Swapna Liddle is a historian and an author. She is passionately interested not only in history but in heritage. She is also trying to preserve old historic remains, whether its monuments or historic neighborhood.
What was your childhood like?
I had an unusual childhood in some ways. Because I have lived in many different places, in different parts of the country. I went to 9 different schools. So, I grew up in a series of mostly small towns.
How was your school life?
I had to adapt to new places, new people all the time.
My first school was in a small place called Haflong in Assam. Then from there was transplanted to Madhya Pradesh, to a place Chhindwara, where I went to a Hindi medium school. So, straight away from Assam where my schooling started in English. I suddenly came to a Hindi medium school. And I had to overnight learn Hindi to study. In that sense, my schooling was very unconventional, going from one school to another, ultimately 9 schools. The last one was in Srinagar in Kashmir.
Whether it’s Madhya Pradesh, Himachal, Assam, Jammu, and Kashmir. These were very different experiences in some way. And in retrospect what was good was first of all I became adaptable. I had to adapt to new places, new people all the time. And had a lot of very different experiences because these places were different, their food was different and the people were different. But at the same time, there were negatives also. You never really make any school friends if you are moving every year. You don’t have school friends because at that age if you are 6-7 you have moved school, you lose touch with those friends that you had made in that one year. And that continues to happen so that’s a little sad.
My parents never said that ‘oh! because it’s your school exam or you are giving your board exam, we mustn’t move at that time.‘
Living and studying all over India, when did you come to Delhi?
I came to Delhi two months before my class 12th board exams. So it was also challenging. My parents never said that ‘oh! because it’s your school exam or you are giving your board exam, we mustn’t move at that time.’ We just had to take it. So, I moved to Delhi two months before my class 12th board exam, gave my board exam here. And then I joined Delhi University, St. Stephens college to study history.
What made you choose history in college?
There are these teachers who will rise beyond usual and say a little more about the joy of history.
The choice of history was a very natural one for me because by that time I had become very interested in history. In class 11 and 12, when I was in Srinagar, I had an excellent history teacher, Mrs. Kaul. Still remember her so well. Because she showed us a history that was beyond the textbooks.
Despite the limitations of the school curriculum, she showed us what history was. And she, I think, managed to convey that very well. And I remember her talking about the ancient sites and all that. She bought local history to life. Also, about what the area was, what’s it’s history was, what it’s remain were. So, at that some level I must have absorbed that. Anyhow, by the time I came to college that’s what I decided, I needed to do. I did my BA from St. Stephens.
What happened after college?
By the end of the BA, I had not thought of history as a career. And a lot of my classmates were studying for the civil services exam, my father was a civil servant as well. So, I thought let’s do this. And sat for the civil services exam at the same time I had joined JNU for my MA. I gave my civil service exam twice. By that time I had decided civil services is not for me. I am not going to do it. And, so then I finished my MA, went on to do an M.Phil.
I was always interested in the later period of Indian history. So, I was interested in what we call Modern India History, which is essentially the late Mughal, British period. So, that was my specialization in my MA as well. And I did M.Phil again from JNU. I wrote a thesis on the opium trade in Malwa. It was great fun. I enjoyed doing the research.
I dropped out of that Ph.D. because of various, sorts of personal reasons.
Research is a very interesting thing. I like research. The rigor of actually reading documents, understanding what there is. It’s an intellectual exercise I think, which I enjoy. So, I enjoyed that, started to do a Ph.D. Very interesting topic I picked, which was Thuggee (the acts of Thugs). W. H. Sleeman, the eradication of Thuggee and the thugs, and all that. I enjoyed it because I wanted to go behind that whole construct of the British, how they thought of Thuggee. I came up with some interesting revelations through my research. Unfortunately, I could not complete that research project. I dropped out of that Ph.D. because of various, sorts of personal reasons. My mother-in-law at that point was very ill. I had two small children, I could not carry on with it. So, I dropped out.
It was around the late 90s, I had become interested in the heritage of Delhi. Even as a college student, I used to sometime go to explore monuments by myself. I would go to Humayun’s Tomb, and Red Fort, etc. So, I used to go and explore these things on my own.
When did you start doing the heritage walks then?
I don’t remember which year it was, I think 98′ or so, there was a series of heritage walks organized by the Habitat Centre, not by me. They were organizing, I decided to go on them. I went on them and I remember one was in Tughlakabad. It was fabulous. I enjoyed it. There was a group called, ‘Knowing and Loving Delhi Better’, KLoDB they are called. And they are still around actually. I attended a walk by them. And all those people who attended those first few walks by KLoDB went on to become very interested in walks. And we decided in the Habitat Centre, that we will do these walks, through the habitat center. We will continue them.
How was the experience of those early walks?
It was very interesting those early walks, there were just 15 people or so. Every walk were we the same people who would attend them. Then, We were the people who would do them also. So, I would research one area and then lead the walk. And then somebody else would research an area and lead the walk. Though, in theory, there were open to the public. They used to be put on the Habitat center calendar. But not many people came because not many people knew or were interested or did not know what all this was about. By the way, we were not the first people to do walks. They have been happening earlier also. From the 1980s-1990s, the conservation society of Delhi has been doing walks. But they have been mostly among again a sort of group of enthusiasts. So, we kept doing the Habitat Centre walks.
Do you remember any walk of that time?
I was very surprised, and shocked because I did not know how to take such a large group.
I remember that one day I was doing this walk in Nizamuddin. And as usual, it had been put on the calendar and people have been told where to meet and when to meet. And some 40 people turned up. And I was very surprised, and shocked because I did not know how to take such a large group through that compact area. But anyway, I did the walk. And then we told the Habitat Centre that you have to do something to limit numbers, you can’t just leave it open. So, then they started this regulating numbers by registering people and making sure, to have a certain limit to how many people would join the walk.
What about your PhD? When did you do that?
Since my interest in heritage walks and all had started, I thought why not do a little bit of research on 19th century Delhi. By that time, I had dropped out of Ph.D. already. So, I was not looking at an academic career. I just wanted to write a book. And I thought it will be nice, let me write a history book on 19th century Delhi. I will go and do the research and write.
And you know the funny thing was. that normally, when we do research we go to libraries, archives, and all and start doing your research. I went there and I said I want to look at some documents, some records and this why I am doing it. They said, ” Madam aap kaha se? (Ma’am, where are you from?)”. I said, “Kahi se nahi, (From Nowhere) I am an MPhil, I am a historian. ‘. “Aap kahi padahti hai? (Do you teach somewhere)?, I said “Nahi (no)”. “Aap Kisi course mei enrolled hai? (Are you enrolled in any course?)’, “Nahi (no)”. “Aap Kisi newspaper se hai? (Are you from any newspaper?)”, “Nahi (no)”. ‘To app kisi gazetted officer se chitti likhwa lijiye (So you get a letter from a gazetted officer)”. You know a sort of guarantee that I am a bonafide. So, I thought if every time I have to go and I have to prove that I am a genuine researcher. I have to go looking for a gazetted officer who will certify that I am a bonafide researcher, I said “Okay! Let me enroll for a Ph.D.”. If I enroll for Ph.D., I have a letter from the supervisor or university and then you are set. So, oddly enough, my desire to do a Ph.D. stemmed from this red tape that I was facing.
I think as a mature student you bring a lot more understanding to what you are doing.
One big-name associated with the 19th-century history of Delhi was Professor Narayani Gupta, a very well-known historian. She was teaching in Jamia in the department of history and culture. I went to her and said I want you to be my supervisor, I want to do my Ph.D. under you. She was very welcoming, very helpful. She said, ” Look, I am going to retire in few years. Maybe if you have not completed your Ph.D. by then you will have to change supervisor. And it is never a good idea, in the middle of course”. So, she said, ” I will not be your supervisor, have some other supervisor but I will always be there to help”. Then I joined Jamia and I had two supervisors. One was Professor Aziz Ud Din Hussain, he is a well-known historian and another supervisor was Mukul Keshavan, a well-known author. So, I started my Ph.D. under them. I enjoyed it. I think as a mature student you bring a lot more understanding to what you are doing. So that I think helped, that I had a greater grasp of a lot of things, I had a greater understanding.
My research took time. I learned Urdu because a lot of my sources were in Urdu I have to learn Urdu. My speed of reading was slow, so I went slowly. I learned Farsi also. I attended Farsi classes for a while but did not become fluent in it because my motivation was low and not many sources were in Farsi, This whole experience of Jamia was very good. I had excellent teachers, excellent supervisors, and a lot of people to talk to. So, that was great. I finished my Ph.D., it took me 7 years. So it was just as well that Narayani ma’am was not my supervisor but she was very helpful.
Amidst all this, how did your journey with INTACH started?
Narayani ma’am was also instrumental in introducing me to INTACH. She was a consultant there and she introduced me to INTACH. And said they are starting to do heritage walks, why don’t you join them. So, they had started doing heritage walks, I think in 2003 or 2004. Shortly after that, I came in touch with INTACH. I started doing heritage walks for them. I introduced new routes. And I started doing a little bit of research and writing for them. Because they were doing things like signages and all. so I started doing that.
INTACH is based on volunteers. So, I became a member of the executive committee. After a while, I became a co-convenor. And then recently I became the convenor of the Delhi chapter. So, that is essentially been the story with INTACH. Its volunteerism but it sort of most of the serious level. I have a lot of responsibilities. I think I am doing worthwhile work with them because they do conservation and heritage awareness.
Tell us about your books on Delhi?
Though I am at a daily level so involved in heritage, a lot of my interest still is history. By that I mean I like to do my research. I have been continuing to do research and write books. My first book was actually on the heritage walks in Delhi. So that was a heritage lead project. But since then I wrote two more books, one was on Old Delhi, one was on New Delhi. And that again was more history rather than heritage. Though again the motivation was also to help people understand their heritage.
What kind of books can we expect in future?
Writing of history is always my first love. Even more than heritage.
There are a couple of projects on the way. One is a map book. There is a big map of Old Delhi, which was made in 1846. I am trying to analyze it in some detail. And also trying to get finally the book I wanted to write, which was the 19th-century book. 19th century Delhi, this is the company period in Delhi. And I was looking at not the company, not the government but about the people and their culture. And how that culture changed in that period. It is a very interesting period when the East India Company ruled Delhi because it was when the Mughal Emporer was still in the Red Fort and had a huge cultural impact and had a lot of influence, even though his political influence was pretty low. At the same time, the British were also bringing in a lot of their cultural institutions, educational institutions and this was a period of great vibrancy in Delhi’s culture and Delhi’s education, and those are the kind of things that I wanted to study so I enjoyed the Ph.D. thesis. I always wanted it to be a book. So, finally that book, I have got a contract for it and I am trying to finish it so that it can be published. Writing of history is always my first love. Even more than heritage, I will say.
What is the motivation to do these things?
I am not sentimental about the past. It’s an intellectual curiosity to find. The historian’s task is very interesting, you look at the past through the prism of the things that have come down to us whether it is letters, official correspondence, diaries, newspapers, these are the little clues that we have. And based on those, on a study of those clues, we try to create a picture of the past. Now, given the fact that nobody can have a complete picture and every picture will be through that prism. And the historian’s task is to make the most convincing but honest picture of that past, based on what he or she has available to them. So, that is an intellectual exercise that I have always found very fascinating to try and understand the past. And that intellectual exercise itself is what motivates me. I am interested in it in an intellectual way. My interest in the heritage on the other hand is motivated by the idea that if you at all have an interest in the past you will realize that a lot of our identity stands from what we have been in the past. So, our identity as people, our identity as a nation, our identity as a particular culture or cultures. It all stands from where we have come from in the past. And therefore we need to preserve memories of that past and very often those memories can also have meaning for us in the present. Apart from just that intellectual idea of what that past was.
However, I want to pass on the message. I want to convince people why we need to look at heritage, why we need to preserve heritage. And I need to convince them because this is for our good and its not sentimentality.
There are a lot of misconceptions about history and those misconceptions about historical facts are particularly dangerous because history necessarily gets tied up in a lot of politics. Because of a lot of identity issues, a lot of politics is tied up around our interpretations of the past. So, its all the more necessary that we dispassionately look at history to get the authentic information. Of course, as I said, information is always subjective. To say that there is an objective history, it’s not right. It can not be. But history writing can be based on good research practice and it can be based on bad research practice. We should be encouraging history writing which is based on good research practice, honest research practice. As long as we follow that we will be writing good history. So, I think it is also high time that the gap between what is being done academically, should be brought ours in the public domain.
My sister writes historical fiction, as a coincidence, nothing to do with our love for history, she came to history from a very different way. She doesn’t have a historical background. But she writes historical fiction. So, her story is all fiction but the setting is historic. It’s Mughal Delhi or Shah Jahan period Delhi. And for that, she does a lot of research work to make the setting authentic So, she realized that people did not drink tea in the 17th century. So, you did not have tea houses, you had coffee houses. Bring that into the story. All that authentic setting. Or when you have movies, if you have authentic research being done to create those authentic backdrops or if you are dealing with the historical subject, be a little authentic, be a little critical of what you are portraying. I think that can do a lot to correct a lot of misconceptions that people have about the historical past.
About your sister (Madhulika Liddle)? How much do you help her with history?
I help her in the history that I am familiar with. So, she gives me her manuscript to read. I go through it, I make certain suggestions. I tell her may be this needs corrections and all that. I suggest books to her. Most often I just suggest books to her and she does her research. She does not just rely on my telling her anything. She reads a lot of books to get that thing just right.
What is the major challenge you are facing?
Good writing is also a skill because the temptation is if you know something, or if you know a lot of facts about something, put all of them into the book, but that doesn’t make a good story.
My major challenge I am facing in my today is how to balance these things. How to do the heritage work and the work I am doing with INTACH, which is activism. And how to find time with that to do my writing. Because I think with writing the problem is, it needs space. You need free time to be able to think. And good writing is also a skill because the temptation is if you know something, or if you know a lot of facts about something, put all of them into the book, but that doesn’t make a good story. When you are writing, you have to in a manner that engages the attention of the reader. And any time that starts to get boring I think you should rethink your strategy and say, ‘Okay! now, this is getting boring, how can I make it interesting?’ Maybe cut this down or redo it in some way. I find it very useful, my husband always reads my final draft.
First of all his language is good, so he can correct it if I have any problems. He is always good at correcting my grammar. And then I get feedback, Did you find it interesting? Because if he didn’t find it interesting then the other readers will also not find it interesting. Or if you didn’t understand a particular passage then maybe other readers will also not understand that passage. Of course, my publisher and the editor go through it again. So, I think, good editing is very helpful. Good feedback is very helpful when you write. I am learning slowly, all these skills in writing, presenting, research but yeah too many things to do, too little time.
Too many things to do, too little time.