It worries and even angers diplomat-writer Pavan K. Varma that
Delhi, of all places, has almost completely forgotten Mirza Ghalib,
the great poet and lyricist of the late Mughal period. The city
was Ghalib's home as well as muse.
"Without pride you can't have a great capital," believes Varma,
who has authored the book, "Ghalib: The Man, The Times".
Ghalib is a metaphor for the great culture of this city, he said.
"Why is there so much neglect of a literary icon like Mirza Ghalib
who belonged to this city, so much ignorance? Why is there so much
of amnesia about history? No one bothered about Ghalib for almost
100 years after his death in 1869. His memory and his legacy are
important," Varma said at the beginning of a three-day celebration
to mark Ghalib's 213th birthday Monday.
"Most people of Delhi have no knowledge of recent history. Nearly
ninety-nine percent of people who live in Masjid More, Hauz Khas
or Safdarjung do not know the significance of the places.
"There is no sense of pride left. Without pride, you can't have a
great capital. This is a great city - why is it the banana capital
of the world in cultural terms?" Varma, the Indian ambassador to
Varma, who is associated with a citizens' movement to revive the
memories and legacy of Ghalib in Delhi, said his book on Ghalib
was spurred by similar apathy.
"The year was 1984. I went to a leading bookshop in the capital
and asked for a book on Ghalib because I wanted to know him. I
could not find any. A search in other bookshops yielded a few
extended booklets - mostly translations into English of some of
his Urdu 'diwan'. I learnt Urdu, went through old documents and
decided to write a book about Ghalib," he told IANS.
Varma took five years to write the book. "You can go to St
Columbus, St Xavier's and St Stephen's, but you can still be a
cultural orphan if you don't learn Sanskrit or Urdu," he said.
The writer-diplomat said his book was not just a homage to a great
man, "but at a personal act of penance and a pilgrimage. An effort
to overcome in my own life the sense of inadequacy many of my age
have felt growing up in such culturally nondescript times."
Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Khan Ghalib, who was born in Agra to a
family of Turkish origin in 1797, began to write poetry in Persian
at the age of nine.
The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II conferred upon
Ghalib two titles, "Dabeer-ul-Mulk" and the "Najm ud-daulah," and
appointed him poet-tutor in 1854, three years before the mutiny.
However, the 1857 uprising destroyed Ghalib's lust for life as he
saw his friends die, the emperor humiliated and his "beloved Delhi
change for ever". The poet longed to die.
Varma divides his book into five segments to cover Ghalib's years
in the capital which coincides with the last chaotic decades of
the declining Mughal empire.
He says in his book that "Ghalib, apart from being one of our
greatest poets, was through his letters (of which he was a
prolific writer), a chronicler par excellence of his times".
According to Varma, Ghalib lived in Delhi through a fascinating
"Mughal power was slowly but surely fading. The British had
ensconced themselves as the 'de facto' rulers. Ghalib, who prided
himself on belonging to the feudal nobility, was caught between
his loyalty to the Mughal kings and his need to cultivate the new
rulers, from whom in the form of hereditary pension, he received
his only source of income," Varma said.
Varma observed that the period of Mughal political decline
coincided, ironically enough with a phase of unprecedented
"Urdu, a hitherto plebeian cousin of Persian, came into its own
and acquired a new sophistication, self-assurance and maturity and
authenticity that manifested itself in a myriad ways - not the
least of which was an increasing sway of Sufi secularism over
Delhi's way of life.
"Ghalib's writing and life illumined and mirrored the different
facets of Delhi - its problems, diversions, pettiness,
achievements, despairs - in a manner rarely seen," he said.
A bust of the poet will be installed at his old family residence
in Gali Qasim Jaan at Chandi Chowk Dec 26 by Delhi Chief Minister
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)