Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.
In one of my now rare visits to the Daryaganj Sunday book bazar, my eyes fell, to my immense joy and bewilderment, on an amazing biography of Ghalib – Mirza Ghalib: A Biographical Scenario by Gulzar. Ghalib’s fondness for old Delhi and its lanes and bylanes was legendary. It was as if Ghalib came alive for a moment, I thought.
It is not a conventional biography that we come to associate with the life and times of someone great and famous, but it is in the form of a biographical scenario, and is an extremely important historic and literary document. Following no chronology or dates and events, it is more of an anecdotal nature, its easy conversational style makes it highly interesting to read. Written so endearingly by Gulzar, who made that highly sensitive serial on Ghalib in the eighties, making the great poet a household name in the subcontinent in the process.
Before we start with Ghalib, a few words about the Delhi’s book bazaar in the oldest part of the city, which no bookworm could afford to miss. Some rare gems, some vintage books, now out of print, some amazing books that we can add to our collections, all coming at throwaway prices, that is so unbelievable, but true. Nowhere in the city, one could find such a vast collection of books, not that one can remember in our living memory, thousands of them, rather millions of them, the place overflowing with books, used and second-hand mostly.
This book-laden lane, with a run-down look, often dusty, decrepit and heavily crowded on Sundays, which starts from Delite Cinema with endless rows of stalls of books of all kinds, and ends near Golcha Cinema, has been part of the culture of old Delhi for the last thirty years or even more. While all other shops stay closed on Sundays, the pavement bazaar, sprawled across the busy lane running parallel to Netaji Subhas Marg in Daryaganj comes alive with a mind-boggling array of books that defies description. The books range from history, political science, biographies, art, literature, music, cinema, travel, to even architecture, designing, aeronautical engineering, information technology and so on. And literary novels, of course, are in great demand. Always.
These days, one tends to see more of text books, though, with students and their parents thronging the place for a bargain deal. And not to forget, after one has gone through so much of jostling and pushing, and after one is done with the bargaining and is satisfied with the day’s collections, tired and exhausted, too, there are always some fabulous restaurants around as a grand finale to keep one’s hunger pangs away and to give free reign to one’s taste buds for rich and deliciously spicy Indian food.
On a personal plane, I remember to have picked up some of the rare books, now many of them out of print, which would be any collector’s pride, in the last 20 years or so of my visits to one of the biggest flea markets for books. While I remain a humble reader, with no pretension, whatsoever, of any claim to any scholarship or any erudition, and I am yet to explore many, many areas of the vast ocean of knowledge that remains like an uncharted territory to me, I thought I could, in my own modest way, share the names of some of the books here, which I can recall with my increasingly fading memory, and which will show how eclectic and universal was that place, and still is in so many ways, in terms of spreading knowledge, and how affordable it still remains, when books have become so expensive, otherwise.
Some of them which readily come to my mind are: The Pensees by Blaise Pascal, a rare biography of Voltaire (the first few pages were missing when I got the book, and hence the name of the author remains a mystery!), The Social Contract by the great French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Philosophical Letters by Voltaire, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner, The Resurrection by Tolstoy, Raymond Aron’s Main Currents in Sociological Thoughts, a collection of essays by Russian-English philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, E H Carr’s What is History, Candide by Voltaire, Bertrand Russell’s series of essays and his brilliant autobiography, The darkness at noon by Aurther Koestler, Greek Tragedy (Penguin classics), Dante’s Divine Comedy (in English translation), Francois Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, Albert Camus’ The Rebel, Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, and many others.
Now, coming back to Ghalib, now philosophical, now pensive and melancholic but always showing a zest for life to enliven the proceedings, Ghalib literally towered over others like a ‘Victor’ as his nom de plume suggests. Brooding over the questions of life and death, over joy and sorrow, the poet was known for his intensity of emotions and thoughts. He was iconoclastic, no doubt, and questioned the fundamentals of faith, and was scathing about dogmas of faith, taboos, cant, and anything that was hypocritical. Gulzar writes, ‘he is complex a poet as he is charismatic.’ No one suffered more torment and pain as Ghalib, and that is why we find so much of melancholy and sorrow in his poetry. Gulzar describes the suffering and emotional anguish the foremost poet of Urdu faced, in words that has a shattering effect on the reader:
“Mirza Ghalib had hardly sat down when a shriek leaped up from the room below. As he ran down the stairs below with his friend Bansidhar in tow, he found the midwife sobbing. Ghalib looked at the midwife. “Begum,” the midwife said between sobs, “is well by the grace of the lord.” And she turned her face to the wall. Ghalib slowly stepped forward and stood in front of her, “And the child?”. Tears beginning to flow, the midwife somehow managed to bring herself together to say, “still born.”
“Tears streaming to cloud his eyes, a whole world drowned in a few drops of tears that betrayed Ghalib’s feelings, his poise and equanimity shaken for a moment at this terrible loss. His world was shattered beyond words, but the poet picked up a single sheet: three couplets sat comfortably on the page:
“Dil hi tho hai na sang O Khist, dard se bhar na aae kyun?
Ro’ainge hum hazar baar, koi humein satae kyun?
Qaid-e hayat O band-e gham, asl mein dono ek hain:
Maut se pehle admi gham se nijat pae kaun?
Ghalib-e-khastha ke baghair kaun se kaam band hain
Ro’aiey zar zar kya? Kiji-e haaye haaye kyun?
Gulzar’s translations are exquisite as are his poems. Witness this:
“A heart after all, is not stone why must not it brim with pain
A thousand tears shall I shed, why must people hurt me.”
“Ties of life are the ties of sorrow.
Before death, there is no respite from sorrow.”
“The world does not slow down for an embittered Ghalib
Why must the heart cry for it, why must a fuss be made about it.”
Gulzar continues, “Ghalib stood with his gaze fixed at the paper for an eternity and then let go of it. Another gust of wind picked it up in its embrace.”
“On another occasion, Ghalib sat surrounded with piles of books, leafing through an old anthology of Mir. Two British soldiers crossed the place on horseback. The Mughal dynasty had fallen and the British took over and with that a civilisation ended. Ghalib’s poems were a testimony to the tumultuous last days of the Mughals. His attendant and friend who was engaged in dusting the rack of books, casually asked, “I have noticed that you are worrying a great deal these days. Keep hope, He is there, some way or the other, things will work out.”
“Koi umeed bar nahin aati
Koi soorat nazar nahin aati.”
No hope comes true
No sight of it comes true.
“You haven’t slept last night, have you?”, enquired his friend.
“Maut ka ek din mu’iayn hai
Neend kyun raat bhar nahin aati”
Not always his pen carried pain and anguish. His poetry was philosophical and contemplative, too, and, in a way, was pure epiphany to the connoisseurs of his poetry. He was also full of irony and sarcasm at the hypocrisy and cant of the society’s moral guardians.
Gulzar was sublime in his presenting Ghalib for us, in a manner that only he could, which shows his deep love and lifelong admiration for the greatest of the Urdu poets.
“Ghalib stood against a pillar on the terrace in a solemn mood watching the rain pour out of the black night. He started humming:
“Hazaron Khwahishen aesi, ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut nikle mere arman, lekin phir bhi kam nikle.
“Kahan mae-khane ka darwaza, Ghalib! Aur kahan wa’az!
Per itna jante hain, kal who jata tha ke hum nikle.”
What be the relation between a preacher and an alehouse.
But I did see him cross the threshold as I entered.”
The rain began to rush down in a torrent.”