Chirdeep Malhotra . Updated: 5/12/2020 12:51:59 PM Books and Authors

Author Interview: Debasish Das

Debasish Das is a telecom professional who lives in Gurgaon. A history aficionado, he spends weekends in exploring little known monuments in Delhi and its neighbourhood. Few photographs that he has taken have been published in international academic journals. Since the last few years, he has been writing heritage blogs on Delhi’s monuments. Encouraged with the reception to the blog, he has now ventured into a full-length book titled “Red Fort: Remembering The Magnificent Mughals” about the most magnificent of all the Delhi monuments, the Red Fort. In a candid chat with Chirdeep Malhotra, he talks about his book, his research process, and the relevance of Mughal history in the contemporary times. Read on!

Please tell us more about Debasish Das as a person.

I am a technocrat based in Gurgaon who has been curiously exploring history and heritage. I like photographing monuments and nature, and travelling to new places and to find the commonality in diverse cultures. Over the last many years, I have been investing my weekends and family time in pursuit of research on historical subjects.

Can you tell us more about your writing journey?

In 2015, I started writing a hobby blog on Delhi’s history ( and five years later, my debut book followed. Till date, I have essayed around 20 long essays on various topics on my blog which have received international acclaim and readership.

Can you tell us more about the book “Red Fort: Remembering The Magnificent Mughals”?

To answer this question, I would borrow the words of eminent historian Prof. Harbans Mukhia, who in the book’s foreword says: “A detailed, faithful, yet very aesthetic account of the Red Fort and the daily as well as ceremonial life within it from its inception through to its virtual destruction after 1857… a testimony to the wellsprings of the durability that is India, the Idea of India.” Architect and author Anisha Shekhar Mukherji said this about the book: “It is written with sympathy and feeling. The author's focus is on the stories behind the Fort and his objective is to bring these alive.”

How did the idea of this book originate? What made you decide to explore the Red Fort and the Mughals as a topic for your book?

Although ‘The Mughals’ is a popular subject, I felt the need to place a new narrative that is deep and interesting enough for the general reader to dive into, but written with a non-academician’s eyes. In exploring the Red Fort, I wanted to lift the gaze of the reader from the walls and monuments and structures of the Fort to a place enlivened with people, festivals, court etiquettes, royal games and pastimes, customs and traditions, zenana and other themes right up to 1857 when its very essence was extinguished. I would quote Marryam H. Reshii, India’s renowned food critic and consulting editor with the Times of India who says in her review: “Exactly what a book about a historical period ought to be. The subject has been cleverly arranged so that the Red Fort itself is the central gemstone in an arrangement where smaller, matching stones are arrayed around it. Thus, while the history of the fort is the leitmotif of the book, the characters – major and minor – the culture, shopping, gardens, perfumes, entertainment, court manners and protocol, are all set out in a lucid manner that helps the layman to visualize the era graphically.”

The book’s narrative looks beyond the architecture of the Red Fort, and also discusses the cultural history of the Mughals, which is enlivened by various anecdotes. What made you decide on such a structure for the book?

Like the nahar-e-bahisht that cut through the river fronted palaces in the Red Fort in the olden days but also tied them together in a manner of soft-power, I also searched for threads of various interesting themes and cultural elements while exploring the fort. Secondly, there are already enough books that describe monuments dryly on one hand, and coffee table books with exquisite photographs on the other; I tried to tread a new path to find a context to go beyond the fort’s architecture.
As columnist Zehra Naqvi summarized the book: “From the zenith of the Mughals to the nadirs, from joyous celebrations of Jashn e Chiraghan (Diwali) to the bloodcurdling internecine murders for the throne, from heartrending descriptions of the raids by Nadir Shah to dramatic, poignant descriptions of the revolt of 1857 and the subsequent fall of the Mughals, the book deftly encapsulates the itr-like essence of the Red Fort—the rapturous revelry, the shattering tremors, the pallid gloom.”

What type of research went into writing this book?

Apart from reading and referring to a long list of 100+ published materials as listed in the bibliography, I also tried to correlate oral histories and anecdotes from well-known heritage walk leaders through participating in their programs. I took help from experts from across the world to lend me their critical reviews of the manuscript. Prof S R Sarma, former professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, Swapna Liddle of INTACH, Dr Charn Jagpal from Canada, Nicholas Roth from Harvard and many others went through parts of the manuscript and suggested further readings or changes.

What surprised you most about what you learned through your research?

Aspects of Mughal cuisine and origin of today’s common food items, European traveller accounts, the Mughal smell-scape of various fragrances, etiquette guidelines for a Mughal Mirza, and even finding a portrait of the Greek God of Music Orpheus at the Diwan-e-Khas are some very interesting things that I came across while researching.

What were the challenges (literary, research, logistical) in writing this book?

It is difficult to find information beyond a certain level while researching on a line where one wants to interleave monuments with cultural elements. In that case, apart from published books and memoirs, what becomes important are the obscure elements like oral histories and miniature paintings and anything that sheds light even tangentially. As the author and former ambassador T C A Raghavan says in his review of my book: “A treat animated with anecdotes and historical detail that often escapes specialists. Das has an eye for the obscure which is a delight to encounter.”

If you had to send our readers on a tour of the most fascinating places you came across during your research, what are the places that would feature?

For the inquisitiveness to be really triggered, I would refer the reader to examine some old paintings that depicted the Red Fort from the river side. One such painting is at the lobby of the National Achieves of India in a glass case, but many are online. This view is important because, as opposed to the barbican-faced Lahori gate on which the Prime Minister delivers the Independence Day speech; in the view from the river, with the low wall and the reflection on the Yamuna with a solitary boat gliding by, the majestic palaces of the fort rises] up as if symbolising the grandeur of the Mughal days, with the golden-domed jharokha at the centre, from where the emperor gave daily darshan to his subjects assembled on the sandy beach down. Before visiting the fort, the reader should explore the National Museum to see some miniatures to get interesting insights into the cultural life of Mughals.

If you could meet any of the historical characters you’ve written about in person, who would it be and why?

I would like to be transported back to be amongst the project teams of scholars that was tasked with translation of Sanskrit and Persian texts. Sanskrit language interpreters called mu’abbiran verbally explained contents of the epics in Braj / Hindi to Persian interpreters called mutarjiman, who jotted them down. And they translated many epics like the Atharva-Veda, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Nala-Damayanti and so on. The cultural exchanges at the Mughal court were a historical modern. Kavindracharya Sarasvati and Jagannath Panditaraja from Benares tutoring both Shah Jahan and Dara Shukoh on complex philosophical concepts would have been interesting indeed.

According to you, how relevant is Mughal history in the contemporary times?

A culture of promoting poetry, music, art and aesthetics, and policies like Akbar’s sulhkul or ‘absolute peace’ where he rejigged his court composition so that all ethnic groups were equally represented, are not just isolated events from history, but apart from some jarring notes of disharmony, we can hear a symphony of humanism flowing through the Mughal history that is relevant even today.

Which books feature on your current reading list?

I am doing a research into history of horology and trying to find relevant material on it. I also want to read on the Buddhist past and the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road.

There are many new writers and poets who are aspiring to get their work published. What would you say to them?

Allowing time to research well and not to be in a hurry to get your book out often leads to interesting discoveries that the readers will definitely like. Be inspired by others, but as the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) told: “He is a poor disciple who does not excel his master.”

Can you share with our readers a motivational quote that keeps you going?

I like inspirational quotes. I would like to quote two quotes here. The Soviet author Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) remarked, “All victory begins with victory over oneself.” And the Japanese thinker and peace-activist Dr Daisaku Ikeda said: “The sun warms those who have endured a bitter winter.”

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