A vanishing world.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

One rainy evening, The Delhi Walla knocks on the door of Sadia Dehlvi. In her fifties, she lives in an apartment in Nizamuddin East with her son, her cook and her hundreds of books on Islam.

Ms Dehlvi has written two books on Sufism. Being her trusted acquaintance, she has often lent me books from her library.

This evening she is looking distraught.

“I cannot find two of Khushwant’s books,” she says, referring to author Khushwant Singh who died two days ago at 99.

Ms Dehlvi is standing amid piles of books spread out haphazardly on her drawing room floor. “I have never given Khushwant to anyone.” Looking down at half a dozen books that she is holding in her hands, she says, “Khushwant inscribed each of these for me.”

All of these books are by the late author who lived a few miles away in Sujan Singh Park: Delhi: A Novel, Truth, Love & A Little Malice, Songs of the Gurus, and Delhi: A Portrait, among others.

Showing me Women & Men in My Life, Ms Dehlvi says, “It’s a very special Khushwant Singh.” She is on the cover.

One of Ms Dehlvi’s Khushwant Singh is lying on the sofa. The opening page of Sex, Scotch & Scholarship: Selected Writings has the following hand-written inscription by its author:

For Sadia and Raza – with love

Raza Parvez was Ms Dehlvi’s Karachi-based husband. They separated after a few years of marriage but remained friends until Mr Parvez’s death a few years ago. Their son, Arman Ali, lives with Ms Dehlvi. He is training in classical music.

In 2010, on the pages of this website, Ms Dehlvi had talked of her links with Khushwant Singh:

“I first met Khushwant thirty years ago at the Arab Cultural Centre where my friend Ameena Ahmed happened to be exhibiting her calligraphic paintings. He walked up to me and said “Why are you so beautiful?” I laughed replying, “Because I am a beautiful person.” Khushwant asked me to come to his house the next evening and the visits to Sujan Singh Park have continued ever since. His flat became my window to the world of the rich, famous and the absurd. Here I met presidents, parliamentarians, religious zealots, intellectuals, artists, poets, businessmen, harassed women, ambitious men and proud transvestites.”

I pick up a cover-less hardbound titled The Mark of Vishnu. It was published in 1950. In one of his later books, Mr Singh wrote: “My first collection of short stories, The Mark of Vishnu, largely based on my experiences in Lahore and Ottawa, was published by The Saturn Press. It got very good notices – no doubt due to my cocktail party contacts. I began to seriously think of taking up writing as a career.”

This book, too, is inscribed by Khushwant Singh:

For Sadia who gets too many compliments – with affection

Ms Delhvi distress is increasing. “I cannot find Not a Nice Man to Know. Khushwant dedicated it to me.”

Sitting down on the sofa, she closes her eyes. Old photos of Ms Dehlvi with Khushwant Singh are lying all over the coffee table. Opening her laptop, Ms Dehlvi plays an audio clip that she recorded during one of her recent conversations with Khushwant Singh. He is saying, “I’m tired now. I’m very old. I want to go. I want to go.”

Later in the night, Ms Dehlvi mails me, saying, “Turned the whole bookshelf down. Can’t find three books. Not a Nice Man to Know, City Improbable and Khushwant’s coffee table on the Sikhs. Check your bookshelf. It could be possible that I gave one of the first two to you. Just in case for something. Double check your books, please. I hope I find them. They were definitely with me.”

Living with books

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