Tuesday, March 29, 2011

that which was named delhi

This is a translation of the opening page and a half of Urdu writer Intizar Hussain's literary memoir of Delhi, “Dilli Tha Jiska Naam”, published by Sang-e-Meel Publishers, Lahore, 2003.

No settlement shows its [true] self easily. And then Delhi is a settlement about which Mir had warned us that it's not any other town, this is Delhi. You and I are in a small numbered queue, the queue of those who have swallowed so much of the dust of Delhi's street and alleys that we have become the stones of Delhi's roads, but even to us, how much of its selfhood has this city shown? It has hidden away far more than it has ever shown. So know this attempt of mine as merely a useless fancy. To tell the truth, it's just one of Delhi's evenings which has made me crazy, obsessed. This melancholy monsoon evening revealed itself to me for the space of a breath, and then vanished. To relate it again is not my intention. When was I able to tell of it before? I am merely gesturing towards it.

This was an evening two or three years after Partition. I had reached Delhi after a lot of effort. When we set foot in that celebrated passage that is called the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the two times were meeting[1]. But the crowds that were usually present, with the scraping of shoulder against shoulder, were missing. Outside the dargah, the usual crowd around the shops selling roses, incense and candles was also nowhere to be seen. Silence had spread its encampment. From some direction a group of three qawwals appeared, harmoniums around their necks. They put the harmoniums down, and began singing immediately –

In every house sadness has spread, Shabbir has gone and left Madina.

We listened to them for a little while and then came outside. We being me and my old friends Rewati and Singh, whose guest I was. Rewati said, Did you know that Ghalib's mazaar is here as well? Let's go there as well, and so we got off the narrow path and started walking amidst tall grass. Janamashtami had passed, and the grass had grown green and tall from the showers of [the months of] Sawan and Bhadon. In the middle of this grass a ruined platform came into view. Around it was a tumbledown enclosure wall. Inside, three graves in a ruinous condition. One of them was Ghalib's grave. I read the fatiha. Then we started walking through the tall grass again. Silence was all around. Only a peacock's call coming from afar broke this silence. After which the silence deepened even further. A couplet of Amir Khusrau's which I had just read at his tomb started whirling in my head –

The fair one sleeps upon the bed, her hair veiling her face

Khusrau leave for your own home, it is dark now in this country.

After this I had to wait for thirty years to go to Delhi. Then somehow an opportunity to make a trip to this settlement presented itself. One trip. Then a second trip. Then a third trip. On every trip I made sure I visited the street of Nizamuddin Auliya. But now the whole map of the place had changed. Crowds. Shoulder scraping against shoulder. In every shop heap after heap of rose petals. Pushing and shoving to cross the threshold of the shrine to reach the tombs. And oh, the platform with Ghalib's grave vanished. The grass extinct. Now there was a wide platform of marble here. Beautiful filigree screens all around it. Inside, a grave made of marble. Right next to it, an imposing Ghalib Hall. On every visit the crowds seemed denser than the last time. And every time I badly missed that monsoon evening and that ruined grave falling apart amidst the tall grass. Oh Lord, where did that evening go and hide and where did that grave disappear to? Where should I look for it?

[1] It was dusk.

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