It was venerable Gulzar Dehlvi’s hard-earned privilege to ignite the flame.(File photo)
It was venerable Gulzar Dehlvi’s hard-earned privilege to ignite the flame.(File photo)

Delhiwale: The poets light lamps... but go out themselves

Celebrating Gulzar Dehlvi, who died aged 93.
By Mayank Austen Soofi
UPDATED ON JUN 15, 2020 06:33 AM IST

New Okhla Industrial Development Authority — who would relate a place with such an unpoetic name with writers?

But novelist Vikram Seth lives in this same Noida, after all.

The legendary writer Qurratulain Hyder also spent her final years in this planned township in the all- encompassing National Capital Region.

And so did the eminent poet Gulzar Dehlvi. He died late last week but not before defeating the Covid-19 that he was infected with. He succumbed to cardiac arrest a few days after his healthy return from the hospital. He was 93.

There are many ways to celebrate a writer’s life. The superior one is of course to read his or her entire oeuvre; in Mr Delhivi’s case it would be his many ghazals, nazms and rubiyats. The other method—far easier—is to bathe into the writer’s genuine charisma. No doubt it was greatly to the late poet’s advantage that he was one of the most stylish men of our times. Far deep into his advanced years, Mr Dehlvi—full name Anand Mohan Zutshi Gulzar Dehlvi —would continue to attend Delhi’s literary soirées where he always stood apart in his exquisite sherwani, the customary artificial rose pinned on his left chest. Born in Old Delhi, he was an impeccably mannered man who would gaze politely into the eyes of his devotees too nervous to mumble any coherent word in his presence, and make them feel the most important person to him at that moment. Mr Dehlvi would also often like to show what he called his “secular locket”—seen vertically, the inscription in it would read as the Muslim Allah, and flipped horizontally, it resembled the Hindu Om.

On one occasion, a couple of years ago, this reporter observed him in all his archetypal elegance in a gathering in central Delhi’s Ghalib Academy. The seemingly routine rituals of Delhi’s centuries-old poetry customs that unfolded there were a mirror reflection of him— precious but extremely fragile.

It was a winter evening and about time for poet Gulzar Dehlvi, who was seated cross-legged on the stage, to oblige the audience. A mushaira, or a meeting of Urdu poets, was about to begin. The poets were to read out their poems on the stage. A number of Delhi’s verse writers were present. They included Iqbal Firdausi, Munir Hamdam, Rauf Raza and Javed Niyazi. Each had a badge pinned on the chest, which said ‘Poet’. The only two women poets present were Iffat Zarreen and Shabnam Siddiqui.

A giant wax candle, or shama, was placed on the stage. In the old times, when there was no electricity, and hence no mike, Delhi’s nighttime poetry meetings—and they almost always took place during the nights—were held in the glow of a solitary candle. The room was said to remain immersed in darkness, while the flickering shama would be placed in front of the poet whose turn it was to read from his works.

The auditorium inside the 21st century Ghalib Academy, however, glowed in modern lighting. There was also a podium and a mike. But the tradition demanded the candle to burn continuously over the course of the evening. It was venerable Gulzar Dehlvi’s hard-earned privilege to ignite the flame. He got up and lit the candle with a... cigarette lighter (which somebody produced just on time)! The lighting of the shama was a signal to get on with the evening’s agenda. The audience clapped. Mr Dehlvi returned to his central position on the stage and again sat down cross-legged—looking as regal and frail as the era he represented.

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