Author, activist, story-teller Sadia Dehlvi dies at 63 after battle with cancer

Dehlvi (meaning one from Delhi) died on Wednesday at her house and is survived by her son Arman Ali Dehlvi

Sadia Dehlvi wrote about women, minorities, Islamic spirituality, and Delhi's heritage and culture for more than 40 years. Photo: Facebook

Author, activist, food connoisseur, and Delhi’s “favourite raconteur” Sadia Dehlvi, whose name reflected her bond with the city, passed away after a two-year battle with breast cancer.

Dehlvi (meaning one from Delhi) died on Wednesday (August 5) at her house and is survived by her son Arman Ali Dehlvi. She was 63.

Belonging to a family whose association with the city went back centuries, Dehlvi’s Twitter profile read, “Columnist and author Sufism: The Heart of Islam & The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi. I live in Delhi, a city I love.”

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Dehlvi, who wrote about women, minorities, Islamic spirituality, and Delhi’s heritage and culture for more than 40 years, was laid to rest on Thursday (August 6) at the city’s Shidipura cemetery.

Dehlvi, who was a Sufi at heart, had criticised the radical interpretations of Islam and sought an inclusive and liberal understanding of the religion. Her first book on Sufism named “Sufism: The heart of Islam” was published in 2009 by HarperCollins India, which brought her to the spotlight.

Her other popular books include “The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi” (2012) and “Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi” (2017).

A woman of many talents, Dehlvi also produced and scripted documentaries and television programmes, including “Amma and Family” (1995), with veteran actor Zohra Sehgal in the lead.

She was also a close friend and confidante of the late Khushwant Singh, who dedicated his book “Not a Nice Man to Know” to her.

“To Sadia Dehlvi, who gave me more affection and notoriety than I deserve,” he wrote. Singh’s book “Men and Women in my Life”, which has a chapter dedicated to her, also has Dehlvi’s photo on its cover.

“Hers was a very illustrious family… I won’t be exaggerating one bit if I tell you that the family was always leading from the front to keep Urdu alive in India,” Yasir Abbasi, who used Dehlvi’s help for his book “Yeh Un Dinon ki Baat Hai”, said.

Dehlvi, who belonged to the royal Shama family, edited the Urdu women’s journal Bano. Her grandfather Hafiz Yusuf Dehlvi founded the iconic Urdu film and literary month Shama in 1938.

Under the Shama group, they launched other periodicals as well, including Bano and Khilona. “Today we can’t even imagine how popular the magazine Shama was. It was found in every Urdu speaking household,” Abbasi said.

Dehlvi was passionate about food, much like her family, which famously hosted Bollywood stars such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Waheeda Rehman in their palatial haveli.

“Dehlvi’s spacious house Shama Kothi in Delhi’s tony diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri had become home to many visiting film stars. Their parties were the talk of town. Food was something that the family was very passionate about. Sadia often talked about the many kebabs they used to serve in those parties,” said Abbasi.

In 1979, Dehlvi founded Al Kauser, the Chanakyapuri restaurant famous for its kebabs, with her mother. At the age of 60, she donned the hat of a chef and tied up with ITC to celebrate the capital’s authentic cuisine over a six-day dinner buffet festival Delhi Table spread.

In 2017, she wrote “Jasmine & Jinns”: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi”, a book on Delhi’s culinary history.

“She was in every which way of Delhi. She wrote about the food and culture of the city 30 years ago, a time when writing about Delhi was not fashionable like today. She was a true raconteur she wrote about stories which she had not read or heard, but virtually lived,” said author and friend Rakshanda Jalil.

“I remember Sadia was the kind of person who would travel across cities just to meet older people her parents friends, or her friends parents, when they would be ailing or even otherwise, just to meet them for 10 minutes, with no agenda. That is the singular quality about her that I will always remember,” Jalil said.

Sad to hear about the tragic demise of Sadia Dehlvi, a well known cultural figure of Delhi, a dear friend and a wonderful human being. Rest in Peace,” historian and author S Irfan Habib said on Twitter.

(With inputs from agencies)

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