The bard of the ages

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If Mirza Ghalib whose death anniversary was observed last week – were alive today and he was living in Lahore, instead of Delhi, he would have been under fire from the mullah brigade. He was only a half-Muslim. You ask me why? First, Ill have to tell you about his life. But are you interested? At least Delhiites dont care about Ghalib. Besides, is it possible within a column format to convey the contrasts of his low life and high career, and also suggest his astonishing feat of transcending a vanished era to become the greatest Delhi poet?

Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Khan wrote in Persian and Urdu. Ghalib, meaning most excellent, was his pen name. Born in Agra to a family of military adventurers, he spent almost all his life in Delhi, which then was in a transition phase custom-made for poets. The Mughal dynasty fell, the British took over and a civilisation ended. Ghalib was a prop in this play. Like a newborn baby, he cried, frowned and flailed his arms on being forced into a new uncertain world. But he also captured the essence of the times in verses so elemental that no matter where we live, we could relate the twilight years of Mughal Delhi to our individual despairs. In the destruction of Ghalibs city, we could see the ruin of our dreams.

We smashed the wine cup and the flask

What is it now to us?

If all the rain that falls from heaven

Should turn to rose-red wine?

After the British crushed the uprising of 1857, the Red Fort and Jamia Masjid were converted into barracks. Fatehpuri Masjid was sold to a Hindu merchant. Bahadaur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king and also a poet, was imprisoned in a cell, on the walls of which he wrote verses with a burnt stick. He was later exiled to Rangoon. In order to bring the city to its knees, the British tried to flatten it by razing down gullis and koochas that gave Delhi its distinctive character. The buildings close to the Red Fort were demolished. Most Muslims fled the city.

In a letter to a friend in 1861, Ghalib wrote, The city has become a desert by God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses…

When Ghalib served as Zafars ustad, his job was to edit the emperors verses. During court days, he reached the Red Fort by nine, returned home for lunch and then go back again to the court. In evenings, he might be required to fly kites with the emperor.

There are two Ghalibs, the poet wrote. One is the Seljuq Turk who mixes with badshahs, the other is poor, in debt and insulted. Being so close to the royalty didnt translate to wealth. Forever in debt, sometimes Ghalib would not leave home for fear of being harassed by debtors. The bard never owned a house, and he always read borrowed books. But every evening till the uprising he drank French wine. And he gambled. In 1847, a British magistrate sentenced him to six months imprisonment for gambling, along with hard labour and a fine of Rs 200.

But Ghalib was not a poet prone to self-pity. He had a massive ego, an inferior view of his contemporaries and a bawdy zest for life. A lover of mangoes, the poet-gambler was a womaniser. Consoling a friend whose mistress had just died, Ghalib said:

Take a new woman each returning spring

For last years almanac is a useless thing.

Although a Muslim, Ghalib never fasted during Ramzan. When asked of his religion, he said that he was a half-Muslim, explaining, I drink wine but I do not touch pork.

A provocative intellectual, he loved messing with peoples heads. Once he dared both Hindus and Muslims by writing:

In the Kaaba I will play the conch-shell

In the temple I have draped the ahram.

The hypocrisy of mullahs too was not spared:

The tavern door and the preacher,

Are truly poles apart.

All I know is I saw him enter,

As I left to depart.

By 1867, at the age of 70 years, Ghalibs memory had gone, his hearing had failed, his hands trembled, his teeth had fallen off, and he couldnt walk. Two years later, even in the final stage of his life, Ghalib would write letters, and edit poems that were sent to him for corrections. Just before the end, on February 15, 1869, he said:

My dying breath is ready to depart

And now, my friends, God, only God, exists.

Ghalib was buried the same noon in central Delhis Nizamuddin Basti, in the family graveyard of the Nawab of Loharu. His wife died on the same date, a year later.

Until a few years ago, the haveli in Ballimaran where Ghalib died was a coal store. Recent restoration has transformed it into a makeshift museum with facsimiles of Ghalibs letters, some grainy pictures, and curiously, utensils of his time. Apart from his books on display, a chart shows Ghalibs favorite dishes (bhuna ghosht and sohan halwa). The courtyard looks onto the back of a high-rise, the wall of which is spattered with paan stains and lined with sewage. Ghalib would have chuckled at the setting.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.