Village Cosmopolitanisms: Or, I See Kabul from Lado Sarai
By Anand Vivek Taneja
Much of what is narrated and described in this linked series of meditations are narratives and experiences linked to the “urban villages” of Delhi— villages whose agricultural land is now gone, but whose settlements—abadi deh—were left untouched by the state. Largely exempt from the zoning regulations, and prevailing mores of the middle class Delhi that surrounds them, these villages are zones of cosmopolitanism—both in the variety and kinds of people that live in them today, and in the old traditions of negotiation with difference which inform this contemporary hospitality, however commercially motivated it might be, often absent in more “modern” parts of Delhi. The villages invoked here include Lado Sarai, Hauz Rani, Mehrauli, Begampur, and Chiragh Dehli.
The wall has been standing for centuries, a large imposing pile of mortared rubble, slowly crumbling into ruin. In the time that the walls has been standing, many things have been built inside their vast circuit— gardens, orchards, houses; tanks, tombs and shrines— and many of these had crumbled away to ruin. A village of Jat farmers took up the spaces between and around the tombs of fifteenth century Muslim noblemen, and the wall became the boundary marker for the agricultural land of the village.
Unless you were interested in such things as migration patterns and long duree historical processes, it was a boring, bucolic wall, this fortification wall that the Mughals identified as Qila Rai Pithora, the fortification of Prithviraj. I use the past tense because sometime in the 1990s, things began to change. The wall was suddenly in the news. For one, the wall now served as the boundary marker for a golf course, developed by the Delhi Development Authority on the former agricultural land of Lado Sarai village. Then, there was the statue.
A month after returning to power in October 1999, the Hindu right wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to build a cultural center, topped by a commemorative martial statue of Pritviraj Chauhan riding a horse, abutting the walls of the Qila Rai Pithora. Prithviraj Chauhan, the man whose name was associated with the crumbling wall, is the tragic hero of Indian nationalist historiography, the chivalric Hindu hero who was cheated out of his kingdom by treacherous Muslim attack. The statue and cultural center were conceived at the same time as they had begun the project of rewriting school textbooks to hew closer to their vision of history, in which Muslims=Bad, Muslim Rule=Tyranny, and India=Hindus. So, of course, Hindu machismo had to be written anew on the landscapes of the national capital.
Two and a half years later, when the cultural center was ready for its inauguration, the world had changed significantly. The planes had crashed into the twin towers on 9/11, the war in Afghanistan had begun, and now the Western world was, fully, completely, NAKEDLY in alignment with the BJP’s view of history and poitics—Muslims=Bad. Eight months after Operation Enduring Freedom had begun in Afghanistan, on June 8, 2002, Lal Krishna Advani, the Deputy Prime Minister of India and leading member of the BJP, came to inaugurate the cultural center by the wall, and to unveil the statue of Prithviraj Chauhan. At the inauguration, he drew a ceremonial sword out of its scabbard, and talked about the ongoing War against Terror.
The walls of Qila Rai Pithora were burdened with the narrative of not just a National History, that of the last Hindu King being defeated by the Muslim invader for lack of national unity; but also a global history, where Prithviraj Chauhan was the first martyr of the War Against Terror, being fought continuously for eight hundred years since against Islamic terrorists from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In October 2005, I heard a very different narrative about Prithviraj Chauhan and the invader Mohammad Ghori in the village of Lado Sarai. The agricultural lands of Lado Sarai village had been gone for twenty years, acquired by the Delhi Development Authority as part of the Masterplan for developing the city, but the residential lands of the village, the abadi deh, was untouched by the city’s zoning imperatives. The old zamindars of the village lived on in Lado Sarai, and one of them told me the story.
This story begins with the good but childless king Anang Pal Tomar of Delhi, the last of the line, so the story goes, of the mythical Pandavas. One day, in his old age, the good king Tomar decided to go on long pilgrimage, and leave the kingdom in the care of two relatives, Prithviraj and Jaichand. Prithviraj was given custody of Delhi and Ajmer, while Jaichand, the king of the ‘Jat belt’ took care of Kannauj.
Prithviraj told Anangpal that his custody was useless unless he had authority which other kings would believe in. “Give it to me in writing,” he said. “No King can enter Delhi without the permission of Prithviraj.” So Anangpal gave it to him in writing, and went off on his pilgrimage. Not much later, when he returned to his city, the gates were closed to him. No King can enter Delhi without the permission of Prithviraj. And so it was that Prithviraj came to rule Delhi.
Flashback. A trader from Afghanistan decided to start trading with India and thus expand his business and his profits. So he loaded his goods on camels and came to India, and to the court of the vigorous but childless king, Anangpal Tomar, along with his beautiful daughter. He offered Anagpal his daughter in marriage. “I know that you will have children with her.”
The marriage was consummated, the child was conceived, but the older, childless queen was jealous. While the younger queen was pregnant she forbade Anagpal from meeting her, and when the child was born, she threw him out on a garbage pile, ghor in Sanskrit.
The child was picked up by a passing childless potter, who then brought him up as his own. When the child was seven years ago, king Anangpal passed a judgment which dissatisfied his people. The potter’s son suggested another way in which judgment could be done. The news spread like wildfire and reached the palace.
Fearing the king’s wrath a servant from the palace went and told the potter who his son really was, and asked him to send the child off to Afghanistan, to his grandfather.
Years later Mohammad Ghori marched on Delhi to reclaim his inheritance, and Jaichand joined him. Prithviraj was defeated. Lad Singh, a soldier in Jaichand’s army settled in what was to become Lado Sarai village. His four sons lived in four domed structures, four gumbads which existed there prior to their settlement, and around these domes the village of Lado Sarai grew.
Karan Pal Singh, who was about seventy years old, who told me this story, also told me, There are three kinds of history. One is those written in school books. This is written by those in power, and cannot be trusted. Then there is the history by the person who sits with books and tries to make sense of the past for himself. The third is oral tradition, what people remember from what ancestors tell them. There is some truth in both of these.
In a recent essay, the historian Manan Ahmed Asif writes,
The South Asia we inhabit is a recent construct. It is a limited and restricted political space as compared to more than a thousand years of textual history and thousands more in material and cultural memory. The stories it currently tells are themselves limited, the imaginations it cultivates are themselves rigid. The geographies that seem so indelible, so permanent are mere shadows upon regional perspectives that are still legible movement and life patterns, in languages, in customs, and in cultural imaginations. Taking this longue duree look at the Indic peninsula compels us to imagine varied configurations for the future sixty years, hence (2013, 46).
The story I heard in Lado Sarai, drawing on cultural memories different from those privileged by colonial historians and post-colonial nationalism, blew my mind. For one, here was an account of the past where trade came before war. People from Afghanistan and India exchanged goods, in the chronology of this story, long before they exchanged blows on the battlefield. Through trade came kinship—the Afghan trader’s daughter married to the king of Delhi. Through kinship came legitimacy. Muhammad Ghori, his name not a sign of foreign parts and irreducible difference, but of the most humble of domestic origins, takes over the throne of Delhi because it is his right, as a lineal descendant of the Pandavas. And the justice lies not just in his claim to Delhi, but in his persona—he had to go into hiding because he displayed a kingly aptitude for justice while still a potter’s son.
Of course, there are many mythic elements in this story, but they also contain many “truths,” inadmissible by the mythologies of nationalism. Well before the Battle of Tarain, there were connections, not just military and antagonistic, between Ghur and Delhi.
Mahmud of Ghazna (d. 1030), that foremost iconoclast, employed Hindavi commanders and battalions. Tilak, the commander of the Hindavi troops…. rose up the ranks, eventually having his own quarter in the city of Ghazna. Some accounts of that city, as well as surviving architecture, reveals a multiethnic space where artisans, trades and crafts communities from Sindh and Rajasthan thrived (2013, 49).
The lineal descent from the Pandavas; and hence, the positing of Ghurid rule as not break, but legitimate continuity, this too has precedent in pre-colonial historiography. When Syed Ahmad Khan wrote the “king-lists” that accompany the Asar-us-Sanadid, he started the list of the kings of Delhi from the Pandavas (to be precise, from Raja Judhishtir), and continued through Puranic lists till it came to the Sultanate and Mughals. The continuity with previous Indic forms of soverignity, rather than rupture, was deliberately cultivated by the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. We see this, to choose an example rooted in Delhi’s landscape, in Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s relocation of the Topra Ashokan pillar, associated in legend with the Pandavas, to become the majestic centerpiece of his new citadel, hoisted high upon a riverside pyramid.
People from various castes and communities in contemporary Delhi, Muslims and non-Muslims, petition saint figures among the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, asking for justice. These “Muslim” ruins serve as the sites of memory of a political theology (or rather, theologies), which developed at different times on the frontier (both physical and conceptual) of “Islam” and its Others—theologies that didn’t elide difference, but made hospitality, or rather, an openness to mutually comprehensible difference, central to the ethical ideas of pre-modern Indian states. We see this political theology remembered in the deposition of petitions in a fourteenth century ruin in contemporary Delhi, but also in the story told in Lado Sarai, where the boy-king Muhammad Ghori is recognized for who he is because of his expression of judicial opinion.
Asif argues in his essay that the present has a powerful hold on our imagination. So we imagine the future as being an amplified version of the present, and we imagine the past as prelude to a fore-ordained present, precisely aligned cogs and gears grinding towards the historical, tragic inevitability of the now.
The words we use, informed by our immediate past, and already encoded with incomprehensible difference – coercion, submission, conversion, conflict. The categories we construct are already hegemonic – “Hindu,” “Muslim,” “invader,” “indigenous.” We take this ahistoricized words and categories and proceed to give them a universality that they don’t deserve even for the here and now (2013, 47).
If we can think of the past outside the prison-house of the present, then can we think of different possibilities for our present and our future? Was the present in Lado Sarai different because the past was remembered differently?
It seemed so in 2005. Lado Sarai was no haven of peace and brotherhood. The Jats, who are the dominant caste-group of the village, remembered banding together with people from other villages in the area and attacking Mehrauli in 1947, described in conversation as a Muslim garh or stronghold of Mehrauli. But they also remembered giving shelter to Muslims from the neighboring village of Hauz Rani, because they were from the same gotra as the Jats of Lado Sarai. Even today, I was told, we eat at each other’s weddings. There were many Muslims present in the Lado Sarai, migrants from UP, Bihar, and Kashmir, running small businesses and living as tenants of the Jats. One of the old men I interviewed in Lado Sarai proudly told me of how he had stormed into the local Police Station and gotten his young Kashmiri tenant out of illegal custody just by sheer force of personality (and some yelling). This was in the years immediately after the attack on Parliament, blamed on Kashmiri separatists, which had led to a near-war situation between India and Pakistan, and “tenant verifications” by the Delhi Police which made it even harder for Muslims to rent properties in the planned colonies of middle-class South Delhi, such as Saket and Malviya Nagar, on the other side of the wall from Lado Sarai.
The Wedding Feast:
Another story, a few years later, in another of Delhi’s urban villages. This time in Begampur, a humorous story tinged with nostalgia for the past, a father and son tag-teaming in telling me the story, their voices overlapping each other on my recording as they added and elaborated details.
There must have been a time when there was a shared civilization… I still remember that story from the village, Yeh le shank sa, kha bhi aur baja bhi. (Here take this thing like a [conch] shell, eat it and play with it as well.) Where we come from, towards Meerut, there is a village entirely of Jats, with one Muslim home, that of a carpenter. One day he’s sitting outside his house, looking very morose. The chaudhari (village headman) was passing by, and he asked, Master, why do you sit here looking so troubled? The carpenter said, My daughter is getting married. The chaudhari said, So what’s the worry? She’s a daughter of the village, we’ll all get together to help out with the arrangements. The carpenter said, that’s all fine, of course you’ll help with the arrangements, but when the barat (the groom’s procession) comes to the village, who will serve them food? You all don’t eat meat, and I don’t have any family here. The chaudari said, our boys will serve the guests, where’s the problem? You just get someone to cook the food. So a Muslim cook (khansama) came and cooked the food, and when the wedding guests sat down to eat, all the Jat men of the village started serving them, with cloth wrapped around their faces, to keep out the smell of the meat. And of course, the ones who were eating didn’t know who was serving them. One of the guests got served a piece of shank bone, without meat and said, Are, boti de boti. Hey, give me meat. The Jat replied, ke boti boti kar riya hai, yeh le sankh sa kha bhi aur baja bhi. Why’re you going on about boti, take this thing like a conch shell, eat it and play with it as well. This is a famous story. See how mixed together (mile hue ) people were then. How much love there was. The honour of the village shouldn’t be lost…
The story of village togetherness, of a shared civilization (mushtarka tehzeeb) that was recounted so fondly to me that afternoon in Begampur was fundamentally a story of profound difference. In his famous speech of 1940, articulating the Two-Nation theory and a separate homeland for Muslims, Jinnah pointed out that Hindus and Muslims “neither intermarry nor interdine together.” True enough, at last going by the story of the Jat village. The differences between the Jats and Muslims were so profound that the former didn’t even recognize the ingredients of the latter’s food—a misrecognition on which the whole punch-line of the story rests.
But that impasse in the story, that moment of misrecognition, which would becomes a sign of irreconcilable difference in nationalist historiography—they neither intermarry nor interdine—becomes instead the fondly remembered moment of bridging difference in the memory of the village— they may neither intermarry or interdine, but that village throws a damn fine party, face-masks and all.
[See Part 2 here]