A Passionate Historian – Rana Safvi

After writing three successful books on history, Rana Safvi has another feather in her cap with her new release Shahjahanabad – The Living City of Old Delhi. A Historical Writer at heart, how Rana ventured into writing and how her love for history germinated, she tells Pria.

  1. How do you think urbanization has affected the New Delhi Architecture?

If we read books on monuments written in the early 20th century there are many monuments mentioned which no longer exist. Some were demolished to make way for Lutyens Delhi, while others had buildings built around them. Urbanization means that the old has to be adjusted to accommodate the new. In the case of JLN Stadium, there is a small medieval Phoota Gumbad existing peacefully with modern architecture but not all have been so lucky. Those that are not listed in ASI have faced the brunt of encroachment

2. How do you accept traditional Indian values in a contemporary robe?

As far as traditional values are concerned, I was brought up with a lot of moral values of honesty, standing up for what is right, humaneness above all, and being and doing good as well as being well mannered. There is no substitute for these and I feel they are universal and eternal.

As far as traditions are concerned, I believe in preserving them as long as they are not patriarchal or impinge on somebody’s freedom, rights, or dignity.

3. How much time did it take to write this book? Adding pictures do add zing to the book. Did you click them yourself or visit personally while they were clicked?

It took me three years of research and a year of writing. I have visited each monument and place mentioned personally. I took most of the photographs for this book myself. Some of the photos are taken from friends such as Abu Sufiyan, Jayshree Shukla, and Rameen Khan who are fellow heritage enthusiasts.

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4. Do you think Every monument has a hidden story within?

What we see as ruins or buildings bricks and stones once had people living in them, or in many cases buried in them with relatives and devotees visiting them. So, of course, each has a story to tell, we just need to look for them. Fortunately, the 19th and 20th-century texts provide the backstories.

5. What kind of research have you been doing while authoring your latest book Shahjahanabad?

Apart from visiting each monument, I consulted the books written on monuments in the 19th and 20th centuries in Urdu and English. Apart from that, I consulted the English translation of medieval and contemporary Persian texts.

6. Do you think a few people may differ with you regarding some events that you have written?  How do you deal with such situations?

I try to write as honestly as I can after doing research. Some of the stories I have written are from Urdu texts which are unavailable to the general public as they were never translated. If someone has a genuine difference of opinion based on facts I try to recheck facts and wherever possible correct them. I don’t pay so much heed to unsubstantiated differences because they just take up time.

7. The genre like Historical Fiction has come with suspense/curiosity. Your thoughts?

I don’t write historical fiction but I do read it. As long as the basic facts about the life and times of the characters are correct I think composite characters make a story interesting. But we should remember that historical fiction is not the truth, however, close it may seem to the original.

8. Which genres do you enjoy reading the most? Which you don’t enjoy at all?

I grew up in a house where reading was a very important part of our lives. My father insisted that for every couple of novels I read in school I would also read the classics: So I had a good grounding in English classical writers. I have a very eclectic taste in reading and love crime, romance, thrillers, humor, and of course history and historical fiction.

9. Do you think that anecdotes with Old Delhi monuments are manipulated over the years?

Yes, of course, because there is so much oral history too. Also, the layperson would not have access to well-researched academic books and so they believe the stories told to them.

10. How do you think these real stories can be brought to light for future generations to know?

I think heritage tours by trained historians or storytellers trained by historians are a great way. And of course, there are many books that can be read as well, written in an easy-to-follow format.

11. How do you think these can be preserved – Crumbling beautiful monuments…and Lost traditional values?

This can only come when we are invested in that culture and that monument. Part of my work is towards trying to generate that sensibility and I am not alone. Today there are many authors and historians who are working towards this.

12. What is the biggest surprise that you experienced after becoming a writer?

The joy of connecting to readers and receiving feedback. It’s a unique experience when someone writes that my book may have touched their lives in some way.

13. Anything you would like to say to your readers?

I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for reading my books and connecting with me and thus inspiring me to work harder and harder. It is they who made me a writer or else I would have stopped after my first book.

14. What are some ways in which you promote your work?  Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?

I do promote my books with snippets, photographs, my experiences on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I do this in my leisure time. My writing hours are fixed and in those, I either research or write.

15. What projects are you working on at the present? When can we expect a new book from you?

I am working on a couple of books. I would like those to come as a surprise to my readers.

16. What do your plans for future projects include? Any plans for a motion picture/web series/documentary based on your book(s)

I would love to have a motion picture/web series/documentary based on my work. I hope someone is listening.

17. How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

I love the physical feel of books and have a huge collection of them, but since I can’t possibly buy all the books I need I end up reading many on kindle. Kindle is easier as it can be accessed anywhere and makes life much easier but a true book lover will always go for a print book. The smell and touch of a print book are something very personal.

18. Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

My favorite authors are Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, The Bronte Sisters, Daphne P G Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Irving Stone, Daphne du Maurier, Morris West, Wilbur Smith, Roald Dahl, and recently J.K. Rowlings, and Dan Brown. As I said I have a very eclectic taste. I devoured the Perry Mason and Sherlock Holmes series too. For me, humor, suspense, and a twist in the tale are very important.

19. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that people DON’T know about your subject/genre, which they need to know?

In the past century not, many books were written with monuments as the protagonist of a story. In my books, the protagonist is always monuments and it’s their story that I tell.

20. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?  

My goal with this book was to document the monuments and their stories before they are lost to us, to document Mughal splendor and downfall, and also to write about the hopes and aspirations of the people who have been living in the city for many generations. I think people are connecting to it so in that way yes, I have achieved at least some of my goals.

21. What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or most destructive?

I started writing at the age of 55 ( I am now almost 63) and it was an impulsive decision. I didn’t learn how to write, and perhaps just relied on all my past reading experience. I am continually trying to evolve and take in whatever criticism or feedback I get from readers and reviewers.

One-liners/One word-based answer questions

Please respond to these questions in one line or one word wherever possible –

  1. Your all-time favorite author/writer?

P.G. Wodehouse

2. Do you believe in writer’s block? Did you have it anytime or not?

Yes, I do.

3. Your favorite place to write your book(s)?

I have a small desk in my room, which is where I do most of my writing.

4. Research and then write or research while writing? Which one do you prefer?

I do both depending on the topic.

5. What do you do in your free time?

These days I have very little free time but I like to use that time on social media, tweeting photos and snippets from my travels and research.

6. How many hours a day do you write?

Normally 5-6 but if I have a deadline or am in a particular moment I don’t want to lose up to 8 hours too.

7. Do you Google yourself?

I sometimes search google alerts when my books are out to see mentions or reviews.

8. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?


9. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

I was teaching before I started writing.

The Featured Interview first appeared in Storizen Magazine November 2019 Issue.

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