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  • Vanishing Tradition
  • Intizar Husain

I have no pretentions of being a scholar, so I may be excused for not discussing my subject in a scholarly way. What I am going to describe may be regarded as the impressions of a story writer who was born in an insignificant traditional town of the subcontinent; who lives in Lahore, perhaps the most important traditional city in Pakistan; and who knows major traditional cities like Delhi and Lucknow through the literary tradition of Urdu. I may not be able to show it in a scholarly way, but I have a feeling that there is something basically wrong with modern cities of the subcontinent. New Delhi, the capital of India, is no doubt a well-planned city. Still, while strolling down its well-maintained avenues, streets, and bazaars, I have a feeling akin to that of a character in an old story who, while visiting a newly built palace, marvelled at its splendour and proclaimed, “Wonderful! All the wonders of the world are here except an ostrich’s egg!” Why should I have a feeling of this sort? As I ponder it, I am reminded of Burh Shah Boola, a banyan tree in a street of Old Delhi. It is no longer there, but the legend associated with it still lingers in the memory of Old Delhiwallas. It is said that the tree blossomed throughout the year, and tiny fruits, called barolian, dropped incessantly from its branches. A fakir called Shah Boola used to lie under its shade and was in the habit of pelting passersby with these barolis. Once, it so happened that a Prince fell ill. He was on the brink of death when he was brought to this fakir, who immediately called for a cup filled with oil, and instructed the Prince to look into it. After the Prince looked into the cup, the fakir took the cup from him, drank the oil, and died instantaneously. But as soon as he died, the Prince recovered and returned to his palace hale and hearty.

I am also reminded of Kalkaji Ka Mandir, in an outlying locality of Old Delhi. It is an old temple with two red stone lions standing at the entrance. As stated by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in his Asar-us-Sanadid (Great Monuments), it is commonly believed that the place had been visited in the distant past by Devi Durga, who had ridden there in a chariot driven by two lions.

And suddenly it dawns on me that what I miss in New Delhi are Burh Shah Boola and Kalkaji Ka Mandir. With their legendary associations, the vanished tree and the old temple gave the old city of Delhi the aura of a typical Indian town, a town of the Indo-Pak subcontinent. In a traditionally evolved town of the subcontinent, there must be a tree that is more than a tree; or an old temple, mosque, or shrine with a legend attached to it, as is the case with the shrine of Datta Ganj Bakhsh. It is said that once there was [End Page 207] a flood in the river Ravi, which soon rose so high that it became a threat to the city. But it so happened that the moment the flooded Ravi touched the threshold of the shrine, it receded. That gave birth to a popular belief that the Ravi, while in flood, pays homage to Datta Sahibn and never dares to enter the city, which has come to be known as Datta Ki Nagri. So, as I have said, a traditional city must have a tree that is more than a tree, or a shrine with a legend associated with it, or a well famous for its mysterious origins.

In each mohalla, there should be a dilapidated house with a rusted lock on its door and a mystery surrounding it—a house that has no heirs who will come forward and claim it as their own. Such a tree or a building or a well with a legend associated with it imparts to the people living there a sense of wonder. It acts as a sign pointing to the unknown. In a traditional town...


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