Crossing over from the ‘New’ Delhi, capital of India, into the sprawling lanes and by-lanes of the walled city, the contrast is almost jarring. In between overcrowded roads, congested traffic and the intermittent honking, the space seems to have shrunk for a growing population. Touches of modernity are interspersed with the relics of the past.
While the better known historical monuments such as the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid stand tall in all their grandeur attracting wide attention, the smaller less conspicuous ones get lost in the maze of lanes. But the old city is full of such anachronisms.
One such place is Mirza Ghalib’s haveli (mansion) in Gali Qasim Jaan of Ballimaran which was finally accorded the status of a heritage site, after a 1997 high court judgement, by the Archaeological Survey of India after languishing in neglect for ages. Since then the haveli has been restored and transformed into a museum.
The name Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) needs no introduction for anyone mildly interested in India’s cultural history. Born in Agra as Mirza Asadullah Khan, he migrated to Delhi where he lived for the rest of his life. ‘Ghalib’ was his pen-name. The substance of his poetry comprises of deep philosophical doubt, ruminations on the nature of love and life as a prison house of pain.
His characteristic wit displayed in the play of words is what sets him apart. Ghalib’s unparalleled legacy has been well preserved in his written works, but unfortunately the same attention has not been met by the place where he lived.
After crossing the hustle and bustle of Chandni Chowk, one reaches Ballimaran lined with numerous modern optic shops. In an obscure street in ballimaran lies its most celebrated memorial which gave rise to those wonderful anecdotes which still populate the cultural landscape.
Built in the old Mughal style, with the open courtyard, arches and lakhori bricks, the museum houses various artifacts and memorabilia which help draw an incomplete outline of the life and persona of the poet. The life size projection of the poet sitting in a leisurely manner with his ‘hukkah’ clearly provides a visual guide. His love for mangoes, interest in gambling and a weakness for alcohol has been etched out through write-ups and models. Large frames adorn the walls inside.
They greet you with the pictures of poems written by the bard in his own hand and some selected couplets. Portraits of the famous contemporary poets, like Zauq, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Momin are also present.
Why, you may ask, must a poet’s residence be secured and celebrated as a historical monument? After all, the greatest legacy of a writer is the work he or she produces and that is their eternal dwelling place – a monument to their legacy.
The structure is not just a living memory of the poet but a standing testimonial to a bygone era. He lived in an age of tumult and transformation in Indian history. His diary kept during the revolt of 1857 presents a personal record of the events that shook and ravaged the capital. He also witnessed the decline of Mughal Empire in India.
These old 18th-19th century havelis used to be residences of the Mughal-era nobles. Most of such havelis haven’t survived in their original state, but those that do, exist in a crumbling condition. It is easy to spot them while walking through the old city as the landscape is dotted with them.
The distinctive arches donning the entrance or the ‘taaq’ (niche) in the walls give away their age. While some have of them have been occupied by shops and bazaars, others shelter scores of families. One such haveli to be restored in March, 2016 is Haveli Dharampura near Jama Masjid police station. It is a 200 year old palatial building which has now been converted into a resort-cum-restaurant. After enjoying a sumptuous meal in Lakhori restaurant, the visitors can stroll around the three-storied building to get a taste of the life in a mughal-era haveli.
These havelis which survive amid the hustle and bustle of the everyday life speak of days gone by, not as the purged facts of the history books, but with all the myths, tales and anecdotes which only inhabit a living culture. If only one is willing to listen!
Perhaps Ghalib’s plea will help us in this regard:
“yaa rab ! wo na samjhe hain na samjhenge meree baat
de aur dil unko, jo na de mujhko zubaan aur”
(Oh Lord, they’ve neither understood nor will they understand what I say,
Give them more heart, if not give me another language)