R.V. Smith takes us on a tour of Ghalib's haveli which has now thankfully been acquired for preservation
Before Ghalib's haveli in Qasim Jan street was acquired for preservation, few in the literary circles in New Delhi, who now hold an annual function there on Dec. 27, the poet's birthday, seemed to be interested in his old abode. It was Maikash Akbarabadi who, some 50 years ago, took this scribe along with him one winter afternoon, saying he wanted to show me “something that had missed my attention so far”.
We entered Ballimaran and Maikash was immediately surrounded by the shoe merchants who had business links with their counterparts in Nai Basti, Agra near which he lived, headed by Mohammad Mian Akbar. They insisted on the poet having tea and “khasta kachoris”, despite his protestations that he had already had breakfast at Azad Hind Hotel, where Afzal Peshawari had offered him “nahari” from Karim's, along with a plate of payee (trotters).
It took half an hour for the tea session to be over, after which we walked down to the haveli, past pet goats tied in front of untidy shops. At the Hindustani Dawakhana our progress was held up again as some of the hakims recognised the old man and began asking about the Garhaiya Hakims, still famous in the city of the Taj because of Maulana Mobin-uz-Zaman Qadri, who had a good practice among the Rajas of Awagarh and Badawar, for whom he made Muallam, an invigorating preparation from Murgh (the cock bird), that aided the libido.
After this distraction we finally entered the haveli, which was then in the possession of encroachers, who hardly bothered about Ghalib having once been a resident of it. They greeted us with blank faces. Then Maikash started explaining the relevance of the old dilapidated house that was a witness to the 1857 Uprising too, when Ghalib's younger brother died and he had to make arrangements for his funeral despite the curfew-like conditions imposed by the British. But the men of the Maharaja of Patiala's force sent to guard the residence of the father of Hakim Ajmal Khan, the Maharaja's Unani physician, came to his aid and the body was finally laid to rest in the qabristan, with Ghalib weeping all the way.
On his return he was comforted by his wife, Umrao Begum, a kinswoman of the Nawab of Loharu. Maikash then pointed to the courtyard, where Ghalib had once entered with his shoes on his head, saying he had no other option as the Begum had made the entire house a masjid by her piety. It was there also that the poet had come with a man carrying a basket containing bottles of Old Tom whisky after getting his first pay. When Umrao Begum asked him for his pay packet, he remarked, “God has assured us of daily bread but not wine, so man has to make his own arrangements for it”. Despite this poignant remark the Begum kept her cool, though she wondered how they would manage to pull through amidst mounting debts.
Maikash asserted that Ghalib lived most of the time in the top portion of the haveli and looked down some time to time at the bodies of his still-born children from there. He also drew a parallel with the poet's Agra abode in Kala Mahal, where he said Ghalib's “rooh” (spirit) was said to appear from times on moonlit nights.
It was a hectic afternoon and one thanked Maikash for his revelations over tea offered by a kindly shopkeeper. Had he been alive now he would have been happy that the haveli had at last got its due recognition. But he died in 1992. Maikash, no doubt, though he had never tasted a drop of liquor in all the 90 years of his life!
Keywords: Ghalib's haveli