THE GHALIB I FORGOT

My ‘doctoral cronies’ would agree that pursuing a PhD formulates an event of a lifetime. From the day the idea germinates, research determines every aspect of your life; the hypothesis evolving every second. It follows you to the library, the park, the gym, the dinner table and also pays a visit or two in your dreams. ‘You are married to your research, Moon Moon’, my supervisor once said as she excitedly took a few sips of Coke. Sitting at our university canteen, she pointed out at the drudgery that was my PhD. ‘It’s like having a demanding husband or a boyfriend or like carrying a baby or a monster sitting on your back’. Despite the dramatic portraiture, the travails of my research were soothed, nonetheless, by my guide, whose convivial and unconventional style of supervision, made this marriage a happy one indeed.

The marriage ended soon. Unlike my friends, who were rooted in academia and immersed in their doctoral specialisation, my frivolous, albeit adventurous, research endeavours made me part ways from my 5-year relationship of sorts. From Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court in late Mughal Delhi I made my way to the hilly terrains of India’s North East, wherein the tribes and their traditional textiles would offer a plethora of avenues to explore. Travelling to the farthest of villages every year, I gradually distanced myself from the sepoys who marched to Delhi in 1857, the helpless emperor, caught between the English and the rebels, and the soldiers of a Company, that had established its supremacy over our princes and peasantry.

Zafar’s Delhi remained forcibly renounced, until our Prime Minister, now visiting Iran, chose Ghalib over diplomatic jargon to describe Indo-Iranian ties. ‘Once we make up our mind, the distance between Kashi and Kashan is only half a step’, he quoted the poet and an applause resounded the Saadabad palace. While the Prime Minister signed the historic Chabahar port treaty, my mind steered back to the 1800s when Ghalib refused an offer to teach Persian at the Delhi College. The Delhi College, founded on the ruins of a madrassa, was a symbol of Delhi’s literary flowering in the early nineteenth century. An educational institute, it was a space for acquaintance and ideological debates. Lieutenant- General Thompson, of the North Western provinces, once took on the administrative reins of the college and invited Ghalib for an interview. Parking his carriage at the entrance of the college, Ghalib awaited a formal welcome from the Lieutenant. When Thompson did not oblige to this princely behavior, Ghalib turned away, refusing to impart knowledge, until his honorable status was acknowledged.

Ghalib’s story is that of a man seeking prestige. It appeared that his writings were dwarfed by his desire for grandiosity. He wrote: ‘My ancestors have been warriors for a hundred generations, I don’t need to write poetry to acquire honorable status’

The writing of history became a ‘headache’ for Delhi’s Goethe as he shunned his research of the Mughal empire. ‘I am no historian’, he wrote, ‘the tales of love and loyalty are all my stock in trade.’ Despite the barmy take on his own capabilities, Ghalib’s verses resonated through Delhi even when he pawned his way to jail and indulged in profligacy. On his spend thrift aristocracy he said: ‘When I was young, a perfect guide told me that piety and asceticism did not please him, and he would not forbid gay and sinful living. I could eat and drink and make merry. Only I should remember to be like the fly that sits on crystal sugar, not like the one that sits on honey.’

Couplets, like these, became a part of my daily reads, as I researched, Zafar, his Dilli and its eccentric poet, Ghalib. He sometimes presented to be an iconic writer, much ahead of his times and sometimes, a sycophant, an opportunist, a man to whom ‘poetry bought no honour’.

This quest to understand a man and the times he lived in, ended abruptly as I successfully defended my thesis. With it came the end of Delhi, its twilight years, and also Ghalib, now easily forgotten.

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ROOTED IN PARTITION

PERSONAL HISTORIES AND MORE

As the grueling summer sets in, I am reminded of my days in school when the month of May came with the much needed respite from textbooks, surprise tests, failed attempts to understand algebra and many such activities that my regimented and monotonous school life had to offer. What followed was an ephemeral joy of discovering Jane Austen, Jules Verne, R.L. Stevenson and Louisa May Alcott, who kept me good company during those dry and arid afternoons. Summers were also a time for grand parents and their stories, encompassing everything from Hindu mythology to fairytales. My grandfather, or dadaji, as I fondly called him, did not believe in drawing influences from tales that were not real. His stories were narratives from his own life, with every experience being a lesson to be learnt. One such summer, he shared a portentous experience of his life . While my fellow classmates busied themselves in finishing their holiday assignments, I, choosing to ignore the need to improve my weak mathematical skills, sat on his lap and heard out the story of my family’s migration. A migration that began in a village, now located in Pakistan, and ended in a tent at a refugee camp in Delhi. The story, now imprinted in my mind, was to surreptitiously shape my personal and professional life.

It was in 1947 that my family found itself at the doorstep of history. While living a life, full of contentment and luxury, with his wife and two daughters in Lahore, my dadaji was perhaps oblivious of the political turmoil brewing between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, two significant parties leading India’s struggle for independence. The demand for a separate state for the Muslims was an ongoing one and was eventually realized after the passage of many government acts, missions and direct action days!

As Sir Cyrill Radcliffe, Chairman of the Border Commission, demarcated the line between India and Pakistan, my dadaji hurriedly packed, wanting to catch the next train to Amritsar. In a state of disquietude, he left his home of many years, escaping the prying eyes of his neighbors, who may now have turned his enemies. Having survived history’s bloodiest migration, he first made his way to Delhi and then to Lucknow, where he would give his family a new life and a new belonging. Years later when my brother and I were born, we were made to believe and accept that our roots lay in Lucknow, when actually they were far away in a country with whom we have fought many a wars and continue to be at political loggerheads.

My family made no contribution to any events leading to the partition of the country. Their signatures and names do not appear on any essential governmental documents, pertaining to the partition. Whether my dadaji wanted to be uprooted and displaced from his native village, his place of birth, his physical and emotional anchorage, did not matter to those chalking out a division plan in their corridors of power.

However, does that relegate his presence in history? Study of history in India is isolated in the periodic shells of Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Battles, leaders, movements overcast many a histories, hitherto hidden and untold. Beneath our monuments are buried personal histories of individuals, families, who may not have delivered a momentous speech but their lives closely intertwined with an epoch making event. The partition became that event for dadaji and my family. Their story of this gory migration remains unwritten and unheard.

My dadaji is no more and his presence is dearly missed, especially during dry summer afternoons, when his tales of personal experiences provided lessons for life. It’s summer again and I have no school duties to render to, thankfully! It’s perhaps time to unshackle the historian within me, caught between the Mughals and the British, and bring to fore my dadaji’s personal history, the story of my family’s long journey from Pakistan to India. Delving into this personal history, will also bring about a discovery of my own belonging, not in Lucknow, not in Delhi, but deeply rooted in my dadaji’s narrative of the partition.