Book: Dilliwali: Celebrating the Woman of Delhi Through Poetry
Edited by: Bushra Alvi Razzack
Publisher: Authors Press
Pages: 300
Price: Rs 500

Who is the quintessential Delhi woman?

“Dilliwali: Celebrating the Woman of Delhi Through Poetry” is an attempt – albeit unconventional – to help us understand who that woman is, in the voices of 94 Dilliwalis, poets aged between 13 and 70 years, whose hearts beat for the city.

The edited collection by Bushra Alvi Razzack contains poems on the brave women of Delhi spanning centuries. Historical greats such as Razia Sultan, Jahanara Begum (Shah Jahan’s daughter), Princess Zebunnisa (Aurangzeb’s daughter), Zeenat Mahal (Bahadur Shah Zafar’s wife) feature alongside commoner such as Nirbhaya – the braveheart who was brutally gangraped on a moving bus in December 2012.

The 158 poems have been written in English, Hindi and Urdu – the Urdu poems published in the Devanagari script too – by poets drawn from across the subcontinent.

Legendary Urdu poet Zauq’s famous couplet “Kaun jaaye Zauq par Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar” – is often quoted by those who feel for the city. However, the numbers may be on the decline with the city increasingly becoming unsafe for its women and being referred to as the rape capital of India.

Saba Mahmood Bashir captures this change in the city’s cultural fabric with this verse:

“This is the Crime Against Women Cell
I am a woman
A strong one
I know my rights
And of the other women too
No –
I knew my rights
Now I am getting to know
The misuse of those rights”

One of the poems in Nirbhaya’s memory “Moments before she died” is touching – “this night refuses to rest on little promises”, writes Akhil Katyal.

I found the Urdu and Hindi sections far more engaging. Abdullah Khan, whose debut novel “Patna Blues” was released recently, paints a beautiful portrait of the Delhi woman “In Dehleez se kothe tak”. A woman who has been forced into prostitution ponders over her life sitting by the door of a brothel in GB Road.

What binds the poets is their angst. Most talk about the shameless commodification of women, of little girls, in a city where once women rulers reigned. There are verses written on the bravery of Razia Sultan, the wisdom of Jahanara – “chivalry was her crown with no throne” – and how these icons have been conveniently forgotten.

The book scores in the ideas department. However, a sleeker version with sharp editing would have been splendid. There is a mishmash of writers – among a majority of completely unknown poets there are a few established ones such as Saba Mahmood Bashir, the author of “I Swallowed the Moon”, a book on filmmaker-lyricist Gulzar’s life and poetry.

Alvi, the editor of this anthology, is herself a distinguished writer. Some of her poems feature in the book, and are worth a read.

“I saw her on the street
At the receiving end of a blow of batons.
I saw her duck and then
rise again,
not caring about those who tried to stop her;
red band bobbing up and down
among a sea of black”

Unfortunately, not many writers match Alvi or Bashir or Khan’s calibre.

In the preface Alvi quotes a Mughal era poet, Shaikh Hamdani Mas’hafi, who lavishes praise on Delhi’s women with “Ey Mashafi! Na inse kabho jee lagayiy, Zaalim ghazab ki hoti hain yeh dilli waliyan”.

“Ghazab” or wondrous is what the quintessential Delhi woman is.

(The writer is an independent contributor)