Alif is telling his class of nine-year-olds about Prithviraj Chauhan, the valorous ruler of Delhi who lost his kingdom eight hundred years ago. But first there was romance. He was a hero, says the poet who recounted his story. He swept into the neighbouring kingdom of Kannauj on his horse and swept away its princess Sanyogita who’d been secretly in love with him from afar. Her father was royally peeved but the couple got away, speedily disappearing into the horizon.
The class would be quite glad to close with this happily ever after. They like the tale, which is what it is – the spirited horse, its dashing rider, the bold and beautiful princess, her displeased parent. But then comes the darker chapter, more bald fact than ballad. A year previously Prithviraj had defeated Mohammad Ghuri, the Afghan who was already in Punjab and greedy for more of India. In 1192, Ghuri returns with a bigger army and it is Prithviraj’s turn to be routed, for the friend who had helped him earlier is now none other than his father-in-law; miffed over the stealing of Sanyogita, he will not come to his aid. Delhi falls out of the hands of the Chauhans and into the hands of the Afghans. Over the next twenty years they will rapidly expand from there.
Sir, why is he called Ghuri? Is it because he rode a ghora? Sir, why did he kill Prithviraj when Prithviraj did not kill him? Sir, what happened to Sanyogita, did she stay at home only? Sir, my sister’s name is also Sanyogita but she never stays at home. Sir, can we go to see
Afghanistan? Sir, sir, sir . . .
He speaks into the eager cacophony of their questions, trying to drive home the difference between history and story. In the poem by Chand Bardai that celebrates Prithviraj, he is captured by the Afghan but manages to put him down with the sure shot of a single arrow. In the textbooks, it is the other way around – the invader trumps the local. Each account must be seen for what it is. And then there are recensions and elucidations, alternative tellings and subsequent retellings, new evidence and changed perspectives – none of which is kiddie fare. Already, now that the storytelling is over, the more listless among them having taken to doodling monsters and fairies, arm-wrestling, braid-yanking, whispering twaddle.
As Alif tries, half-heartedly and therefore ineffectively, to rein them in, he is musing on medieval Kannauj, populated with temples and monasteries till those earlier invaders, the Turks, broke it up and then the Afghans went on to wipe it out. There was the king of that preceding pack, Mahmud of Ghazni, and the poet he grudgingly patronised, Firdausi, author of that epic in praise of kings, Shah-Namah, for whose composition it is said Mahmud paid the poet just a few paltry dinars; this so insulted Firdausi that he went to the hamam and then bought a draught of beer, dividing his kingly fee between the hamam attendant and the beer seller. And then Chand Bardai, who in the manner of other subcontinental poets put himself in the narrative even if he was, quite possibly, writing a century or several centuries after the saga being described. In his version of events, it is he, court poet to Prithviraj, who travels to Ghur where the king has been imprisoned by the Afghan and devises a ploy to save him from the ghastly Ghuri. The poet as both creator and character – not unlike Ved Vyasa, progenitor of the Mahabharata as well as begetter of its main characters.
But how to get this across to his students – that kings and battles are not all, are nothing in fact without the imagination in which they survive, by which they are coloured? Impossible! Alif wraps up his exposition, tells the class to get their things together, refill their water bottles, form a queue in the corridor. And then to the wordless envy of younger children watching from the open doors of the other classrooms, they climb into the waiting bus and escape school. He herds his flock outdoors now and then, shows them a relic or two, anything they can size up and freely touch, anything to prove to them that history is not a gag he springs on them every day with the connivance of their unenticing schoolbooks.
On the bus the children are frantic with excitement over nothing, while Alif is still lost in his reverie, thinking of that hunger for heroes that defines our vision of history – the past is nothing if not held up by proudly moustached men on horses, god-like men, even as the gods themselves are, given their grace and fallibility and moustaches, men-like. Ram Rajya. What are its hallmarks? Moderns like Gandhi and Tagore imagined it as a state of enlightened self-rule: tamping down one’s ego so as to make space for the other, living in the perfect harmony of mutual regard. But that’s not how most people see it, even today. We are still desperate for saviours and our stories are still swollen with the exaggerations that make some men impossibly broadchested and lion-hearted and the rest just men.
Then he rouses himself and calls his wife on her lunch break.
‘We’re passing by the Supreme Court,’ he tells her. ‘What would you say to that?’
‘I wouldn’t want to live there, I’d have to walk hours just to get a potato.’
She tells him about her day so far – the small upsets and minor victories in the mini-empire she helms, one she loves for its order and rules, an exemplary system always in danger of being compromised – a bottle of shampoo in the wrong place, a carton of curd long outdated, a return not entered in the inventory, a cashier dawdling at the till, a cleaner cutting corners. She’s a pro at this, done it for more than a decade, starting out at the till herself, no whiff of management mania about her then, just a humble bachelor’s degree in that – to Alif – much more expansive word, commerce. The everyday commerce of life. Tahira had caught a colleague pilfering and reported it speedily to the store owner, the genially overweight Ghai, who laughingly fired the boy for what turned out to be the long-running theft of perhaps the humblest thing in the establishment, paper bags stuffed with sona masoori rice and masoor daal. Also laughingly, Ghai sahib had promoted Tahira to supervisor as reward and later, when he saw she was more driven than everyone else, ever alert to slip-ups on the part of her colleagues, to general store manager. He’s out in Shahdara running a bigger supermarket he started with the profits from this one and Tahira is boss here.
Curiously, it was the promotion that did it: brought on the feeling that she was too good for the place and it was time to move. Alif admires her ambition even if he cannot, given his natural slothfulness, emulate it; he is happy about her rise to the very top of TipTop Supermarket though he does wonder now and then about that disgraced boy and the relatives or friends whose starvation he had for a while, till Tahira put an end to it, mitigated with stolen rice and daal. She never talks about him, instead keeps repeating that she has run out of possibilities for self-advancement in TipTop; she longs for something fancier, a glittering mall in Greater Kailash or Saket where she can call the shots – or maybe Vasant Kunj, she says, where Farouk is, immersed in the expensive beauty of his shoes.
‘People can’t even do simple division in their heads any more,’ she announces happily and then not so happily tells him the billing software’s caught a bug and she’s had a futile day so far, chasing technicians. She knows it’s only a tiny edge she has over the others – the band of underpaid, semi-educated, gormless girls and boys she lords over, none committed to TipTop, none really wanting to spend all their years deferring to the sleek and ghee-coloured, the fat and intricately coiffured housewives of Karol Bagh who have made a life out of fussing over the daily shopping.
‘We’re crossing India Gate,’ says Alif.
‘Sad waste of space, don’t you think? Lakhs of us crammed into Old Delhi and that vast arch leading to nothing and all those lawns of grass where nothing happens when they could be filled with castles in the air.’
She and Alif live in a seventeenth-century, fort-centred town, some bits of it going a couple of centuries further back, a small town within what later became the colossal city of Delhi. It goes by many names – Shahjahanabad, after the emperor who built it; Hazrat Dilli, Delhi the Revered; over time, Old Delhi or Purani Dilli; or simply Fasil Bandh Sheher, the Walled City. Once all the world’s cities were walled till the nature of the possible threats against them became more diffuse and could not be withstood by mere bastions; yet this walled city remains even though most of its walls and most of its fourteen gates have gone.
But they stay hemmed in by Daryaganj. On the river landings south of the fort, boats carrying merchandise up the Yamuna used to be unloaded four or five hundred years ago, and the mart that sprang up alongside in that era when the watercourse was closer by came to be named thus – Daryaganj, the market by the river. Tahira grew up not far from where they live, in a family home almost a hundred years old, while Alif and his family settled in the area when he was fifteen. All these decades later he’s still here – in the upper floor of an apartment by the crossroads named after the Mughal military general and poet Bairam Khan, deep in one of Old Delhi’s old tangle of lanes. He should have moved out when they married but instead his father sold a pocket of land back in the village to buy the place in Jamia Nagar, and the natal family went off to live there. Alif has come to be proud of his insistent immobility. Tahira, meanwhile, is fed up of history and starting to dream of dream homes.
‘We’re nearing the Oberoi,’ Alif tells his wife, regarding the blockish luxury hotel.
‘I don’t know about the Oberoi,’ she says, though she has driven past dozens of times. ‘I have nothing to do with the Oberoi. What would you say to Faridabad?’
Excerpted from History’s Angel. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2023 by Anjum Hasan