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Mirza Ghalib’s dilapidated haveli offers only heartbreak

Ballimaran, contrary to a minor urban legend, is not the quarter of cat-killers. It is where once lived the makers of ballis, or the long oars used by boatmen. Those boats and boatmen are long gone, as much else in old Delhi: the water channel that once ran through the bazaar, the shimmering pool and square built by Jahanara Begum that gave Chandni Chowk its name, the trams that clanged through the street till the 1960s.

But still, on an early Sunday morning, an evanescent charm hangs over the now pedestrianised zone. Ballimaran is now the domain of shoe-sellers. There are cartloads of baby shoes, sackfuls of ladies’ sandals. Kachoris and pooris are being fried, and quickly sold, for breakfast. A man expertly chops papayas into sharp slices and serves them in newspaper strips. There is the thick smell of milk boiling in a huge kadhai, its surface a sea of pinpricks.

A quick turn to the right and we are in Gali Qasim Jaan, where Mirza Ghalib, the greatest of Urdu poets, spent his late years. Here is the haveli where he lived, the room where he wrote; the pulse quickens when a passer-by tells his daughter–“they’ve come to meet Ghalib”. I have done similar pilgrimages before: to the home of John Keats in London’s Hampstead Heath, Hemingway’s homes in Cuba and Key West, the room in Atlanta where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, and others. These are treasured journeys of the spirit where readers tread softly in hushed silence and commune with their literary heroes. They search for insights into the alchemy of creation; they validate their long-held impressions of a writer’s inspiration and personal relationships. They enter the inner lives of poets, grasp the light they saw from their windows, the steps they heard as they put pen to paper.

But the dilapidated condition of Ghalib’s haveli offers only heartbreak. True that three decades ago it was all gone, turned into coal store and heater factory. True that a bust of the poet, donated by Gulzar sahib, has been put in the small reclaimed portion. But that is about all on the credit side.

Otherwise, there is dust and grime. A faint light enters from the half-broken, dirt-streaked glass panes of a smudged skylight. A badly damaged chandelier, with several lamps askew, dangles below it. Cheaply produced posters of Ghalib’s couplets, incompetently translated, hang haphazard on the walls. Behind a smudged glass panel sits a mannequin of the poet. Utensils and clothes of his era lie in dishevelled dusty display. A broken tea cup is strangely balanced on a dripping tap. One can barely read the inscriptions below the exhibits. Copies of his ghazals are curling and corroding. There is no guide, no commentary, no music, no proper lighting. This is no way to treat a national treasure, a poet who, according to the great scholar Ralph Russell, would have been the greatest poet of all time had he written in English. A news report of September last claims that the haveli was spruced up for G20; I shudder to think what it looked like before that.

Ghalib would have reacted sardonically. Perhaps he would have composed a verse to say that the haveli should have been better left as a coal store; at least that would have brought warmth to a hearth. Perhaps this is what he meant when he wrote:

hue mar ke ham jo rusvā hue kyuuñ na ˙gharq-e-dariyā

na kabhˉıjanāza uthtā na kahˉıñ mazār hotā

After death I was reviled, I would have rather drowned

No remnant to be defiled, no grave site to be found.

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