I should have been listening to one of the scores of imaginative events on the poetry, life and times of the pre-eminent poet of the Urdu language at the 'Ghalib Ki Galiyan' two day programme organised at the Indian International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi in February 2018. And there I was late for even the last two sessions - 'Ghalib Baithak' (Reminiscing Ghalib) and 'Ajab Waqt' (Poetry reading which included Sudeep Sen) on the last day due to flight delay. This truly called for sabr (patience). Resignedly, I took to kismet. A quick coffee in the room following checking-in led me early to the auditorium for the grand finale 'Mehfil-e-Ghalib.' I got an excellent seat and resolutely expressed shukr (thankfulness).
'Ghalib Ki Dilli' had opened with the movie screening of 'Mirza Ghalib' (1954) starring Bharat Bhushan, Suraiya and Nigar Sultana. Although not shown, Gulzar produced the television film 'Mirza Ghalib' (1988) with the casting of Naseerudin Shah and Neena Gupta. Who would not want to take in Safar-e-Ghalib (Bespoke walk revisiting Ghalib at Old Delhi) or Aakhir iss dard kee dawa kya hai (A conversation) or Shahar-e-Aarzoo (The City of Desire) which included William Dalrymple in the panel or Gham-e-Hasti (pain of being)?
I thought of grabbing some food. Decided against missing out on what I anticipated would be ample food for thought. Post-recital, I had food for the soul. Radhika Chopra from Jammu and Kashmir and a masterful exponent of Mirza Ghalib's ghazals had the seats-full, stairway occupied and people standing at the back; an audience enthralled in pin-drop silence. My attention was partially focused on the man seated in front of me. His body language movement conveyed in totality his absorption and appreciation. Ustad Ghulam Sahab on the sarang frequently accompanies the diva Farida Khanum. His strumming of the sarang strings drew out depths of emotions. For a somewhat un-initiated admirer, I felt privileged to be amongst such a samajdhar (knowledgeable) crowd. Radhika Chopra's elaborations enhanced her spontaneous interaction with the receptive audience. She mentioned that it was Jagjit Singh who made ghazals popular with the masses. She does come across requests for 'ghajals,' if not filmy songs. A wave of laughter followed this declaration. She spoke of the relevance of Mirza Ghalib's poetry even today. Dr. Radhika Chopra has left no stone unturned. She holds a doctorate in Fine Arts and Music from Delhi University. A standing ovation followed her finale - an exquisite rendition of 'Ab jaane ki zid na karo' composed by Fayyaz Hashmi. Mesmerized, I floated out into the cool February evening air, filled with music for the soul. An experience soothing for the soul indeed!
A former Indian diplomat and a cultural connoisseur, Pavan Varma delivered the closing remarks. He spoke of her superb diction and delivery of Urdu and her heartfelt interpretation of Ghalib's poetry. He acknowledged her as one of the most outstanding younger exponents of Ghalib's ghazals. Varma is the author of 'Ghalib: the man, the times' (1992). Next morning, I borrowed three books on Ghalib's poetry from the IIC Library. Khushwant Singh, the prolific author in his foreword to Ghalib: Cullings from the Divan' rendered in English by T.P. Issar writes: "...All I can say without hesitation is that of all the translations of Ghalib that I have read. I found his (Issar) to be the most readable and by far the best." Ghalib concedes:
"True, though, o heart, is my writing, redoutable
poets hear me again and again and request me to use
simpler language. What I say is
complicated, what I write is complicated."
And to prove the point, how does one get over the following verse?
"My paper is all used up and yet
much of Thy praise is left.
Verily, to finish praise of Thee
is to voyage a shoreless sea!"
Dipping into the genius of Ghalib, I felt reassured by the translator T.P. Issar. "The English renderings and the footnotes have been done not only for the non-initiated - but eager reader, but also for the reader who knows his Ghalib but may wish, like the author, to 'burnish his rusted recollection.'" I fall into the first category.
A visit to Mirza Ghalib's restored haveli in old Delhi was next on my itinerary. A car drive through a packed road left us immobile. Gingerly boarding a rickshaw, we once again entered Chandni Chowk, the main commercial street designed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. He had been inspired by Esfahan in Persia renowned for its architectural and aesthetic attributes. After all, Esfahan was known as 'Nesf-e-Jahan' (Esfahan is half the world). I looked back through the opening of the rickshaw and saw framed in perfect alignment the principal domes, turrets and balconies of the Lal Kila (Red Fort). Under a moonlit night, there would have been horse-drawn carriages, candle-lit stands and the buzz of commercial activities while people strolled the broad boulevard. It must have provided a pleasing panorama to its founder.
Well into the twenty-first century, the scenario is well - different. Mostly rickshaws negotiate Chandni Chowk. Off-side dark labyrinthine alleyways remain packed with vendors and buyers in a medieval market ambience; where even a rickshaw passage is challenging. There is the dhaba-wallah, the chai-wallah, the paratha-wallah, the churi- wallah, the lace and ribbon seller... (street food seller/tea seller/ fried savoury seller/ the bangle seller...) We had gotten off to taste a famed culinary item, the paratha in the Paratha Gali. Traditionally, toasted on a hot skillet; what we consumed was fast-track deep-fried. A search for a cup of brewed tea proved arduous. A lone tea vendor's cart parked in front of a sealed dilapidated building with dark and dingy building blocks surrounding the narrow passage-way ended our search. Better not to know of its provenance.
The vast central expanse of the largest mosque in India was welcome. The Jame Masjid was also built in Shah Jahan's New Delhi capital, the earlier Mughal capital being Agra. It, along with the Red Fort on the opposite side, marks the two main magnificent edifices of today's old Delhi. Back onto the rickshaw for our ultimate destination: Ghalib's Haveli at Mir Qasim Jaan Gali, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk. The poet spent his last years at this address. He died in 1869. The rickshaw swerved through serpentine-like Choori lane - the glint of sparkling glass bangles - and I so wanted to make a stop. Next came Chawri road, a wide street remarkably lined by shops solely specializing in wedding cards. Some simple, some colourful; mostly mega samples all glitz and gold. This is where the Big Bash Indian Wedding begins. Its provenance includes the first wholesale market of old Delhi, established in 1840. Earlier, it was also known for its brass and copper street level merchandise and upper floor 'Red Light' sexual services.
(To be continued)
Raana Haider enjoys literary journeys. She is the author of India: Beyond the Taj and the Raj, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013