book. My guide for including the monuments was the Urdu book Waqeat e Dar-ul Hukumat Dehli written in 1919 by Basheeruddin Ahmed from all the Persian, Urdu and English sources available to him at that time. The third and final book will be on the imperial city of Shahjahanabad leading up to the Uprising of 1857.

  1. How long did it take for this book to be made? How do the photographer Syed Mohammed Qasim and you work together as a team? Do you visit a site together and decide on the photograph to be taken together or do you help select the images later from his photo bank? 

I do a lot of field work, sometimes visiting a monument a number of times to verify details I find in books. It takes time as I research written material too. It takes me around two years to do fieldwork and research for a book and for Qasim to take the accompanying photographs. It is a combination of research and a bit of detective work on the ground – a time consuming process.

One day I had set off with Syed Mohammad Qasim to take photographs in Vasant Vihar. He mentioned a reference to a 14th century mosque and a dargah in that area that he had heard of. We kept asking the locals and going round the area till we saw huge iron gates in the Aravalli City Forest. We asked to enter but were only permitted to so when we explained we had come as part of our research for a book. To our surprise we saw a huge area beautifully forested and a 14th century dargah of Syed Murad Ali Baba Shah and a khanqah and mosque from same period which had been restored by the Abdul Mannan Academy who run a madarsa here. That we have such a huge green area and a Shahi Masjid (Tughlaq era) was a pleasant surprise for us.

Similarly, I had found a reference to a group of tombs in Zamarudpur called Panj Burja by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in his 1846 book, Asar us Sanadid (Vol 1). So I set off in search of them. The first one was easy to spot as it was at the entrance to the colony. This area is lal dora land, which means that it is out of New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) limits and these monuments are delisted so don’t come under Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Finding the next four monuments was a challenge and took me a whole day. The locals tried to chase us off and intimidate us into not taking photographs but I asked them for some orders which prohibited me from doing so and failing that I refused to budge. They eventually gave up and left us.  Another young heritage enthusiast Sahil Ahuja was with me and both of us put on out Sherlock Holmes hat. It was with great difficulty that we found them. The other four tombs are hidden within the tenements, used for throwing trash, one was even being given on rent to garbage collectors. The fifth could only be discovered by climbing six flights of steps as it was surrounded by high rises on all sides and so not visible from the ground. Discovering that the Zamarudpur tombs had been badly encroached, were in a badly decaying state and were almost inaccessible to the public was a very unpleasant shock.

With Where Stones Speak I explored Mehrauli initially with Asif Khan Dehlvi, founder of Delhi Karavan, who conducts heritage walks in Delhi and later when Qasim accompanied us to take photographs. The three of us entered the desolate areas to explore the ruins and in the process enjoyed the experience immensely! We work very well as a team, complement each other and are constantly learning from each other too.

Though now I don’t explore places in summer due to the extreme heat but I must confess for the Mehrauli book, Asif and I did make a lot of field trips in May and June. Now I am a little more careful though just as excited and enthusiastic about every trip. Some places that are more frequented by people I do visit alone but if they are very lonely I go with Qasim or some other heritage enthusiast, but a companion I must have!

When I’m describing a monument in words I have a certain facet of it in mind so I convey it to Qasim as well as I want the photograph exactly along the lines of the image I have in mind. Mostly we go together and take decisions on the spot but as I said sometimes both of us go alone if we can’t match our schedules. Qasim took all photos for the book. None of the images in the book are from stock photo collections.

  1. You write mostly in the first person as if you took notes while walking through the monuments that were typed up later more less as is.  Is that the case? Personally I like it for it is creates a warm and intimate atmosphere as if the reader is alone with the author on a personal tour of the monuments. Was that your intention? 

I’m glad you like it. I don’t know whether it was intentional or not but that is how it came naturally to me. I believe in letting words flow and take me with them. I normally edit after that process is over. For me it is a world into which I want my reader to enter with me. Perhaps it’s the effect of going for and conducting heritage walks. I take mental notes and nowadays videos when I visit so that I can cross check details.

  1. How do the names of monuments survive if most of them lack inscriptions? Take for example the “phoota gumbad” at JLN stadium.  I have often wondered if only a historian will know what primary source to consult and thus pass on the name to general public or do names continue to exist in the collective memory of the locals? 

Most of the tombs don’t have headstones so we don’t know who is buried there. Locals over the years gave it their own names, which we use even today. Some are very descriptive.

In 1854 Sir Saiyed Ahmad khan wrote Asar-us-Sanadid in which he described 130 monuments of Delhi. So these are identified. For others the books I use as reference are Maulvi Zafar Hasan’s book Monuments of Delhi written in 1919 for the ASI And Basheeruddin Ahmed‘s Waqeat e Darul Hukumat Dehli, also written at the same time. I have copied the names from these books.

  1. In your descriptions of Moradabad ki Pahadi and Wazirpur tombs you make references to how the locals (of all faiths) revere the tombs and leave offerings. This made me wonder if you would ever consider doing another book on the local lore (and people do have a colourful imagination!) that has developed around these monuments and juxtapose them with historical evidence?

That’s an idea! Actually recording oral history is a huge and very essential project. I try to do it whenever I can but don’t know if I can do it as a separate project.

  1. You don’t always give the exact location of these tombs. For instance, if I had not been familiar with Delhi particularly many of the spaces you speak of, I would be lost.  While reading the text I had to rely on my mind’s eye to conjure an image of the exact location and even then I am perplexed by many. Was this a deliberate omission on your part?

It wasn’t a deliberate omission and wherever I could I have given locations but I will remember to be more exact in the next book.

  1. I am curious as to why did you not include maps in this book? Perhaps hire a cartographer to draw at least the 15 historical trails you describe in the annexure? 

You know it didn’t strike me to make maps. But yes will definitely consider it now. I do realize maps make it easier to locate and visit.

  1. Are you concerned about the future of these monuments you chronicle? 

Yes, I am concerned, very concerned as so many are crumbling right in front of our eyes or being encroached. One purpose of these books is to acquaint people with these monuments and hope that they will come to love them and own responsibility for them. Till we don’t feel some sense of kinship or ownership for these monuments we don’t have hope of their survival. Urban development and rapid commercialization is eating them up.

  1. Do you think launching a campaign to protect these monuments is a good idea? If so of what form and shape should it take? 

I have been advocating adoption of nearest monument by schools and colleges and building programmes around it. Whether they are heritage walks, brochures, dynasty timelines, quiz programmes etc.

I met the principal of Vasant Valley School recently and put forward this idea to her. So far ASI has not given them permission to adopt Delhi’s first Islamic tomb, Sultanghari which is the closest to their school. ASI should allow and partner them. It’s only when the children are involved that we can hope to protect our heritage.  I think that would be the most effective campaign.

To buy the books mentioned, follow the Amazon links embedded in the book cover images. 

9 July 2018 

An extract from Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( transl: Rana Safvi)

Rana Safvi’s translation from the Urdu into English of Zahir Dehlvi’s memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny was published by Penguin Random House India in 2017. Zahir’s full name was Sayyid Zah­iruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume.  Zahir Dehlvi was in his early twenties, newly married, and living in what is now called the walled city of Delhi. He like his father was in the service of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and they would report to work at the Red Fort. Dastan-e-Ghadar is an eyewitness’s accounts of the events that happened during the uprising of May 1857 when Indian troops employed by the British army revolted. There were many reasons for the soldiers anger but the immediate reason were that their cartridges were laced with cow and pig fat. For the Hindu soldiers, the cow is a sacred animal. For the Muslim soldiers, pigs are taboo. On 10 May 1857 the soldiers first attacked their British masters in Meerut and then marched to the city of Delhi. For decades this event under British Rule was referred to as the “Mutiny of 1857” or by many Indians as “the First War of Independence”, depending from whose perspective the events were being narrated. Now more commonly it is referred to as the “Uprising of 1857” and this is what is usually adopted by historians as well. But as Rana Safvi clarifies in her introduction that “I have used the words ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebels’ in my notes and comments, as those are the words used by Zahir.”

Dastan-e-Ghadar  is meant to be a testimony to the events of 1857 and was written decades later. It is a sequence of events strung together but because it was written close to the event there are details in it that are fascinating. The chaos in the city, the confusion amongst the common people, the rumour mongering, the manner in which people fled to save themselves, the capture of the Emperor etc. All these are now well-known facts but to read the events in a contemporary account adds a different dimension to the experience of the historical event. According to historian Narayani Gupta in her review of the book in the Hindu “…it has an immediacy, and is deeply moving”. She also points out that the memoir was originally “Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. ” The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (an edition of which is with Irfan Habib who reviewed the book for Outlook magazine).

Yet there are liberties that the translator Rana Safvi has taken with the text which she acknowledges: “I have used my discretion to edit the text in places to keep the flow and drama of the narrative intact. ” Having said that there are some critical points about this seminal translation that are raised in the review by Irfan Habib: words like “Ghadar” and “Ghadr” have been translated inaccurately at the behest of the editors, not the translator. Later he adds:

Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “ang­­uishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not ind­uced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).

Both the academics who reviewed the English translation are of the agreement that the second half of the book where Zahir’s service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are possibly of greater interest than that of the events of 1857. Nevertheless Dastan-e-Ghadar is a fascinating testimony for those reading first source material about 1857 for the first time. Rana Safvi’s translation is an important contribution to Indian literature.

Following is an extract from the book published with the permission of the publishers.



The Surprise Attack

Just a few days had passed when another event took place. Half a mile from Kashmiri Darwaza, there was a yellow kothi near the ridge, where the purbias had set up a front and put up big guns and cannons. They were using them to inflict considerable damage on the British forces. They had two platoons and people to man the artillery present at all times. Everyone had to stay there for two watches.

One day, as luck would have it, the soldiers departing after day duty told their replacements to be careful, just in case the enemy attacked at night. The night guards took their places. Now let me tell you a few things about the night guard. It was these very men who had looted the bakshikhana and the bank. They were often in a state of stupor thanks to drinking bhang and eating kalakand and laddu peda during the day.

When they reached the kothi, they were alert at first, but when the night came and a cool breeze started blowing, they were unable to stay awake. They kept the guns at an angle and, spreading their dhotis, fell into deep sleep.

Drink bhang in such a manner that you empty all the stores 

All your family is lying dead and you lie inebriated

These people were snoring away to glory. The spies took this news to the British. They informed them that the front was abandoned, the soldiers were all fast asleep and it was the right time to attack.

The British officers took two platoons of Gurkhas, one of Majwi and one of the British themselves, and rushed
barefoot down the ridge. They carried away the guns, captured the cannons and only then woke the sleeping soldiers, saying, ‘Get up, people of the faith, the goras are here.’

One soldier got up, rubbing his eyes. The Gurkhas shot his head off.

They started attacking with swords and sabres. There was tumult and crying from every side and the few who were not killed ran in a state of panic towards the city.

The Nasirabad Platoon, which had changed duty with these men, had found the city gates locked when they tried
to enter the city, as it wasn’t safe to leave them open at night. They were resting on the patri outside Kashmiri Darwaza when the ambushed soldiers reached them. After abusing and scolding them, the Nasirabad platoon told these fleeing soldiers to lie with them and they themselves lay down silently but with loaded guns.

Meanwhile, the British force came chasing them, hoping to enter the city behind them. They were unaware
of the Nasirabad platoon lying in wait. A volley of firing began and the soldiers manning the cannons on the
parapet of Kashmiri Darwaza and Siyah Burj also joined in when they saw the British forces. The situation can be best described as Khuda de bande le—only divine intervention could help.

It was difficult to save oneself from the volleys of fire. There were heaps of corpses all over.

The British troops retreated. They rushed back and took over the yellow kothi they had attacked earlier and turned their guns towards the city. These guns were now fired incessantly at the city. This continued for the whole night.

Cannons and artillery were being fired from both sides, but the Indians lost the front they had set up in the kothi,
which was now under British control. The British forces were also reinforced by troops from outside.

A senior British officer was killed in this battle and his corpse was left lying between the two forces. In the morning,
both sides tried to pick up the dead body. Cannons and artillery were firing from both sides with the purbias hellbent
on acquiring the valuable weapons that were on the dead officer.

The dead body was lying a short distance before the Kashmiri Darwaza. The two sides fought a day and a half for
the officer’s corpse. It was a matter of prestige for both of them.

The guns fired day and night and thousands of people were killed.

At last, as the sun set, one purbia reached the body by rolling on the ground. He tied one end of his turban to the
dead body and slowly pulled it behind him. He and his fellows took the officer’s pistols and sword, and, after stripping the body of valuables, left it there.

In the morning, the British saw that the body had disappeared. The battle was stopped.

The purbia brought the weapons taken from the officer and showed them to everyone in the Qila. He brought it to the house of the royal steward. He showed them to Ahsanullah Khan and told him they had fought over these  weapons for two days.

I saw the weapons with my own eyes. The pair of pistols was good but the sword was invaluable. There was golden
carving on its hilt and the scabbard was black. Its colour was like the neck of a peacock, with something written on it in gold.

( Extract from pgs. 119-122)

Zahir Dehlvi Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi ) Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, India. 2017. Hb. pp. 340 Rs 599 


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