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.