Scenes from the Char Bagh

Author comes out as gay, accuses publisher of blackmail. Ngugi wa Thiong’o launches a controversial book in Kenya–but it’s kept so hush-hush for security reasons that no one shows up. The Kennedy clan skips the launch of Jack’s Widow, which depicts Jacquie Kennedy Onassis as a CIA agent.

Na, the Babu doesn’t care how exciting book launches are elsewhere in the world, they can’t compare with the Last Mughal launch he went to yesterday.
“Bring your card or you won’t be let in!” publishers Penguin warned us.
“The British Council’s being tough about cards, so please bring yours,” the author William Dalrymple warned us.
“We can’t let you in unless you’re carrying a card,” the British Council warned us.
This was for very good reasons; the Council’s recent research into security risks and terrorist activity indicates that over 80 per cent of bomb-carrying, book-launch-infiltrating terrorists NEVER carry the invite with them. Nor do they RSVP, the unmannerly louts.
The usually genial security chappie at the Council was taking no chances, he examined our cards carefully, just in case we were trying to sneak in using a Mughal-inspired Xmas card instead of the launch invite thingie with the portrait of Bahadur Shah Zafar (in Noel Coward dressing gown).

The Char Bagh, which is normally where louche journos sneak out for a smoke and a drink in the middle of the more dreary book launches, had been transformed with the soft light of earthern diyas, inviting mattresses and a stage decorated with chandeliers and hookahs into a suitably Mughal-court-meets-Umrao-Jaan-launch setting.
The Babu was charmed, though others were more critical. “The blasted soft light of those damned earthen diyas is attracting mosquitoes,” grumbled a friend, who also pointed out that the inviting mattresses were paired with recalcitrant bolsters that shot into the next guest’s lap the moment you leaned an elbow on them. Mine put up stiff resistance, but I did manage to wrestle it into submission in the end, and author Rana Dasgupta was kind enough to display his WWF Elbow-Lock move, guarantted to keep even the most ornery bolster pinned to the ground.

But the reading was brilliant–as this report suggests, we were all listening in hush as William Dalrymple, Mahmood Farooqui and Radhika Chopra blended Ghalib’s ghazals, gut-wrenching accounts of the carcasses that littered Delhi’s streets after the mutiny and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poignant poetry for an hour.

Two moments stood out. Mahmood reading Ghalib’s letter to a friend in 1861, a few years after the events of 1857 had devastated Delhi:

“This whole city has become a desert. Delhi people still pride themselves on Delhi language! What pathetic faith! My dear man, when the Urdu Bazaar is no more, where is Urdu? By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment.”

He had already lamented the loss of Delhi’s poets, in 1859:

“Where is Mamnun? Where is Zauq? And where is Momin Khan? Two poets survive. One, Azurda–and he is silent: the other Ghalib, and he is lost in himself, in a stupor. None to write poetry, and none to judge its worth.”

And William Dalrymple, who spent four years researching this book, reading his account of the funeral of the last Mughal emperor of India, in Rangoon in November 1862:

“The bier of the State Prisoner–as the deceased was referred to–was accompanied by two of his sons and an elderly, bearded mullah. No women were allowed to attend, and a small crowd from the bazaar who had somehow heard about the prisoner’s death were kept away by armed guards… The ceremony was brief. The British authorities had made sure not only that the grave was already dug, but that quantities of line were on hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body. When the shortened funeral prayers had been recited–no lamentations or panegyrics were allowed–the earth was thrown in over the lime, and the turf carefully replaced so that within a month or so no mark would remain to indicate the place of burial.”

So died Timur’s descendant, now leading a posthumous life as a sort of Saint Zafar in Burma.

Then, of course, the qawwals from the Nizamuddin dargah started up, and the wine and gossip flowed like water, and people stumbled over the mattresses until the Council sensibly had the things removed, and the Babu was subjected to more bad shairi in the course of one evening than he has had to suffer over the last six months. The Babu’s favourite quote of the evening was delivered by a wannabe cultural czarlet when the Nizami Bandhu’s Sufi qawwalis replaced the ghazal singing:

“I can’t stand ghazals, they give me a stomach ache, but qawwalis are another matter. Sufi, so good.”





3 responses to “Scenes from the Char Bagh”

  1. thalassa_mikra Avatar

    Ah, those lines from Ghalib’s letters – they are perhaps the most oft quoted in any account of the trauma of post-1857 Delhi. If you haven’t done so already, you absolutely must read “Delhi Between the Two Empires” by Narayani Gupta. It’s the most amazing account of late-19th century Delhi, and I suspect Dalrymple’s book covers pretty much the same material. Gail Minault at University of Texas Austin has been working on a book on the cultural history of 19th century Delhi for quite a while. I don’t think she’s published it yet.

  2. Anand Avatar

    oy vey.miss those evenings at the bcl.remember zafar’s (prescient) poetrypadhe fatiha koi aaye kyon?koi char phool chadhaye kyon?koi aake shamma jalaye kyon?main woh beqai ka mazaar hoon…

  3. uma Avatar

    Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liyeDo gaz zameen bhi na mili ku-ae-yaar mein

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: