Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Durbaan-e-Mazaar-e-Ghalib (The Gatekeeper of Ghalib's Grave)

(This is the last blog entry on the matter of graves! Actually these entries sum up the famous graves I have visited, apart from Emily Dickinson's, which is just a five minute walk from where I live in Amherst, Massachusetts.). Check out this blog for a picture and translation of the inscription on Ghalib's tombstone. (Added July 12, 2008)

हुए मरके हम जो रुसवा हुए क्यों न गर्क-ए- दरया
न कहीं जनाज़ा उठता न कहीं मजार होता।

ہوے مرکے ہم جو رسوہ ہوے کیوں نہ گرک دریہ
نہ کہیں جنازہ اٹھتہ نہ کہیں مزار ہوت

hue marke ham jo rusva hue kyun na gark-e-darya
na kaheen janaazaa utthata na kaheen mazaar hota

The shame I endured after death, why did I not drown in the sea?
There would have been no funeral, nor a grave to be seen.

While Khusro is certain that his beloved will come to his grave (see previous entry), Ghalib, in his shame, wishes for no grave at all. He seems in this verse to reiterate Alexander Pope's conclusion, albeit in a more sombre mood, "steal from the world and not a stone tell where I lie." Except, in true ghazal tradition he writes after his death, from the other world. Oh, such shame have I endured here (on the day of judgment? in heaven? hell?), why did I not disappear into the sea, without a trace, with no grave to be a home wherein to wait for qayamat, the day of judgment.

But let us not confuse Ghalib the poet with the "I" in the verse. After all the "poet in the poem" rule, poetry as personal statement, does not seem to apply to the traditional ghazal, where the poet dies only to be resurrected in the next verse and often expresses contradictory sentiments not only in different ghazals but in different verses of the same ghazal (since the ghazal unlike the sonnet or other poetic forms inn English, has no requirement of thematic unity for its couplets).

In fact Ghalib's grave, far from being reviled or shamed as the lover's in the verse was, is rather an honored place of visit in Delhi. The grave is next to the Ghalib Institute (or the Ghalib Academy, one of the two) only a stone's throw from Nizamuddin Dargah. I went there at night and the resplendence of the dargah didn't quite make it to Ghalib, so the surroundings were rather dark. There is a small fenced compound just off the side of the gully, at one end of which is a small structure, a hut almost, of stone. At first I did not even notice the broad, in English, Hindi and Urdu, that proclaimed this to be the grave. When I did see it, I noticed that the only entry into the compound was gated and padlocked. It was past 8:30pm and I assumed this meant that the site was closed for the day. I looked around. There were several men selling flowers to those who wished to visit Hazrat Nizamuddin's dargah. On a whim I asked a flower-seller if this (pointing to the silhouetted structure behind him) was Ghalib's grave. Yes, he said. Can I see it from up close? I asked. Sure, he replied, to my surprise. Ask that gentleman over there, he said pointing to an old man in a kurta and lungi, sitting by the roadside. Intrigued, I approached the man and asked, Ghalib ki mazaar dikhaenge? Will you show me Ghalib's grave? Haan zaroor, he said. Absolutely. Getting up, he fished out a key from his pocket and walked over to the padlocked gate. I followed, strangely elated. Opening the gate, he led me. There turned out to be several graves there, right next to each other. Ghalib's was inside the stone structure visible from the road. Out in the open, next to it were some others. The old man, now in the role, not of gatekeeper, but of guide, pointed to them and mentioned the names of the people buried there. I am afraid I remember them no longer. I lingered in front of Ghalib for a while, imagining the remains (whatever is left after a hundred and fifty years) that lay underneath. The moon shone on the stone, on the inscription in stone above the little entrance, but there wasn't enough light to read. Dust thou art, to dust returnest. All those verses that leap off the printed page, that stay in your memory after reading them or hearing them just once, all came from a brain that is now scattered in the very soil beneath my feet. But Ghalib, conceited though he was (kehte hain ke Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaan aur, they say no one expresses like Ghalib does), may have disagreed with me. The verses did not come from his brain, they came from nothingness, from the hidden, the ghaib, in Urdu.

Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazzami khayaal mein
Ghalib sareer-e-khamah navaa-e-sarosh hai
These themes, they comes from the hidden
Ghalib, the scribbling of the pen, is the whisper of an angel

Anyhow, the guide waited patiently as I dreamed. On the short walk across the compound back to the gate, I asked him if he worked for the Ghalib Institute next door. Nahin, unse hamaara koi lena dena nahin, he said (I have nothing to do with them). I placed a ten rupee note into his hand and thanked him. I never discovered how he came upon this job, or what else he did by way of earning a living. I regret now, not asking him more questions. But mystery has its place too doesn't it? Let not the "will to truth" sully everything in life.

Monday, November 26, 2007

कितने नंदीग्राम?

आज -कल समाचारों में नंदीग्राम कि घटनाओं कि चर्चा से कोइ नहीं बच सकता है। चारों तरफ, और हर द्रष्टि से, फिर वह मा. क. पा के समर्थन में हो या उसके विरोध में, नदिग्राम का विश्लेषण हो रहा है। और होना भी चाहिए। आर्थिक विकास के नाम पर आम आदमियों, और खास कर समाज के कमजोर तबकों का विस्थापन और उनके जीवन तथा सम्पत्ति कि बर्बादी, स्वतन्त्र भारत के इतिहास में कोइ नयी बात नहीं है। फिर वह बडे बाँध हों, या चौड़े highways "देश के हित" में कुछ लोगों को बलिदान देना ही पड़ता है। जवाहरलाल नेहरू ने हिराकुद बाँध से विस्थापित होने वाले किसानों से कहा था: "If you must suffer, suffer in the interests of your country।" यह बात तब, १९५३ में शायद ठीक भी लगी हो, अब इस रवैये का सार्वजनिक विमर्श में कोइ स्थान नहीं होना चाहिए। चिपको, नर्मदा, कलिंग नगर और ऐसे ने जाने कितने आंदोलनों के बाद एक चीज़ साफ हो गयी है। देश के किसी भी कोने में अगर सरकार या कोइ भी दूसरी शक्ति, किसी जगह के प्राक्रतिक संसाधनों के लिए (फिर वह जमीन हो चाहे पानी, चाहे जंगल या खनिज) उस जगह के मूल निवासियों को विश्तापित करने के बात करती है, तो उसे कम से कम पुनर्वसन कि बात करनी होगी। और कई बार इतना काफी न होगा। सरकार या निजी निगमों को स्थानीय समाज से ऎसी चुनौती मिल सकती है कि उसे पूरी योजना ही खारिज करनी पड़े। जैसा कि नंदीग्राम में हुआ, या फिर चिपको में हुआ था।

एक तरफ रहा जन आन्दोलनों कि राजनिति का सवाल। इस मामले में तो नंदीग्राम ने दिखा दिया कि अगर आप आर्थिक विकास के नाम पर विस्थापन कि बात करते हैं तो आप को यह ध्यान में रखना होगा कि स्थानीय समाज कि इच्छा के खिलाफ ऐसा करना मुमकिन ही ना हो। लेकिन नंदीग्राम ने एक और पहलु को भी उजागर किया है। पूंजीवाद की प्राकृतिक संसाधनों की भूक अब किसी से छुपी नहीं है। विश्व स्तर पर मौसम में आने वाले बदलाव, हर तरफ पर्यावरण सुरक्षा के नारे, प्रदूषित जल, उजड़े जंगल, कैंसर के बढते cases , कौन नकार सकता है? नंदीग्राम ने यह भी दिखा दिया है कि अगर भारत को अमेरिका-यूरोप के मॉडल पर आधुनिक औद्योगिक विकास करना है तो उसे अपने प्रकृति कि वैसी ही लूट करनी होगी जैसे यूरोप ने उपनिवेशवाद के दौर में सारे दुनिया कि की थी। बहस अब इस पर हो सकती है की क्या संसाधनों को प्राप्त करने का तरीका लोकतंत्र के सिधंतों की कद्र करता है या नहीं करता।

लेकिन क्या बहस को यहाँ तक सीमित रखना जायज़ होगा? क्या यह अकलमंदी होगी? मुझे ऐसा नहीं लगता। अनगिनत छोटे और बडे जन आन्दोलनों के ज़रिये हम इस औद्योगिक सभ्यता (अगर इसको सभ्यता कहा जा सके) को एक मौलिक चुनौती दे सकते हैं। वह ज़माना और था जब यूरोप के देशों ने तमाम दुनिया के शोषण पर अपनी सभ्यता खडी कर दी थी। यह ज़माना और है। भारत और चीन इस मामले में यूरोप की पैरवी नहीं कर सकते हैं। इन देशों की जनता ऐसा नहीं होने देगी। फिर सवाल यह उठेगा की अगर यूरोप की पैरवी संभव नहीं है (पर्यावरण की दृष्टि से और लोकतंत्र की दृष्टि से भी) तो आर्थिक विकास किस किस्म का होना चाहिय?

इस विषय पर अगली बार बात होगी।

Saturday, November 24, 2007

हिन्दी ब्लोग्स का महत्व

इंटरनेट ने दुनिया के हर पहलू को छू लिया है। इस से अब कोई इनकार नहीं कर सकता। इस का मतलब यह नहीं होता कि इंटरनेट हर आदमी या औरत तक पहुंच गया है। हिंदुस्तान में इंटरनेट इस्तेमाल करने वालों की संख्या दो या तीन प्रतिशत से ज़्यादा शायद ही होगी। इसे इंटरनेट कि दुनिया में digital divide कहा जाता है। और अगर यह लोग वेब दुनिया के सदस्य होते तो भी उन्हें भाषा कि चुनौती का सामना करना पड़ता। क्योंकि इंटरनेट पर सूचना और संचार का बहाव ज़्यादातर अंग्रेजी में ही हो रहा है। इंटरनेट के सबसे लोकप्रिय encyclopedia, wikipedia को ही लें तो यह दिखाई देगा कि इसमे अंग्रेजी के बीस लाख से भी ज़्यादा पन्ने हैं। दूसरी वीकसित देशों के भाषाएँ जैसे कि फ्रेंच, जर्मन, जापानी, डच आदि के चार से छे लाख तक पन्ने हैं। हिन्दी का नुम्बेर तीसरे क्रमांक पर आता है (दस हजार या अधिक पन्ने) और उर्दू का चौथे क्रमांक पर (एक हजार या अधिक पन्ने। भाषा की दुनिया में अंग्रेजी के एकाधिकार से मुक़ाबला करने के लिया यह ज़रूरी है कि दुनिया की अन्य भाषाओं, और खास कर "तीसरी दुनिया" की भाषाओं को इंटरनेट की दुनिया में प्रचलित किया जाये। और अब ऐसा करने के लिए सूचना प्रौद्योगिकी भी मौजूद है।
कुछ लोगों का मानना है कि इंटरनेट के इस नयी दुनिया ने समाज में बुनियादी किस्म के बदलाव लाये हैं। इन बदलावों को समझना होगा। इन बदलावों पर विमर्श ज़्यादातर वीकसित देशों में ही हो रहा है, हालाकि इनका असर पूरी दुनिया में दिखाई देता है। यह ब्लोग इसी दिशा में एक छोटा सा कदम है। लेकिन चूंके मेरी रूचि और भी कई चीजों में है, इस ब्लोग पर आपको अन्य विषयों पर entries भी मिलेंगी।

Monday, November 5, 2007


(I took this picture, with permission, in July 2007 at Hazrat Amir Khusro's mazaar)

Kashishi ki ishq daarad naguzaradat badinsaa;
Ba-janazah gar nayai ba-mazaar khuahi aamad.

The attraction of love won’t leave you unmoved;
Should you not come to my funeral, you will surely come to my grave.

I couldn't go to Ameer Khusro's funeral, but a grand funeral it must have been, I like to think. After all he wrote sublime poetry in three languages (Hindvi, Farsi and Rekhtah, a mixture of the two from which Urdu was born), invented the art form of the qawwali (the original clappers were kids who followed him, the qawwal bacche), his poetry in sung today in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan (though not as much in Iran), his composition of the Hadith,

man kunto maula, fa Ali un maula

Who ever takes me as ths master, Ali is also his master
has been sung now for over 800 years by Sufi's and qawwals in South Asia.
The couplet above is from a famous Persian composition of his, khabaram raseed imshab (click here for the entire ghazal and its translation in English). There are excellent renditions of this ghazal by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers.

I was not at the funeral in 1325, but as Khusro himself said, ba-janaajah gar na ayee, ba-mazaar kuahi aamad, and I did indeed go to his grave, this time I was in Delhi in July 2007. The picture above was taken standing right outside the inner sanctum where Khusro lies buried. A kneeling pilgrim is visible at the bottom of the picture. Khusro lies buried right next to his spiritual master Hazrat Nizamuddin, as per his wishes. His mazaar is in the same compound as Nizamuddin's, just behind where the qawwals usually sit to offer qawwali to the master. The first time I went to Nizamuddin, I did not know where Khusro's mazaar was, and as I had entered the dargah from the back door (so to speak), I did not encounter Khusro at all. So I returned from the dargah without even getting a darshan of Hazrat Ameer Khusro. Of course I had to go back.

Compared to Nizamuddin's magnificent mausoleum, Khusro's is much more modest. Nizam get the Khusro-Nizami Bandhu qawwals singing his praises every evening. Khusro only had three ragged looking unknown qawwals regaling him. But away from the shine and glitter, the aura of Nizam, tehy somehow looked more authentic, more dedicated, more pure. I don't know why, but it just seemed that way. Even now, when I think back to those three musicians, with a harmonium and a tabla, sitting outside Khusro's grave, singing, my heart fills with a strange emotion, not quite joy, not quite sorrow, not quite a mixture either.

Amidst the thronging pilgrims at Nizam's grave, Khusro seems relatively neglected. It is of course true that Nizam was the master, Khusro only the disciple, and the one who inspires is always greater than the one who is inspired. Every artist realizes this. No doubt Khusro did too. And yet, for me his poetry, his songs become a universe in themselves. Nizam is sometimes forgotten. Is that sacrilegious?

Mazaar-e-Marx, Mazaar-e-Gandhi

A few years ago, at the People Tree bookstore in Connaught Place (Delhi) I found a delightful little book of essays by the historian/anthropologist, Ramchandra Guha, called ‘An anthropologist among the Marxists’. Ram Guha starts the introduction to the book by saying that inside every thinking Indian is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy. I don’t claim to have met every thinking Indian, but of the some that I have met this is indeed true to some extent. The theoretician of capitalism and the experimenter of truth, the prophet of communism and the messiah of ahimsa, both dreamt of a stateless society consisting of enlightened self-governing individuals. And on my trip to India, in 2003 I was in London and in Delhi, both cities where the two now rest in peace (or in turmoil depending on your point-of-view).

Apart from the hearts and minds of nearly every professor of English, Literature and Cultural Studies (but not of course of Economics) in the United States, Marx is to be found today in a place called Highgate Cemetery in north London. Gandhi apart from adorning thousands of walls in sundry courthouses, government buildings and homes in every city, town and village of India is to be found in Rajghat, east Delhi, not buried of course, but cremated. The bearded German philosopher and the clean-shaven Hindu saint, both today face disfavor in their native lands. Gandhi has been idolized, canonized, revered, worshipped, even to some extent followed and imitated but the fact remains that his country today is farther away from his ideal than it was in his own time. Commenting on the profusion of M.G (Mahatma Gandhi) roads in every major town and city in India, the noted Marathi humorist P.L Despande says, ‘since we can’t walk the road shown to us by Gandhiji, we call the road we do walk on, Mahatma Gandhi Road.

When I visited London, I expressed my desire to visit Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. My host, an erstwhile college colleague was surprised and perhaps not a little displeased but nevertheless accompanied me like the excellent host she was. Ram Guha in the aforementioned book also describes his visit to the cemetery. Mine was a good deal less eventful than his. We took the tube to Highgate station, got out and started walking up Highgate Hill. I had the directions from the internet. On our way we bumped into a spirited old worker belonging to some revolutionary socialist party (I forget which one) hawking the latest issue of the party’s mouthpiece. I was delighted with the fortuitous coincidence, the omen, the sign depending upon your point of view. I bought his newspaper and his magazine (Marxist Review). While parting I mentioned to him that I was visiting from the US and on my way to pay my homage to our beloved prophet. ‘He lives, man’. Said the old guy in a thick version of one of the many London accents. We made our way through the park just adjoining the cemetery and finally reached the cemetery itself. There was a two pound entry fee. I asked the chap at the door if many people came through the visit Marx’s grave. Not so much anymore, he said. When the Soviet Union was still around bucketfuls of students would come from there on government sponsored trips, pilgrimages, one might say. Now it is the solitary person here and there, he said. But hearteningly in the forty-five minutes or so that I spend there, two people ask me for direction to where Marx rests.

In Delhi I was so busy tracking down and trying to meet living socialists and Gandhians that I had no time for the dead old man at Rajghat. I felt rather sad about this. Visiting both Marx and Gandhi on the same trip would have had that symmetry of purpose. But it was not to be. I did pass the Rajghat area on a couple of occasions and that consoled me. Every year on October 2nd, Gandhi's birth anniversary, there is an official ceremony at Rajghat. Whenever some foreign dignitary graces New Delhi, they are brought to Rajghat to pay their respects. Gandhi, in his death, is smothered with official recognition. In contrast, Marx seems much more incognito in death. As suits a career-troublemaker on the run from the authorities everywhere. Now that the Soviet Union is dead and China is safely capitalist, Marx seems to be in no danger of being smothered by officialdom anywhere. This is as it should be. People like Jesus, Gandhi and Marx only diminish with institutionalizing. It is far easier to be a Christian than to be Jesus-like, far easier to be a Gandhian than to be Gandhi-like, much simpler to be a Marxist than to... I have known many Christians, many Marxists and some Gandhians. A thinking person should have a bit of Jesus, a bit of Marx, a bit of Gandhi but she can never be a Christian, a Marxist, a Gandhian.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tlon, Uqbar: A view from Orbis Tertius

In concluding his remarkable work of philosophical fiction, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges calls his imaginary world of Tlon "a labyrinth designed to be deciphered by men." Herein lies (for me anyway) a central paradox of this story. That a world running on laws entirely unfamiliar to "men," laws that could be described as irrational, is inevitably also a world "designed to be deciphered" by them. While our own world, a world not so designed (not by us anyway), is for Borges (writing in 1940) too bleak to be understood rationally. Familiarity is not the same as comprehension, and unfamiliarity need not imply incomprehension. In fact the familiar is also the incomprehensible, the unfamiliar holds decipherable laws.
Turning away from the nightmare that is Europe in 1940, Borges seeks refuge in Tlon, Uqbar a world of Berkeleyian idealism where Earthen laws of causality do not hold. (Bishop George Berkeley the 18th century English empiricist philosopher was famous for his question "does a tree falling in the middle of a forest, with no one to hear it fall, still make a sound?")

The story is very famous (it gets its own wikipedia entry) and analyses abound on the Internet. The story is particularly plentiful in all the devices that Borges regularly employed. Fictional characters mingle with real ones; real characters engage in fictional acts; an extraordinary range of philosophers make guest appearances (Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Spinonza...) plus the usual suspects pop up; labyrinths, mirrors, the cabala and 1001 Nights. But I am not going to summarize the plot (which is hard to do in any case). Just go read it!

Instead I titled the blog-entry "a view from orbis tertius" (orbis tertius is Latin for Third World) to indicate that I want to take a different tack here. A Third Worldist reading of Tlon. A what! What on Earth (or on Tlon) would that be?
Tlon, Uqbar first appears in the story as a place somewhere in the vicinity of Iraq. Before it becomes a world onto itself, Uqbar looks and sounds like another newly discovered "Eastern Land". The discovery of a new world, where known (read European) laws of rationality do not apply is a common theme in the European imagination of the colonial period. But instead of reading this as Borges' attempt at creating an exotic New World, I prefer to read it as a satire or a jab at that genre. This reading is sustained by the fact that the exotic world that could exist in reality becomes just another figment of the European imagination ("a secret and benevolent society" among whose members is George Berkley arises "to invent a country"). Thus the mythical "other" land is an invention of the self. Sound far-fetched? I would love to hear from you if you think so.

Second, despite being rather unfriendly to what we would call science (remember causality is denied here, all events are mere associations), Tlon seems to do just fine. People there seem to be more interested in being inventive than in discovering truth. Borges tells us that the "metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding." This could be taken a couple of ways. One way to read it is once again as an attack on the scientism of modern civilization. The insistence on pursuit of truth to the detriment of beauty, morality, what have you. A less charitable way (i.e. one that puts Borges amongst the European "self" rather than the Latin American "other") is to say that the description of Tlon as a place where science takes a back-seat is akin to European portrayal of the "East" as uninterested in the practical matters of life, as being other-worldly. In one reading the "other" of Europe is a place where rationality and science do not oppress the psyche, in the second reading we put a different "spin" on the same fact and say that the "other" is a place where irrationality and superstition abound.

You take your pick.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bulbul-e-Chisht: The Nightengale of Chisht

The qawwal party sits just in front the wall that divides the compound of Hazrat Nizamuddin's dargah from his disciple Amir Khusro's. But that night, the first night I am at Nizamuddin, I am unaware that Khurso lies buried just next door. The crowd of pilgrims stands and sits in a U in front of the party. Two harmoniums, one dholak, two lead and two backup vocalists and four or five chorus members. The air of informality that typifies even the most "westernized" qawwali "concert" surges pretty freely around here. Chorus members and vocalists get and leave for chores, for chatting with an acquaintance and rejoin the singing. A few minutes into the start there is already a pile of rupees on the floor in front of the harmoniums. Periodically someone walks over into the clearing in the middle and deposits some more money. Wonder how much they make in an evening...I can't help but have a materialistic thought in that atmosphere saturated with spirit. But even as i think that, the action itself, the act of showering money on the qawwal (and sometime this is literally done, at moments of great spiritual passion or ecstacy) shatters the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. It is not hidden, a fee received in some quiet room or corridor by the "manager" of the concert hall, or a direct deposit into the bank account, but blatantly overt. It symbolizes the community support that would typically sustain the qawwal. Of course I wouldn't be surprised if today we depart somewhat from this ideal.

The qawwals face the inner sanctum and just in front of it stands a chap whose job is to energetically clear thronging mobs away from the clearing, perhaps so as not to occlude the qawwal's view of their pir, in whose service they sing every night. I am squatting on my haunches, the rain is still pattering on the tarpaulin that covers us, but it seems to be abating some what. This night there seems to be a team of reporters from some TV program here. About 10 minutes into the singing they begin setting up a large camera. Next to them sits a group of white people in Indian clothes, a medium-sized bearded man seems to be the "leader". He has on with a fine cap and jacket with a kurta and khaki trousers. These are the only people sitting on a rug. Oh by the way, if you are patiently reading through this description, I should have said earlier, just to the previous post and click on the movie link. Its a far more pleasant way of learning the same things!

I stay on till the end of the singing. It lasts about an hour. It is a little past 9pm and the rain has stopped. They start wrapping up, someone takes on the job of collecting all the money to which I have also added my 50 rupees. I loiter around waiting to see if I can speak to one of the lead vocalists whose voice has mesmerized me. The pilgrims are dispersing. I go up to Ghulam Hasnain Nizami, for that is his name (ji, mera naam Ghulam Hasnain Nizami hai). He hands me his business card. It says "bulbul-e-chisht ke khitab se nawaze gaye" (Bestowed with the title, nightengale of Chisht). Hazrat Nizamuddin was from Chisht.

On my way back I take the same route, the back door through which I have come. Emerging from the bowels of the watery corridor, I collect my sandals from the keeper at the door. What should I give you? Whatever you think appropriate. I hand him five rupees and head out into the gulli lined with dhabas on either side. Now that the dargah and its atmosphere it behind, I am face to face with a more mundane question. How do I get back to the hostel? Its almost 9:30pm. I am staying in a part of town thats mostly offices. I ask a random autowallah on the main road, ITO chalenge? (Will you go to the ITO?) I am not hoping for much, but I am unprepared for the Delhi brand of candor. Sawal hi nahi! (Out of the question!) I am taken aback but I think I smile. Pressing on I gather quickly that more queries will only elicit variants of the above answer. But I needn't worry. I have responded to a call from Hazrat saheb. He will see me home. I start walking in search of a bus stop. A few inquiries on the street land me in front of one. And lo! The first bus to come is my bus. In Delhi, the bus conductors often sit by the pedestrian-side window (usually the first or the last seat) and shout out the stops that the bus will be making (ITO, Jama Masjid, Lal Qilla, Chandni Chowk...and so on). So one only has to keep ones ears open for one's stop and then hop on.

(to be concluded)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

It all starts, not at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, but instead at the Indian International Center. Not, in other words, at the symbol of medievalism,, old Delhi and of religious syncretism but at the symbol of modernity, the New and the Secular. I have just finished a meeting at the IIC and my plans of visiting Nizamuddin Dargah in the evening to listen to the Nizami-Khurso Bandhu offer Qawwali (somebody has told me they play on Thursday nights) seem to be washed out by a mid-July downpour. I am absolutely drenched by the time I can find an auto. Even as I stand near Lodhi Gardens hoping an available auto will show up, I feel the tussle inside me. Will it be the warmth and dryness of the Gandhi Peace Foundation Hostel where I am staying while in town, or will it be a jaunt in the darkness and the rain to a place I have never seen before, but which has been pulling me not only since I have been in Delhi, but all the way from the US. By the time an auto comes around, Hazrat Nizamuddin has decisively called me to him. There is no room for doubt. I ask the auto-wallah to take me to Nizamuddin. I don't mention the calling part. By the time we reach it is very dark and the rain is still coming down heavily. He lets me off somewhere. Nothing much is visible. Certainly not a magnificent mausoleum with crowds of worshipers, as I have imagined it in my mind. I stumble towards the hazy structures in the middle distance. A dingy, narrow alley, leads to a black hole. An entrance? All I can see is an unlit marble lined passage through which water is flowing in great torrents, already my feet are more than ankle deep in muddy water. A man is standing at the mouth of the tunnel. Is this is the way to the Dargah? I ask. He nods. Is there Qawwali tonight? He looks more skeptical. Probably not, he indicates the rain and the general inhospitability of the environs. But I have come all the way, so I must press on. I brave my ignorance of the terrain and push on into the water and the darkness.

After what seems like endless watery corridors, there are some promising signs. Brightly lit stores selling religious gear (head-coverings, chaddars, frames with verses from the Qur'an, copies of the Qur'an itself and so on). Suddenly the narrow passage open into a clearing, a splendid marble structure right in front of me and all around, marble and other stone flooring, water everywhere. To my right a large mosque is semi-visible through its gates. I notice I have entered through the back door, so to speak. I walk around to the front of the compound and at last the actual inner sanctum is visible. It is dazzlingly lit and there is a line of worshiper waiting to go into the small room and pay their homage to the grave itself. The grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the famous Chishti saint of Delhi, Amir Khusro's pir, the one for whom Khusro, the polymath, is said to have invented the Qawwali. Since 13th century an unbroken tradition exists of singing Qawwali at the grave of Nizamuddin Auliya. Today, seven hundred years on, it is a watery, messy day to reenact the rituals, water is leaking everywhere from the make shift tarpaulin covers in the compound. Only one area is relatively dry. This is where, a little before 8pm the Qawwals arrive. Ah! The chap at the door was wrong after all. I will after all have the privilege. It is Thursday night, Jumme raat, and there is a big crowd there waiting patiently for the Qawwals to begin. They start with a hamd to Allah. In a usual Qawwali recital there is an order to be followed for praise. First Allah, followed by Mohammad, then Ali and finally the saints (Nizamuddin, Moinuddin).

I manage to take a small video clip on my digital camera. Needless to say the video clip captures hardly anything of the atmosphere there.
(to be cont'd)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Hybridity ain't just postmodern: Amir Khusro's Rekhta and Hinglish

The word Rekhta, meaning mixed, was used to refer to various types of poetry over the course of a thousand or so years that Persian mixed with various Indic tongues in India. In the age of the Delhi Sultans (before the Mughal Period) in the 12th-14th Centuries Persian came into its own in India to the extent that the very first tazkirah (loosely speaking anthology) of Persian poetry was published in India and included several hundred Indian poets (I have this from Muzaffar Alam's excellent book "The Languages of Political Islam"). North India seemed to be firmly in the ambit of Farsiworld which included modern day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Tajikstan (where the Indian Persian poet of the 16th Century, Abdul Qadir "Bedil" is still very popular today, far more popular than in his homeland India).

In any event, I digress. The point was Rekhta and in particular the type of Rekhta practised by Amir Khusro. As I said at the beginning the meanings of Rekhta changed over several hundred years. In the 19th Century, it is often used to mean poetry written in the language we would today call "Urdu". The reason why Urdu came to be called Urdu is itself a fascinating story of colonial blunder, a story of the type that abound in India. The word "Urdu" in Persian simply means "camp".John Gilchrist the Indologist and Lexicographer, I think it was, who was studying this language that had taken shape around the Mughal capital of Delhi (I am ignoring the role of Deccan antecedents here). This language (which later erroneously came to be identified as having originated purely in the military encampments) was referred to sometimes as "zabaan-e-urdu-e-mualla-e-shahjahanbad", which translates as "the language of the Royal Camp of Delhi" (Delhi was resettled by Shahjahan who called his new city Shahjahanabad). Gilchrist for reasons I have yet to discover (but like to think had something to do with Imperial stupidity and arrogance) took only the word "Urdu" out of that phrase and the name stuck.

So Rekhta, in Ghalib's days referred to Urdu, as evidenced in his verse:
Rekhte ke ek tum hi ustad nahin ho Ghalib
Kehte hain agle zamaane mein koi Mir bhi tha

You alone are not the master of Rekhta Ghalib
They say that there was once someone called Mir

As also the verse I quoted at the end of my previous post.

Before Rekhta or mixed speech began to refer to the mixed language that is Urdu, it referred to a truly fascinating type of mixed poetry. This was half-Persian, half-Hindvi poetry. Amir Khusro experimented with this as did many others. And it is the beauty of that poetry that has inspired this ramble.
In some kinds of Rekhta part of one line of a sher would be in Persian and the other part in Hindvi, as for e.g. the famous Ghazal which opens:

Zehal-e miskin makun taghaful, duraye naina banaye batiyan;
ki taab-e hijran nadaram ay jaan, na leho kaahe lagaye chhatiyan.

It is breathtaking how Khusro combines two incredibly sweet tongues into something that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Another famous example illustrates another type of rekhta, where Persian and Hindvi verses alternate:

Har qaum raast raahay, deen-e wa qibla gaahay,
Mun qibla raast kardam, bar samt kajkulaahay.
Sansaar har ko poojay, kul ko jagat sarahay,
Makkay mein koyi dhoondhay, Kaashi ko koi jaaye,
Guyyian main apnay pi kay payyan padun na kaahay.
Har qaum raast raahay, deen-e wa qibla gaahay.....

At times Khurso even combined the two languages into one phrase such that the verb and subject is Hindvi and the object Persian, as in:
Yaar nahin dekhta su-e-man... meaning My friend does not look at me anymore...

With multiculturalism being the postmodern buzzword today we find new forms of hybrid language such as Spanglish and Hinglish. Once more the purists are appalled (actually I don't know that they are appalled, but it seems safe to assume that they would be!) and the postmoderns are delighted at yet more evidence of their pet theme, hybridity. What could be a better example of hybridity can Khurso's poetry quoted above! Its not just Dosa in Denmark or Bi-bim-bop in Manhattan, not just Indian men sporting Ricky Martin t-shirts and watching appallingly bad American TV. Hybridity can be sublime. Granted, not all uses of Hinglish (Hindi + English, e.g. Come yaar, lets go, or Stop bakwaas maroing) are as beautiful as Khusro's Rekhta. But perhaps that is only a matter of time and chance.

Then again, I am not so sanguine about hybridity under the aegis if Global Capitalism. It might be another animal all together! Seeking the lowest common denominator of cultures rather than their sublimity.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On Ghalib and Language-II

This post is a reply of sorts to the two excellent points raised in the comment to the previous post. You will need to read the brief comment to get the context here.
The range of language (even just in vocabulary) available to Ghalib is in fact the striking thing here. I am quite ignorant of English poetry in general but it seems to me that there isn't anything quite like this there. Poetic language can be simple or complex in different English poems, but words are generally not used verbatim (tatsam) from say German or French, except in unusual circumstances. While in Urdu, tatsam and tadbhav words can certainly be used from Sanksrit, and to extend the usage of tatsam and tadbhav, such words can also be used from Persian and Arabic (less frequently than Persian).

The manner of speaking a language is often associated with social class (this relates to the second point regarding the intended audience of a particular poem). As pointed out the vocabulary of different classes may have been vastly different during Ghalib's time. At least literary vocabulary was much more Persianized than street tongue. This harks back to the distinction between Sanskrit as the language of literature and the various Prakrits or Pali as the language of ordinary discourse.
Of course this class distinction also provokes literature in the ordinary tongue (like the Buddhist canon in Pali, instead of Sanskrit) as an explicit effort to make literature accessible to the ordinary person.
With a assuredly class conscious person like Ghalib, one wonders what made him write in more accessible language at all. Perhaps he felt a tension between composing in "high language" and the popularity to be gained by composing in "low language".
Also I suspect that he would have made a clear distinction between high and low language and high and low quality. As we know his simple and complex verses are both brilliant. So he really shows in some sense that language doesn't matter. He can be good at it all.
The one last thing to say is that he is reported to have said that all his Urdu divan is as naught compared to his Persian verse. But I don't know how much to believe that. After all he also says:
jo kehe ye ki rekhta kyun ke ho rashk-e-farsi
gufta-e-ghalib ek bar use padh ke suna, ke yun

To the one who says "how can Rekhta (Urdu) be the envy of Persian
Show him Ghalib's verse just once, and say "like so"!

Monday, September 24, 2007

On Ghalib and Language

I started talking about Ghalib, the last time in explaining why I chose "mehr-e-niimroz" as a title for the blog. Ghalib is as good a candidate as any (and better than most!) to start the first substantive blog entry.

The range of thoughts and emotions that find expression in Ghalib's shairi is of course quite apparent to anyone who reads him. But a related thing that I find equally fascinating, in his Urdu shairi, is the range of language itself, from very simpe, colloquial Urdu (what we might call Hindustani) which is very similar to the street language often called Urdu in Pakistan and Hindi in India, to highly Persianized or less often Arabicized Urdu. To offer some examples:

Consider the following verse from the ghazal "koi umeed bar nahi aati":

ham vahaan hain jahaan se humko bhi
kuch hamaari khabar nahi aati

or a matla (opening verse) from another ghazal:

kab woh sunta hai kahaani meri
aur phir woh bhi zabaani meri

Or the famous and amazingly multivalent maqta from a different ghazal:

pooncchte hain woh ke Ghalib kaun hai
koi batlao ke ham batlaien kya

This verse can be interpreted in English as:
He/she/they ask who Ghalib is
Tell them for what can I say
Tell me what should I tell them?
Tell me, should I tell them?

For this and all verses, I highly recommend visiting Frances Pritchett's online project "A Desertful of Roses" ( which is an online annotated Divan where Pritchett (a Professor of Urdu at Columbia University, New York) collects existing commentaries on each verse of Ghalib's urdu divan and then offers her own commentary. Also on her website you will find some excellent articles on Ghalib in particular and Urdu poetry in general by both her and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

Anyway, returning to our main point, all the above verses are in perfectly comprehensible everyday Hindi/Urdu. Khabar (in the first verse) and zabaani (in the second) are the only non-Indic (Arabic and Persian) words in the first two verses. The third one does not even have one.

Now contrast these verses with the following:
shua-e-aftab-e-subah-e-mehshar har taar-e-bistar hai

With the replacement of a single word (hai) with another (ast), this verse will become a perfectly respectable Persian couplet. And there are several such verses in thee Urdu divan.

And of course there is a range between these extremes wherein, probably most of his verses lie. Now the question that comes to my mind when I see this, is did Ghalib himself perceive this as something to be explained, or was it perfectly unremarkable for him to choose the words that best expressed his thoughts/emotions, with not much regard to their source/difficulty? Of course, in general Ghalib was thought to be a "difficult" poet and was well-known for using difficult language as well as complex imagery. There is also a belief among some that his early verses tend to be more Persianized than his later ones. But there are others who doubt this and I tend to agree with the later view. If time of writing is not an issue, what then explains the choice of extremely "simple" words at one time, and hugely "difficult" one at another? I put simple and difficult in quotes to remind us that it may the particular way in which Urdu and Hindi evolved in the 20th century, that may also play a role in what we consider difficult or simple. A phrase such as shua-e-aftab (ray of the Sun) is a perfectly simple Urdu phrase, albeit one that modern Hindi speakers may have trouble with.

I don't really have an answer to this (possibly ill-posed) question. I leave it there for the moment. But this isn't the last you've heard of Ghalib on this blog!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Why mehr-e-niimroz

mehr-e-niimroz (مھر نیمروز ) is a Persian phrase that can be translated into English as "The Noonday Sun". Mehr = sun, niim = half, roz = day. Apart from the sheer beauty of the words and the image associated with them, this is also the title of the official history of the Mughal dynasty that Asadullah Khan "Ghalib" was commissioned to write by Bahadur Shah "Zafar".