Special Reports

Ghalib’s decrepit haveli in Purani Dilli

Firoz Bakht Ahmed
Poochhtey hein who ke Ghalib kaun hai/ Koi batlao ke hum batlayen kya? More weightage is given to politics than poetry, history or writing, it would seem. This is what I conclude after getting restored six (of an exhaustive list) monuments, namely, Zauq’s mazar, Ghalib’s haveli (mansion), 318-year old Anglo Arabic School, the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Maulana Azad’s mausoleum, Qaumi School and the Shahjahani Jama Masjid. All these historic monuments had problems.

“Ghalib belongs to India, Pakistan and the world. How could we (Pakistan) forget him? People of Pakistan love and read Ghalib as Indians do,” declared Prof Tabassum Kashmiri at a literary gathering to honour Pakistani litterateurs in India called by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu director Dr Hamidullah Bhatt at India International Centre (IIC) in December 2009. Still a step ahead was my Karachi friend Nikhat Sattar who said, “India is Ghalib, Ghalib is India!” How true! However, Ghalib must be tossing and turning in his grave owing to the disregard meted out to his memorial in Gali Qasimjan, Delhi.

True, who bothers about Ghalib or his associates or even his haveli asked Prof Mirza Hamid Baig from Pakistan in the same meeting. How many people know that a street in old Delhi named as Gali Azizuddin Vakil was named after Ghalib’s legal advisor! Frankly, I had visited that street umpteen times but never knew this except that there is a big Urdu publishing house there named Educational Publishing House.

Aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak/ Kaun jiitaa hai tirii zulf ke sar honey tak (The sighs of love a life-time need, their object to attain, Who lives long enough for your dark mysteries to retain?) True, it seems that nobody has understood the angst of Ghalib in the walled city of Delhi’s Shahjahanabadi Ballimaran. The despair is exuded in the eminent Urdu poet’s words time and again - Gham-e-hasti ka asad kis se ho juz marg ilaj/ Shamma har rang mein jaltii hei sahar hone tak! (Life is suffering, Asad, and has no cure but death/ The flame burns in every color until the dawn!) The torment continues when we see that at his government restored and protected haveli, wedding receptions are held.

Thhi khaba garm ke Ghalib ke urenge purzey/ Dekhney hum bhi gaye pe tamasha na hua! (News was in the air about a desecrated and defiled Ghalib/ We also went to witness but found nothing glib). That wedding reception night was not less than a nightmare for me when I happened to pass the monument at night at about 10 PM and found it basking in floodlight, guests and fanfare. The gate of the memorial was open and a buffet was on. I passed the story on to The Times of India’s editor Arindam Sengupta, himself a connoisseur of Ghalib, who was not only kind enough to carry the entire story on the front page on 22 December, 2009: “Heritage building Ghalib’s haveli hired out for wedding reception!” The report carried as an exclusive lead created a sensation.

Actually, the haveli had been misused for a very long time for wedding receptions, birthday parties, booze parties and political gatherings with the connivance of the chowkidars (caretakers) employed by the government.

It seems the misuse of the haveli had been going on for quite a long time. A The Times of India report of 17 February, 2002 stated: ‘The guards of Delhi Archaeology Department posted at Ghalib’s haveli have been transferred following complaints of misbehaviour by a local resident and a non government organization, Friends for Education. Mohammed Ishtyaq, a tailor who lives on the first floor of the haveli, said, “After closing the main gate of the monument at 5 pm, these employees would create ruckus inside the complex after consuming liquor.” Friends for Education chairman Firoz Bakht Ahmed (who had got the haveli restored), said: “After getting drunk, the guards would play loud music and pass bawdy remarks. They were spoiling the sanctity of the place.’’, ‘My birth place too happens to be in Gali Qasimjan’s Ahata Kaley Sahab, just a stone’s throw away from Ghalib’s residence. While going to my primary school, Talimi Samaji Markaz in Baradari, Ballimaran, I used to pass by this haveli and often seen foreign tourists taking pictures of the dilapidated haveli. I wondered if it could become a better place than being a coal store. As years rolled on, I understood the importance not only of the poet laureate but even the Gali Qasimjan haveli where he had lived and composed his Persian (6600 couplets) and Urdu (1100 couplets) diwans (collections).

I started writing to various civic and government agencies for the restoration of Ghalib’s house; however none seemed interested. Ultimately I had to resort to legal route through my lawyer friend, M Atyab Siddiqui through our NGO Friends for Education that I filed the PIL in September 1996 and a landmark judgment was given by Justice CM Naiyar on August 8, 1997 that the haveli of Mirza Ghalib, be restored in the same Mughlai-ambience and magnificence as the meritorious poet was. Ghalib Memorial is essentially a minuscule part of the haveli, consisting of two-and-a-half rooms. The way the haveli was restored by the Delhi government doing only some cosmetic repairs.  

Even now, above the ground floor memorial is a nondescript set of rooms with a small bathroom window overlooking the courtyard. One of the rooms of the restored area has a tacky clay image of the poet, hookah in hand, writing at his desk, and a few utensils. A lone wooden plaque on the verandah wall carries his couplet while the other four have been torn of. The other, a dark corridor really, has the Gahlib family tree and huge photograph of Nosha Mian, the last ever taken.

Post-restoration, the lakhori bricks have been exposed from beneath the layers of cement. A stone balustrade has also been broken and the sandstone padding has, however, been lost. Still, the place reminds you of what it may have been for the poet to live in, sandwiched between a mosque and the tyranny of a fanatically pious wife. The mosque Hakimon wali Masjid, is still visible, as a testimony to the poet’s agonized couplet: Masjid ke zer-e-saya ek ghar bana liya hei/ Yeh banda-e-kamina humsaya-e-Khuda hei (Living under the shadow of a mosque/ This mean fellow’s life is just grotesque).

Gali Qasimjan, named after an immigrant nawab from Iran, Nawab Qasim Khan, is like any other gali in Purani Dilli. There are the omnipresent apple carts and chashme ki dukaanein. At the point where Gali Qasimjan takes off from the more famous Ballimaran, is the Hindustani Dawakhana (dispensary) established by Hakim Ajmal Khan (expert in the Unani medicines and a freedom fighter) in orange with black plaques announcing how haphazardly the Delhi government has restored the historic place. The Dawakhana was one of the poet’s favourite haunts, where he held his famous night-long poetry sessions. Now, the rooms are occupied with desi (country made) Unani medicines and patients at the OPD.

Ghalib was given this house by Nawab of Loharu, Ilahi Bakhsh Maruf, his father-in law with the good wishes of Hakim Sharif, the owner of the haveli and an ardent admirer of Ghalib’s poetry. During his time the haveli had an area of 400 square yards but the government restored only about 130 square yards and that too on the ground floor while on all sides of this havlei, people are there who always wait to pounce upon an opportunity to encroach upon this memorial.

After Ghalib’s death in 1869 the hakim who had presented the haveli to Ghalib was crestfallen and would go and sit there for hours every evening refusing to let anyone occupy it. The government took possession of the haveli in 1964 but soon auctioned it to one Mohammed Ali Farooqi whose bid was the highest at Rs 22,400. He rented it out to tenants but a few years later he died without leaving a legal heir to the property. Since then the haveli has changed hands multiple times and is steeped in a mire of controversies regarding its current ownership.

Aziz Burney, group editor Rashtrya Sahara Urdu daily says: “The literary genius fell for myriad tragedies in life. He had an estranged married life as he considered Umrao Begum, his wife an un-intellectual woman who never understood his poetry.” But she truly remained faithful to him throughout her life no matter Ghalib got off track pining for Nawaab Jaan, the nautch girl also referred to as Chaudhvin by some. But the love affair ended in disaster for Ghalib. He never received the recognition that was his due during his lifetime but all along believed that his true worth would be judged by only posterity. Ghalib understood this: Na gul-e-naghma hoon na naghmasaaz/ Mein hoon apni shikasht ka awaaz (I’m worth for nothing/ I’m the reflection of my own defeat). In fact that’s very reflective of Ghalib’s Memorial today.”

Maybe his years at Ballimaran were unhappy ones, maybe the angst gave birth to such marvellous poetry. Maybe, that is why, poetry lovers from all over the world still negotiate the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk to visit a small dirty corner of a huge, beautiful city. Even today!

Firoz Bakht Ahmed is a monuments’ activist, who, through his Public Interest Litigations, has restored many monuments including the haveli of Ghalib, mazar of Zauq, dargah of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Maulana Azad’s mazar, the historic Anglo Arabic School, Jama Masjid and Qaumi School. Besides being an activist and educationist, he is also a columnist.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-28 February 2010 on page no. 17

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