Friday, December 01, 2006

memories, like jinns...


Verify your Idenity, originally uploaded by Anand VT.

The concluding part of the Nottingham talk, titled (a little too grandiosely), The Return of The King, or How Ghosts of the Medieval Are Resurrected in Contemporary Delhi'...

...The ‘out of timeness’ of the ruins of South Delhi turns out to be an erroneous notion. In a profoundly Benjaminian sense, these ruins exist not in an empty, homogenous time of all good monuments, away from the happening of history; but in time filled with the presence of the now.

I want to briefly talk of yet another role ruins play in Delhi, as repositories of memory, particularly of the memories of later trauma. Ruins may not be out of time, but theirs is a different order of time. Though the ruins may be disconnected from normative 'archival' histories, though the kings may no longer be able to return, they remain sites of memory; partly because of the policies of colonial and postcolonial archaeology and heritage preservation, which elevate these as sites worthy of remembrance, but also, I would like to think, because of an alternative sense of historicity, which I have briefly tried to indicate.

In the North Delhi ridge where much of the bloodiest fighting happened during the ghadar of 1857, stands a 14th century Tughlak hunting lodge. In current popular memory and practise, the lodge is associated not with Firoz Shah Tughlak, who built it, but with a saint who vanished without leaving a physical trace, the Pir Ghaib, for whom the ruins take their name. According to the retired tailor who takes charge of the offerings here every Thursday, it was his grandfather who first started coming here, returning from haj immediately after the tumult of 1857, and camping out here in what was then the wilds, communing with the vanished saint. What the grandson doesn’t say, but what surely is an important subtext to this story, is that Muslims expelled from Delhi by the British Army were not allowed to return for five years. The people who come to Pir Ghaib are largely non-Muslim Gujjars from the village of Chandrawal. The land of Chandrawal was expropriated and the village itself shifted from its traditional location closer to Pir Ghaib by the government after 1857, as punitive action for its role in the violence and the burning of the estate of Thomas Metcalfe.


In what is now very much the centre of the city stand the extensive ruins of a fourteenth century palace complex, also built by Firoz Shah Tughlak. Like Pir Ghaib, this is in the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India. But every Thursday, rather than sightseeing, people come here to deposit letters, and are admitted free of charge. These letters mirror the form of shikwas, letters of complaint and supplication addressed to rulers, a well-established normative mode of grievance redressal in the medieval Islamicate world. These letters echo the shikwas that Ibn Batuta tells us people threw into the palace of Muhammad bin Tughlak, which drove him to such a rage that he depopulated Delhi.

The letters at Firoz Shah Kotla are not addressed to any temporal authority, but to the jinns who are supposed to reside here. (jinns, according to Islamic theo/cosmology, are spirits created by Allah out of smokeless fire, and are found in desolate places such as forests, graveyards and ruins.) The form of the letter is a mixture of the religious and governmental. The supplicants, irrespective of religious affiliation, address the djinns ‘Salaam Aleikum baba’ and the phrase, Aapke darbar main haazir/present at your court, usually precedes the grievances for which the supplicant wishes the djinn to be interceding with Allah. At the end of each letter, the supplicant gives a name and address. Most of the letters deposited are not original handwritten manuscripts, but photocopies thereof. The medieval alcoves and arches of Firoz Shah Kotla, are in a sense, an alternate archive of the contemporary city, an archive of disquiet. From my initial fieldwork it would seem that the practise of writing to the jinns starts in the late 1970s, when a fakir named Laddoo Shah came and started living in these ruins at the end of the Emergency of 1975-77, a year after the demolitions at the nearby Turkman gate.


There are no memorials to the suffering of the people of Delhi during 1857, during 1947, or during the emergency. There will be no memorials to those displaced and victimized by the massive and violent upheavals that Delhi undergoes today, in the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010, in its transformation, as the campaign goes, ‘From Walled City to World City.’ Perhaps it is not surprising that like the djinns, the memories and disquiets that ‘Delhi’ has not time for can be found in its ruins.

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