Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Dude, or long delayed homage (on this blog!)

November 17

Imagine a storyteller on the steps of a grand mosque. Not just any storyteller but a dastan-go, a teller of epics, of tales full of razm, bazm, tilism and aiyyari; war, romance, magical effect and trickery. Imagine crowds gathering for hours on end to hear a master dastango tell his action-packed, bawdy stories.

For half an hour on a Saturday morning (November 12) dastangoi was not an art lost to Delhi's dimly remembered past, but alive and well and gathering serious crowds on the north steps of the Jama Masjid as Mahmood Farooqui (Rhodes scholar, theatre and film actor, columnist, historical researcher) performed/narrated the tale of Amar Ayyar constantly evading the traps set for him by Aazar Jaad; almost eighty years after the death of Mir Baqar Ali, Dilli's last dastango.

Mahmood was performing on the invitation of INTACH who had organised a heritage walk for children from the Spastics Society. For the past year or so, with the aid of a fellowship from Sarai-CSDS, Mahmood has been researching this lost art of story telling , and particularly the vast Dastan of Amir Hamza published in 46 volumes by the Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow, a completely ignored part of the Urdu literary canon. This has since resulted in many performances, at the IIC, at Sarai, at colleges, and finally at the Jama Masjid.

Needless to say, despite the high flown Urdu of the dastan, the children were spellbound. as was everyone else who stopped to gawp. As has been the case with every other performance. "This makes one thing clear," says Mahmood, "the 'gap' between Hindi and Urdu does not exist in dastangoi."

And Mahmood is willing to tell his dastans at every opportunity he gets. Special angarkhas have been stitched especially in Lucknow.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

a last ghazal

16 November

A last ghazal written in flames, I burn for you

And how many other loves will I spurn for you?

The ocean heaves, the poison pot due to rise

All my gods and demons still churn for you

(I drink the poison till my neck turns blue

I will be a roller bird[1], even a bittern for you)

To look back is to turn to a pillar of salt

My Sodom, my love, I will turn for you

(And what do they know of Sodom anyway

When all the leaving swore, I will return for you)

‘He has become a rival who was my confidante’[2]

Perhaps I understand Ghalib’s concern for you

[1] Roller bird is the prosaic English name for the bird known as neelkanth in Hindi.

[2] Ban gaya raqeeb jo tha razdan apna… Ghalib

tomb-living englishmen

In City Limits

Mehrauli Archaeological Park

Once upon a time there was an Englishman who lived in a tomb. He lived in the tomb two centuries after the man who was buried in it, a noble by the name of Quli Khan. He called his tomb-abode Dilkusha, pleasing to the heart. And no, this is not the beginning of my blockbuster magic realist novel, though it could well be.

The tomb is about a hundred and fifty metres south east of the Qutub Minar, at the north end of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, which stretches south and west from here for well over a hundred hectares of trees and lawns and spectacular ruins. The area of this archaeological park is loosely that of the vast estate of Thomas Metcalfe, British resident of Delhi in the mid nineteenth century, and the aforesaid tomb-liver. Here he laid out an English style country estate over the remains of a long abandoned town, Mehrauli having declined, shifted and shrunk to where it is now, a ‘village’ rather than Delhi’s first city.

A carriageway sweeps past one of the finest mosques in Delhi, the early sixteenth century Jamali Kamali, where the small tomb of the saint Jamali has the best preserved plaster moulding and fresco work of any medieval ceiling in Delhi, as rich and vivid in colour and pattern as if made yesterday. Off to the right are the remains of a sixteenth century ‘housing colony’, with staircases and fireplaces still intact. Beyond which lies the roofless walls of Sultan Balban’s thirteenth century tomb, with the first known ‘true’ arches of Sultanate architecture. Then there is of course the Mughal tomb of Quli Khan, which Metcalfe made his own, with its steep staircase and watercourse descending down to a Lodi period dovecote. A Mughal gateway leading from the Qutub turned into a guesthouse (with swimming pool; for bachelors), a spectacular early sixteenth century stepwell, the Rajon ki Bains, the remains of a medieval Sarai, and of many more Lodi, Mughal British houses, gardens, tombs and mosques. None of which was apparently enough for Metcalfe, for he dotted his land with several strategically located ‘follies’, structures built in the nineteenth century to resemble those built in the fourteenth. Now we know the true origins of Punjabi Baroque. Or perhaps of the word palimpsest.

‘tis a beautiful place, this archaeological park. To wander through ruins, to sit in the sun on grassy knolls, to play cricket, to muse about the ironies of history, and the passing of time. To wonder how beautiful this departed city must have been. Oh yes, it is a beautiful place. Not yet Lodi Gardens, but we could do without the pushy power-walkers anyway. Don’t even think about permanently relocating, though. I’ve already booked the tombs.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

O Mary this London is a wonderful sight
With people here working by day and by night
They don�t sow potatoes nor barley nor wheat
But there�s gangs of them digging for gold in the streets
At least when I asked them that�s what I was told
So I just took a hand at this digging for gold
But for all that I found there I might as well be
In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea

From a song by Don McLean

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

work in progress... a short short(and still incomplete) story


The warm brass of big band jazz, going upstream the tarmac ghost of a shifted river, pigeons wheeling over the empty palaces of a red fort – despite history, happiness. And blue skies, and the autorickshaw’s slipstream – I wonder if the stranger driving me across town is feeling as suddenly joyous. But as we pass the still smouldering saucer wreckage he changes channels, almost in homage.

- It was good, why did you change it?

He looks at the screaming line of police interceptors passing on our right and says, On a morning like this I feel like listening to sad songs.

The saucer happened; there is no other way of saying it. One minute it wasn’t there and the next there was a whistling in the air (which everyone ignored in the rush hour racket – no memories of the Blitz to make anyone look up, no bad World War movies as cultural reference) and then this dull glistening greymetal disc, reluctant to reflect, forty feet across by later estimates, had slammed into the central verge of the Ring Road at is broadest, half a kilometer short of the Bus Terminal, at nine o clock on a Monday morning. No one was killed immediately. There were some cracks zagging across the road, some dust raised from the pulverized lawn, nothing out of the ordinary for a city constantly re and de constructing; but people hit their brakes and the pile ups began. That was a month ago.

Pakistan died a quick death. Partly it was the New Peace, partly that the rumours couldn’t bear attributing something this, well, advanced to Pakistan. China died a slower death but was out by day 3. The US managed to hold out for a week, despite the fact that the newspapers and channels weren’t buying terrestrial realpolitik explanations at all, the

reporters were all so EXCITED about India’s VERY OWN UFO, and not just a measly sighting, but a real genuine FLYING SAUCER there to see, to smell… not to touch yet, it was burning hot. ROSWELL IN DELHI, said a Tueday headline, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD WORLD KIND.

The government must have been pissed off with whoever (or, whatever) had been piloting the craft for not conveniently landing it in the middle of the desert. They tried cordoning the area off, calling in the army, but the two hours of attempted securing led to traffic backing up many kilometers each way and a collective road rage barely controlled from mayhem; exaggerated by the helicams hovering over endless gridlock. They gave up. They tried to move the saucer away, but it was too hot. Hot enough to melt steel, to melt balls and chains and crane cantilevers, but it gave no surface warning, faintly warm to human touch.

The saucer was left angled into the earth, to be surrounded by its regular crowd of devotees. The adoring hungry eyes of the cameras, the devotees taking a detour from the nearby temple, the reporters and ‘experts’, the exasperated beat constables trying to keep the children away from giggling at their absence of reflections, the passing traffic slowing to take pictures and throw coins. No wishes came true. Nothing changed. No national security threats were detected.

The saucer was left alone. An unexplainable in a city full of unexplainables, happily ignored. The road dust paled the greymetal. And everything began to change. I noticed it when I began to remember words.

It started with udan-tashtri. Flying saucer, as simple as that. A phrase no one had been using for the past three weeks, hyperventilating instead over aparichit antariksh viman. But suddenly there it was in my head, as if it had always been, with memories of frisbees being bounced off the grass. And soon udan khatola joined in, and the half remembered song. Suddenly my head was filled with words and phrases and meanings and truths unused since childhood, what seemed like a whole language forgotten, a whole past time returned. I swam for what seemed days in the sweet pain of too much time.

to give you an idea of what the last post was about....

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Happy Noo Ear

The Dawn Breakers

Rene Char

Translated by Mary Ann Caws


This country is but a wish of the spirit, a counter-sepulcher.

In my country, tender proofs of spring and badly dressed birds are preferred to far-off goals.

Truth waits for dawn beside a candle. Window glass is neglected. To the watchful, what does it matter?

In my country, we don’t question a man deeply moved.

There is no malignant shadow on the capsized boat.

A cool hello is unknown in my country.

We borrow only what can be returned increased.

There are leaves, many leaves, on the trees of my country. The branches are free to bear no fruits.

We don’t believe in the good faith of the victor.

In my country, we say thank you.


The branches are free to bear no fruits.

I remembered this in Aurangabad, where a friend and I walked through a very old and very new town on the first of January. We walked out from a great courtyard full of trees, to see a western sky of molten gold, where hung the palest sliver of the new moon, the first evening of the new year, the evening star burning bright, many kites still dancing in silhouette.

The trees of old-new Aurangabad are thick not with fruits but with fallen kites, still reluctant to come down to earth.

These days I cry too easily.

Happy New Year.

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