Review: Swapna Liddle’s “Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi” (Speaking Tiger Books)


“the city watches with hibiscus eyes”
― Zilka Joseph, Sharp Blue Search of Flame

The city muffled with multiple anecdotes, phrases, songs, tongue-twisters (used in daily lives as well as literatures) and extravaganzas over silver screen for decades (and more to come) has come up with its own history with Swapna Liddle’s latest book, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi. 

This book has surfaced at a crucial time while we are going through ‘strategic erasures’ (or to say the ‘cleansing’) of our histories, memories and narratives. Shahjahanabad has, with the commencement of this book, brought itself back to discussion which has continued living and thriving in guise of the famous Chandni Chowk since ages. Built in the 17th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and designed by his favourite daughter Jahanara, it is one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi which reflects its culturally sumptuous background.

Today, Shahjahanabad has been subsumed under the gigantic sprawl of metropolitan Delhi. Yet it has an identity that is distinct. Popularly known as Chandni Chowk, its name conjures up romantic narrow streets, a variety of street food and exotic markets. For Shahjahanabad is still very much a living city, though the lives of the people inhabiting it have changed over the centuries. Dariba Kalan still has rows of flourishing jewellers’ shops; Begum Samru’s haveli is now Bhagirath Palace, a sprawling electronics market, and no visit to Chandni Chowk is complete without a meal at Karim’s, whose chefs use recipes handed down to them through the ages for their mouth-watering biriyani and kebabs.

Liddle’s well researched structural, textural and cultural representation of the city’s past along with it’s multiple historically significant narratives, hailing from the consequences in Royal Dynasty, to the Shayirs and Poets, to the common public, the Britishers and even the local vendors, make this book a gateway towards the understanding of our own becoming, of the becoming of our past, of the becoming of our culture, et al.

This is the story of how the city came to be established, its grandeur as the capital of an empire at its peak, and its important role in shaping the language and culture of North India. It is also the story of the many tribulations the city has seen–the invasion of Nadir Shah, the Revolt of 1857, Partition.