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Chronicling the Unexplored: Remembering Sadia Dehlvi

A chronicler, author, activist, food connoisseur, storyteller, filmmaker, and a true blue Dilliwali; Sadia Dehlvi was a devout Sufi who was a guide to the unchartered spots in Delhi where ‘the heart of Islam’ blossomed. Sadia Dehlvi was an author, who advocated the pluralistic aspects of Islam, from food to music, as she rode the high wave of the Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb in her work (as any lover of Mehboob e Illahi Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya would do). But, my introduction with Sadia Ji, was not a direct one, as I got to know about her from the work of her beloved friend, Mayank Austen Soofi (A lover of Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Arundhati Roy, and Nizamuddin Auliya) better known as ‘The Dilliwala’; who is also the only reason why I am still subscribed to the Hindustan Times Newspaper. I also remember this one time I saw Sadia Ji at the Nizamuddin Dargah, thanks to my pictographic memory, I only remember how magnetic her eyes were! Some other times that I have heard about Sadia Ji apart from her work, is from Author and Translator Rana Safvi Ji, and filmmaker and historian Sohail Hashmi Sahab, who once talked about how the ‘Dehlvi’s’ came in Delhi, in the 17th century and how they took up this name. This one time in school when we reading an excerpt from a Khushwant Singh book in our English class, I got intrigued about him after knowing that he is an alumnus of the St. Stephens College in Delhi, as it is a college very near my home. When I went back home and researched more about him, I even got to know that he was very close to Sadia Ji, and even dedicated his book, ‘Not a nice man to know’ to her.

Sadia Dehlvi was born in the royal Shama family of Delhi in 1957 to Yunus Dehlvi at the Shama House on Sardar Patel Marg. A few years back, Mayank Austen Soofi did an article with the Live Mint where he revealed intricate information about the Shama Kothi, which was sold to Mayawati and converted into the BSP house. Soofi also wrote that, Sadia later moved to Nizamuddin East with her son and two servants. The 2nd-floor apartment at Nizamuddin gave a direct view of the Humayun’s Tomb, and Sadia would often invite her friends in the evening and cook for them. Sadia spoke also once spoke of the Kothi, “Throughout my childhood, I saw actors, writers, and poets coming in and out of the house, and my grandfather loved hosting receptions for them.” In the evening, the house at SP Marg regularly hosted cultural soirées. It became an institution and was known as Shama Kothi.”

Dehlvi was a columnist for various publications, along with the author of two books. Her first book was ‘Sufism: The Heart of Islam’, which was published in 2009, and her second book was ‘The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi’, which was published only two years after her first book, in 2011. She was an important chronicler of the culture of Delhi and wrote on issues such as women, minorities, spirituality, and heritage. She was also the editor of the Urdu Women’s journal ‘Bano’. She successfully dabbled in television as well, with Amma and Family for Home TV that opened a window to an urban Muslim family, with the irrepressible Zohra Segal playing the adventurous Amma. Part autobiographical, it broke some of the stereotypes that popular culture associates Muslims with. Later in her life, Dehlvi turned into a food connoisseur. She wrote a book on Delhi’s culinary history in 2017, Jasmine & Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi. In addition to that, she also donned the hat of a chef at the age of 60 and tied up with ITC to celebrate the capital’s authentic cuisine over a six-day dinner buffet festival Delhi Table spread.

Sadia was a true Sufi, and she was a firm believer of ‘Zindagi Kitni Khoobsurat Hai’. On August 5th, 2020, Sadia Ji immersed herself in the soil of Delhi, after battling breast cancer for 2 years. She had always wished to be buried in Delhi and especially near the Shama Kothi. Even her Twitter bio read, “I live in Delhi, a city I love”. Eminent historian, Irfan Habib along with many others mourned her death, but her close friend and Literary Historian, Rakshanda Jalil, asked people to celebrate her life.

With no more Sadia Dehlvi and RV Smith, Delhi would never be the same. There will be a sense of emptiness that will try to fill our hearts! Delhi is not a city, it is a mehfil, it is an emotion. It is not just a place where people live, but a place where history lives, buildings speak, and life is celebrated with food, travel, and music. These were the people who were surviving the Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb, and now it is their work that continues to live, that still gives us light on an evening when most people have shut their eyes to Tehzeeb-e-Dilli.


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