I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests,” Pablo Neruda has said about Temuco in Argentina, his childhood home. It is said that a poet looks at the world like a man looks at a woman. Delhi inspired many poets too and they were in love with the city in times good and bad, in its flourish and ruins.
Mir Taqi Mir, a legendary 18th-century Urdu poet, too proud to shower encomiums on the rich, lived in constant poverty. Dilli ke na kooche thhe, aurake musavir thhe, jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aayi (Delhi’s streets were not alleys but parchment of a painting, Every face that appeared seemed like a masterpiece). “His love for the city is evident in this couplet”, says Khalid Alvi, an Urdu lecturer at Zakir Hussain College.
Mushafi, another poet had this to say about the beautiful damsels of Delhi: “Ey Mushafi! Na inse kabhi jee lagayiye, Zaalim ghazab ki hoti hain yeh dilli waliyan.” (Oh Mushafi! Do not fall for these, miraculously cruel are the maidens of Delhi)
After the death of the last of great Mughals, Aurangzeb, in 1707, political decline had set in, followed by brutal invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. The city was broke. Poets lost the royal patronage. Few stayed, few left. Lucknow and Deccan were prosperous states then.
Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq, prominent poet of the 19th century, reacted thus: “Humne maana ki dakkan mein hai bahut qadre sukhan; Kaun jaaye Zauq par Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar ” (We hear that poetry is greatly valued in Deccan these days but, Zauq, who could bear to leave behind the alleyways of Delhi).
Even Mir who lived humbly was forced to go to Lucknow after Abdali razed the city. “There at the durbar, after he was chided by the Lucknawi poets who asked him where he came from, he retorted by singing praise of Delhi,” says Alvi. “Delhi, that chosen city of the world where only those of privileged professions resided, that city that the heavens have looted and laid waste, I am an inhabitant of that destroyed garden.” (Kya bood-o-baash poochhte ho purab ke sakinon; humko garib jaan kay hans hans pukar ke; dilli jo ek shahar tha aalam-e-intekhaab mein; rahte thhe mutakhib hi jahaan rozgaar kay; usko falak nay loot ke barbaad kar diya hum rahnewaale hain usi ujhade dayaar kay).
“Mir led a humble-fakeer sort of life. But the shia elite poets of lucknow wore bejewelled attire. They made fun of him looking at his attire but with those lines he put them in their place,” says Omair Ahmad, writer of a forthcoming book, The Story teller’s Tale set in 18th century Delhi and Lucknow.
Mir’s poetry was marked by intimate emotional ethos. He did miss Delhi after he left the city which is why he said this: “Delhi in all it’s ruined destruction, Was better than Lucknow. It would’ve been better to have breathed my last there.” On another occasion he said: “Dil va Dilli dono agar hai kharaab; Pa kuch lutf us ujde ghar mein bhi hain,” (Both heart and Delhi may have been worn out, But some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house).
Mirza Ghalib, one of the most popular of Delhi poets predicted 1857 turbulence, that shook Delhi, long before it happened. But said he’s not worried: “Day and night the whole universe is in desperate orbit, Something is bound to happen, Let it be,” (Raat din hai gardish mein hain saath aasmaan; Ho rahega kuch na kuch ghabrayein kya)
Bahadur Shah Zafar had Zauq as his teacher. Zafar was a poet too. After 1857, he was captured and sent to Burma. On his death bed, he lamented that he wouldn’t be buried in his beloved Delhi: “Hai kitna badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye; Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-e-yaar mein.”
Delhi has survived many invasions and destruction but continues to be a city of love. This is beautifully put in verse by Mir as Alvi points out: “Dil ki basti bhi shehar dilli hai; Jo bhi guzra usee ne loota.” (Delhi alone is a city of love; all those that have passed through have looted it)
For a Delhiwallah, what Ghalib said remains the final word on the city: “I asked my soul, ‘What is Delhi?’ It replied: ‘The world is the body, Delhi its soul.’”