Speaking Volumes: “It was Delhi, you know.”

(Published in the Business Standard, November 10, 2014)

Unless you go very early in the morning to Chandni Chowk, before dawn, an hour or so after the flowersellers market has opened, it is hard to see in today’s city of politicians the “Dilhi” where poets once ruled.

That city can be imagined easily enough in the sliver of time between dawn and about 9 a m, as the great ancient markets stir and the lanes – quiet, narrow, not yet crowded with porters, handcarts and Honda sedans – see some of the old havelis open their doors.

It is not difficult then to conjure up this city: “The breezes that blew so pleasantly through the lanes and bazaars of resonated anyway with the poetry of Mirza Bedil, his disciple Achal Das, his friend … The winds wafted away the poetry to far-off places.”

But then the present takes over firmly from the past, and Ghalib’s ghost leaves, ushered out by the raucous bargaining of the traders, the silversmiths in Dariba and the costumesellers in Kinari Bazaar.

– critic, scholar, poet, editor and novelist – published in 2001, completing this translation from the Urdu himself some years later. In the absence of a literary history of the mushairas, poets, teachers, printing presses, historians and writers whose darbars rivalled the official ones over north India from Lucknow to Varanasi to Delhi, these five long stories serve as both literary entertainment and as history.

To read is to be reminded not just of the poets and their passions, but of the many centuries when this part of India took literature as seriously as it did politics. Perhaps more seriously, for rulers came and went, but a good ghazal or dastan would last the ages.

Mr Faruqi translates in harmony with the spirit of the age he is writing about, using a brisk, contemporary English woven through with terms like “The Guide and Mentor, who occupies the station of the Tongue Unseen”.

In “Bright Star, Lone Splendor”, a young Ruswa, Mian Beni Madho Singh, comes to Delhi from an Awadh “in the Firangi’s shackles”. His education has been in Persian, Arabic, English, mathematics, history and “something quite unfamiliar which was called Hindi”, where the language he and his family spoke at home loses some of its dulcet flow when weighted down with “the hard-to-pronounce Sanskrit vocabulary”. (The complaint, only lightly worn by a century’s use, was still a common one in the Walled City a decade ago.)

Mr Faruqi likes a sprawling canvas, filled in with intricate detail, and The Sun That Rose From The Earth unfolds as his novel The Mirror of Beauty did. This is unhurried storytelling, dense rather than meandering, filled with world-building detail. Like the other stories in this collection, “Bright Star, Lone Splendour” takes time to unfold, but that pace has the useful effect of slowing the reader down, removing him or her from this hurried age. For maximum enjoyment, switch your message alerts and Twitter feed off when you’re reading Mr Faruqi.

Ruswa finds the courage to approach Ghalib, and the two poets, the master and his young admirer, settle into a writers’ friendship. In a charming passage, Ruswa daringly decides to ask Ghalib to “autograph” his books of poetry – newly published by the Nizami Press in Chaman Ganj. Ghalib sahib complies, but he also suggests – and this will gladden the hearts of contemporary authors – that showering them with a necklace of 21 gems, or robes of honour, might be a better sign of appreciation than “buying a little book for half a rupee and getting it autographed”. (Modern readers, take note.)

The debates of the day emerge: language and authenticity are large preoccupations, with arguments over those on whom their mother tongues (Hindi, or Bengali, or Bhaka) exert a pull can truly express themselves in Persian. A little further on, in “The Rider” (set around 1764-1769), the argument has changed: “The better poets today were turning to Rekhtah in large numbers. Rekhtah had a brilliancy of wit and a freshness of colour that was lacking in Persian.” Even further on, Hindi begins to show its uses and its dexterity.

Mr Faruqi tries his hand at fable, fairly successfully at an old-school ghost story, and displays sweeping ambition in “Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately”. This story starts in the house of Zohra the Egyptian in Nakhjavan, shifts to Tabriz, and follows Labiba Khanum as she settles briefly in the gardens of Isfahan, only to travel the high roads down to Delhi, where she is greeted by Mir Taqi Mir’s poetry.

If the details about the poets themselves, from Ghalib and Ruswa to Mir Taqi Mir, Kishan Chand Iklas and others, or a score of beguiling, formidable, unforgettable courtesans, will draw many readers, at least as many will enjoy The Sun That Rose From The Earth for its portrait of Delhi across the centuries.

Mr Faruqi’s love for the city – and for other cultural centres in north India – is as evident as his scholarship. Basant (spring) unites “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain or Nanak Panthi”; all have a taste for the Basant, its mustard flowers and marigolds, when the whole city is “drenched in yellows, saffrons, ochres”.

Nor is his love blinded by nostalgia: in the title story, a courtesan cruelly dismisses a poet who has written a scathing ode about her. “It was Delhi, you know. Scandals, rumours, poems, especially cruel and abusive poems, were enjoyed more than the choicest foods and tobaccos.”

The poets may have yielded place to ambitious longform journalists, and the scent of Jaunpur’s jasmine flowers may have been replaced by the traffic fumes at the ITO crossing; but the Dilliwallah‘s love of beauty, the city’s syncretic culture (beleaguered but not yet dead) and the appetite for good gossip still remain. And perhaps even the poets survived, or so the hipsters of Hauz Khas village would like you to believe.





One response to “Speaking Volumes: “It was Delhi, you know.””

  1. ramblinginthecity Avatar

    Beautifully written. One would return to those times if one could. Oh tp slow down and breathe! In today’s Dilli, even that is a luxury!

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: