Forever Spring: Ghalib’s Benares

Varanasi (Benares), Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi, as Benares is now known, is a Hindu city. That is how I had known it, and it was not until I arrived here that I started to see a different side of it. And it happened because I could not find a hotel room!

The hotel I had booked a room at refused to acknowledge that they had ever spoken to me! I could not help but suspect that they had received a better offer from another client and just decided to bump me. Lacking a map of the city I asked someone for directions towards the ‘ghats’ and just started walking.

And about 45 minutes later I had walked right into the mohalla of Madanpura – a predominantly Muslim area with a number of madrassas and dargahs! And best of all, some very fine bookstores!

It was in one of these that the proprietor pointed me towards the works of Kabir, who was a resident of this city, and read me, after I suggested that I missed the sound of beautiful Urdu, some of Ghalib’s pieces that I had heard before e.g. this ode to the city of Benares called Chiragh e-Dair (The Light of the World)!

Dabeer-ul-Mulk, Najm-ud-daulah Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan Ghalib (Ghalib was his nom de plume) was a man who felt a deep connection to his Muslim community, yet failed to see himself as only a Muslim, could put together the following words to one of Hinduism’s great cities:

May Heaven keep the grandeur of Benaras
Arbour of this meadow of joy;
For oft returning souls -their journey’s end.
In this weary Temple land of the world,
Safe from the whirlwind of Time,
Benaras is forever Spring.

Where autumn turns into the touch of sandal
On fair foreheads,
Spring tide wears the sacred thread of flower waves,
And the splash of twilight is the crimson mark
of Kashi’s dust on heaven’s brow.
The Kaaba of Hind;
This conch blowers dell;
Its icons and idols are made of the Light,
That once flashed on Mount Sinai.
These radiant idolations naids,
Set the pious Brahmins afire, when their faces glow
Like moving lamps..on the Ganges banks.

Morning and Moonrise,
My lady Kashi,
Picks up the Ganga mirror
To see her gracious beauty,
Glimmer and shine.
Said I one night to a pristine seer
(who knew the secrets of whirling time)
‘Sir, you will perceive
That goodness and faith, fidelity and love
Have all departed from the sorry land.
Father and son are at each other’s throat;
Brother fights brother.
Unity and federation are undermined.
Despite these ominous signs
Why has doomsday not come?
Why does the Last trumpet not sound?
Who holds the reigns of the final catastrophe?’
The hoary old man of lucent ken
Pointed towards Kashi and gently smiled.
‘The Architect’, he said, is fond of this edifice
Because of which there is colour in life.
He would not like it to perish and fall.’
Hearing this, the pride of Benaras soared to an eminence, untouched by the
wings of thought.

(From Pawan Varma’s Ghalib: The Man And His Times)

In her seminal work Self & Sovereignty: Individual And Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850, Ayesha Jalal begins with this great Mughal poet.  Mirza Ghalib offers her one of the finest examples of a man of a complex sense of his identity, and his place in India.

At a time before we were divided along strictly sectarian lines, at a time before we started to re-write our history from the perspective of sectarian separation – a process that allowed us to label acts of vengeance, greed, hate and other human failings as acts of pure belief and religious conviction, acts of ‘martyrs’ and ‘Muslim/Hindu warriors’, we had men like Ghalib who spoke as and saw the world around him in all its multiplicity, its diversity and inter-connectedness.

Today we read Ghabib as a Muslim poet, and associated him as part of the pantheon of Muslim poets.  But this can only be done by forcibly categorizing him along sectarian lines, and attempting to fit him into a manufactured history.

Ghalib refused to sing the praises of a Mughal empire teetering under mismanagement and sunk in political corruption and lethargy.  He refused to side with the rebels who initiated the 1857 revolt, aware as he was of the underlying weaknesses and ineffectiveness of Mughal rule.  And aware the the future lay elsewhere, not just because of political power, but because of the modernity it brought with it:

Faith holds me back while infidelity attracts me
The kaaba is behind me and the church ahead beckons me.

The nationalist historians of Pakistan, or the religious mythologists, have tried to capture Ghalib and represent him as part of their manufactured idea of a separate ‘Islamic’ Indian heritage. But he was nothing of the sort.  His sense of himself as an individual, and his identity, crossed religious, class and communal boundaries.

Believers in one God, rituals we renounce
Creeds, when dissolved, merge into one Faith.

(From K.C.Khanda’s Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal)

Reading Ghalib, and reading about his life, takes you back to a time and a mindset that is hard to reconcile with today’s sectarian certitude. It is near impossible to fit him into a clear category, and certainly impossible to fit him into an Islamic or Muslim one.

I don’t know Ghalib.  I don’t know him because he has been captured by the nationalists and the religious.  I don’t know him because I did not read him while growing up.  I read Shakespeare and Milton and other poets essential to an education that would help me step into the West and a Western university.  Ghalib did not help me do that.

But had I read him then, as I am reading him now, he may have helped me develop a broader sense of my identity and my heritage.  His consistent doubts, his challenging behavior, his criticisms of orthodoxy, his paens to love could have shown me that which I was then not able to see; that who I am and where I come from cannot be fragmented along sectarian lines.

We today color the past with sectarian categories, and give the acts of our ancestors religious motivations.  Invaders are ‘Muslim‘, and not just pillagers.  Civilizations are ‘Hindu‘ and not just political, complete with their many accommodations and compromises, their changing allegiances and the reliance of complex alliances. Our heroes are ‘martyrs‘ and not just opportunists or exploiters. We have infantilized our reading of the past and vehemently defend these against facts and the lived experiences of even our most exalted heroes.

Eqbal Ahmed, the Pakistani intellectual, called these appropriations of history into ‘Hindu history’ and ‘Muslim history’ the result of ‘medieval minds and distorted histories’. And it is a fear of these ‘medieval  minds’ that keeps me from going near Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque, surrounded as it is by police and paramilitary forces out of fear of threats made by ‘Hindu’ fundamentalists determined to destroy it.

The police seem indifferent and bored, and though I can’t see how their mere presence can defend against a determined attack, they do seem to notice me in the crowd and glare. It is enough to convince me to walk on. After 3 weeks in Ayodhya I lack the will to confront another group of questioning intelligence and police officers!

Mirza Ghalib’s poems remind me of when perhaps things were different. When we had not as yet chosen or been convinced to re-create ourselves into separate sectarian species.  He was one of the greatest poets of his time and since. Not  just a Muslim, nor a kafir, not just an aristocrat, nor just a poet.  He encapsulated the many complex, varying identities we all carry within ourselves, and the different priorities we give them under different circumstances.

As I read him I am reminded of Edward Said’s conclusion to his work Culture And Imperialism:

No one is any one thing.  Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim or American are not more than starting points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind…No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.

Further Readings:

Nanda, K. C. Masterpieces of the Urdu Ghazal, Sterling Publishers Private Ltd.

Russell, Ralph (Editor), Islam, Khurshidul (Translator) Ghalib: 1797-1869: Life and Letters (Oxford India Paperbacks)

Varma, Pawan K. Ghabib, The Man, The Times (Publisher Unknown)

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