Kalkatte ka jo zikr kiya tu ne hum nasheen
Ik teer mere seenay mein mara kay haye haye
Ah me, my friend! The mention of Calcutta’s name
Has loosed a shaft that pierces my very soul.
I AM afraid that is not the initial opinion I share of Calcutta, now Kolkata, with Mirza Ghalib when I arrive on the street named after him one terribly hot summer day. According to Ghalib’s biographers, he liked Calcutta so much that in his ode to the city he gushes over its lush greenery, charming women, sweet fruits and mellow wines. I am surprised to discover that Ghalib even liked its climate. Present-day residents complain incessantly about their city’s weather.
Ghalib reached Calcutta on Feb 20, 1828, after travelling through Kanpur, Lucknow, Banda, Allahabad, Benares and Murshidabad. He undertook this long and arduous journey to the capital of British India to petition his pension case before the British authorities.
From a car today, Mirza Ghalib Street appears to be crammed with shops of all kinds, housed in all sorts of structures — some historical, a couple recently built, all in desperate need of sprucing up. A Karachiite would perhaps compare it to a shabby street in Saddar scattered with decrepit heritage buildings.
As I get down to have a closer look, my disappointment deepens further. I try to locate the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s signage of the street. It is pointed out to me but I can’t seem to find it. All I see is a solitary tall tree on a pavement with a slightly askew banner advertising a cell phone, and a second-hand clothes vendor looking at me curiously. I stand beneath the tree that is crisscrossed by a mesh of cables, and crane my neck backward. Finally, I spot a faded blue sign splattered with birds’ droppings. Written in grey lettering is ‘Mirza Galib St’ and just below, its previous name, ‘Free School St’. “The letter h is missing in the spelling of Ghalib,” is my immediate thought, but it is a minor peccadillo compared to what I am about to witness and encounter.
Mid-sized outlets offering salon and travelling services, a Chinese restaurant, a tailor’s shop, and shoe stores are on either side of the street. The pavements are strewn with rubbish and the garbage cans are overflowing. Snack vendors, clad in printed dhotis and plain shirts, their makeshift carts shaded by untidy umbrellas, are busy preparing their wares. Several hand-pulled rickshaws are parked on either side of the street. I spot a huddle of rickshaw pullers squatting at a shady spot alongside a disabled beggar.
Assembly elections in West Bengal are due in a couple of days. (Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress goes on to win them.) Rickshaws pass by with campaigners and loudspeakers blaring with electioneering slogans exhorting voters to press a particular number button on electronic voting machines. Hung from corrugated tin roofs, Trinamool Congress and Left-Congress Democratic Alliance flags flap in the warm breeze.
Looking for respite from the increasing heat, I enter a bookshop selling new and old books. There are three people inside the poorly lit space. I see a foreigner sitting at what appears to be a cash counter, reading a book. I attempt a conversation with him but he points towards a short emaciated man, indicating that he is the owner of the shop. “Do you have any books on Ghalib?” I ask. He replies he has none but tries to elicit my interest in other authors. By then I am grouchy, and say: “Do you know who Ghalib was?” “Haan, woh bahut bara saa’er tha [yes, he was a big poet]. Kabhi aya hoga yahan [he must have come here once],” he retorts briefly.
Crossing the road, I ask a mithai-wallah, who has been around for a while, if he recalls the year when the name of the street was changed. A man eating hot gulab jamun pipes in: “It’s been a while.” Later, I speak to a history professor at Kolkata’s Aliah University, Salman Khursheed, who says this happened during the Communist Party of India-Marxist government when it went on a name-changing spree. “To please the sizeable Muslim population living in the area, they changed it to Mirza Ghalib Street.” P. Thankappan Nair, author of A History of Calcutta’s Streets, provides the year and its etymology. Changed in 1969, its earlier name Free School Street was coined because of the presence of a free school on the road. Previously, it was known as Jaun Bazaar Fourth Lane.
Despair gives way to optimism as I venture into a narrow alley that opens into Simla Street. It is spacious and quiet, and I wander around observing houses and properties with semi-circular balconies partially covered with chik blinds and patterned window grilles; there are faded red-brick buildings, green-painted windows, blue-painted shops decorated with auspicious mango leaves and Durga Puja sholapith ornaments.
Ghalib left Calcutta in August 1829, his visit marred by acrimonious disputes over semantics with poets and his petition case unheard. However, his later recollections were pleasant. In a letter written in Persian after his return to Delhi, he says: “One should be grateful that such a city exists. Where else in the world is there a city so refreshing?”
Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2016