BANGALORE: It was rather late on a working day. But, an evening off during a busy schedule is a blessing that I did not want to squander in a hotel room. I stepped out to see Chandni Chowk, the older part of Delhi, where they say time stopped a few centuries ago.
Though I have been to Delhi several times in the past, my introduction to Chandni Chowk has been through movies. Girls in beautifully embroidered shararas walking demurely through the narrow snaking lanes, young boys on street corners reciting snatches of Urdu shayari to anyone who cared to listen. A line from a long forgotten song coming through the balcony of a house. And food that looked so inviting, even in a scratched print of a black-and-white movie. I simply had to see Chandni Chowk.
Phone calls were made, plans drawn up and the famous Delhi metro was taken from Connaught Place to Chandni Chowk. As we got down from the station and began to wonder what we wanted to do first, my friend asked. “Do you want to see Ghalib Ki Haweli?”
Ghalib Ki Haweli? There was just one another question which would have come close. “Do you want to see Stadford Upon Avon?" Some questions don’t merit a discussion, they are just acted upon. We hired a cycle rickshaw (I don’t even remember when I had last seen a cycle rickshaw, but it seemed to be the perfect mode of transport for these narrow lanes) and went off in the direction of Ballimaran.
Ballimaran ki peecheda deleelon si tang galiyan… Inhi be-noor galiyon me ek gali, Gali Qasim Jaan…. Ek tarteeb chiragon kee shuru hoti hai. Ek quran-e-sukhan ka safa khulta hai. Asadallah Khan Ghalib ka pata milta hai (Gulzar's introduction to Ghalib's home in a TV epic he directed).
A child of the tumultuous 1800’s, Mirza Asadallah Khan Ghalib was a war orphan, who lived his entire life under the shadow of destruction and death. The end of the glorious Mughal empire, the beginnings of an alien and hither-to unseen culture and the accompanying turbulence — all found its place in Ghalib’s poetry. The difficult times were vetted by a pen dipped in grace, love, humour, despair and satire and immortalised in his shers, ghazals and nazms. The house, however, does not betray any such grandiose notions. We almost miss it. It is late, the doors are shut. We call out to the caretaker and request him to open it for us.
The restored haveli is a small room and a small open courtyard. One wall has a portrait of the poet, while some of his most famous couplets are framed and hung on the side walls. A small glass enclosure has some of the manuscripts written by the poet himself.
This is the place where the king of poets, walked. We walked on the cobbled floor of the outer portion of the house, where masterpieces were composed and recited.
An agnostic in the land of believers, a man who religiously enjoyed his jaam in the company of the oh-so-holy teetotallers, a philosopher in the assembly of mere poets. And yet, one who could laugh it all away in a few lines of poetry.
We spend about half an hour in the small rooms. There is nothing much to see. But if you cared to listen and read the inscriptions on the walls, you could hear a thousand desires speak their mind. And in the middle of it all, I think of my mother and her love for poetry which I have inherited. I call her and find that she is busy preparing to leave for a pilgrimage. “Where are you,” she asks. “I am already on my Haj,” I tell her. And then, all of a sudden, it is time to leave. The caretaker wants to close up the place. The food of Chandni Chowk calls out to the hungry stomachs and with the air of one who had lived a dream, I turn back and go out into the narrow streets of Chandni Chowk.
Though I repeatedly said, how happy I was to be here and how it would not matter if I did not see anything else in Delhi ever again, this experience was nowhere near enough. This was not a place to visit, but a place to stay in, to live, to breathe and soak in the brilliance of a man who lived a century and a half ago, and who captured the unrest of the times in a skein of magic. And no one could have described my thoughts on leaving the place better than the poet himself: Koi mere dil se pooche, tere teer-e-neem kash ko; yeh khalish kahan se hoti, jo jigar ke paar hota.
— Asma is an activist and a writer