Abdul Rahman Siddiqi belongs to the rare, and now practically invisible, Dilliwallas who were born and brought up in Delhi. He belongs to the Dilli Punjabi Saudagran community which migrated to Delhi from Panipat during the reign of Shah Jahan, to settle as a trading community. This book celebrates the people, the food and the history and culture of the city before India’s Partition. It also highlights the seamier side of the city such as its red light districts or the communal divide at the time of Partition.
For this breed of Dilliwallas, Delhi was not just a city but a friend, a confidante with whom they played youthful pranks or shared their secrets. The people of this city had witnessed the worst of times during the revolt of 1857, and now, along with the rest of the country, were dreaming of Independence-an idea that would have appeared impossible to previous generations.
Smoke Without Fire covers the author’s life in the city from 1924 to 1947. He takes us into parts of the city which till date remain largely hidden and unexplored. The book intertwines political turmoil in the city with the everyday life of a typical Old Delhi family. The family and the city are extensions of each other. What the city goes through, the family too must suffer. The book is also a document of how the two fight their lone battles and don’t seem to give up.
It begins with the description of Delhi winters and all that we associate with it- from chapped hands to roasted peanuts. The opening chapters help locate the author in his social context, family, neighbours, streets and the shops next door.
The Delhi that is introduced to us is a lot like the Delhi that we know today-full of noises and chatter and on the whole, very lively. In the beginning, it reads like any other book based on the life and times of a historical city. However, the later chapters highlight the political events in the city that will shape the future of both the city as well as the country. The author provides an endearingly honest account of his life and the events. He doesn’t try to hide anything from the readers-be it his escapades in the red light districts of Old Delhi, or his political affiliations.
Slowly and steadily, Siddiqi builds the momentum of the book, and from the story of a family it becomes the story of the city and its politics. It is during his school years that he is formally introduced to the political scenario. His theology teacher tells them how they must work towards the restoration of Muslim rule in India, as they alone are the true heirs of the Indian throne. The idea of a separate nation, which, to begin with, was promoted mostly by extremists of all hues, starts receiving attention from ordinary people as well as the more moderate, mainstream leaders. It soon becomes a reality.
The book focuses on the people, including the author himself, who till the very end, believed that even after Partition, they will continue to live in Delhi; that there will be this separate state for Muslims, but they will not be leaving their homes. Nobody believed that Pakistan will take the shape of another country. Their dream of living in their beloved city is shattered when most of the major leaders of the Muslim League, including Jinnah, leave for Pakistan, leaving the people behind to fend for themselves during the first riots of Independent India. It is at this time that the reader gets the feeling that the author, who was such a staunch supporter of Pakistan, feels cheated and let down by the people who were selling the idea of Pakistan. It is also at this moment that leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad, who were earlier painted in a weak light in comparison to Jinnah by the author, are shown in a positive light. The same city, which was once so full of life, is deserted because of riots and looting rife in the city, and there is no one to help the victims. Delhi was no longer the city of a sufi culture, of ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. There is violence and chaos everywhere, and the Muslims no longer felt safe and secure in the city.
One might disagree with Siddiqi’s understanding of the politics of Partition, but one must read the book to understand how religious frenzy can be whipped up to raise communal passions for achieving political goals, as it did in 1947, 1984, December 1992, Bombay 1993, Gujarat 2002, the same game again and again. Read the book because it is an honest account of one of the most troubled times in the history of India and Pakistan. Read it to understand the city that is Delhi read it also to understand the India we have built for ourselves.