Ghalib Ki Dilli (Part II)

BanglaPress Desk
May 13, 2018

Some years back, I had read of the restoration of the Ghalib haveli. The premises in 1995 had served as a heater workshop. It opened to the public in 2011 and has remained on my bucket list of literary heritage destinations. Zig-zagging through honeycomb passage ways, the dilapidated ruin of a once handsome haveli can be glimpsed. “The interiors of the old havelis – the exquisitely carved residences that once housed the courtiers and craftsman of Mogul Delhi – have been carved up into warehouses, shops, factories and tenements. The old city – my city – has been buried.” This observation appears in a May 1997 copy of National Geographic magazine commemorating “India turning fifty” that I picked up at a second-hand book shop for $1in Ann Arbor, Michigan,USA in 2005. I now need to locate a copy of Pavan Varma’s book Mansions at Dusk: The Havelis of Old Delhi (1992). Obviously, not all havelis are equal.

Getting down from our rickshaw, we stood in awe and humility before a dark and fairly dismal looking mansion. A semi-circular brick arch entrance leads into a small hall, which leads into an equally small courtyard, with open rooms to the left. On the right of the entrance hall is a room having as its centre-piece a marble bust of the nineteenth century poet Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Baig Khan Ghalib. It was presented by Shri Gulzar, the contemporary Urdu poet. He penned the following lines in honour of its revered resident:

‘In one such dark, dimly-lit street

Where in a row of lit lamp starts,

Where a new page of poetry begins

There, the whereabouts of Asadullah

Khan Ghalib can be found.’

“Had Ghalib written in English, he would have been the greatest poet of all times, amongst all languages,” opines the eminent British scholar of Urdu literature Ralph Russell of the man who was born in Agra in 1797 and began writing poetry in Farsi at the age of nine. The accolade appearing on a plaque adds further gravity to the occasion. Russell is the editor of The Poet and his Age (1997); whose contents provide the original Urdu and transcriptions in both Hindi and English scripts. Photographs of Ghalib taken in Agra, Benares, Moradabad and Rampur grace the walls; as do brief biographical sketches. Massive original copies of artistic poetry – Diwan-e-Ghalib lie in glass boxes. Large boards offer some of his poetry. One of his literary legacies was written following the reign of terror inflicted on Delhi by the British following the 1857 Uprising. Delhi became Dilli-e-Marhoom (the deceased Delhi).

Every soldier of the English Army

Is out to do as he likes…

To get out of the house and walk to the market

Needs extreme courage on the part of men.

Chandni Chowk has been converted into a place of execution;

And my house, well, that is a veritable hell.

None can go there up from here,

And none can come here up from there.

Every particle of dust in the streets of Delhi

Is thirsty for the blood of the Muslims.

The actual sighting of his modest accommodation speaks volumes of the life-long pecuniary position of this towering  literary figure. It is said that “Happiness is a journey to a destination. No place, after all, is uninteresting to the interested eye.”  However; to add insult to injury; at the back wall in the corner stands Aisha International Tours and Travels.  A stairway leading upstairs has sign posted: Photostat and pc. It also offers Sim Card and Fax. Mirza Ghalib must be turning in his grave….An affront to even my sensibilities. Could anyone convey the profound canvas of Life other than Mirza Ghalib?


If I were given this life

For some more days

I have decided

I would live it

Some other way.

If I was destined

To bear so much grief

Then O God

Why didn’t you give

So many hearts

To bear that grief.

When nothing was, then God was there

Had nothing been, God would have been

My being has defeated me

Had I not been, what would have been.

A pause from an overwhelming cultural space was then called. We were negotiating the past packed stalls of a crowded culinary canvas of the neighbourhood adjoining the Jame Masjid; tandoori chicken, naan, rumali roti, nihari, jalebi, and kulfi…However, our destination was Karim, the original eating locale. It claims to have served the Mughal Emperors since 1813. So says the paper napkin: ‘Karim since 1813.’ Their imperial patronage ceased abruptly with the exile of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon in 1858. Apart from queuing locals; obviously the venue is mentioned in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. Our choice of murgh pullao, mutton brain curry and feerni was either poor on our part or poor on Karim’s part. Myth has overtaken the legend.

From the India International Centre, I walked to Khan Market, the commercial complex built in the 1950s to aid Punjabi and Sikh refugees fleeing West Pakistan in 1947. Built then as shops with accommodation upstairs, these premises now constitute designer boutiques, upscale stores and trendy bistros; fetching enormous rental fees. My destination is Fakir-Chand & Sons, the first bookstore that opened in 1951. It is now run by the founder’s grand-daughter. I was looking forward that afternoon to an expected route in the Lodhi Gardens. I could not resist ‘Sunset Club’ (2010) by Khushwant Singh who passed away in 2014 at the age of ninety-nine. Three friends now in their eighties, meet during sunset at the vast historical green oasis, inclusive of fifteenth and sixteenth century Lodhi era mausoleums. The book blurb notes: “The Sunset club is Khushwant Singh at his best – as a storyteller, a chronicler of our times, a nature-lover and an irreverent sage.” He was also one of those Partition refugees who became a renowned Delhi-wallah. His magum opus ‘Delhi’ (1989) has occupied space on my book-shelf for ages. I now need to re-read it. My other purchase was the last copy in stock and out of print; The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi by Sadia Dehlvi (2012). We were going to visit next morning Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia’s Dargah, the fourteenth century Sufi Master and Mirza Ghalib’s final resting place in the same neighbourhood. She has dedicated the book to Khushwant Singh. The book blurb notes: “It explores the spiritual, cultural and historical legacy of the Delhi Sufis, making this book as much about Delhi as it is about Sufism.”

In the vicinity of the densely populated Nizamuddin Aulia Basti and next to the tomb of the poet is Ghalib Academy which I had visited some years back. Inaugurated in 1969, a museum is located a floor up. That time, I climbed the stairs and entered a hallway with a door ajar that looked like it was my destination. Not a soul in sight. I coughed, searched for someone but no response. Then came my moment to call out: ‘Koi Hai!’ No one appeared and so I hesitantly opened the door and entered a large room full of the legendary poet’s letters, clothing, pen stand, head gear, his poetry, his books, prints and photographs of the Delhi of the day…I could have walked out with a treasure. One more ‘Koi Hai’? Silence. I left. This time, a packed room was host to a seminar and the museum was closed.

The simple jaali-laced marble mausoleum of the poet laureate of the Urdu language was restored in 2010. We stood before the Mazar-e-Ghalib in reverence and in sublime solitude. None of the exterior hustle bustle intruded this space; this pocket of silence. He has left us with the following verse to ponder:

What in the world

Would stop

When Ghalib

Is gone?

Then why

This weeping

And why

This mourning?