I first encountered the writings of Saif Mahmood on the pages of First City magazine. Apart from the pecuniary challenges it presented a University student, everything about the magazine was very novel. The design, photographs and the presentation was very attractive; the stories were inventive, columnists diverse, and subjects extended from newly arrived migrant at the Nizamuddin station to the poets of the hoary past. It was on these pages that I first read of Zatalli and Bedil. Saif later joined its list of columnists, writing in limpid prose about the poets of Delhi. Unencumbered by his profession, which has the reputation of verbosity and jargoning, he continues to write with the felicity of a master. In fact, reading Beloved Delhi reminded me of what Nakul Krishna recently wrote of R K Narayan:
Some writers turn ordinary readers into critics looking for hidden meanings in books and asking how they work. Other writers do the opposite, turning even the wariest of critics into ordinary readers, causing them to forget that it takes art to look artless and that easy reading need not come of easy writing.
Saif is the second kind of writer, quite in the mould of Narayan, but with a different subject matter.
Beloved Delhi, Saif’s first book, tells the story of his beloved Delhi and his beloved poet, of the period of Mughal decline. The format it chooses is perhaps unprecedented: for rarely has a city’s story been told through the lives of its poets, but what could be more apposite than to tell the story of the city that spawned the language of these poets; kosher still is telling history through poetry for no other city’s culture had so much poetry imbued in it. To disagree with Meena Alexander, one can die of several things, but history does not kill you; it gives meaning to the present. We have poetry, because we have history; and we have Urdu because we have Delhi, and Delhi has a history. The past ignites conscience and therefore poetry. Of this, there is no better example than Urdu—the language that emanated out of cross-cultural, inter-lingual influences. The book has an erudite overview of the cultural environment and history that led to its development by Sohail Hashmi.
Urdu grew by virtue of the linguistic experiences derived from the greater Persian area, the Indo-Gangetic plain, and the many interconnections with other local languages. In this period Urdu imbibed and also cultivated an idiom uniquely its own, giving it the richness and colourfulness that older languages of the world could scarcely rival. When Mirza Rafi Sauda (1713-1785) begins to write in Urdu (or Rekhta, as it is called then) at the suggestion of Khan-e-Arzu (1687-1756), the language is not very old. The Delhi visit of Wali Dakhni (1667-1707) in 1700, when most poets are writing in Persian, gives a fillip to the language. Yet Persian is not displaced immediately to a second rung language. Instead, the gradual move from Persian to Urdu spawns numerous modes and themes of poetry and also the ustad-shagird tradition. A number of ideas and concepts came into play on the nature and art of poetry: some re-viewed existing ideas, some dealt with the fundamentals of poetry, while some spoke of proper and improper usage of words, which attempted to limit the growing expanse of the language. The main mode of poets also keep evolving in the period of Saif’s book: from iham (word play generated by the intent to deceive) to maniafrini (to make poems yield more meaning than they appear to possess) to searching for new themes or new ways of expressing the older themes called mazmunafrini to khayalbandi, which created and captured imaginary, abstract, and elusive themes in poetry. The concept of shorangezi (arousing tumult) became very prominent, by which the poet aimed to impart a quality of intensity in the poem. This style of writing poetry, which was very pronounced in Mir (1723-1810)drew a satirical poem from the well-known satirist Sauda:
Kalaam-e-benamak ki shor angezi hai aisi kuch
zameen bol gaah khalq se jun khar ho paida
(The passion-arousing quality of insipid poetry is something like the alkaline salts that grow on a piece of land where people go and piss)
As can be guessed from the above, the poets did not shy from engaging, criticizing and debating the works of fellow and older poets, and writing satire not only on colleagues but also on themes of poetry, politics, pelf and power. Saif presents some brilliant stories and examples of these in the book.
The Delhi of Saif Mahmood’s focus is also not one unit. It is a changing city. It was not the Delhi that Shahjahan built, or Aurangzeb left. Between 1713 and 1857, Delhi saw more than fifteen rulers, if we discount the British Residents of Delhi. The violence in this period and especially the second half of the eighteenth century was monstrous. Before Lord Lake’s army defeated the Maratha troops outside Delhi in September 1803, Delhi saw a miasma of violence and plunder, starting with the wars between the Turani and Irani groups, the calamitous invasion of Nadir Shah, the pestilential attacks of the Afghans, the Marathas, the Rohillas and the Jats. Then, the famine of 1782 starved approximately one-third of the rural population around Delhi. These human tragedies changed the city forever, except the continuing, notwithstanding the declining, presence of the Qila-e-Mualla. This also led to the exodus of writers from Delhi around 1760 in search of patronage. Yet, as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi informs, neither the exodus was great, nor the life in Delhi so uniformly intolerable, as some historians tend to describe. In fact, the period for all its turmoil seems to have been great for those writers seeking to travel. There was a lot of to and fro between Delhi, Lucknow, and Murshidabad, Patna, Bareilly, Calcutta, Banaras, etc. A relative calm returned to Delhi in the final decade of the eighteenth century under the Marathas, and a more long term stability was seen between 1803 and 1857. This period, known as the period of ‘English peace’, also brought some sense of security in Delhi only seen before 1707. New ideas and institutions (like Delhi College), and new technologies (like print), starts to have an impact on the life of the people and therefore on the poets. In sum, the Delhi of Sauda is quite different from that of Ghalib (1797-1869), and of course from that of Daagh (1831-1905)–-who lived for fifty years after the unalterable change of 1857.
Despite the tumult, and also because of it, the poetry of this period is like a forest: abundant with trees of all sizes and variety, some that still bear fruit, some that provide succour to the weary traveller and some that are old and withering, but have seen glory once. Among these, Saif has chosen to write about eight who wielded the pen—Sauda, Dard, Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Zafar, Zauq and Daagh. The book is written in the style of a tazkira, which is a biographical dictionary cum anthology—a genre that became extremely popular in this period and are today excellent sources for literary and social environment of the time. The choice of the eight poets are entirely Saif’s. If he had chosen a completely different list of poets, one would have argued with that too. Four among Saif’s list—namely, Mir, Sauda, Dard and Ghalib—perhaps have an immutable position in Urdu poetics. The replacements for the other four, though, can have a variety of permutations, if we bring in poets like Mushafi, Qa’im Chandpuri, Shah Nasir, Jur’at, Nasikh. I bring forth this argument because the question of the quality of poetry is not raised with a critical eye in the book. It seems the pastness of the poets is certificate enough for their veneration. To add to the argument, the history of Urdu and its poets deserve to extend beyond Delhi and Lucknow centred approach, and also assess the contributions of Murshidabad, Patna, Farrukhabad, Hyderabad, Banaras, Calcutta, Surat, Aurangabad, and even places like Vellore and other cities of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
We can argue with Saif’s selections, but what is unarguable is the delightful reverie the poems send you in. They make you dwell and ponder and keep you from reading the book at one go. The best way to read these poems is to get lost inside a line, a thought, a wordplay, a turn of phrase, which inevitably results in the realization that poetry is a thing of true deepness that indeed is deep forever. Saif presents a selection of poems from each of the eight poets with excellent translations in English, often giving them a new reading. What is even more marvellous is the skill of the poets in infusing their poetry with so many meanings that it still echoes in the hearts of a reader two hundred years after it was written.
Beloved Delhi, though, is a heartless city. Like the beloved of our poetry: a sangdil—the stony hearted, it has cared little for the sukhanwar, the poet, or even the sukhan-fehem, the lover of poetry. Most of the graves and landmarks related to the poets have disappeared or are in a state of disrepair and dereliction. What is worse is the apathy of the people and the government to remember or commemorate these poets. Only Ghalib—has escaped this treatment, but that was not so before his centenary celebration. When Intizar Hussain visited Delhi in 1954, he reported in his book on Delhi, the difficulty in finding Ghalib’s grave. This indifference is in our blood and is not a modern habit. Bedil’s tomb, which was in his house outside the Dehli Gate, was disappearing even at Ghalib’s time. The dead, even the exalted dead, cannot withstand the relentless turpitude of time in this city.
The loss of the cultural milieu and the literary ethos of Delhi of this period is vastly owed—to the British, some to our revisionist reformers and in recent decades to our insensitivity. This theme has a subliminal presence in Beloved Delhi, which is foregrounded at the end of the book in Anant Raina’s photographs that are simple and yet have a strange power.
I have three quibbles with Saif’s book.
First, in the chapter on Mir, Saif attributes the following popular verses to him:
Kya bood-o-bash poochhe ho Purab ke sakino
hum ko gharib jaan ke hans hans pukar ke
Dilli jo ek shehar tha aalam mein intekhaab
Rehte the muntakhib hi jahan rozgaar ke
Jisko falak ne loot ke viraan kar diya
Hum rahne wale hain usi ujde dayar ke
Popularly it has been attributed to Mir, but no serious Mir scholar believes it to be his. Saif himself writes that Ali Sardar Jafri has questioned its authorship. In a personal email conversation with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the author of Sher-e Shorangez—a four-volume work on Mir, told me that ‘these lines are not found in any manuscript of Mir’s. Its main source is Muhammad Husain Azad’s Ab-e Hayat. The story became “viral” (in today’s terminology) after it appeared there. Much later, a bayaz (anthology) was discovered in a small library in Agra, which claimed to have been compiled during Mir’s time. It does contain the verses and attributes them to Mir. But just because somebody attributes something to someone doesn’t prove that it is actually his. In pre-print days, Mir may not have even known of the verses, or their attribution. One or two lines in Mushafi strongly echo one line from the verses attributed to Mir.’
Second, in a minor mistake Saif confuses Delhi College’s James Thomason with some Thompson in narrating the famous incident about Ghalib and the Delhi College. Thomason, who was overseeing the administration of the College at this time, at Momin’s suggestion, invited Ghalib as a candidate for the post of a Persian master, but failed to receive him in the manner Ghalib felt befitting, which incensed the poet and the interview never took place. Thomason went on to establish a college in Roorkee that was renamed Thomason College of Civil Engineering after his death, which later became the Roorkee Engineering College and is now the IIT, Roorkee.
Third, Saif twice accuses, in the Ghalib and Daagh chapters, Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, the Nawab of Loharu and Ferozepur Jhirka at the time and father of Daagh Dehlavi,of having duped Ghalib of his pension. This is incorrect. As can be gleaned from the letters of Ghalib, and also from the works of Ralph Russell, Khurshid Islam, Amar Farooqui et al, the pension issue was quite convoluted, but Shamsuddin Ahmad did not have any role in depriving Ghalib of his salary. The salary in question was due to the jagir awarded by the British to Ghalib’s uncle, Nasrulla Beg.Nasrulla Beg rendered his services to Lord Lake’s army during the second Anglo-Maratha War and was awarded Sonkh and Sonsa, which is near Mathura. After Nasrulla Beg’s death, the British took back Sonkh and Sonsa and instead awarded an annual pension of ten thousand rupees to the family to be paid through the revenues of Ferozepur Jhirka. At some point of time and for some reasons, it was reduced to five thousand rupees. Ghalib’s share was 750 rupees annually (62.5 rupees per month). All of this is while Ghalib is still in Agra. Sometime around 1810 (or 1812-13), Ghalib marries the daughter of Ilahi Baksh Maruf and moves to Delhi to the house of his in-laws. After his father-in-law’s death, Ghalib starts facing financial problems and it is then that his long drawn tussle with the British bureaucracy and law begins. In 1827, Ghalib leaves for Calcutta to request for restoration of the pension to the original 10000 rupees and for it to be paid directly rather than through the revenues of Ferozepur Jhirka which was accepted and Ghalib became a British pensioner for the rest of his life.
Aside from these matters, Saif’s book is a treat. He serves us an amuse bouche of verses, of stories, and of history, and like a master-chef, Saif is able to enchant us, as he is enchanted by Delhi.
Nikhil Kumar works in the corporate sector. He writes on politics, history and literature and can be contacted on Twitter: @niksez