A tribute to RV Smith(1938-2020) by Rana Safvi
Popular historian Rana Safvi writes about the great contribution of RV Smith, another popular chronicler of DelhiUpdated: May 01, 2020 13:46 IST
Can I really write his obituary I wondered?
I didn’t know him but I know his beloved. Oh, I know her well!
“Can I remember him by talking of you,” I asked her?
“There can be no greater salve to my heart than for you to see him through my eyes,” she replied quietly.
I had read all his love letters to her and they had made me smile. I could see him hunched over his typewriter, punching away at the keys.
Sometimes he would describe her to his friends. Many knew his beloved and were similarly enthralled by her -- of course, not as well as he, for his love was half a century old; it was a comfortable love.
She allowed him to explore her: dimples, pimples, warts and all, for she knew he understood her. He saw her as she was; not just as a ‘once-upon-a-time grande dame’ but as someone who walked with Time and adapted to everyone who came to woo her.
He would never betray her; his was a deep abiding love.
While her other lovers wrote about her magnificent forts and tombs, mosques and temples, he wrote about the galis and mohallas that were an integral part of her being. He could make his readers smell the korma and nahari in the lanes of Matia Mahal and tell you about her royal lovers: about Padshah Shah Jahan and Bahadur Shah Zafar and their tastes. Of course, she was famous for her dastarkhwan. Even today, people come in search of the biryani, kababs, kulcha and korma, chaat and chana. They think that she is the sum of her food but he knew she was not.
Yes, he knew! He knew just how Mahabat Khan, the famous Mughal general, whose grave is in Jorbagh, observed Chehullum (the fortieth day of mourning after Imam Husain’s martyrdom). You could see the tazia procession moving down the road as his fingers moved over his typewriter keys; you could smell the pulses and the haleem, the biryani, sherbet and halwa as it was distributed on that day.
“Oh, he could write, this lover of mine. Even I had forgotten,” she tells me, “that there is a mosque in Kutcha Tihar, West Delhi, which, according to gossip, was the site of a prayer house where the Thugs took their secret oath in the 19th century. The building has been renovated now and no one would guess that it was so old. I don’t know where he gets his gossip from but he surely has all the juiciest bits.”
While her other lovers were still writing about the Persian invaders who came to loot her, he knew even about the Thugs who travelled to Delhi before Dussehra to take their oath just after Ravana went up in flames.
While others debated the history of Urdu and Farsi, he knew that once the ceremony was over, the recruits were taught the secret vocabulary of Ramasee (the language documented by Sir WH Sleeman, who succeeded in suppressing the Thugs).
He knew her dark secrets too. He knew what happened on Halloween in the 1850s when a Thakur in Mehrauli died under mysterious circumstances. Of all things, the murder weapon was a chess piece, the queen, stuck deep in his throat.
The British civil surgeon, who discovered him, couldn’t explain how it had happened. However, the Thakur’s retainer knew his master had been so obsessed with The Queen that he often sat to play chess with her and had announced she would be coming to take him that night.
“How did he know so much about you?” I asked her.
“Because he loved me well enough to want to know everything about me; not just what was written in Urdu and Farsi, English and Hindi, but also what every inhabitant of my heart knew, what they remembered and what they thought.”
I pondered over this and realized that his forte was indeed oral history, which he corroborated with all the tomes written on her by her past admirers. He knew all her lovers, admirers and even detractors and talked to them to know her better.
He knew how and where she celebrated Christmas and Easter, Diwali and Dussehra, Eid and Bakr Eid. He even knew about Jahangir’s X’mas gifts. He knew what she did during Ramzan and how the flower people went to offer chadors in the dargah and at the temple in Mehrauli. He captured her inclusiveness and felt her pulsating heart.
He knew where her lovers went to pray: the grand mosques, the majestic temples, the serene churches, the spiritual dargahs. He had visited them all, sitting with people past and present.
He scraped out his beloved’s best-kept secrets and extracted her memories; after all, he spent so much time with her. He knew her royal lovers had preserved Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, composite Hindu-Muslim culture, of which, alas, there are now few practitioners. He was one.
He even found out Nazdika, an Egyptian priestess, sold into slavery and brought from Cairo by Nawab Ismail Khan of Datoli as the wet nurse of his son Faiyaz. She lived with the family in Delhi and Agra.
“Ah, Agra!,” I said, “Don’t you get jealous when he talks of Jamiat (who was nicknamed Hoori, fairy of paradise) and her anklets, and waxes eloquent about her singing?” Jamiat is buried in Agra Fort.
“Why should I feel jealous? Agra was his home, his mother, where he was born in 1938. I am his beloved and he became mine in 1957. He came here to work for the newspaper, The Statesman, and then stayed on. All his life, he wrote about me. I am glad that his last epistle, published in The Hindu on April 25, 2020, was about his birthplace.”
She knew too of his Armenian, British, and Indian blood and that his ancestor, Colonel Salvador Smith, was born in 1783 and worked for the Gwalior army.
Why wouldn’t she? In the course of 63 years, he had written innumerable books on her, love letters to her, described her to her lovers, and had remained constant to her.
“You know when he wrote, Delhi: Unknown Tales of a City and The Delhi that No-one Knows, I told him, ‘Only you know me so well’. But he made me known to others. Today, I, Delhi, have been bereaved. I have lost not only someone who loved me passionately, but someone who knew me and understood me and empathized with everything that I stood for. Rest in peace, Ronald Vivian Smith. I will miss you.”
Rana Safvi is the author of, most recently, Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi.