Rubble buries romance as India charges into modernity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2007, 12:00am

Lovers anxious for inspiration this Valentine's Day could do worse than look up the verses of Mirza Ghalib, the 19th-century Urdu love poet. His Persian and Urdu ghazals - lyric poems with rhyming couplets - are still considered among the most beautiful and haunting of the form. Ghalib's life has inspired Indian plays, films and a TV serial, and English translations of his poems are printed inside cards for Valentine's Day.

Ghalib, whose real name was Asadullah Khan, spent most of his life in Old Delhi, the 17th-century city built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. In his final years Ghalib lived in an elegant haveli (a personal residential compound typically built around a courtyard) just off Chandni Chowk, which leads from the Red Fort to the Jami Masjid, India's biggest mosque.

Chandni Chowk was then a grand, tree-lined avenue. But today, like the rest of Old Delhi, it is noisy, grimy, and crammed with shops, houses, people and traffic. Although the area, with its winding lanes and bustle, retains much charm, there are concerns over the neglect of a cultural treasure as India rushes towards modernisation.

Some Indians see Ghalib's house as the equivalent of William Shakespeare's cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon, or Johann Wolfgang Goethe's house in Frankfurt am Main. These well preserved buildings receive thousands of visitors every year, but the home of arguably India's greatest poet fell off the map years ago.

Jammed between two shops, the house still has the facade of an old haveli: a big, red-brick archway with heavy wooden doors. From the door up, the building has been rebuilt in concrete with ugly metal balustrades. A little way inside the door, the interior has been altered to accommodate a lurid green telephone booth.

Most of the visitors who walk through the red-brick arch are on their way to make a telephone call.

'This is the quietest place in Old Delhi to have a chat,' said Mohammed Mateen, one of the booth's regular customers, as he stepped around two motorcycles, a goat and a bicycle rickshaw, and into the peace of Ghalib's haveli, rummaging in his pocket for coins.

In the past, Ghalib's haveli has been used as a coal dump, a horse shed and a motorbike park. In 1999, the Delhi government bought the house, or what was left of it - a small courtyard and a room - and put up a sign on the outside wall reading 'Mirza Ghalib Haveli'. The remains of the poet's home are now safe from further destruction. But few tourists or locals visit.

'No one's interested in Urdu or in learning these days, and no one remembers Ghalib,' said an elderly man dressed in white with a Muslim topi hat. 'That was where he wrote,' he added, pointing to the corner of the courtyard.

Ghalib's house shares the fate of many havelis in Old Delhi - and of old buildings all over India. Thousands have been altered or demolished as rural poverty has pushed people into cities that are bursting at the seams. Thousands of architectural jewels have been razed to make way for multistorey blocks.

Most Indians are more interested in modern buildings and what they signify - wealth, development, progress - than architectural relics from the past, and there are few safeguards for old buildings.

The Archaeological Society of India protects only 3,620 monuments, with 9,000 protected at a state level. In Britain, 440,000 buildings are protected.

The loss of old buildings is especially stark in Old Delhi, once a city of graceful havelis built around airy courtyards. Pillars have been pulled down to make room for shops and offices. Intricately carved ceilings have been used for firewood. Courtyards have been divided into rooms.

'Hundreds of havelis have been destroyed, or altered beyond recognition,' said O.P. Jain, convenor of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

'It's the same all over India - wherever there are a lot of people, precious buildings are destroyed,' Mr Jain said.

But Ghalib would not, perhaps, be so horrified by the fate of his city. Even within his life, the Old Delhi that he knew was beginning to crumble as the British seized the power of the Mughal court.

In 1857, 12 years before his death, Ghalib witnessed the British reprisals for the Sepoy mutiny. 'Swarming through the open gates of Delhi, the intoxicated horsemen and rough foot soldiers ravished the city,' he wrote. 'By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment. No fort, no bazaars, no watercourses ... '

With the demise of the Mughal court, Ghalib lost the establishment that had supported him. He wrote to Queen Victoria, begging for financial support, even composing her a Persian ode in which he praised her for being 'as splendid as the stars'. The flattery had no effect.

Ghalib was well practiced in praising women. Married at 13, it seemed unlikely that his wife inspired his poems. Ghalib had many mistresses, but the love of his life seemed to have been a courtesan who died young; her identity remains a mystery.

'He was a wonderfully raffish character, constantly falling in love with a succession of young beauties, much to the consternation of his wife, whom he regarded as a ball and chain,' said writer William Dalrymple.

Ghalib believed poets should live dangerously and often boasted of his love of gambling, which once landed him in prison. On one occasion, when Sheik Sahbai, a rival poet, was praised, Ghalib wrote: 'How could Sahbai be a poet? He has never tasted wine; nor has he ever gambled; he has not been beaten with slippers by lovers, nor has he once seen the inside of a jail.'

Ghalib certainly considered himself a great and important poet. The man whose house lies all but forgotten in a busy Delhi street was once asked for his postal address. 'Asadullah Ghalib, Delhi, will be enough,' he replied.