Ganesh Vancheeswaran visits the pre-eminent 19th-century Urdu-Persian poet’s house and resting place in Old Delhi, and returns with a couplet on his lip.
This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on August 11, 2017.
The building is one of the many structures on Gali Qasim Jaan in the congested mohalla (neighbourhood) of Ballimaran in old Delhi. At first, I mistake it for a tenement that is being shared by a dozen families, much like other buildings around it are. It is only when I look closer that I notice the differences. For one, this building is made of red bricks and stone, unlike its neighbours that sport the look of modern-day cement-and-paint structures. Secondly, this is the only building on the street that has a uniformed guard at the entrance. And finally, it seems to have a more dignified appearance than the others.
I stand opposite the arched entrance for a couple of minutes and gaze at the building. People sweep past me on this narrow, congested street and cycle rickshaws tring tring furiously. Iron shutters are rolled up as shops open for business. The air is thick with the cries of hawkers and the smells of breakfast being cooked in a dozen homes.
It is just another day in Purani Dilli (old Delhi), but I am oblivious to it all.
I only have one thought: that I am finally about to step into the old residence of Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Ghalib. It has taken me years of planning and wishing and dreaming, but here I am finally. Truly, a pinch-worthy moment.
The first time I heard of Mirza Ghalib was when I was in school. I came to know that our national television was airing a serial titled Mirza Ghalib. I learnt from an uncle, who lived next door, that it was about the life of a great man who went by the same name. He was supposed to have been a wonderful Urdu poet, someone who was feted for his shaayari. Since my proclivities at that age had less to do with high falutin poetry and more to do with games, the serial was of no consequence to me.
It was only in college that I came face to face with Ghalib’s poetry. Cloaked in the melancholic baritone of Jagjit Singh, a noted ghazal singer, Ghalib’s poetry was like a beam of soft moonlight on a hot summer night. In the years that followed, I came to know the man rather well through his writings. And now, after all these years, I was visiting the house where he had spent his last days.
A plaque at the entrance announces this as ‘Mirza Ghalib Ki Haveli’ (Mirza Ghalib’s mansion). I smile at the security guard and enter the short corridor that leads to the house from the gate. There are two rooms: one ahead of me and another to my right. Both rooms are lit by yellow lighting that casts a soft glow. I walk into the room ahead and look around. There is no other visitor at the moment. The guard joins me and tells me that the house was occupied by various people after Ghalib’s death in 1869 and lost some of its original character because of repeated modifications. When the government decided to convert it into a memorial, it had to buy the house from someone who was running a motor workshop here.
Mirza Ghalib was one of the best Urdu and Persian poets. Born Mirza Asadullah Khan in Agra in 1797, he adopted the nom de plume Ghalib (meaning ‘victor’). He spent most of his life in Delhi, though he spent only the last few years of his life in this particular house. He travelled to places such as Rampur, Calcutta, Murshidabad and Varanasi, meeting and exchanging verses with the nobility. His verses are considered by many to be a benchmark in Urdu poetry and loved for their depth of feeling. I recall my historian friend Swapna Liddle, an expert in the history of Delhi, telling me that Ghalib acquired quite a fan following, with scores of fans writing to him regularly.
Though I love Urdu poetry in general, and have closely followed the works of Zauq, Daag and Mir, there is something about Ghalib’s writings that I find particularly endearing. I guess it is a very personal choice, partly dictated by the fact that the themes he wrote about are ones that I am naturally drawn to. Ghalib frequently struck a distinct philosophical tone in his poetry, musing about life, death, love, passion, pain, suffering and so on.
The din of the streets outside is very faint as I walk around the small memorial. The exposed brickwork of the walls lends character to the place. The walls are adorned by pictures of Ghalib and his couplets. One of the pictures, in which he is reclining on a cushion and writing, even as he draws on a hookah, certainly portrays a person of refined taste.
Finding his family tree framed on another wall comes as a surprise, because I hadn’t thought of his family at all. It could be because I had grown up knowing him only through his poetry, which is an entirely personal affair. The family tree traces the family all the way back to the early 18th century. A couple of small chambers lead off this room and contain more couplets and a large tome containing his poetry.
I try to picture life here during Ghalib’s times – a period when the last of the Mughal emperors was still on the throne and when Old Delhi used to be called Shahjahanabad. He lived in turbulent times and witnessed the First War of Independence in 1857. Entering the second room, I see a bust of the poet, a synopsis of his life and a picture of his wife Umrao Begum. Ghalib’s haveli is light on artefacts, but rich in atmosphere. It is a wonderful throwback to his time.
That evening, I go to Nizamuddin, a few miles away from Ballimaran. While Ballimaran gave the revered poet a home in life, Nizamuddin is where he is housed in death. I have come to visit his tomb. A number of people I ask have absolutely no clue about it. Finally, a passing maulvi (Muslim priest) shows me the way.
The arched entrance to the complex is built in Islamic style. Inside, several children are playing cricket. The azaan rings out from the famous Nizamuddin dargah nearby. I dodge a flying ball, cross an enclosed 16th century pavilion called Chausath Khamba (sixty four pillars) and find myself in a quiet courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard, lies Ghalib’s tomb – a simple room constructed in white marble. Through the open doorway, I can see a faded muslin cloth draped on the grave, with a few dried flowers lying scattered on it.
The caretaker of the tomb tells me that, barring the occasional group of ardent historians or lovers of Urdu poetry, not many visit the grave. Much of the city of Delhi seems to be unaware that one of its most revered poets lies buried in its midst. But then, this is hardly surprising in a city that is littered with heritage sites.
I sit on a stone bench for a while, listening to the prayer coming from the dargah. I finally rise, pay my respects to the poet and leave. My pilgrimage is complete.
Ghalib’s memorial is in Gali Qasim Jaan, in the Ballimaran area of old Delhi. Given the congestion in the area, it is best to take the Metro to Chandni Chowk and walk from there. The memorial is open from 10 am to 6 pm, and is closed on Monday. Ghalib’s tomb is located next door to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, a revered Sufi saint. There is no entry fee for either site.