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Of Ghalib's abode, masjid and muse

R.V. SMITH reminisces the world of Mirza Ghalib, whose 210th birthday was celebrated recently


Mirza Ghalib's 210th birth anniversary (actually 210th birthday as the anniversary would be one year less) has drawn greater public attention than probably that of any other Urdu or Hindi poet. The haveli he lived in and the Town Hall were the main venues of the functions, along with the Subz Burj Park in Nizamuddin, newly named after him. But nobody thought of holding a function at Kala Mahal in Agra, where Mirza Nausha was born on December 27, 1797, and of which he was so nostalgic because of childhood memories. Just goes to show how possessive Delhiwallahs have become of Ghalib and of Mir Taqi Mir, who was not only born in Agra but also had an affair with his cousin in the vicinity of the Taj.

Twist of destiny

An enraged family then shunted off Mir to Delhi. Be that as it may, yours truly spent a whole afternoon in and around the haveli last week and wondered at the sudden twist of destiny that had brought it into the limelight again. And not haveli Sadr Sadur, where Ghalib used to take part in mushairas. The area of Ballimaran, of which Gali Qasim Jan is a part, got its name from the boatmen who once inhabited it. Thereafter it saw a sea change with the high and mighty deciding to build their havelis there. It is after Nawab Qasim Jan, an Iranian nobleman, that the gali is named. Qasim Jan at first lived in Lahore, where he was attached to the court of the Governor, Moin-ul-Mulk, in the 1750s.

That was the time when Ghalib's grandfather also migrated to India from Turkey. It was during the reign of Shah Alam that Qasim Jan joined the court at Delhi. He was conferred the title of nawab, and in order to be close to Red Fort built his haveli in Ballimaran. After the death of Qasim Jan, his son Nawab Faizullah Beg resided in the haveli, which had spacious rooms and beautiful fountains amid an elaborate ornamental complex. Faizullah Beg constructed a complex, which acquired the name of Ahata Kale Sahib after it was acquired by Bunyadi Begum, Ghalib's sister-in-law. Ghalib also lived in Ahata Kale Sahib for some time after his release from debtors' prison.

Ghalib subsequently moved to the haveli in Qasim Jan Street. But during the "Mutiny" of 1857 he lived for some time in Sharif Manzil, where Hakim Ajmal Khan's father used to reside. The reason was that Sharif Manzil was a protected place because its owner was the personal physician of the Maharaja of Patiala, who was on good terms with the British. After the upheaval, Ghalib went back to his house where his wife, Umrao Begum held sway making the poet remark that she had turned it into a masjid. So much so, that once Ghalib entered the courtyard carrying his shoes on his head. When the begum inquired about his strange behaviour, the poet replied that he couldn't help doing otherwise as she had converted the whole house into a mosque by her piety. However there is still a mosque next to Ghalib's house.

An old bearded man, wearing a brand new sherwani and with a stick in hand, was standing next to it. Asked if Ghalib ever visited the masjid, he shook his head and declared, "I don't think so, or may be when he became old. What else can you expect from a man who wrote: "Masjid ke zer saye ek ghar bana liya hai/Ek banda-e-qamina hamsaye Khuda hai" (I have set up abode in the vicinity of a masjid so a wretch is now God's neighbour).

A man passing by with a load of tandoori rotis on his head paused to listen to the conversation and quoted another famous couplet: "Zahid sharab piney de masjid main beth kar/Ya phir woh jagah bata de jahan par Khuda na ho" (O, prayer leader, let me drink in the mosque or show me the place where God does not dwell).

The old man frowned and quoted these lines of Ghalib: Pila de ok se saqi, jo ham se nafrat hai/ Pyala gar nahi deta, na de sharab tau de (If you hate me, O saqi, withhold the cup but not the wine. Let me at least drink with my cupped hands).

Poor state

The Bade Mian then pointed towards Ghalib's House and said: See the state in which it is now. Here some of the best poetry in the world was written once and today it is a rabbit's warren. Who would say that this was once the bower of the muses where people like Nawab Buddhan and Nawab Zainuddin Ahdin came to pay their respects. As one walked away convinced by what he said, the first `degh' of biryani was being opened by the roadside seller and the smell was too appetising to resist the temptation of tasting the stuff. Ghalib too must have eaten like this sometimes or sent his faithful servant Kallu to buy the stuff, the thought occurred, for the area has hardly changed from that time as far as ordinary life and professions go. But does the mushaira lamp still burn in Matia Mahal's Haveli Sadr Sadur?

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