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Talking life and loss in a Delhi graveyard

Talking life and loss in a Delhi graveyard
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First Published: Tue, Mar 29 2011. 01 00 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 06 29 PM IST
“I want to be buried here,” says Sadia Dehlvi, the author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam, who is currently working on a book on Delhi’s Sufi shrines. “I’ve decided on the title,” she says. “Delhi, the courtyard of the Sufis.” We are at Nizamuddin Chilla, the serene retreat of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, just behind Humayun’s Tomb. It is early morning. Here, the city’s iconic 14th century Sufi saint lived, meditated, and died. Dehlvi walked over from her home in nearby Nizamuddin East, one of Delhi’s most elegant residential districts.
Standing amid the shrine’s little graveyard, Dehlvi says, “It is with the mitti (earth) of Delhi that I wish my remains to mingle with.” Dehlvi’s family has lived in the city for centuries. The name Dehlvi literally means “someone from Delhi”. Till a few years ago she lived in a mansion on Sardar Patel Marg. Hers was one of the first Muslim families to have a large establishment in New Delhi. Dehlvi’s father and grandfather were publishers of the influential film and literary Urdu journal Shama. “Throughout my childhood I saw actors, writers and poets coming in and out of the house, and my grandfather loved hosting receptions for them.” In the evening, the house at SP Marg regularly hosted cultural soirées. It became an institution and was known as Shama Kothi. In the 1990s, the magazine had to close because of a dwindling Urdu readership.
A few years later, a family crisis forced the Dehlvis to sell the house. The buyer happened to be Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Shama Kothi became BSP House. Dehlvi moved to Nizamuddin East. “This transfer of property is reflective of the changes taking place in the city’s social and political character,” she says.
Shama Kothi had 40 rooms, 15 members of an extended family and 25 retainers. At the apartment in Nizamuddin East, where her son lives with her, she has four rooms and two servants. “For me, this move was a hijra, a symbolic migration where one encounters physical and emotional displacement that brings suffering. The pain purifies the soul, triggering an inner change that connects you with the truth, with God. And truth is…” Dehlvi walks ahead, looking at the tombs and reading the inscriptions. Some tombs have potted plants. One has marigold flowers growing out of it. Another is covered with grass.
Dehlvi’s musician son Arman was born in Karachi, where she lived briefly with his Pakistani father. Today mother and son invite friends almost every evening to their second-floor flat, whose roof faces Humayun’s Tomb. While Arman sings Sufi songs or plays the tabla, Dehlvi talks politics, discusses new books, plays qawwalis on YouTube, and shares stories about Delhi. She laughs easily. The evenings end with a dinner cooked by Dehlvi herself. Although aloo salan remains the favourite with friends, sometimes they are surprised with the unexpected—such as baked fish, Italian style.
After her family house was sold, Dehlvi found herself unable to write, even though she had been a columnist for newspapers for decades. “The collapse of our legacy was soul-crushing.” Two years later, Dehlvi began work on her book on Sufism. In 2009, it was released by her mentor Khushwant Singh. “Researching the lives of the Sufis and reading Islamic philosophy helped me understand that pain is a gift from God. I started seeing myself as being blessed and not cursed. ”
Walking between a jumble of tombstones, she stops suddenly and says: “Another reason why I want to be buried here is because it is close to my home. Hopefully, my son would find it easier to visit me more often.” She adds with a laugh, “Also, it’s more important to have a good neighbour in death than in life.” Just then Dehlvi’s BlackBerry rings. “Oh, I must head back. There’s the India-South Africa cricket match today.”
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First Published: Tue, Mar 29 2011. 01 00 PM IST