The generation gap divides public opinion about Mirza Ghalib, finds R. V. SMITH

Mirza Ghalib’s death anniversary on February 15, which coincided with Basant Panchami this year, passed without the enthusiasm witnessed on his birthday (December 27). When one visited Gali Mir Qasim Jan in the morning, one didn’t find anything unusual at his haveli, part of which has been turned into a memorial. An old man was standing outside with his grandson, waiting for a rickshaw to take the boy to the madarassa. Asked about Ghalib, he knitted his brows and said, “You are talking, about someone who did not set a good example all his life. He passed his days in romantic reveries and the evenings at mushairas or in drinking and courting dancing girls. Such a Mussalman hardly needs to be remembered. Even though he lived next to a masjid, he hardly ever visited it.” To show off his scholarship, made a wisecrack of a couplet: “Masjid ke zer sai ek ghar bana liya hai /Ek banda-i-qamina hamsai khuda hai”. If the man thought of himself as such a wretched neighbour of God how can the world think of him otherwise? Mark me, he lost all his children at birth because of divine displeasure with his ways”.

The old Mian might have gone senile, but a shopkeeper of Lal Kuan thought no better. “Sharifzade nahin thhç woh varna is ilaqe ki har masjid mein unke naam ki goonj hoti” (he was not such a gentleman after all, otherwise every mosque in the locality would have resounded to his name). Another old man waiting for breakfast at a nahari shop (probably his daughter-in-law had played truant) hit his walking stick hard on the ground and pushed up the bifocals from his nose angrily when one mentioned Ghalib to him. He was of the opinion that the present-day English educated society had started making too much of him when Delhi had produced better poets and role models.

Such sentiments, by and large, prevail in Ballimaran and its environs among people— who are either shopkeepers, vendors, artisans or retired men— whose time is passed in offering namaz five times a day. In between they count the days when they would be able to keep the Ramzan fast and celebrate Id-ul-Fitr after which the countdown for Id-uz-Zuha and the Haj associated with it would begin. Then Moharram’s 10 days and the tazias would occupy their minds. Prayers, eating and religious discussions make up their days as they do not “measure life in coffee spoons” but with more spiritual things. So can you blame them for not having a high opinion of Ghalib, who himself had described himself as half-Mussalman when accosted by a British Officer in the aftermath of the revolt of 1857? “You Muslim, queried the Gora Sahib. “Half”, replied Ghalib. Asked to explain, the poet said, “Though I drink wine, I don’t eat pork”. The officer laughed heartily at the tongue-in-cheek reply of the light-complexioned, raw-boned, bearded witty man of medium height, wearing a conical cap above his inordinately long ears and a worn-out medieval choga. He let him off with a toss of his head as though dismissing one of nature’s quirks who believed in “making up in the tavern for the time lost in the mosque”.

Be that as it may, one can still retrace Ghalib’s walk from his haveli to the Jama Masjid, past Haveli Azam Khan and the mandir, after which the mohalla becomes predominantly Hindu, with shops of wedding card printers in between those selling chole-bhuture; also a kacchoriwallah doing brisk business with half-famished boys and girls coming home from school crowding around his cart. One must confess that the kacchoris are even better than the ones sold in Chawri Bazar.

Passing this gali in other years Ghalib used to make his way to the shop of Masita, where he ate kababs, either before or after having three pegs of Old Tom whisky. He then visited the Kotha of the “dark dancing girl” who had stolen his heart in old age. While relaxing there Ghalib sometimes heard a beggar or two sing his verses to seek alms. That made him think that he must have gained more respect in the eyes of his beloved. But the kotha visit was not an everyday affair. There were problems too because of his straitened circumstances, which once made him long to seek shelter in the mahal of the emperor’s relative Mirza Elahi Bux after the roof of his own house had collapsed in heavy rain. Also, there were mushairas to be attended in the Red Fort (before Mirza Fatehullah Beg’s 1910 masterpiece, Dilli ki Aakhri Shama). The reputed French scholar and linguist Garcin de Tassy kept track of them in his annual lectures on the state of Urdu literature in the 19th Century. Besides the formal ones, there were improvised mushairas in places like Haveli Sadr Sadur at Matia Mahal. Up to a few years ago one could see the elevated stone lampstand on which the shama was kept to light up the faces of the Shairs and those assembled to hear them.

Back to Gali Qasim Jan. One met a girl— tall, fair and very good-looking— returning from Rabea Girls’ School nearby. She was shy but when asked about Ghalib thought better of him than the other residents. “Bahut lajawab thhe Ghalib Mian. Unke sher tau subhan Allah thhe. Ji chahata hai bas sunte jaian” (he was nonpareil. One never gets tired of listening to his verses).

The remark shows that young people have no intention of ostracizing Ghalib. Probably some of them lit a candle at the haveli that evening. But there was no euphoria as such to mark the day when Assadullah Beg Khan Ghalib, alias Mirza Nosha, joined his peers 143 years ago in the Elysian Fields. However, one little-known fact is that he had once, in a letter to his friend Hargobind Tafta, desired to be buried near the statue of the Red Horse on the Delhi-Agra Road— to which he was forever sending salaams— and near the Pir Sahib’s grave close by. Had that wish been fulfilled, Ghalib’s admirers would have been paying homage in the city of the Taj, where he was born, besides Gali Qasim Jan, on his birth and death anniversaries.

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