‘Beloved Delhi’: Exploring how Dilli became the city of poets and of Urdu

From Mir to Ghalib, from Zafar to Zauq, writer Saif Mahmood tells the stories of the city’s best-loved Urdu poets.
Published September 21, 2018

Tazkira Dehli-e-marhoom ka ae dost na chhed
Na suna jaayega hum se ye fasaana hargiz

(Don’t talk to me of Late Lamented Delhi, my friend
I don’t have the heart to hear this story.)

— Altaf Husain Hali

“Delhi gives me permission to be obnoxious” — this was the reply I got from a Pakistani friend when I asked her why she insisted on living in the city even though her Indian husband did not want to. Delhi’s charms are unpredictable. The chaotic streets, the unruly traffic and polluted air, the aggressive inhabitants and their hurried life, the tolerance for the obnoxious – all of these constitute an integral part of this phenomenal city. In beauty resides horror, and vice versa.

Inextricably intertwined with Delhi’s complicated present is her violent history – a history of invasions and assaults, even massacres. It has been “late lamented” many times through the centuries, yet it lives. Each time it was razed to the ground, it came back to life with startling vivacity. Nothing dies in Delhi, the ghosts of its past lives roam the streets or bide their time in half-ruined buildings, and they rise up to speak in a thousand stories that are still told about the city.

Struggling to breathe under the angry modern façade of the megalopolis is another one, timeworn and easily missed that teems with art, heritage and poetry. It is the Delhi of Mir and Ghalib, the Delhi of the fabled Seven Cities, all of which have risen and fallen and risen again, or been changed beyond recognition over time. Delhi’s indestructible spirit has haunted writers and poets for generations; some of them have written out of love, others in awe and yet others out of bewilderment. In the eighteenth century, Mir said:

Dil-o-Dilli donon agar hain kharaab
P’a kuchh lutf is ujde ghar mein bhi hain

(My heart and my Delhi may both be in ruins
There are still some delights in this ravaged home.)

In the middle of the twentieth century, Percival Spear compared Delhi with Rome:

“Delhi can point to a history as chequered and more ancient than the ‘eternal’ city of Rome; it was a famous capital before the days of Alexander, and it has survived all the vicissitudes of time and fortune to become one of the youngest and certainly the most magnificent of recent imperial cities. For it has undergone transformations as numerous as the incarnations of the God Vishnu; if it has frequently changed its site, its character and even its name, it has preserved through all a continuous thread of existence...Like most ancient cities it has succumbed to the magic of the number seven, but as the plain of Delhi is too flat for even the most exuberant imagination to discover seven hills on which the city can rest, historians have played with the idea of seven consecutive cities. The ‘seven cities’ of Delhi are in fact no more accurate description of Delhi history than the seven hills ascribed to many other places.”

And at the beginning of the new millennium, Rukmini Bhaya Nair wrote (in her essay “City of Walls, City of Gates”):

“There are many etymologies that have been offered for Delhi, but perhaps one of the most appealing is the philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi’s suggestion that its name could derive from the words ‘dehri’ or ‘dehli’, both meaning ‘threshold’ – a permanent point of entry and departure but forever resistant to any stamp of permanence...

The city Delhi most resembles...is Athens – with its monumental, crumbling history strewn all around, its ramshackle, seething present.”

In this “seething present”, Delhi is bigger, more sprawling than it has ever been. Officially called the National Capital Territory of Delhi, it is the third largest city of India in terms of size—covering an area of approximately 1500 square kilometres—and the second largest in terms of population—home to more than 25 million people. And in the heart of this mega city, in the north east of its central district, lies Purani Dilli, Old Delhi, where the tale of its glory and ruin and haphazard regeneration is best perceived. It is this “walled city” of narrow, crowded and cacophonous alleys—where it is impossible to walk a few paces or even stand still without touching, literally, at least ten other human beings – that this book is about. Or rather, about a few great men of verse who internalised the spirit of this remarkable patch of the Earth so deeply that they were Dilli, and Dilli was them.

And together, Purani Dilli and its iconic poets tell a 300-year-old story; the story of one of the most evocative languages ever known to humankind: Urdu.

In or around 1700, Wali Mohammad Wali Dakhni, who is widely believed to be the father of the Urdu ghazal, visited Delhi from his native Deccan. His poetry was romantic and his expression typical of his home-region:

Tujh lab ki sifat laal-e-badakhshaan su kahoonga
Jaadu hain tere nain ghazalaan su kahoonga

(The beauty of your lips I’ll extol before the Ruby of Badakhshan
I’ll tell the gazelle how magical your eyes are.)

Disdainfully called Rekhta or “assorted dialect”, Wali’s language was considered rustic and inappropriate for something as refined as poetry which, till then, was exclusively monopolised by Persian. But Wali’s expression was so powerful and evocative that he ended up setting the tone for what would soon develop as the Urdu ghazal.

In Delhi, meanwhile, what is now called Urdu was still in the early stages of developing into a language of poetry. It was still called Rekhta, or sometimes Hindi, and was used only by a few native poets. Among them was Mir Jafar “Zatalli”, a satirist who did not shy away from calling a spade a spade, and did that in rather derisive verse. The word “Zatalli”, it seems, had been specially coined by the poet himself to refer to a person who spews nonsense – “zatal”. The mayhem surrounding the decaying Mughal Empire and the incompetence of the emperor and his advisors and officials in dealing with the unfolding crisis kept Zatalli’s incensed mind sufficiently nourished and he frequently expressed his anger and frustration in verse. Farrukhsiyar had just ordered the minting of a new coin to mark the beginning of his rule. On the coin was inscribed a Persian couplet:

Sikka-zad az fazl-e-haq bar seem-o-zar
Padshaah-e-bahr-o-bar Farrukhsiyar

(By the grace of god, [he has] minted coins of silver and gold
The Emperor of the earth and the oceans, Farrukhsiyar.)

In a parody of this couplet, also in Persian, Zatalli lashed out at the Emperor, referring to rampant corruption, even in the distribution of public supplies and food:

Sikka-zad bar gandum-o-moth-o-matar
Padshaah-e-tasmakash Farrukhsiyar

(He has minted coins even of wheat and lentils and peas
The Emperor whose face is inscribed on the coins – Farrukhsiyar.)

The enraged Emperor pronounced a death sentence on Zatalli, and in the very first year of Farrukhsiyar’s rule, Zatalli was hanged to death.

In this politically intimidating milieu was born, in 1713, Mirza Mohammad Rafi “Sauda”, who would later be known as Mughal Delhi’s first classical Urdu poet and the greatest satirist ever. A fearless poet who raised his voice against the growing decay of the Empire, he was famed for his razor-sharp tongue. Among his contemporaries was Shaikh Ghulam Hamdani “Mushafi” (1750-1824), a prominent poet who spent his initial years in Delhi. It seems that the name “Urdu” was first used for the language by Mushafi sometime in the 1780s:

Albatta Rekhta mein hai Mushafi ko daava
Yaani ke hai zabaandaan Urdu ki voh zabaan ka

(Mushafi does claim expertise in Rekhta,
Which means he’s a whiz of the Urdu language.)

While in the political scheme of things the supremacy of the Qila-e-Moalla was fast shrinking, Delhi was playing capital to a parallel empire. It had become the most vibrant centre of Urdu literature in India. Though the language and its poetry were being patronised by the ruling Nawabs in Lucknow and Nizams in Hyderabad as well, because of it being the home of the Mughal rulers and nobles and because of its cosmopolitan society, Delhi was the Urdu poet’s chosen destination.

With the rising control of the Company, Delhi’s elite had begun to cultivate the English officials and traders who had taken up residence in the city. Since Urdu transcended boundaries of religion and ethnicity, it acted as a secular bridge between the different communities of Delhi, and this led to the white man’s interest in Urdu poetry and, occasionally, its patronage by the English sahib. Young officers would be invited to lavish poetry evenings by prominent Dilliwalas. Some of them even took to formally learning the language and trying their hand at poetry. Thus, while Mughal power and influence diminished, Urdu continued to grow and evolve.

Boasting of unique idioms and inimitable figures of speech, Delhi’s Urdu had an atypical flavour, different from the character of its Awadh or Deccan sisters. The city’s women, especially courtesans, who were women of independent means, often widely read and remarkably self- possessed, had adopted Urdu enthusiastically. They enriched the language with their own vocabulary and mannerisms. They could either be very proper and decorous or sardonic and even coquettish. Mushafi had famously said:

Ae Mushafi tu in se mohabbat na kijiyo
Zaalim ghazab hi hoti hain yeh Dilli-waaliyaan

(O Mushafi! Don’t fall in love with them
These damsels of Delhi are damn cruel.)

The Qila-e-Moalla, too, occupied a dominant position in the literary life of the city. Its customs were different from those of the city outside. Its syntax was distinct, and it influenced Urdu just as much as the vocabulary and syntax of the street, salon and pleasure house.

It was customary for Urdu poets to adopt a nom de plume or takhallus. One of the first Urdu poets of Delhi was Shaikh Zuhuruddin (1699-1792) who adopted the takhallus “Hatim” and is, thus, known as Shaikh Zuhuruddin Hatim. Fed up of the anarchy and chaos that followed the city’s incessant invasions, it was he who had remarked:

Pagdi apni yahaan sambhaal chalo
Aur basti na ho ye Dilli hai

(Take care of your turban here
This is no other city but Delhi.)

Hatim was followed, in the eighteenth century, by Mirza Rafi “Sauda”, Khwaja Mir “Dard” and Mir Taqi “Mir”, and in the following century by Shaikh Mohammad Ibrahim “Zauq”, Momin Khan “Momin”, Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” and Nawab Mirza Khan “Daagh” Dehlvi. Of course, there were a number of others too. Many of the later Mughal Emperors themselves were poets. Shah Alam II wrote under the takhallus “Aftab” and the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah, called himself “Zafar”.

Excerpted with permission from Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets by Saif Mahmood, published by Speaking Tiger.

This book excerpt originally appeared on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission