Paradise of Rectitude

A profound tribute to 19th century Delhi rendered as late Mughal-era love story

01 June, 2013

DELHI IN THE FIRST HALF of the 19th century represented the zenith of a long Indo-Islamic cultural tradition. The city’s Mughal past had given rise to a highly distinctive way of life, one dedicated as much to piety as pleasure, and its residents had a well-developed sense of Delhi’s primacy among Indian cities. They paid fealty to the emperors Akbar Shah II and later Bahadur Shah Zafar, either by invoking their many solemn titles—from ‘Shadow of the Blemishless’ to ‘Choicest Offspring of the House of the Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction’—or simply by referring to them as ‘The Presence’ and affectionately calling Red Fort, their vast palace, the ‘Haveli’. Delhi too, after a verse of Amir Khusrau’s, was known as ‘Hazrat-e-Delhi’ or ‘Delhi, the Presence’, assumed to be touched by the same god whose regent on earth was the Emperor, while prominent citizens proudly suffixed ‘Dehlvi’ to their names.

Delhi was the centre of the Mughal empire and if the empire was now much-diminished—on its last legs, in fact—this decline seemed to make Dehlvis even more determined to continue living their lives in the old way: squeeze every last pleasure out of Delhi’s many gardens and bazaars, extol its poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Zauq (ustad to the poet-emperor Zafar) and the younger Dagh, celebrate the beauty of its women, enjoy its rich foods, and honour its pirs, going back to the most loved, the medieval sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya.

I asked: tell me now what is Delhi?

My guide said: It is the soul, and the world,

Its body.

Thus Mirza Ghalib, who was one of 19th century Delhi’s greatest champions as well as an embodiment of what made the city so dear to its residents in the half century before the rout of 1857. In the previous century, Delhi had been home to the greats of Persian literature such as Abdul Qadir Bedil, whose poetry was part of the living tradition in the city, as well as the trinity of Mir Sauda, Mir Taqi Mir and Mir Dard who together laid the foundation of Urdu poetry. Other than literature, Delhi’s young nobles acquired a rounded education in theology, history, philosophy, mathematics and astrology, while drawing, painting, calligraphy and book binding were prized arts.

In Transoxiana, as Western historians called the region beyond the Oxus river, roughly corresponding to present-day Uzbekistan and its surroundings, a Timurid civilisation had flowered in the 15th century, centred around the legendary cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Its decline three centuries later led to migrations to India. Many of Delhi’s Persian-speaking nobles and poets—such as Ghalib, who was both a nobleman and a poet—had Central Asian ancestry. The city’s educated elite spoke in Persian, or interspersed their Urdu speech with fragments of Persian poetry. Hafiz of Shiraz, the celebrated 14th century Persian sufi poet, was the most revered figure of this tradition, his diwan (collection) virtually a holy book.


The Delhi of this era was essentially the walled city of Shahjahanabad with Jama Masjid at its centre and the famed boulevard of Chandni Chowk to its north, lined with mosques and temples, shops and houses, cooled by the breezes coming off Saadat Khan’s canal. Just outside the city walls, in Paharganj to the south west, was an idgah built by Shah Jahan; the area was also home to the older dargah of Qadam Sharif or the Prophet’s Footprint. Twenty kilometres away in a southerly direction was the village of Mehrauli and the shrine of Khvajah Qutb Sahib. It took some courage to pay a visit to the Khvajah for the ruins of Hauz-e-Shamsi and Hauz-e-Khas lay on the way and were known to be home to robbers of the Pandari tribe.

Overlying and adjoining this sacred geography were the newer landmarks of the colonial presence. Early in the century, David Ochterlony, the first British Resident of Delhi, renovated and moved into the ruins of Dara Shikoh’s library at the walled city’s Kashmiri Gate. Ochterlony, whom the Dehlvis called ‘Akhtarloni’, was famous for his adoption of Indian ways and for his dozen or so consorts whom he paraded through the streets on elephants every evening. A stone’s throw away from Kashmiri Gate was St James Church, built in the 1830s by James Skinner, a prominent Anglo-Indian captain in the Company’s army. A jungle separated Paharganj from the Pahari (today known as the Ridge) where a subsequent Resident of Delhi, William Fraser—like Akhtarloni, an Urdu and Persian-speaking, Indian dress wearing firangi—had built himself a palatial bungalow in 1819-1820. Here he entertained Delhi’s leading poets and noblemen with mushairas, and had them seated at tables to eat wholly Indian fare with forks and knives. Some distance north of Kashmiri Gate, Metcalfe House, the mansion of Charles Metcalfe, another Delhi Resident, was Indianised to ‘Matka Kothi’ but its inhabitant did not adopt the Indian lifestyle of his two colleagues, believing this came in the way of ruling the natives.

The presence and actions of the colonisers, including that of the few men enamoured of Indo-Islamic culture, was largely resented by Dehlvis, even if in this as in every other dealing between the Indian and the Englishman there were conflicts of opinion, factions for and against the British in office, and attempts both to secure their largesse and protection as well as thwart their growing power. Since 1803, when Lord Lake Bahadur Sahib led an army against the Marathas (allies of the Mughals at this juncture) and defeated them, Delhi had been under the command of the British and the Mughal emperor increasingly emasculated.

So even while the historical thread of Delhi’s culture, with its origins partly in medieval Central Asia, and partly in indigenous languages such as Urdu, was yet unbroken, and even though the flâneurs and dandies out strolling on Chandni Chowk could of a pleasant evening convince themselves that the last great Mughal, Aurangzeb, was still on the throne of Delhi, the city in these decades was highly vulnerable. Delhi was caught in the conflict between the ambitions of the British and the determination of the locals to hold on to their glorious world.

IT IS THIS SOPHISTICATED, glamorous and yet fragile Delhi that is both the subject and the richly worked background of renowned Urdu scholar and writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s 1000-page epic (The Mirror of Beauty, Penguin, Rs 699). The novel was first published in Urdu as Kai ChandThay Sar-e-asman (2006) and has been reworked by Faruqi into an English that evokes marvelously the Persian-Urdu world in which it is set. The Mirror of Beauty concerns the life and times of Wazir Khanam, born to a family of artisans circa 1811, a self-willed, spirited girl who refuses a conventional life of domesticity and goes on to make her own decisions about her male partners.

The choice of Wazir as heroine is remarkable. How is it possible to bring an entire civilisation to life through the story of a purdah-bound woman? How can one gain access to an image of the late Mughal era through the narrow outlook afforded by that cloistered female world? Wazir is able to exercise some freedom but only within the larger boundaries strictly in place for women of her time. These boundaries determine the relations possible with the opposite sex—marriage to a decent and well-to-do man is the ideal, while becoming the long-term mistress of a rich man is not encouraged but a common enough practice; a woman might consider herself lucky if she is taken on as the only mistress, for then she may someday be elevated to the status of a wife. And then there is the most undesirable fate—to become a woman of the bazaar. These are the limited choices facing our heroine as well as her author.

Within this matrix, Faruqi has set himself the challenge of creating a figure who is at once autonomous and yet submissive to her society’s codes of honour, free-spirited and yet duty-bound, a woman aware of the power of her beauty and eroticism and yet one consistently chaste, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess “a pure woman”—her delicate, gauzy six-yard dupatta always managing to both conceal and yet highlight her body’s attractive features. Wazir turns out to be an enchanting heroine, at once ethereally beautiful and strikingly worldly-wise. To dream up such a heroine is no mean task but Wazir’s character is not strained: she is consistently alive to her situation, growing and changing with it, and so comes across as a real person rather than the result of Faruqi’s idealisation.

This fictionalised Wazir Khanam is, in fact, a historical figure: the mother of the Urdu poet Dagh Dehlavi. She was a teenage mistress to Marston Blake, British Assistant Political Agent of Jaipur in the late 1820s (later murdered for political reasons), and thereafter became the lover of Navab Shamsuddin, the ruler of a small state near Delhi. The Navab, a close relative of Mirza Ghalib’s, had Delhi’s Resident William Fraser assassinated in 1835 because the latter insulted him and divested him of a part of his territory. For this, the British extracted a brutal revenge from the twenty-something Shamsuddin. Wazir, who abruptly loses these first two men in her life and goes on to lose others, is a tragic heroine, the victim of this harsh, vindictive world of men, particularly the growing conflict between Indians and Englishmen. And yet, Wazir is bound to this very world because she has nowhere else to turn for friendship and love, not to mention no other means of keeping a roof over her head.

Despite sharing Wazir’s distress over the uncertainty of her fortunes in a milieu not particularly kind to women, the reader cannot help deeply enjoying Faruqi’s sumptuous tribute to this milieu, one written with the singular purpose of recreating it and bringing its people to life—imagining the “light that coloured their self-perception” and “the glorious sheathing that was their culture”. One of the pleasures of the novel is recognising the real characters, events and places on which it is based. Part of this reality is of course the physical environment of the Delhi of 200 years ago, vestiges of which still remain: a gurdwara on Chandni Chowk, a medieval-era dargah in Paharganj, a colonial mansion in Civil Lines. Also, Faruqi has drawn, inevitably for a novel of such staggering descriptive richness, on other accounts of the period, such as an Urdu oral romance published in the late 19th century, from which a long description of Rajputana’s landscape is excerpted, or the journal of Fanny Parkes. Parkes, a well-known diarist, was a contemporary of Wazir’s who travelled across the subcontinent, going on to publish an account of her life in India as Wanderings of a Pilgrim, In Search of the Picturesque, During Four-and-Twenty Years in the East; With Revelations of Life in the Zenana (1850).

Despite this strong grounding in fact, what makes The Mirror of Beauty a novel rather than a history is Wazir Khanam or, more specifically, the author’s extraordinary focus on the inner life of a woman who was secondary to the men in her life. In the history books Wazir would matter little: she was only wife, lover and mother. She was not the cause of scandal unlike Mubarakunissa Begum, once mistress and then wife of General Ochterlony, a dancing girl who converted from Hinduism to Islam to marry him. The mosque that she built (still standing in old Delhi) was nicknamed Randi ki Masjid or Harlot’s Mosque by the local populace. Neither did Wazir achieve any prominence in poetry though she studied and dabbled in it, unlike Mah Laqa Bai, famous female poet of the Deccan.

Within the world of the novel, though, Wazir is a remarkable life force. How she lived and looked at the world, how she dressed and ate, the cadence of her speech and the style of her walk—all this is threaded together lovingly to create an exotic yet psychologically complex figure. From a haughty beauty, who at the age of ten is already conscious of the arts of love, she becomes a woman of character. Her long, lonely monologues, interspersed with quotations from the poets and clouded with memories of the dead, during which she sifts over the experiences of her short life and tries to glean from them a sense of direction, are the highlights of the novel.

And then there is the outer world, the expensive clothes and jewels, the tasteful furniture and decorations, the havelis and carriages, that are integral to Wazir’s sense of herself. Faruqi starts the chapter about Wazir’s first visit to Navab Shamsuddin’s mansion with four pages of closely printed text describing what she wore for the evening, from her shoes of “Kashani velvet and white buckskin … The toes were long and pointed and slightly curved upward like the sunbird’s beak, and decked out with feathers of the jungle fowl in the red of velvet beetles. There was slim lace at the edges of the shoes, encrusted with white and golden topaz” to the “short turban of sky-blue velvet around her head that appeared to be loosely tied; one end of it fell upon her forehead and part of her face, giving the impression of a veil carelessly placed upon the face.”

The lavishness of dress and the superiority of the fabrics from which clothes were made—silks and brocade from Banaras, heavy woolen cloth from Kashmir, the famous Dacca muslin, and fine cotton from Aurangabad—is described in minute detail, as are the intricacies of jewellery, furniture and architecture, calligraphy and painting, arms and ammunition. All this comes together to create a dazzling effect—the picture of a world driven by extraordinary wealth and the many sensuous pleasures associated with it.

THE LOVE OF ELEGANCE and the profusion of material objects in the lives of Delhi’s elite reminds one of John Berger’s critique, in his Ways of Seeing, of the lives of the rich in Renaissance Europe as represented in oil paintings of the period. Writing of the German artist Holbein’s well-known painting, The Ambassadors, which depicts two men surrounded by a variety of expensive and exotic objects he writes:

Except for the faces and hands, there is not a surface in this picture which does not make one aware of how it has been elaborately worked over—by weavers, embroiderers, carpet-makers, goldsmiths, leather workers, mosaic-makers, furriers, tailors, jewelers—and of how this working over and the resulting richness of each surface has been finally worked-over and reproduced by Holbein the painter.

The description of riches in The Mirror of Beauty can sometimes produce the same effect of suffocating excess. Delhi’s “luxury-loving and loose-living Mirzas” as one English official sneeringly describes them, belong to a closed upper-class society, difficult to gain access to unless one is born in it. To be “well-born” is a crucial qualification; the role of the less fortunate—the servants, slaves, attendants, and guards who feature in the novel in great profusion—is strictly to be at the service of their masters and consider the fates of these masters their own. This 19th-century society operated according to medieval principles: the King was the benefactor and protector of all, leading down from whom was a chain of command that would function effectively only if each man and woman kept to their station as determined by birth. Faruqi appears to have considerable faith in the time-tested stratifications of this society.


The fact remains that the Delhi of Bahadur Shah II had all that which was difficult to find in one city at that time, great as a city might have been. Above all, the city was teeming with people; its subjects were happy; the rich, drunk on their prosperity, the beggar, happy in his rough animal skin.

The English, portrayed as scheming, avaricious and shockingly arrogant, appear as the only blemish on this compellingly romantic image of Delhi, and The Mirror of Beauty is nothing if not a romantic novel. Of course, its characters, especially Wazir, are insecure about their futures in a changing Delhi, but in their eyes the source of these unwelcome shifts, these threats to Delhi’s glory, are only the British. There is little hint that Delhi had been laid to waste several times in the previous century by the Marathas, Afghans, Rohillas, Sikhs and so on, and that the city’s long decline is reflected in the writings of the period such as those of the famous Mir Taqi Mir. Further, there are few internal contradictions in Faruqi’s Delhi, few occasions for its people to reflect on how their world is being reconfigured rather than just encroached upon by the coloniser. For even as Wazir and her nawab are engaged in wooing each other in an excruciatingly subtle style that would probably not be out of place in a medieval scene, in Bengal the modernising campaigns of Rammohun Roy and his contemporaries against sati and the caste system and in favour of freedom of speech and a Western education are already a couple of decades old.

Delhi seems immune to these developments. The only character in The Mirror of Beauty who chafes at the restrictions placed on women is its heroine. In a memorable scene, Wazir challenges not just this or that view of men about women but the very foundation of a society where every last thing is viewed from a male perspective. She is talking to her young son Nawab Mirza (later called Dagh):

You are a piece of my heart, but you are a male, first and last. The community of males believes that all the mysteries of the world, all the secret corners of all hearts are accessible to the male. And even if some are not, the male believes that he has the power to decide on behalf of everyone and everything. Men believe that women are just as they believe them to be in temperament, in preferences and hates…

Part of this male confidence stemmed from the fact that wealth was largely in their hands and that women too could be considered part of this wealth. This is similar to the milieu portrayed in the oil paintings of Renaissance Europe that John Berger describes: their aim was to show off the great opulence of the patrons who commissioned them, and their subjects included women as well as an incredible range of material objects. The difference between that society and this one, however, lies in how they represented their world in art.

The art of painting is significant to Wazir’s back story. Her ancestor is a painter from Rajputana’s Kishangarh school of miniature painting who creates an image of a princess so lifelike that the princess’s father lops off her head for the dishonor she has brought on by being the subject of the painting. This idea—of a stunningly lifelike portrait of a beautiful woman which causes havoc in the lives of men—recurs as a motif throughout the novel. But the idea is a romantic one—that is, it is the emotional response to an image of beauty that the author is concerned with, not the question of how a painting represents its subject. The chapters on painting, describing the life and vision of miniature painter Mian Makhsusullah and his descendants, are among the most beautiful in the novel. Yet one misses a sense of the historical nature of this art. Indian miniature painting over the roughly 100-year period covered here, starting from the middle of the 18th century, changed from a courtly tradition to one increasingly patronised by the British, and from an art that represented life two-dimensionally to, through contact with Western art, one that used naturalistic techniques, the latter helping to reflect back the subjects of the painting to themselves. For Berger’s rich European patrons too, it was this heightened realism in a painting that reinforced their sense of ownership of the things and people depicted in it.

This encounter between two opposing visions of painting—an older, stylised, Eastern miniature tradition, and a newer, Western practice of lifelike, three-dimensional portraiture which came into being with the Renaissance—has been explored wonderfully by Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red (2001), his playful, portentous novel about painting and life in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. Like that novel, The Mirror of Beauty is a fulsome lament for a lost world. By casting this lament in the mould of a romance, Faruqi achieves a great deal but loses a little.

Because Persian and Urdu poetry is so steeped in ideas, images, metaphors and allusions to do with romantic love, and because this poetry is fundamental to the imagination of the individuals Faruqi is describing, it follows that he could not have written an evocative account of life in late Mughal Delhi except as a love story. Love here is not merely what two people feel for each other. As seen in the dozens of poets quoted on love, from Hafiz to Dagh, by men and women at every turn, talking about love is a way of expressing a perspective on life. It was this very worldview and the literary tradition that expressed it that the incursions of the British ruptured. Unlike the attacks of the past, these were not just political changes but profoundly alienating at an individual and everyday level.

Faruqi’s project here seems to be the opposite of William Dalrymple’s in The White Mughals (2002), a lively account of several impressively indigenised colonials in late 18th century India. Many of the white Mughals discussed in Dalrymple’s book—General Ochterlony, General Palmer, Colonel Gardner, James Skinner—feature here too. Some have sympathetic personalities; others, like William Fraser, the villain of the piece, clearly not. But Faruqi’s larger point, contra Dalrymple, is that the presence of the English on Indian soil—particularly on Delhi’s, the last bastion of Mughal culture—meant the inevitable destruction of an older way of life regardless of the fact that a few of these men genuinely appreciated and enacted Indian mores. It is this inexorable sense of loss that makes The Mirror of Beauty a priceless portrait of a vanished time even if it has perhaps been created at the cost of making this time appear somewhat more self-contained, luminous and whole than it actually was.