Shahjahanabad. A name lost in time. It is in search of this name that author Adrija Roychowdhury takes her readers through the pages of her book, Delhi, in Thy Name. In this impressive debut, the author takes us through the obscure lanes and bylanes of the Old City, leading us into tracing the very origins of Delhi. We find tales old and new merging seamlessly with folklore and myth, all peppered with tidbits of history.
The book begins with an apt introduction by historian and author Swapna Liddle. She writes, “The city may not be very old, but it is certainly of great historic importance… While on the one hand, Delhi became the home of many different communities, all retaining important aspects of their culture, there was also considerable mingling, which led to the creation of aspects of a shared culture.” Exhaustively researched and passionately told, Roychowdhury’s book takes a deep dive into the legends that give Delhi’s many streets and areas their names. She traces her way through the many emotions, aspirations, desires, identities, histories and memories to arrive at why and how a certain name came to be.
Unlike dry academic books or downright fanciful and mythical history, this book strikes the right balance between the oral history of a place and its documented facts. The writer manages to capture the very heart of the city, weaving its past with its present seamlessly. Interactions with various locals, documented in the pages, lend a unique, personal touch to the book, making the reader feel as though they are walking along with the author, listening in on her conversations and interviews first-hand.
Roychowdhuty’s book is almost like a key to Delhi. You open the many doors and secret passageways to encounter a past that is ever-alluring, lyrical, unforgettable, and magical. Shakespeare’s oft-quoted words from Romeo and Juliet come to mind: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This may very well be true of Delhi. The modern city of Delhi may be a far cry from the Shahjahanabad of emperor Shah Jahan, but you just have to lift the invisible veil and step into the older parts of the city to come face-to-face with the royal city of Shahjahanabad as it once was imagined.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the origin story of Chandni Chowk’s name.. Once simply referred to by people as the bazaar in the direction of Lahore, the Chandni Chowk of today has little resemblance to what it once was — a square beside which the Yamuna flowed. On moonlit nights, the sparkling bits of the flowing waters resembled the stars up in the sky — hence, the name Chandni. The Chowk, or square, was peppered with a variety of stores selling wares from countries afar. The constant buzz of the Meena Bazaar (established as a market for women), the Urdu Bazaar (with proximity to the soldiers of the Mughal army), Jauhari Bazaar (the market of gems and jewellery), and the famed Paranthe Wali Galli, all together formed the very essence of Shahjahanabad.
The remaining chapters are as interesting. For example, how the land of the Bengalis — Chittaranjan Park (or, CR Park) — came about, for we all know how you can take a Bengali out of Bengal, but you cannot take Bengal out of a Bengali. The creation of CR Park — a strip of land of the Bengalis, for the Bengalis, and by the Bengalis — only stresses this age-old adage. Then there is the story of how a British scion — Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria of Britain — lent his name, or rather, title to the heart of Delhi, Connaught Place, or CP. Later, even as the then-Congress government tried to rename it by another scion — its own Rajiv Gandhi — CP steadfastly hung on to its name; only its metro station is now named Rajiv Chowk.
While the book is filled with knowledgeable tidbits, one wishes the writing were smoother, and the editing stronger. That would have brought forth a richer read. Nonetheless, Delhi, in Thy Name is a book well worth your time.