“How should I define you, a scholar of Sufism, commentator, researcher, polymath or a filmmaker, I'm baffled?" I once put this question before the just departed Sadia Dehlvi. Her answer stayed with me. "Faqat ek taalib-e-ilm-e-falsafa-e-Sufiana" (just a student of mystic philosophy), she replied with all modesty. Yes, despite wearing many hats, her heart was into the profound study of mysticism in Islam.
A devout devotee of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz of Ajmer and Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, her interpretation of Islam was not just liberal, but also critical in the sense that she abhorred the increasing radicalism in Islam and always promoted the syncretic philosophy of Sufism. To her, the rooh-e-Islam (the spirit of Islam) resided in the lofty teachings of Sufis. Not knowing Persian and Pahalvi (the precursor to Persian) that well, she would often write to me and seek my help in comprehending literal and metaphorical connotations and symbolism of Persian mystic poetry of Rumi, Sanai, Khaqani, Attar, to name a few.
In her quest of spiritual knowledge, she never behaved in a pontificating manner. Often, she'd quote Khaqani's famous Persian couplet, 'Yaan izz ilm-e-ina'ra, muu mizdaz/ Yaan ke phir azdam meen radaz' (When it comes to learning, all are same and try to learn from every being, irrespective of his/her status, age and other quotidian concerns). Khushwant Singh always said that Sadia lent a voice of sanity to the increasing chaos in Islam. She was very close to Khushwant Singh and the maverick writer called her one of his select few friends he loved to interact with. Otherwise, the supercilious Khushwant seldom gave importance to anyone in his life.
A very well-read person, Sadia lived the import of her Arabic name till the end and to the hilt because one seldom comes across a cheerful and bubbly person as she was. She once said, 'I live my name; I'm fortunate and staying happy is my intrinsic nature.' She had an infectious smile.
'Literature is her life and poetry is her lifeline,' said poet Shaharyar about Sadia. 'Main shayad kitabon ke saath hi paida hui thi' (I think, I was born with books), she told me once. She had a huge collection of books at home on all topics. She never confined herself to just one or two subjects.
The beginning verse of Al-Furqan was her inspiration: Iqra (Read) which she imbibed and understood in toto. A prolific writer, she wrote in English, Hindi and Urdu and had a smattering of French, German and Portuguese. Very few people are aware that she attempted to translate French poet Baudelaire into English and a Delhi-based premier English daily carried those translations as well. But when someone pointed out that the renditions were not up to scratch, she had the magnanimity to accept the fact that her French wasn't of the level as to understand the layered French poetry of Baudelaire or Paul Verlaine.
How many people in these times of individual arrogance will accept and acknowledge that they are lacking somewhere in some sphere? But Sadia had that munificence of spirit and magnanimity of heart. She was also into experimenting with various cuisine and yours truly once called her Lady K T Achaya (the legendary food historian) in an English broadsheet. Persian culinary delights appealed to her and she cooked the best mutton korma and paaya soup in whole of Delhi! She was so self-effacing that when I asked her whether she was related to Yusuf Dehlvi, the founder of now defunct Urdu magazine Shama, she told me nonchalantly that he was her grandfather. I was really impressed. She edited Bano, an Urdu women's journal for Shama Group.
When American scholar of Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Islam, Dr John Renard, didn't find her both the books on Sufism, Sufism: The heart of Islam (2009) and The Sufi Courtyard: The Dargahs of Delhi (2012), particularly scholarly and drew her attention to certain connotational errors in Persian mystic vocabulary, she publicly thanked Dr Renard. She wrote, acted and produced Zindagi Kitni Khoobsoorat Hai, Amma and Family and also Khuswant Singh's Not A Nice Man To Know. Despite suffering from cancer, she didn't concede and like the English poet Lord Tennyson, she drank life to the lees. Au revoir, Sadia aapa.