Saturday, April 29, 2006

khusro nijam pe bal bal jahiye

a first draft, hurriedly written, to read here.
much of the resources taken from here. (Thanks Yousuf, for this among many generoisities of spirit.)

They would have been up all night. They would have stood, the next morning, on the low roof of that stone and mortar building, before it sprouted so many graves. I imagine the weather to be like it is now, days of furnace heat still unguessed at in the coolth of dawn. The sun would have risen saffron across the river, ripples turned to flame, where now run the railway tracks. A cool breeze would have blown across the water to the terrace where the two men stood looking at a scene so out of a thousand Hindi films.

Men and women standing waist deep in the cold water, silhouetted by the rising sun and the ripples dancing gold around them, cupping their sieve hands full with flowing water, offerings to the sun. Praying to the East, exactly opposite to the direction in which the men were accustomed to turn when they prayed.

The older man, the one who wore his cap off kilter, at an angle, is said to have turned to the younger, and said,

Har qaum raast raahay, deenay wa qibla gaahay
(Every sect has a faith, a qibla which they turn to.)

I imagine the younger man, the one he called the ‘Turak’ and the Parrot of Hind, blushing, or is that just the colour of the morning sun? Hesitating perhaps, even as the ready repartee comes to him with a fluency he wishes would sometime desert him, leaving him tongue tied…

Men qibla raast kardam, ber terf-e kajkulaahay.
(I have straightened my qibla in the direction of this crooked cap)


I was twenty years old when I first heard the Turak’s poetry sung, and straight as the proverbial arrow, no crooked caps for me thank you. But the old qawwal’s cracked voice bouncing off the marble was a woman’s now. The voice of a woman weak in the knees with desire, ravished by one glance from her lover. There was violence in the song and it was happening to me, the green bangles breaking as he grabbed my hand and pulled me down, my bindi smudged into non-existence, my jewellery lost somewhere as I danced, wanton with the wine from the distillery of love.

For the first time in my life, my self/other subject/object co-ordinates had gone for a toss.

Chaap Tilak sab chhini re mose naina mila ke. My most erotic moment yet and there was no ‘me’, no self I could differentiate from the woman, the qawwal, the Turak. The song ended, and my self tried to get back in charge again, sat down gingerly in my still whirling head, cleared the metaphorical throat for an inner monologue, and began discoursing. The keywords flashed in discreet italics – syncretic; subversive; Totally Awesome, dude!

Hazrat Amir Khusrau, courtier to seven Sultans, to whom we attribute the language we speak; writing in the voice of a woman to express his love for Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Beloved of God, the most important Muslim divine in the history of Delhi. The song had come from seven hundred years ago and blown me off my feet.

(You have to understand, this was a year before Jahaan e Khusrau happened and Sufi music became ‘cool’.)

They have kept all of this out of the text-books. All the examples of Shringar Ras, the erotic register of Hindi poetry, that actually made it to the poetic canon were vapid lists of normative attributes- nose like a parrot, waist like a lion, boring like the history they teach you in schools. It’s not that they don’t tell you about Amir Khusrau. They tell you that he invented Hindavi, the sitar and the tabla. They miss out the details.

They don’t tell you that if Dilli has a great love story, it is the story of Khusrau and Nijam. Of course, we can’t be sure that any of this really happened, if Khusrau really wrote the songs that are sung every Thursday in the small courtyard between his grave and Nizamuddin’s, if the riverside exchange ever happened on that long ago dawn. But then we can’t be sure about the sitar either.

What matters is that the stories are told. That like the fragrant sheets woven from strings of rose and jasmine, these stories have come as offerings to their memory; stories whose fragrance lingers in the places associated with their life, and death. My favourite Khusrau-Nijam story is this one –

Nizamuddin was once so grieved because of the passing away of his young nephew, that he withdrew himself completely from the world for a couple of months. Either he would lock himself inside a room, or when no one else was around to disturb his sorrow, he would sit by his nephew’s grave. Khusrau, who could not bear with his absence any longer, started thinking of ways to brighten him up.

One day Khusrau met a few women on the road who were dressed up beautifully, singing and carrying colourful flowers. He asked them what they were up to. The women told him it was Basant Panchami, and they were taking the offering of Basant to their god. And of course, on Basant Panchami, the offerings are/were made to Kama, the god of love. Khusrau smiled and said, "Well, my god needs an offering of Basant too.”

Immediately, he dressed himself up like those women, took some mustard flowers and singing the same songs, started walking towards the graveyard where his pir would be sitting alone. Nizamuddin Aulia noticed some women coming towards him - he could not recognize Khusrau. And then, presumably as Nizamuddin was about to bawl them out for disturbing his reverie, he recognised Amir Khusrau, courtier to Sultans, dressed in ghagra choli and carrying a basket of bright yellow mustard, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Laughed, I like to imagine, till he cried again, and then laughed again, embracing Khusrau dressed in, well, drag.

He wanted them to be buried in the same grave.


They still celebrate Basant at Nizamuddin dargah. People dress in yellow and bring mustard flowers as offering, rather than the more usual roses. The yellow hatted management of the dargah, have taken to denying the cross dressing story in the past couple of years. It is too risqué for contemporary religious taste.

But then most of the popular work attributed to Khusrau is all a little risqué. Like the kehmukarnis, double entendre which say and yet deny, bursting with the joy and erotic possibilities of playing with language, and identity.

Aap hilay aur moye hilaaye, Wa ka hilna moye mun bhaye;
Hil hil kay woh huva nasankha. Aye sakhi saajan? Na sakhi pankha!

Sej padi moray aankhon aaya,
Daal sej mohay majaa dikhaya,
Kis say kahun ab maja main apna.
Aye sakhi saajan? Na sakhi, Sapna!

Or this one

Bakhat bakhat moye wa ki aas, raat dina oo rahat mo paas;
Meray man ko sab karat hay kaam. Aye sakhi saajan? na sakhi, Ram!


The world of the keh-mukarni, like much of the world Khusrau and Nizam are remembered as having inhabited as well as created, was a world in which if boundaries existed at all, they did so only to be transgressed. A world in which neither love, nor faith, had predictable answers.

Har qaum raast raahay, deenay wa qibla gaahay
What Nizamuddin said sounds sort of predictable today - all communities do their own thing, let’s be tolerant. It was Khusrau’s repartee which turned things on their head – it turned faith away from the qaum, from communities of belief, to a deeply personal blasphemy. Men qibla raast kardam, ber terf-e kajkulaahay.
(I have straightened my qibla in the direction of this crooked cap).

For me, that moment by the river represents the beginnings of a thematic that I see running through much of the history of belief and faith and being in India. A refrain passing through much of the Bhakti and Sufi literature from then on is about a refusal to be defined. ‘Not Hindu, not Turak’ they all say - You can’t tell me how to pray. And with men writing of desire in the voice of women, with women writing of God in the language of desire - You can’t tell me how to love either.

When Nizamuddin died, Khusrau was in far off Bengal, on Sultanate business. He rushed back as fast as he could, but Nizamuddin had already been buried. He sat by the earthen mound that covered his friend, in the courtyard where they had spent so many happy hours together, an old man in his seventies, mourning another old man. In his grief he recited these lines –

Gori sovee sej par , much par dare kes

Chal Khusrau ghar aapne, Rain bhayee chahun des.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


five years after buying a twenty rupee instruction booklet in connaught place
five years after wanting to learn the script but always finding excuses to never try

i finally sat down, last saturday evening (no, i do not have a life!), dusted the book, and opened to the urdu alphabet.
two hours later, i could write all the way from 'alif' to 'badi yeh' out of memory...

now, three days (and about five hours total of studying) later, i am already beginning to read (and write) words and phrases, though fluency will take a while yet. it doesn't feel short of a miracle. what was unintelligible sinuous gibberish three days ago now flows with meaning.

three days. five hours.
at this rate - i should be reading urdu with basic comptence in about two weeks. (touch wood!)
even assuming that i'm 'smarter than the average(desi) bear', which i am not, and am learning twice as fast as average - one month of urdu, two hours a day, should be enough to teach anyone familiar with hindustani how to read and write in this script.

sixty hours.
and that brings me up short. just how much effort would it take to fit sixty hours of urdu into twelve years of school education?

'nuffink luv. 'nuffing at fecking all...

and yet

millions of people like me, who went through the 'good' schooling systems of modern north India have been denied this - denied literacy in script which only two generations ago was as important a means of communication and culture as Devnagari, and not just for Muslims.

The vastness of the Hindi-Urdu divide seems so absurd when you think that a month could bridge it...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Kiwis versus Mangoes, or Delhi rocks anyway

K has asked me to write on his continuing theme of comparing Dilli to Bombay, so here goes, even though I’m really not qualified in comparing the two cities – being that I’ve lived in Delhi for nearly eight years, and spent only a grand total of about two weeks in Bombay in all that time. So this would be like sort of like comparing comfort food to exotic cuisine, mangoes to kiwis. So I won’t. I won't compare the cities foodwise at any rate, that's K's (horrendously difficult) job...

(Of course, all of this is from the perspective of the middle class world which I inhabit. Delhi, like Bombay, is increasingly unkind to its lower/working classes.)

Much of the time I have spent in Bombay I have loved (barring that first time, five years ago, when I spent three days of sheer misery hanging out in monsoon flooded Andheri East). Much of that has to do with K, and Café Mondegar, and midnight rambles through the late nineteenth century buildings of Colaba and Fort. Much of that also has to do with a frenetic sleepless week of Bombay in January 2004, World Social Forum, where the days were an endless carnival and the nights were an endless party, in a different bar each night, and with a different set of people… So my Bombay, distilled in memory, is a Bombay of endless nights, of frenetic partying, the performance of ‘having fun’. (Remember that night outside Toto’s, K? The sudden drunken chorus with that other bunch of drunks in singing ‘This will be the day that I die’, and all the autowallahs and taxi drivers clapped?) The Bombay I know is an endlessly performative city, where everyone (and I mean EVERYONE), is always peforming ‘being Mumbaiyya’, from the auto-driver to the vada pav seller to the wannabe film-star. Isn’t Maximum City the most performative book? I think it would have improved drastically as literature if the prose hadn’t been so obsessed with proving Suketu Mehta’s Mumbaiyya credentials.

So Bombay I love to visit, but I don’t think I could live there. It lives too much in singular time. All space in the city is about ‘doing something’ all the time. The space/time of Bombay is colonized by constant productivity. This is reflected in the argot – where there are no benign verbs in the everyday, just an endless action movie. So they’ll won’t ‘give’ you water in a restaurant in Bombay, they’ll hit you with it. ‘Paani do’ versus ‘Paani maaro.’

In Delhi, even the most casual observer will notice the existence, or at least the possibility, of many times. Whether it is the roundabouts of central Delhi where you have government servants taking extended lunch breaks of playing cards right next to the swirling traffic, or whether it is the empty, echoing spaces of the monuments that dot the busiest localities of South Delhi; Delhi is filled with the juxtaposition of many times at once. And the public space to ‘do nothing’ if you so wish. No, I’m not just trying to say that Delhi is full of lazy buggers like me. It is just that all time here is not the constant present.

Of course, the fact that Delhi is at least a thousand years old, and that the ruins of the past abound everywhere is just one reason for this. The other is that the ruins and monuments of Delhi are only among the vast amounts of public space that the city has. Lodi Gardens is just one example that brings together the monuments and public spaces of the city wonderfully – there are far more public spaces. Spaces to do nothing if you wish but ‘hang around’. The lawns around India Gate, The vast Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Nehru Park in Chanakya Puri and its open air concerts, the vast courtyard of the Jama Masjid . Right next to Delhi University stretches the forested Delhi Ridge.

Much of my first years in Delhi were spent in wandering through far flung ruins, and lying down undisturbed for hours in the cool shade of thick domes. Isa Khan’s Tomb was one of my favourite haunts, where I would use my bag as a pillow on hot afternoons, if I was early to meet friends at Nizamuddin Station.

Delhi abounds in space-time – not for metaphorical reasons alone. Including the space to be oneself, perhaps? Delhi does not have one unifying accent/lingo (except, perhaps the distressingly frequent use of the term Behenchod) which can be identified as ‘Dilli-ya’ to coin a distressingly bad term… there are broad accents, Jat, Purabiya, Punjabi, Malayalee… people keep saying that no one feels like they ‘belong’ to Delhi… why do they need to? Delhi gives you the space to not belong, I think, or feel the need to… there is room for disagreement here, and arguement, and conversations.

Delhi is the city of conversations. This is Rana Dasgupta’s point, who moved to Delhi to write his book, and says that he thrives on the conversations this city has to offer. Whether because of the generosity of funding and patronage in the capital city, because of the fact that we three central universities, because of the archives, the embassies, all the infrastructure of a grand capital, in short – Delhi is swarming with academics and writers and other frighteningly erudite intellectual types and other interesting people who have things to say, and no hesitations in saying them. There is no dearth of conversation. But it’s not just among the eggheads. My own wanderings have taken me to different parts of the city, to Jat landowners, to eunuchs, to car part dealers, cinema hall owners, architects, parking attendants, rickshaw-wallahs, guards, Sufis. Everyone loves to talk. And they make the time for you to sit and talk to them. Not perform their selves, but engage with what you have to say. And this is important. Delhi may be only waking up to a Bombay style ‘night life’ now, but that doesn’t mean that in people’s homes till three in the morning, people didn’t talk and think and drink. And dance.

And of course, being the centre of power of north India for easily about seven centuries or so, Delhi abounds in truly beautiful buildings. And truly eccentric ones.
In which other city do people worship a lakh and a quarter djinns?
And live in graveyards?

And the clincher? Dilli has Jangpura. Beat that.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Note on the entry of Foreigners into India.

This one is for K.

I have been going through bulky volumes of Nehru's papers at the Teen Murti Library in Delhi. Came across this fascinating 'note' from 13 November, 1946.

Excerpt below -

It is obvious that it is desirable to prevent or restrict the admission into India of undesirable foreigners. The Home Department has put up a note showing that their past experience with various types of people has been far from happy. They mention especially Arab, Iraqi and Irani traders. They say that Iraqi Jews have been notorious for their black market activities in Bombay. The Arabs have often indulged in smuggling activities... The restaurant trade in Bombay has suffered also because of the large number of Iranians.

Suffered? Because of Brun Maska? Becuase of Berry Pulao (Iranian berries, Parsi resturant)? Because of Irani Chai?

And this was twenty odd years before Bal Thackeray became big...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

for those who might have been trying to call me

Last evening around eight pm, I am sitting in my front room and being interviewed for a radio program. I notice my phone ringing from faraway, but I decide to deal with it later. Or at least, I think I can hear the phone ringing.

Finally, the interview ends and I go looking for my phone. I can't find my phone anywhere. I ask my flatmate to call my phone and it's unreachable. I begin to get worried. I suddenly realise that the last time I actually rememeber handling the phone was three hours ago in the Metro. I could have lost it. I decide to be philosophical about this (second phone lost in three months) and not get hysterical. Phones get lost. But there is still that mysterious ringing to be accounted for.

I decide to go take a leak.

I often leave my phone in the loo.
Which is a symptom of either being too attached to my phone, or too much in love with the loo, or both.
I am also very absent minded.

(You can see what's coming, can't you?)

As I poise to let loose, I see the phone shining wetly in the depths of the toilet bowl.

The ringing phone I had left unanswered was also simultaneously vibrating, and it had shaken itself off the top of the flush and fallen into the bowl.....

The event flashed in my head with total clarity, and it was so funny that i was laughing even as i shoved my hand into the loo to (rather belatedly) rescue the phone.

later, after i have dismanted the phone and left it out to dry, I am chatting with a friend online

MvA: a pakistani friend of mine was playing with his phone last week and dropped it in a glass of water. It didn't work afterwards...
AVT: but i think my story counts as a classic
9:08 PM MvA: It does for sure!
you can write your column on it
try to relate it to some history
AVT: i don't thik so
it's not classic enough!!!!
9:09 PM MvA: oh, okay... but try to use the symbolism of it then
AVT: vibrating mobiles falling into toilets...?
MvA: how symbolic is that...
AVT: the city flushing down attempts at communication and reaching out

And it would make the beginnings of a great story. A twenty first century epic of anomie, love and loss.

A lover urgently calls a beloved. The unanswered phone vibrates with passion and desire.
It is doomed to fall into the toilet and be flushed away, the unwanted flotsam of an uncaring city.

It could be quite the story.

MvA: oh, yes that's a nice link
tres magnificent
9:10 PM see, what lost telephones can do
AVT: inspire creativity? too high a price to pay don't you think?
9:11 PM MvA: i think so

Monday, April 03, 2006

the limits of google

The official figures say, 1000 dwellings were demolished on the second day.
except that they don't call them dwellings, or houses - they call them jhuggis.
Only one newspaper, The Hindu, reported what had happened. No one else even bothered. Which is why if you google 'Nangla', an entire settlement laid waste with seven companies of policemen to accompany a job well done, you may get only blogs.

Please read them. This is what the city of the future is all about.
This is how we get to the photo above.
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