At the intersection between two unremarkable lanes, one Bengali – Ramdulal Sarkar Street, the other English – Bethune Row, I faced, a hundred and ninety years later, House Number 133, tall and red, its secrets, old and weary – shut, from view, by green, mask-like windows, shut to birds, sunlight and prying eyes.
As I stepped inside the door, slowly following my lover’s footsteps, the aroma of mutton greeted us unexpectedly. The magic of spices floated in air. It carried secrets of culinary pasts. I breathed in the heavy air of another time. A time one hundred ninety years ago, when Ghalib was here.
He travelled in a horse over dusty cities, for his pending pension. First Lucknow, the city that prided in speaking an Urdu different from the one in Delhi, and like all buffoons of cultural pride, mistreated Mir Taqi Mir.
Then Kashi, the place Ghalib called his Kaba-e-Hindustan, and Banaras, where his ode to the city paid tributes to courtesans with fiery hearts and tender waists.
‘The shadow of Banaras dances in the mirror of the sun’, he wrote in Chiragh-e-Dair (Temple Lamp), and blessed the city with his prayer: ‘May God almighty save Banaras, the grove of paradise, from the evil eye’ (translated by P.B. Rama Singh, On Banaras: Ghalib’s The Lamp of the Temple, 2004).
What furore Ghalib created in (then) Calcutta, over his lofty Persian. It was the February of 1828. Time in the city was spent between two trepidations. Of two swords that crossed over his head. His proud feathers ruffled by idiomatic birds of custom (or idiotic birds of idioms). His agony soothed, just a little, by Kifayat Khan, that envoy from Iran, but to no avail. The masnavi of a half-hearted apology did not endear the birds of small wings. Nor did the whims of fate, ruling the lives of British Lords, help much. Or the Baad-e-Mukhalif (‘Opposing-Wind’), his apology served, no less, with sarcasm. His petition was gathering dust, beside the waters of the Ganga. Ironies chased his agony like rivers.
He wanted to meditate the Ganga, forever. But he returned, midway, to Delhi. Wish unrequited. His poems were loyal to his heartbeats. His melancholy was loyal to fate. His fate was loyal to his mastery in grief. And Ghalib could not escape ironies.
Two labourers, white towels of sweat hung softly on their shoulders, were slouched like two curious cats against a green door. They heard me, half considerate, half amused, on the building’s historic visitor. Their lives of labour had no time for history. Nor time for poetry.
But they knew the house had a dog. Why a dog? I wondered. Was the dog guarding the memory of aromas? I looked at the dark wooden stairs, flanked by iron balusters. I wondered how slowly Ghalib may have walked, up and down, balancing a hard life between penury and poetry, gulping down overflowing griefs with a bitter taste of his trusted alcohol.
“Triumphant we reached Calcutta” he wrote in a couplet, “and washed away the scar of distance with loved ones with wine” [quoted by Shaikh Muhammad Ikram in Ghalib-Nama, Bombay, 1945.]
As he left (in August 1829), Ghalib praised the city in a letter in Persian, “One should be grateful that such a city exists”. A city where he met new adversaries amongst friends, and a peculiar people, who lived, as he said, a hundred years ahead, and a hundred years behind, all at once: the city where the future dreams the past. And the aroma returned, with a whiff of air, transporting me, a hungry dog of memory, to a time that Ghalib breathed.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).