I asked my soul: What is Delhi?
She replied : The world is the body and Delhi its life!
— Mirza Muhammad Asadullah Khan Ghalib
For Mirza Ghalib, the legendary Urdu poet, Delhi was the soul of the world. He loved the city and knew his own worth here. When someone asked him his postal address, he said: Asadullah Ghalib, Delhi, will be enough." So it was. And so it is today.
As if fed by poisonous water, Ghalib, like a vibrant and glossy plant, survives so gloriously and eternally even in our dark times. Setting manner over matter in all his literary work, Ghalib breathed life in his times as deeply, humanly, fully and truly as any sensitive individual could have done. Having fully percolated and permeated the Indian literary mainstream, Ghalib's poetry with its rich thought content, has left an indelible mark on the minds of all connoisseurs of art and poetry.
The thought content in him spoke volumes of his cosmic vision, mysticism and the agonizing angst of being forlorn. Though when compared to his contemporaries. In fact he was a Goliath amidst the pygmies. He was disillusioned with his age for it never suited his intellectual thirst that grew still mightier every passing day.
One thing always to be appreciated about Ghalib remains his frank and truthful approach regarding all aspects of life. He shuns the ready-made truth for hypocrisy in religion or morals; rather he believes in discovering one’s own weaknesses and failures and realizing the truth that one has to live with once failures as much as achievements keeping in view that the former ones dominate more.
Too vast, contradictory and controversial, Ghalib's poetic fabric in spite of all these remains most fascinating with an exquisite charm. The eternal impact of Ghalib's poetry proves his catholicity, a cosmopolitan outlook, wit, repartee and craving for the spiritual
Delhi is known as the city where Ghalib lived and died. Unfortunately, the city didn't take care of him either in life or in death. Just see his tomb. The narrow lane leading to it resonates with life. However, the grave itself nestles in a quiet corner and its here that the great exponent of Urdu literature sleeps in anonymity.
Poochhtey hein who ke Ghalib kaun hai/ Koi batlao ke hum batlayen kya? (Ask people blandly who the hell Ghalib is? / What a foolish thing to answer this is!) More weightage is given to politics than poetry, history or writing, it would seem.
Ghalib was a symbol of Delhi’s cultural heritage and remains one. Mention of Delhi would not be complete if we miss out on Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Shahjahan. Though Agra born, Ghalib came to Delhi when he was just 13. Having married Umrao Jan, the daughter of Nawab of Loharu, Ilahi Bakhsh Maruf, Ghalib after having changed some houses finally settled at Gali Qasimjan haveli.
Opines great Ghalib expert and Urdu litterateur Prof Gopi Chand Narang, “Ghalib penned both his volumnious Urdu (1100 couplets) and Persian (6700 couplets) diwans at his Gali Qasimjan haveli. Though there were umpteen Urdu and Persian poets before Ghalib in Delhi, like — Naziri, Urfi, Zahoori, Faizi, Bedil, Asir, Shaukat Bukhari — however, it was Ghalib only who became synonymous with the capital city.”
The Ghadar (mutiny) and its aftermath in Delhi were very testing times, especially for Ghalib and most of the people loyal to the English were first sifted and killed. Ghalib was in the tweezer grip as the mutineers took him to be the one close to the English while the English were after his jugular owing to his affinity to Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Interestingly, owing to his wit and good stars, he got out of the clutches of both. From the mutineers, as Ghalib’s immediate neighbourhood, Sharif Manzil and Hindustani Dawakhana in Ballimaran, were under the supervision of Maharaja of Patiala who was loyal to the English and sent his soldiers. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, most of the houses were looted by the mutineers, including the neighbourhood of the poet. So far so, Umrao Begum, his wife, sent her valuables in her house at Ahata Kaley Sahab where these were thieved.
To add to the poet’s chagrin, his unpublished writings too were robbed from the house of Nawab Ziauddin, a cousin of his father-in-law, Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh Maruf. In a letter to Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta, Ghalib lamented, “Thieving of my unpublished work was the biggest loss.”
After the Mutiny, the English soldiers wrought the kind of wrath that has no equal in the history as the houses of both Hindus and Muslims were looted and women were outraged and raped.
The soldiers of Col. Burn, the resident commissioner, arrested him and took him to the officer who had come to Sharif Manzil. Owing to his usual brilliant presence of mind, he was one up against Col. Burn and got out of the snare by showing his correspondence with Viceroy Charles Metcalfe and his qasida (praise) for Queen Victoria.
When the colonel enquired of him what his religion was, Ghalib had replied, “I’m half Muslim and half English!”
“How?” the colonel howled.
“I consume wine; so I’m half Christian. I don’t consume ham, so I’m half Muslim!” Burn gave a hearty laughter and the poet was able to come back to his Qasimjan havelis.
Nevertheless, Ghalib lamented the defeat of his mentor Bahadurshah Zafar. He tolerated the English so far so his livelihood was concerned. In one of his couplets, he laments the loss of the mutineers whose bodies were hung on the trees of Chandni Chowk: Chowk jiski kahein, who maqtal hei/ Aaj ghar bana hei namoona zindaan ka (The road crossing has turned into guillotine/ Each house has become a replica of prison).
When the mutiny failed, it was the turn of the English to sift the ones who had favoured the king. It was like a famine-like situation and Ghalib penned the following couplet: Hei ab is mamūre meiñ qaḥt̤-e-ġham-e ulfat Asad/ Hum ne yeh mānā keh Dillī meiñ rahe khāyeñge kyā! (In this town, is deprived of the grief of beloved’s loss, Asad/ Our predicament is to inhabit Delhi, but there is no food!)
The ruthlessness and vindictiveness of the British soldiers crossed all limits so far so that Ghalib penned the following couplet: Baski fa’al-e-mayureed hei aaj/ Har masl hushoor-e-Inglistan ka! (Each English soldier is violent in totality/ He is armed lethally to kill by the authority!).
What a connoisseur of Delhi’s cultural heritage and Urdu poetry bewails is that nobody is bothered about Ghalib or other historic personalities of Delhi. Besides, the Delhi government hasn’t bothered for the maintenance of his haveli as all his couplets have been torn off the walls and the author’s umpteen requests to the Chief Minister and the culture secretary, Delhi Government, have fallen on deaf ears. Who bothers? Ghalib has given Delhi its identity but what has Delhi given Ghalib? Desecration of his mausoleum, neglect of his haveli and oblivion to his name!
[February 15 coincides with 148th death anniversary of Mirza Ghalib. Firoz Bakht Ahmed, an activist, got Ghalib’s haveli restored through a PIL in 1997.]