A Poem: Rumi

I never tired of thinking of you, my beloved
Do not deprive me of your compassion

This jar of water, this water-carrier
Must be exhausted with me

A parched fish remains within me
Never given enough water
To quench its thirst

Show me the way to the ocean!
Shatter these half measures
All these tiny containers

All this is sorcery
And mortifying

Let my hut be swept away
By the wave that rose last night
From the depths hidden in my heart

Just like the moon, Yusuf came down into my well
Even if the harvest of my hope has been flooded
What does it matter?

The flames have risen over the tombstone
I seek neither knowledge nor honours
Nor is respect desired

I only want music and this dawn
The warmth of your face on mine

Travellers of heartache are gathering
But I shan’t go with them

This is what happens every time
When I have to end a poem

A deep silence envelops me
And I wonder in astonishment
Why I have been pursuing words

[Translated from the Bengali version included in Rabisankar Bal’s ‘A Mirrored Life’]

So Much Poetry There (A Life of Rumi) – Chapter 1: Rabisankar Bal

You have not read this particular kitaab of mine before, though some of you may have read my account of thirty years of travel. People refer to it as my travels now, but actually I was on pilgrimage. Wandering from one land to another over thirty years, it struck me that there is no end to pilgrim spots on this earth; you could even say that the world itself is a pilgrim spot. Sheikh Ibn Battuta salutes the earth wind fire water air again and again.

Touch me to check for yourself if you don’t believe me, I am indeed Ibn Battuta. I do have a longer name, of course. Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta. I left Tangiers in the Hijri year 725, 1324-25 by the Christian calendar. Crossing one town after another, the first extraordinary city that I reached was named Alexandria. I felt I had arrived at a blue city. This was where I met Imam Burhanuddin Al Arz for the first time. It was from him that I heard of Maulana. The secret manuscript that I am about to read out to all of you features Maulana as its principal character. If my idiom seems topsy-turvy, not the language of literature, pardon me. From what I have seen and understood of Maulana, he cannot be captured by the language of literature. Can you put the strains of a flute in words? But still I have tried, if only for myself, to create a limping account of this radiance. Maulana’s life is like a patterned quilt. I shall be gratified if I can present even one or two of those patterns here in this majlis to all of you. Allah be merciful. All praise to the almighty, the keeper of the world, the supreme lord of Judgement Day. We only pray to you, seek help only from you. Show us the simplest path. Show us the path of those whom you have blessed, not the path of those whom you are enraged with, or of those who have lost their way.

‘You want to travel in different lands, don’t you?’ Imam Burhanuddin asked me one day.

– Yes, such is my desire.
– When did this fancy overtake you, my friend?
– I had been to the hamam for a bath late one night. There was no one there. It was the night of the full moon, which was floating in the water of the hamam. I played for a long time with the moon in the water. I’ve never wanted to live at home since then.

The Imam burst into laughter.

– No one can stay home once the moon has struck them. Now that you are out, travel the world.

To tell you the truth, I did not really want to wander far and wide then. My only desire was to visit Mecca. But the Imam sahib instigated me. ‘Off you go, then,’ he said, ‘Go and meet my brother Fariduddin in Hindustan. I have another brother in Sindh, Ruknuddin Ibn Zakaria, and one more in China. Tell them about me.’ At once I determined to visit all these places, and to take news of the Imam sahib to his brothers.

That was the beginning of thirty years of wandering. One day I arrived in Anatolia in the course of my travels. Anatolia. The name spoke to me like the call of destiny. A song was concealed in it. And I decided that I would have to visit Konya, its capital. As the Imam sahib had said, this city was the Maulana’s playground. The amazing whirling dance was born here. I passed the fort at Tawas and the town of Milak to arrive at Konya. A city of water and of gardens, Konya. It has risen after a cataclysmic flood, Konya. St Paul, along with Barnabas and his disciple Timothy had come here. The Christians’ conference took place here. Even after being ransacked by the Crusaders, Konya was revived as the capital of the Selzuk sultans. Not even the invasion of the Mongols could vanquish the city. And the people of Konya? The entire world seemed to have gathered here. Besides Turks, there were Greeks, Arabs, Indians, Iranians, Armenians, Venetians, even the Chinese. It was from this Konya that the glow of love spread to Samarkhand and Bokhara. So the Maulana wrote.

I heard many stories of the Maulana’s magical life from the Imam sahib of Alexandria. He told me, ‘Maulana’s poetry is written on every rock, every tree, on the road to Konya. But you must discover it. And listen, examine the inns carefully. That’s where the soul of Anatolia is hidden. Maulana said this world is an inn, where we wait in the depths of winter for the first day of spring, when the ice will start melting, the road will be visible, and our caravan will be on its way again.’ The Imam sahib used to say such strange things. One day he told me, ‘Anatolia isn’t just a place, another name for the soul is Anatolia.’

Anatolia got a new lease of life when the Sezuk sultan Ala Aladdin Kaikobad ascended the throne In 1219 AD. There was a wave of construction everywhere, with new mosques, walls and inns coming up. Trade routes radiated out from Konya towards Constantinople, Aleppo, Mohshul, Tabriz – and even further, to the port of Sinop on the Black Sea, to Mediterranean harbours. And countless inns on either side of these roads. Konya was an important centre of trade then – only Baghdad was comparable. When I reached Konya sixty years after Maulana’s death, it was just as lively, as full of spirit. Konya would awake to the sounds of the water being splashed on the roads after the azaan at dawn. Then came the water-carriers, transporting water in goatskin bags on camelback from the canals outside the city to every home. The washermen rushed from one house to another, collecting dirty clothes. Masons squatted by the road, waiting for work. Konya was coming alive. The lilting tones of children reading out loud from the Koran could be heard. Fragrant vapours rising from the water suffused the hamam. Shops opened for business, talk of buying and selling gathered momentum. A lunatic walked past, muttering to himself. A girl’s face appeared in the window of a house, the window emptying as soon as someone’s eye fell on it. Only the memory of a beauty floated about in Konya’s air. All writing is actually a short-lived attempt to hold on to memory. The secret manuscript that I am about to read from it also a memory, the memory of Maulana, whom I have never seen. But how can I write about my memories of a person I have never seen? I have asked myself this question repeatedly. And a voice has asked me in return, ‘Do you love Maulana?’

– Yes.
– How?
– I don’t know.
– Let’s say you lose yourself completely as you love, you do not exist anymore. Is that how you love Maulana?
– I don’t know.
– Then begin, Sheikh. This ignorance will lead you to Maulana eventually. You have to move forward so that you can cook yourself.
– Cook?
– Do not question everything, infidel. You will realise as you write. You are the food, you are the one who eats, you are the cook.

Many years later, when I reached Tangiers, I completed dictating my accounts of my travels to a scribe and then turned to write Maulana’s life story myself. I felt I would have to write this story in my own hand, for I have heard the strains of the flute, the melody that weeps to go back home.

Mirza Ghalib & Munirabai – from Dozakhnama: Rabisankar Bal

… It was at such a time that she came into my life, my brothers. I only saw her eyes at first. And the moment I did, Mir sahib’s ghazal began humming in my head:

Jee mein kya kya hai apne ai humdum
Par sukhan ta balava nahin aata.

There’s so much in my heart, my soulmate
But not a single word reaches my lips

I had drunk a great deal that evening. I couldn’t go back home after leaving the kotha and fell asleep on it verandah. Someone awoke me from the depths of sleep. I saw only her eye, the line of her kohl, and silken tears.

– Mirza sahib.

A voice engulfed me like a wind on a wintry night. I gazed only into her eyes and hundreds of birds were flying in it, as though it was dawn, the first dawn of my life, in her eyes. As though the painter Behzad’s brush had painted a pair of eyes on a body made of air.

– Mirza sahib…
– Who are you? Kaun ho tum?
– Why didn’t you go back home?
– Home? I chuckled. – Where is it?
– Next to Habas Khan’s gate.
– But my home isn’t there.

She was quiet for the longest time. Then she said, ‘Come, let me take you home.’

– Why?
– You mustn’t languish here on the streets, Mirza sahib.
– Why not?
– Because you’re a poet without peer.
– Withour peer?
– Truly, yes.
– Say it again.
– You’re a poet without peer. You’re benazir.

I grasped her hand. How warm it was, how hot. I held it against my mouth, I sucked on its flesh. She was dark as the night. And because of this, she dazzled in the darkness.

– Let me go, janab.

But I was entering her darkness. I wouldn’t be satisfied till I had clasped her to my breast. She allowed herself to be taken, without resisting. For the first time I got the scent of moist earth in a woman’s body, Manto-bhai. The scent that the base of the tree gives out after it has rained. This was not the fragrance of ittar in the bodies of the courtesans in the kothas, this was the dark smell of a moist, ancient earth.

I was entranced by this smell, Manto-bhai. She was no famous courtesan from a brothel. She was an ordinary domni. You do know what domnis did for a living, don’t you? They aang and danced at weddings to earn money, and they slept with men as well; but no refined Mirza would ever touch a domni. Their behaviour and speech belonged to the gutter. But Munira – Munirabai was different from the rest of them.

Munirabai gave me shelter in her room from that day on. She sang nobody’s ghazals but mine. When Munirabai sang, the glow of vermilion clouds would spread on her darkling face.

– Munira…
– Yes?
– Where did you hear my ghazals?

Munirabai would smile. ‘They fell from the heavens.’

– From the sky?
– Yes.
– Where is that sky, those stars?
– Here. Munira would smile, her hand on her heart. ‘They’re in my breasts, janab.’

The sky was inside her breasts and my ghazals had dropped from this sky – nobody had ever described it like this before. Only Munirabai could put it this way. She had no monetary relationship with my ghazals. I clasped her to my breast. She disrobed behind the shield of my body. I seemed to be holding a black, moisture-laden cloud. Begam Falak Ara was a sunlit day in my life, Manto-bhai, and Munira was like torrential rain, continuous. New green leaves sprang up on my body; believe me, when I sat in front of Munira, it was only her eyes that I saw, as swift as a doe, but still every now and then. In those still eyes I could see fear, like a running deer stopping abruptly in its tracks.
They heaped calumny on me, Manto-bhai. You’re Mirza Ghalib, very well, you may visit a kotha, you may even spend the night with a courtesan, but that doesn’t mean you can live with a domni in her house. Are you forgetting your position? What is one’s position, Manto-bhai? When I was humiliated at the mushairas, she was the only one I could go to. She never said anything, she only sang my ghazals:

Dil-e-nadaan tujhey hua kya hai?
Akhir is dard ki dawaa kya hai?

What’s wrong with your innocent heart?
What’s the cure for this illness?

Deliverance lies where there is sanctuary. So I didn’t pay any heed to all the mud flung at me. Why should I tuck my tail between my legs and run away just because a commoner was throwing stones at me? I was never one to do that. I may not have gone to battle like my ancestors, but my life had become nothing but a battlefield, where I had to fight all by myself. To hell with what people said. When I was in bed with Munira I forgot all the humiliation heaped upon me, Munia made me forget it all, and I clung to her more and more with every passing day. As I heard her sing my ghazals one after the other, it occurred me that for all their jibes at the mushairas, at least one woman was keeping my ghazals alive through her voice. I wanted to have Munira all by myself, I wouldn’t let her perform anywhere else. I wouldn’t let anyone visit her either. I took on the responsibility for her maintenance. Not that I was particularly well-off – all I had was the monthly pension of sixty-two rupees and fifty paise from the British. It was used to run the household, pay for my drinking and gambling, and now, for Munira’s expenses too. But then my mother’s sister used to send some money every month, as did Ahmed Bux Khan from Loharu now and then; even my mother used to send me some money sometimes from Agra. But given my profligate ways, this was never enough. So I had to borrow. Back then, of course, people like Mathura Das or Darbari Mal or Khoobchand never turned down my requests for loans. All told, my days were passing quite enjoyably. And a hundred ghazals were being born around Munira.

Jaan tum par nisar karta hoon
Main nahi jaanta dua kya hai.

I am charitable to you, my love
I do not know what prayer is.

But one day some people stormed Munira’s house, beating her up and breaking things. Do you know why? So that she didn’t let me in anymore. But still I want, for I was adamant. Munira only wept, holding my hand. ‘Go away, Mirza sahib. If they see you…’

– What will they do? Will they beat me up?
– I don’t want your name to be besmirched.
– Do you also want me not to visit you anymore?

Drawing my head to the seclusion of her breast, she continued weeping and said, ‘I cannot live without you, Mirza sahib, you are my love. But still…’

I couldn’t imagine living without her either, Manto-bhai. I was drawn to Munira as the moth to the flame. My life was incomplete without her beauty. Do you know how I felt? As though someone would steal her from me any moment. I didn’t even go into the garden for a stroll with her, for I used to fear that the narcissus would forget its own beauty when it saw her and assume its real form to run to her. The more I explored Munirabai’s depths, the more I felt that I did not have her in all her fullness.

Yeh na thi hamari kismat ke wisal-i-yaar hota
Agar aur jeete rehte yehi intezaar hota.

That was exactly how I felt. Complete union with her was not in my destiny. The longer I lived, the longer I would wait for her. Only once in my life was I able to love like this, Manto-bhai. Firdousi among poets, Hasan Basri among sages and Majnu among lovers – these were the three beacons of the world. If you cannot love like Majnu I don’t call it love. I had dreamt of it, but I could not love like Majnu, Manto-bhai. It was too arduous a path for me. How many of us can train our body and soul to forget ourselves? I could not.

I was extremely hurt at first, so I cut down on my visits to Munirabai. Gradually the hurt was erased. And so was she. Mughal blood is very cruel, Manto-bhai; the same blood ran in my veins too. Do you know what this blood does? It kills the one it loves. I succeeded in forgetting her and getting involved with life in new ways. But Munira had locked herself up within me, no new paths opened up for her. Women are like that. Once they love someone, they cannot escape from the cage of this passion; even if they waste away and die they will confine themselves to the cage. Once upon a time I used to consider their world too narrow for my liking. But someone who can even die out of her love for a man has actually embarked on the ultimate journey, an endeavour to reach beyond the self and lose oneself in another. God did not give this life of noble pursuit to the male, Manto-bhai. We are like moths, and they are like flames – they burn and destroy themselves to give out light. This is the love you will see in Meerabai’s songs, Manto-bhai. Without Giridhari, Meera’s life was dark. Kaise jiyun re mai, Hari bine kaise jiyun. How will I live without Krishna, how will I live?

One day I heard that Munirabai had died. With her death, this maddening love, this bekhudi mohabbat, left me too. But her eyes didn’t leave me. Those eyes, just like the ones painted on a peacock’s tail, kept coming back to me. When death finally appeared to take my hand, I realized that I had indeed wanted to love Munira like Majnu did, or else she would not have appeared to me in my final moments.

Muddat Huee Hai Yaar Ko Mehmaan Kiye Hue
Josh-E-Qadah Se Bazm Chiraaghaan Kiye Hue
Karta Hoon Jama’a Fir Jigar-E-Lakht-Lakht Ko
Arsa Hua Hai Daawat-E-Mizhgaan Kiye Hue
Fir Waza-E-Ehtiyaat Se Rukane Laga Hai Dam
Barson Hue Hain Chaak Girebaan Kiye Hue…
Maange Hai Fir Kisee Ko Lab-E-Baam Par Hawas
Zulf-E-Siyaah Rukh Pe Pareshaan Kiye Hue…
Ik Nau Bahaar-E-Naaz Ko Taaqe Hai Fir Nigaah
Chehra Furogh-E-Mai Se Gulistaan Kiye Hue
Jee Dhoondta Hai Fir Wohee Fursat Ke Raat Din
Baithe Rahain Tasavvur-E-Jaanaan Kiye Hue

It’s been long since my love was my guest
Long since the the wine warmed the parlour
All these rigid rules choke my breath
I long to wear my torn clothes once more
Will my bleeding heart be mended, asks love
They’re just waiting to rub salt in my wounds
I want to be at my beloved’s doorstep again
Pleading with the doorman to let me in
My heart again seeks those easygoing days
When hours were spent in thoughts of my love
Don’t disturb me, Ghalib, my passion drives me on
I am waiting now with stormy, reckless will.

Munirabai was gone. The miserable days became even more miserable, Manto-bhai. Begum Falak Ara was a bolt of lightning in the sky of my existence, and Munirabai was the star whose light falls on our courtyard even millions of years after its death.

Night after night I gazed at the darkness of her death, reciting Mir sahib’s sher:

Sarsari tum jahan se guzre
Baranh har ja jahan-e digar tha

Munirabai, my love, you left the world carelessly, you did not notice that every spot here held a new world.

Dozakhnama: by Rabisankar Bal

~ 1 ~

My life has often been assailed by events that cannot be explained. I have given up after repeated attempts to understand or explain them. It seems to me that there can be no deeper meaning than the fact that they arrived uninvited in my life. Wandering aimlessly on the streets, if you happen to spot someone whom you do not expect to see except in a dream or in a picture, if you actually come face to face with them for a moment, what will you conclude? Will you not feel as though a door has been opened intriguingly for you?

Just such a wondrous door had opened for me on my last visit to Lucknow. I’m an ordinary pen-pushing labourer at a newspaper, who was in Lucknow to research a piece on the courtesans, the tawaifs, of the city. The first person I met there was Parveen Talhar, a senior government officer. She made the history of Lucknow come alive, as though it were taking place before her eyes. You will no longer find the tawaifs you read about in Sharar’s old book about Lucknow or in the novel Umrao Jaan, she told me. Indeed I didn’t. So I noted down in my diary all the stories that different people told me, which were no less colourful. I for one cannot consider stories that have been passed down through generations in a lesser light than history.

Winding through the tales told by the people I had met, I ended up in old Lucknow, at the house of Farid mian in dusty Wazirganj. Despite the strong sun, it was so wrapped in shadows that you could almost call it a forgotten neighbourhood. From a distance I saw the house, the enormous mahal, named Adaabistan, home of the Urdu writer Naiyer Masud. I really wanted to meet this writer who had been hounded by destiny, but how was I to pour out my rapture over his stories without knowing Urdu? I could have told him in Hindi or English, but would it be possible to fathom the mystery of Naiyer Masud’s dialogue unless I spoke to him in Urdu? All this was my imagination. No writer matches the image his writing suggests.

Farid mian sat back on his ankles with folded knees, as though he were reading the Namaz. He stayed in the same pose through our entire conversation. After telling me several stories about tawaifs, he asked, ‘Do you write stories?’

– Sort of.
– So did I, once.
– Don’t you write anymore?
– No.
– Why not?
– Writing these stories, these kissas, makes you very lonely, janab. Life becomes hell for those whom Allah commands to write stories.
– But why?
– You live only with shadow people.
– So you have given up writing?
– Yes, janab. My life was turning into Karbala. You know Karbala, don’t you?
– The story of Muharram…
– Yes. But what is Karbala? Is it just about Muharram? Karbala is what happens when this life becomes an expanse of death. That is the destiny of the writer of stories, janab.
– Why?
– You’re always surrounded by shadow people, they talk to you, they drive you to madness. Hasn’t it ever happened to you?
– It has.
– Hasn’t your wife asked, why did you write this story?
– She has.
– My wife has asked me too, more than once. What do I tell her? She’ll laugh at whatever I say, she’ll tell me, you’ve gone mad, aap pagal ho gaye ho, mian.
– And so you gave up writing stories?
– All I could offer you was a cup of tea, janab. I cannot afford a meal, a dawat, for you. That’s all a writer of stories is capable of.

He sat in silence for a long time. I drenched myself in the sounds of the pigeons wafting in from the yard within his house. Suddenly his voice percolated through the greyness of the pigeons’ cries. ‘There’s a story that’s troubling me greatly, janab.’

– What story?
Without answering, he rose to his feet slowly, and then said, ‘Can you wait for a few minutes?’
– Of course.
– Then let me show you the story.
– Did you write it?
– No. Farid mian smiled. – Wait a bit. This too is an amazing story, janab.

He sauntered off into the inner chambers. There was a mermaid above the door leading inside. Suddenly someone ran into the room. A dark, hirsute creature, who said, kneeling by my side, ‘Don’t you know mian went mad once?’

– I do.
– Well then?
– I’m here to talk to him.
– For what?
– Who are you?
– I am his servant, huzoor, his naukar. Mian will go mad again.
– Why?
– He will start talking to himself again.
– Why?
– Whenever anyone talks about stories…

When he heard the sound of approaching footsteps, the dark man ran away, saying, ‘Go away now, huzoor.’ My eyes began to roam over the mermaid’s body again. A little later Farid mian parted the curtain and entered. It seemed to me that he was bathed in a glow of satisfaction. Even a short while earlier he had appeared rather restless. He was clutching to his chest a bundle wrapped in blue velvet. He resumed his position as though he was reading the Namaz, putting the bundle down on the floor as though it were a newborn baby. Then he looked at me and smiled.

– What I will show you now will make you think you’re dreaming.

What dream would Farid mian show me? I have dreamt my way through fifty years of my life. And I also know that this life of ours, describing which as real life makes most people happy, is itself someone else’s dream. I feel that I am but a picture, which became visible for only a moment before disappearing again. Someone had once dreamt of a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered whether it was actually the butterfly that had dreamt of him.

Unwrapping the velvet cover brought an ancient manuscript to life under the light. Parts of it were termite-eaten. As I looked at it, I was reminded of a poem.

But I came from the other side of the river
If you don’t believe me, ask
The unpublished novel. Ask the silverfish
That have picked at its flesh
Ask the brown cockroach eggs, ask the
Rivers cut into the body of the manuscript
By termite – all those rivers that die
Even before they can reach the sea.

Who had written this poem? I couldn’t for the life of me remember. It must have been someone not famous enough to be memorable. Maybe it was a poet who only etched our wounds in poetry before disappearing effortlessly one day.

Farid mian picked up the manuscript as though he were caressing a baby. Offering it to me, he said, ‘Take a look.’

I took the manuscript from him the way people accept flowers from the priest for their prayers. There was a rustling sound. Were the pages crumbling even at this slightest of touches? Putting the manuscript down on the sheet, I turned its pages. It was in Urdu, a language I didn’t know. I stopped after a few pages, entranced by the beauty of the script. All I knew was that I was now holding several lost moments in time. Eventually I asked Farid mian, ‘Whose manuscript is this?’

– Saadat Hassan Manto’s. Have you heard of him?
I leaned over the manuscript, hearing my own trembling voice, ‘Saadat Hasan Manto.’
– Stories used to seek him out.
– How did you get this?
– My father gave it to me shortly before his death. He did not tell me how he got it.
– What has Manto written?
– A dastan. What you people call a novel. But you know what, a dastan is not exactly a novel. In a dastan the story never ends, whereas a novel has a beginning and an end.
– But Manto never wrote novels.
– Just this one.
– Why wasn’t it published, then?
– No one believes it, you see. I have told many people. Some of them have compared scripts to say, this isn’t exactly Manto sahib’s handwriting. But the novel matches his life perfectly. Will you see if it can be published?
– Me?
– You work for a newspaper, after all. Why don’t you try? Must Manto sahib’s work be destroyed this way by termite?
I ran my fingers over the manuscript. Was this really Saadat Hasan Manto’s unpublished manuscript before me? I couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t take my hand away either. This was the writer who had asked these words to be engraved on his tombstone: who is the greater storyteller – god or Manto?
– Have you read it?
– Of course. I’ve lost count how many times.
– What has Manto sahib written?
– He’s written about Mirza Ghalib. Manto sahib used to dream of writing a novel about Mirza. They had made a film about Ghalib in Bombay. Manto sahib had written the script. Did you know this?
– No.
– Manto sahib was a film scriptwriter in Bombay at the time. The film he wrote about Ghalib was a hit. But sadly, he had gone away to Pakistan by the time it was made. Suraiya Begum acted as Mirza Ghalib’s lover. The film even won a national award. It was the first Hindi film to win a national award, you know. Manto sahib could not forget Mirza all his life. Mirza’s ghazals used to drive him mad, Mirza’s life too. There were many similarities between them. Mirza’s ghazals used to be on Manto’s lips all the time.
– So he wrote this novel in Pakistan?
– Exactly. The dastan of Manto sahib’s dreams. Take it, see if you can have it published.
– Doesn’t anyone want to publish it in Urdu?
– They refuse to believe it’s his. How long can I bear this burden? My days are numbered. It will be utterly lost after I die.
Farid mian clutched my hands.
– Relieve me of this dastan. Everyone calls me mad now. They say stories have consumed me.

Manto’s unpublished novel about Mirza Ghalib – none of us knew whether it was real or a fake – arrived with me in this city. I didn’t knew Urdu, so I only glanced at the manuscript from time to time. Had it really been written by Manto, or by someone else? Then I thought, if we’re all someone else’s dream, then a Manto from a dream could well have written a novel about a Ghalib from another dream. Did the question of authenticity even arise?

I had to consider learning Urdu simply to read the novel. My friend Ujjal arranged for a teacher. Her name was Tabassum Mirza. But within a few days of starting classes with her, I realized that I had lost both the patience and the application needed to learn a new language. One day I told Tabassum, ‘I don’t think I can ever learn Urdu.’

‘Then how will you read the novel?’ asked Tabassum.
– If you read it out and translate it, I will take it down.
– I may make mistakes in places. How will you know?
– Is anything possible without mistakes, Tabassum?
– Why?
– It was by mistake that I came to you to learn Urdu.
– What do you mean?
– You’re getting married soon. I wouldn’t have come if I’d known. After your wedding you will translate orally, I will take it down. Life is a sort of translation, Tabassum, you know that, don’t you?

Like the revolving beam of a lighthouse, Tabassum’s eyes dissected me.

On a rainswept evening I went to Tabassum for the first time to learn Urdu. Walking down a long, dark road, I stopped at a shop to mention Tabassum’s father’s name and ask, which way is the house?

Whom do you want to meet?

I gave Tabassum’s father’s name.

Looking at me in surprise, the shopkeeper said, ‘But sahib is dead. Don’t you know?’

– Tabassum Mirza…
– His daughter. The shopkeeper called out loudly, ‘Show sahib the house, Anwar.’

I followed Answar to a locked door. The silent two-storied house was soaking in the rain. Anwar began to knock on the door. Eventually the door was opened, but no one could be seen. Only a voice was heard, ‘Who is it? Kaun hai?’

– It’s me, sahib, Anwar.
– What is it?
– A visitor, sahib, mehman.

A face called out in the rain, ‘Who is it? Who is it, Anwar?’

Anwar glanced at me.
– Is Tabassum Mirza in? I answered to the invisible face.
– What do you want with her?
– I was supposed to be here this evening.
– Student?
– Yes.
– Come, come inside, why didn’t you say so earlier…

Entering, I was drenched even more. The yard in the middle of the house was open to the skies. The person who had invited me, whom I could not see, began to shout, ‘Open the door, Tabassum, open the door, it’s a student, a student…’

The door was opened. She stood in the darkness and the shade of the rain, Tabassum, my teacher, head covered. Her voice came to me like the whistle of a train in the dead of night, ‘Come in… come in… it’s raining so hard, I thought you wouldn’t come today.’

Ignoring the fact that my shoes were sopping wet in the rain, I walked across a veranda like a slice of melon to enter the room. A huge bed in a small room, a dressing table, a fridge – you couldn’t take more than a couple of steps around the room.

– You’ll have tea, won’t you?
– Please don’t bother…
– You’re soaked to the skin.
– Never mind.
– Sit down, please, have a cup of tea first.

Tabassum went into the small adjoining balcony to make the tea. I thought I had blundered my way into a maze. In my quest for tawaifs in Lucknow I had become entangled with Saadat Hasan Manto’s unpublished novel, and to prepare to read this novel I had come to be present in Tabassum Mirza’s room in a dark central Calcutta lane. What a coincidence! I had not realized this earlier. I was going to learn Urdu from Tabassum Mirza so as to be able to read a novel about Mirza Ghalib. Lost in such thoughts, I suddenly found myself diving into a mirror of demonic proportions. I hadn’t even noticed the mirror hanging on the wall, nearly four feet in height, with an intricately carved teak frame, made of expensive Belgian glass. It had captured almost the entire room, with me inside, staring at myself, unable even to blink. The mirror seemed to draw me in. The spell was broken when Tabassum entered with the tea.

– What were you looking at? Tabassum’s lips held a smile like a crescent moon.
– This mirror, where did you get it?
– Do you know whom this mirror belonged to?
– Whom?
– To one of Wajid Ali Shah’s begums.
– How did it get here?
– My dada – grandfather – got it.

I looked at the mirror again. Where was this wife of Wajid Ali Shah’s now? In the mirror stood Tabassum Mirza, her head covered.

Tabassum was astonished to hear of my reason for learning Urdu.

– Just to read a novel? No other reason?
– What else can I use it for?
– I believe you’re a writer. You could write ghazals.
– The days of the ghazal are over.
– The days of the ghazal will never be over.

I looked at Tabassum in the mirror as I listened to her. The days of the ghazal will never be over; her words seemed to float overhead like a passing cloud.

– Do you know this ghazal? Tabassum asked.

Gali tak teri laya tha hamein shaq
Kahan taqat ke woh phir jaaye ghar tak

The words cascaded from Tabassum’s throat like a waterfall. Smiling at me, she said, ‘Do you know whose ghazal this is?’

– Whose?
– Mir’s. Mir Taqi Mir. See what Mir sahib is saying. My desire brought me all the way to your door, where’s the strength now to go back to my own? Will you still say the days of the ghazal are over?
– But still…
– Forget it, these things are beyond argument. Tell me about your novel.

Her head bowed, Tabassum listened to all I had to say about the manuscript I wanted to read, about its writer and its subject, and about how I had chanced upon it. The way she paid attention was akin to meditation. She was not like the majority of the people in this city, who had forgotten how to listen, which was why the very idea of waiting had vanished from their lives. After I had finished, Tabassum allowed the silence to deepen before she said slowly, ‘And why did you suddenly feel the urge to read this novel?’

– Manto is my favourite writer. I had no idea that he’d written a novel, and that too about Mirza Ghalib.
– Is Ghalib your favourite too?
– Yes. To tell you the truth, I’ve long been thinking of writing a novel about Mirza Ghalib myself.
– When will you write it?
– Let’s see. I cannot do anything very quickly. If it were just a historical novel, I could have written it quite easily. But I…

Tabassum did not speak. Nor did I. I keep gazing at her and at myself in the mirror.

After this my Urdu training began. Alif… be… pe… te… She took my hand to teach me to write, sometimes she said, ‘How nice! You’ve learnt to write so easily.’ But one day I announced that at my age I no longer had the patience or the application to learn. After a great deal of argument, Tabassum said, ‘But I know you could have done it.’

Tabassum accepted my suggestion. She would translate the novel as she read it and I would take it down. When sufficient time had passed after her wedding, I began to visit her every evening. I discovered Manto’s Ghalib afresh through her diction, and like a dutiful scribe I began to write a lost, unpublished novel in my own language.

In the course of noting down Tabassum’s translation of Manto’s novel, I realized that I would never be able to write a novel about Mirza Ghalib.

What you will read hereafter is the translation of Manto’s novel about Mirza Ghalib. Tabassum and I might return now and then.

(Coming this December from Random House India)