Saif Mahmood’s Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets is precious because it introduces poetry into drab lives. As Rakshanda Jalil says in a crisp forward to the book, poetry works when all else withers. When days depress, nights are long and nothing works, when all is not right then it is song that matters most. Jalil introduces Mahmood and his love for Urdu poetry to the world.

Mahmood is a lawyer and admits he is no scholar, just a lover of Urdu. Once Jalal discovered his passion for Urdu poetry she invited him to Hindustani Awaaz, a literary initiative hosted by her every month. Mahmood chose the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz to give an enchanting talk on why Faiz speaks to him.

This is his first book and it is important that it comes at a time when some Indians are celebrating anniversaries to honour the British because the colonialists ended Mughal rule in India!

When history is turned this way on its head, when the politics of the day intimidates, when the social fabric tears, when corruption and poverty become rampant and when the centre does not hold, that usually is the poet’s finest hour. And so it was in the last years of Mughal rule in India. After a terrific performance of more than two centuries as administrators, builders, traders, warriors and lords of most parts of south Asia - the book is also a celebration of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal ruler, as poet.

Wrote Zafar how dreamlike life is and how unfaithful the human being, the reason he will never give his heart to another.

‘humne is duniya mein aake kya dekha, dekha jo kuchh so khwab sa dekha, ab na dijiye Zafar kisi ko dil ke jisey dekha bewafa dekha’

Apart from Zafar there are seven other Delhi poets whose work and life is included in the book, from Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda to Nawab Mirza Khan Daagh Dehlvi, also expressing angst over Delhi’s precolonial Hindu-Muslim amity and the approaching threat to inter-communal harmony.

Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq who died in 1854 believed in the equality of all human beings. To him religious disputes are a creation of the wicked as he asks What believer, what infidel? Who is the Sufi, who the drunk? All are but part of the same reality, these quarrels amongst human beings are created by the wicked.

‘kya momin, kya kaafir, kaun hai sufi, kaisa rind saare bashar haiin bande haq ke, saare shar ke jhagdey hain’

Both Zauq, and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib who died in 1869, talked of kindness and basic humanity as true attributes of faith, not mere rituals. A lack of compassion in their fellow beings astonishes the poets. Ghalib sighs at man’s difficulties in being human.

‘bas ke dushwar hai har kaam ka aasaan hona aadmi ko bhi mayasaar nahin insaan hona’

The mention of circumstances that brought out the poet in Zafar is interesting. From the middle of the 18th century events conspired to give plenty of fodder to the Urdu poet: the Mughal empire was in decline and coming apart with each incompetent ruler. Delhi was sacked by Nadir Shah, there was a series of invasions by Ahmad Shah Abdali and raids by the Marathas and the Rohillas. By 1803 the British had forced their control over Delhi, and annexed Avadh in 1856.

Born in 1775 in Delhi, Zafar was the son of Emperor Akbar Shah II and his Rajput wife Lalbai. Zafar succeeded his father because his step brother Mirza Jahangir, who was his father’s choice as king, was exiled to Allahabad after he tried to attack the British Resident, Archibald Seton, at Delhi’s Lal Qila (Red Fort). Zafar inherited a throne that was powerless and he was unprepared to cope with the brutal politics of the day. Out of sheer helplessness, Zafar turned his attention to non-political matters and assembled a galaxy of matchless Urdu and Persian poets in his court like Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Hakim Momin Khan Momin, Mufti Sadruddin Aazurdah, Imaam Bakhsh Sehbai, Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta and Zafar’s ustaad (teacher) and Poet Laureate Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq.

Mushairas (recitals, soirees) at the Qila, says the author were presided over by Zafar himself. The literary gatherings were extraordinary and of the kind that Delhi had not seen before, and never again would. Today Zafar is remembered only as a feeble king but his strength was his undying spirit as poet, and a devout Sufi. Before becoming king he had lived the life of a dervish in the Qila, in firm belief of divinity.

In a verse Zafar says that he is sure who he will ask for favours and who will heal him. It is his creator who is his only caretaker.

‘kiski himaayat dhoondein hum aur kis se marham chaahein Zafar rakhte nazar hain apne khuda par vo hii haara hai haal’

The pluralism intrinsic to the philosophy and lifestyle of many Sufis came naturally to Zafar. He was born to a Hindu mother and celebrated Holi, Dussehra and Diwali with as much fervour as he did the two Eids. Zafar’s idea of piety and his attitude to religion were closer to those of the ordinary people of his land and less to austere theologians and the clergy.

He was a devotee of the 13th century Sufi Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and often paid homage at his dargah in Mehrauli. There is a building with an impressive gate and a pavillion called Zafar Mahal near the dargah. It is inside this Mahal that Zafar wanted to be buried. But Zafar was court martialled in 1858 and never got to see the Mahal again. What’s left of the Mahal today is in ruins visited by alcoholics and gamblers although the building is heritage property protected by the Archeological Survey of India.

Zafar was accused of engineering the 1857 revolt by Indians against the British as part of a larger Islamic conspiracy. In the same year, the 82-year-old was exiled and left Delhi for Rangoon on a bullock cart with his wives, two surviving sons and four servants.

In Burma the family was confined to a four room accommodation and Zafar was denied pen, ink and paper. To keep the poet in him alive he wrote verses on a wall with a burnt stick. Six years after his conviction, Zafar died in Rangoon at the age of 87 and the British authorities performed his last rites in secrecy from fear of a backlash. Today, Zafar is revered as a Sufi in Rangoon. His burial place is sacred and devotees keep Zafar alive by taking care of his shrine.

Mahmood pens an immensely readable introduction to the city, saying that nothing dies in Delhi, for the ghosts of its past lives roam the streets or bide their time in half ruined buildings, and rise to speak in a thousand stories that are still told about the city. In an afterword, the author regrets that the Delhi of his childhood is changed:

‘Its innocence has withered away, giving way to anger and even hatred. Communal politics, which Urdu poetry has always abhorred, is at its peak and, shamefully, its effects are trickling down to ordinary residents of the city. I wake up one morning to find that a prominent road named after a Mughal Emperor has been renamed. Another morning the newspaper tells that Shahjahan’s Qila-e-Moalla, the Fort from which the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy addresses the nation, will henceforth be managed by a corporate group that openly supports a political ideology whose stance on Urdu and Mughal heritage is one of hostility, even hate. But I remain hopeful. I refuse to let go of my optimism. I am convinced that Urdu cannot be killed-symbols of love are immortal and Urdu is India’s truest love-symbol.’

The preface by Sohail Hashmi is a perfect beginning to the book. It provides a short history of Urdu, the most beautiful language in the world, making this reader wonder what the Mughal city and her greatest poets have not given to Hindustan?

Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets by Saif Mahmood is published by Speaking Tiger, 2018.