True to her words, Swapna Liddle kept aside theoretical arguments in weaving a chronological narrative of the last three-and-a-half centuries of the lived-in history of Chandni Chowk.
Far from being a museum of the bygone era, its unchanged bylanes have kept alive its distinct culture of adapting to changing times without losing its contemporary relevance. History may be the most cruel of all goddesses, but Chandni Chowk has seen history as a moving procession. It has been part of the making and remaking of the city during its glorious and inglorious journey.
First part of the book reads like a heritage walk, wherein the author guides the reader into the making of the Red Fort and the walled city, much of it during the politically stable period under the reigns of both Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. The aura of royal power, which ascended on Delhi on April 18, 1648, only added to the spiritual significance that the banks of River Yamuna enjoyed. By alighting from the boat at the Nigambodh Ghat, Shah Jahan had drawn upon the spiritual power that the populace associated with the site. This spot on the bank of the river is considered to be blessed by Vishnu, where knowledge of the Vedas could be gained simply by taking a dip. Ironically, it is now known for the city’s biggest cremation ground.
The second half of the book captures the history as it unfolds following the tumultuous years during 19th and early-20th centuries, following the decline of the Mughals till the emergence of an independent India. It is intriguing how the city held on to its cultural vitality during this period, developing an education system based on an indigenous language alongside its long-standing literary tradition. This was the age of Ghalib, Momin, Zauq and the emperor Bahadurshah Zafar. Their poetry worked as the literary balm for the aching souls and the severed bodies. Though there were only 1,37,977 people living within the city walls during the mid-19th century, cultural amalgamation was reflected in people taking part in each other’s festivals and celebrations. The city had emerged as a cohesive group for diverse religions.
History is often written from either of the two perspectives — mysticism or cynicism — the history that lies somewhat outside history, or the one that the historian draws meaning into. But Swapna Liddle has viewed history of Chandni Chowk as a constructive outlook over the past, reporting the events based on facts, and drawing conclusions based on objectivity. Consequently, the narrative records the past with historical accuracy. One can only concur with William Dalrymple that it is a much-needed introduction to the history of the Old City of Delhi.
The history of Chandni Chowk has known many turning points, where each quest for succession to the throne was borne out of intrigue and violence. The city may have been a mute witness to the victor and the vanquished, but the people within its walls rarely resisted their resentment against injustice by its rulers. Noticeable is their angst that spewed out on the streets when Prince Dara Shukoh, heir apparent and Aurangzeb’s elder brother, was publicly paraded and insulted. What followed was a public outcry — stones and dirt were pelted on the procession led by Jiwan Khan, who had treacherously captured Dara to hand him over to the Emperor.
Despite his half-century rule over the empire, Aurangzeb was strongly despised by the people. There is a deep repugnance for the manner in which he conducted himself during his long rule even today. Although that part of history cannot be dispensed from him, surely his name can be from existing historical memorabilia. It may not be out of place to mention that the road bearing the name Aurangzeb was wiped out from the city. However, the same city acknowledged the contribution of Dara Shikoh recently by naming a street after him. After all, he was the one who drew parallels between Sufism and Vedanta, and had translated the Upanishads into Persian.
Chandni Chowk makes for an absorbing read. It may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city, but it has held onto its charm. It continues to be one of the biggest trading hubs; its narrow lanes continue to provide interesting insights on its glorious past. There is something mysteriously attractive about the place; its history seemingly still thrives in its narrow streets. Swapna Liddle only adds historical flavour to the unending fascination for this old city.