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Forgetting Ghalib is forgetting history, says writer-diplomat

Saturday December 25, 2010 02:24:36 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

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New Delhi: 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 Bhutan, asked.

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 period.

"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 literary growth.

"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 Sheila Dikshit.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at






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