"Delhi's Muslim Culture is Dying" – Interview with Sadia Dehlvi


Sadia in Jama Masjid

The irrepressible Delhi walli talks on Muslims, Sufis, Khushwant, Rumi and Delhi.

[Interview and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Ms. Sadia Dehlvi is an eminent Delhi walli. An author (she recently finished a book on the Sufis of Delhi) and journalist, she is also known as a socialite. Whatever be the truth, Ms. Dehlvi lives life to the fullest. If not eating chicken patties in India India Center, Ms. Dehlvi is either strolling alone in some abandoned sufi shrine or reading a book in Lodhi Garden or conducting a high-brow walk in Red Fort or hosting a qawwali session in her living room. If still untraceable, she is probably busy hugging her bosom buddy Khushwant Singh in his Sujan Singh Park apartment. The Delhi Walla managed to catch her in Jama Masjid for an exclusive interview.

Welcome to The Delhi Walla, Ms. Dehlvi. Do you love Delhi because what it is or because you just happen to hail from here?

I love Delhi because my soul belongs here. My family has lived here for centuries. The name Dehlvi literally means ‘someone from Delhi’ and it is a heritage I take great pride in. It is with the mitti of Delhi that I wish my mortal remains to mingle with. For it was on this mitti that my beloved Sufis like Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya walked upon.

Your ancestral mansion at Sardar Patel Marg is now the property of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the country’s most powerful Dalit political party.

I was born at my ancestral home at Sardar Patel Marg in Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave. Earlier my family used to live in the walled city. My maternal side of the family lived near poet Ghalib’s house in Ballimaran and my father’s family lived in Pathak Havash Khan near Novelty Cinema. I love the old city and have always enjoyed the ethos and heritage of what was Shahjehanabad. On the other hand, our home in Sardar Patel Marg was like a centre of film and culture as my father and grandfather were editor and publishers of the film and literary Urdu journal Shama Magazine.

Throughout my childhood I saw actors, writers and poets coming in and out of the house and my grandfather loved hosting receptions for them. Meena Kumari, Nargis , Nimmi, Dilip Kumar, Ismat Apa, Sardar Jaffery, Qurratulain Hyder and others from that generation were particularly close to the family. I feel extremely blessed to be exposed to such wonderful artistes. Growing up listening to them was an enriching experience.

A few years ago we sold out ancestral house to BSP leader Mayawati. What used to be Shama Ghar is now BSP House.

Does that fill you with sadness?

We were one of the few Muslims to live in New Delhi during the 50s and the house had acquired the stature of an institution. It no longer belong to us. I see this landmark Muslim house in a VIP area changing hands with BSP as somewhat symbolic of the state of the current Indian polity. Muslims have slipped down and the Dalits have moved upwards, both economically and socially. Clearly, they have had a dynamic leadership that has helped them whereas Muslims have been let down by the secular leadership they believed in.

Life & Times

Mother and Son

Sadia with Son

Author Khushwant Singh has dedicated an entire chapter to you in his book Women and Men in My Life. What about the women and men in your life?

I have had a wonderfully exciting life despite all the pain and betrayals. Most of my friends are writers, filmmakers, poets and academicians and their company keeps me intellectually alive. I have known some of the country’s best minds, be it men or women. Talking of Khushwant Singh, he is a very special friend and I really love him. But if you really want to know about the men and women in my life, you will have to wait for my autobiography which I have begun to write. I can’t share my secrets with you for free and you will have to buy the book.

Certainly. Let’s talk something more personal. You once married a Pakistani man but now you are back and live alone with your son. Tell me if this city is difficult for a single mother?

I have never thought of myself as a single mother. I have always been my own person and never relied on anyone emotionally and financially. A child essentially belongs to the mother and isn’t it always them, whether married or unmarried, who always end up doing all the upbringing. Besides, I feel nurturing a child is the most creative and rewarding process in the world. I love it.

With Khushwant Singh

Sadia with Khushwant Singh

S for Sufism

You have just finished writing a book on Sufis of Delhi. Does the city have enough Sufi shrines to warrant a book?

Delhi, the refuge of faith and equity
Is the garden of paradise; may its prosperity be long lived
If Mecca happens to learn about this garden
It may circumambulate around Hindustan
Delhi has become the world’s cupola of Islam
Bewitched by it are the cupolas of the seven skies

That is verse by Amir Khusrau where he explained how he felt for Delhi, a city that has historically had a close relationship with Sufis and Sufism. While the emperors of Delhi were writing the political destiny of India, the Sufi masters and scholars in the city were engrossed in keeping the flame of spiritual enlightenment burning in their khanqahs. In the 13th century a large number of Sufis migrated from Central Asia and made Delhi their home. Historians of the medieval age have written brilliant poetic accounts about the Sufis of Delhi. There are hundreds of Sufi dargahs here. In my book, I have concentrated on the more popular ones and those that I bond with.

This is the new age. Sufism is being sexed It is getting secular. Is it OK?

Sufism and particularly Sufi poetry is becoming increasingly popular in the Western world where traditional Sufism exists alongside something that I consider neo-Sufism. That is Sufism without the application of the essential principles of Islamic faith. For instance, Rumi is the best selling mystical poet in the West but most of his verses in those anthologies are usually devoid of the Mevlana’s Islamic discourse. So we have Mohammed Jalaluddin Rumi being presented merely as Rumi, a mystic without the Mohammed and without the Islam. But please remember that Rumi’s master, Shamsuddin Tabrez, did not negate Rumi’s knowledge of Islamic law but inspired his disciple to move beyond the laws and discover the spiritual horizons.

Unfortunately, modern day packaging of the New Age spirituality has created a Vedanta without Hinduism, a Zen without Buddhism and now we
have a Sufism without Islam. Much of the literature that the West reads about Islamic mystical poets diminishes their Islamic roots. This has fanned the wrong notion that Sufism has nothing to do with Islam. The Sufis were rooted in Islamic sciences and adhering to basic Islamic laws remains the first step in taking the Sufi path.

The Muslim Question

Do you wear burqa?

Not really but I do wear an abaya when I go to Mecca and Medina for my pilgrimage. Sometimes I also wear it to the Nizamuddin dargah. It covers your body and I find it an extremely convenient garment to wear for prayers. You can wear the cloak over anything and then I don’t have to worry about my clothes, especially dupatta that keeps slipping off.

How do you think the city treat its Muslims?

Life for the Indian Muslims is not easy due to many multilayered problems. It is hard for Muslims to rent places in most parts of the city. Their language, culture and cuisine is on the verge of death. It is almost extinct. I’m actively involved in preserving the rich heritage. But it’s difficult. Delhi has been taken over by the boisterous and aggressive Punjabi migrants and that quintessential Delhi culture is now on the verge of extinction. You hardly ever come across a true Dilliwala in this new Delhi anymore. Those endangered species are now confined to the old city.

You once lived in Karachi. How similar is it to Delhi?

Yes, I had a Pakistani husband. We lived in Islamabad, Lahore and finally in Karachi. I have many memories of my Pakistan days. But Delhi and Karachi have little in common. Delhi could actually be compared to Lahore. Both cities have a similar feel in many ways–history, climate and culture.

Again, Karachi may not look like Delhi but some of its people are true Delhiwallas. There is a reason. During the partition, many migrants from Delhi and UP settled in Karachi. So you see a lot of Dilli culture there. The best cooks in the city boast of their Dilli heritage. But similarities stop there.

Other than sharing emotions and a similar culture, living in India and Pakistan is very different. I always felt somewhat oppressed in Pakistan and never really found the space to exist freely as one does in India. Pakistan is about conformity and I have always been a non-conformist. I’m used to a diverse culture. When landing in Delhi from Pakistan, I used to feel comforted at the sight of seeing turbaned Sikhs at the airport. Thank God, my grandparents chose to remain in Delhi.

Since you are a Muslim, I feel you are the right person to be asked this question. Why are historic and otherwise stunningly beautiful Muslim localities like Jama Masjid and Nizamuddin Basti so unkempt?

I really don’t know why Muslim areas in the city are so filthy and neglected. Is it because they are poor? I wish they would clean and maintain the areas around the dargahs, specially Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Chiragh Dilli and Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli. These shrines are of such historical and spiritual relevance. People from all over the world come to seek blessings there. They must wonder why we Indians can’t look after them.

The Delhi Walli

sadiai1a

Delhi is smoggy, overcrowded and difficult. Your refuges in the city?

My refuge is my home at Nizamuddin East and given half a chance I would not move from here. In winters, I love going with a book to the Lodhi Garden or to the Humayun’s tomb. Another beloved hangout place is the India International Centre.

Things you dislike about Delhi?

Speeding kids in fancy cars. Honking drivers. Road rage. Malls. Excessive display of wealth, especially at weddings. Hoardings. Garbage dumps. Peeing on roadsides. Clothes drying out on house fronts. Dal Makhani and Paneer Tikka. Obese men hanging out on colony streets in banyans. Auto wallas refusing to go in the direction you need to go. Pollution. Crime. Corrupt politicians. The list can go on and on…

I understand you also conduct heritage walks in the city.

Yes, I have been taking groups of foreigners around the old city, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah complex, Mehrauli and Humayuns tomb complex. One can never be tired of the wondrous monuments and stories that Delhi has to offer. It’s my city and I am in love with it.

Thanks for Talking to The Delhi Walla, Ms. Dehlvi.

Dilli ke na they kuche auraq e musavvir they
Jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aayi

[Delhi’s bylanes were like paintings,
Whichever way you looked, it was a beautiful visual.]