City Talk – What If Ghalib Were a Woman?
The story of Delhi.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Not only was Mirza Ghalib, an Urdu poet, to be reckoned with in Delhi’s literary and aristocratic salons but, according to the late historian Percival Spear, he also “burrowed below the dignified upper classes to the raffish and spendthrift Delhi underworld”.
The Delhi Walla wonders what if Ghalib were a woman? How different his experiences would have been? What would have been our understanding of Shahjahanabad, aka Old Delhi?
More than a century and a half after his death, Ghalib’s verses and letters present us with a broad portrait of Mughal-era Delhi, just as its artistic ascendancy started paralleling its political decline.
“If Ghalib were a well-born woman living in the mid-19th century Shahjahanabad, his worldview would have been limited,” says author Rakhshanda Jalil, who staged a re-enactment of ‘Dilli Ki Akhiri Shama’, a fictional account of the last gathering of poets in the Mughal capital. “Women in sharif (noble) households lived sequestered lives in the zenana (women’s quarter). Only a handful of sharifzadis could read and write. Poetry was a man’s business.”
Iffat Zarrin, a contemporary female poet residing in Old Delhi, says in chaste Urdu, “Ghalib would have seen nothing except servants, children and fellow women behind the purdah. Her poetry would have come out of her intellectual isolation.”
Ms Zarrin, whose work focuses on urban alienation, is the author of a poetry collection titled, Besahil Dariya, meaning ‘a river without a bank’. A resident of Gali Imli street, she says, “The final fate of the last Mughal, his sons and other princes following their fall in 1857 is widely known but most of us are in dark about their mothers, wives, daughters and mistresses. They occupy a blank space in the story of our city. We don’t even know their names. As a woman, Ghalib would have certainly enquired about them. We might have also inherited a poetic record of the ordinary women in Shahjahabanad; their concerns, their desires, their response to the extraordinary events that were destroying and re-shaping their world.”
A few good women of royal blood have made their existence felt in the Walled City. Shahjahan’s daughter Janahara designed the layout of Chandni Chowk. Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeeenat un Nissa commissioned a mosque similar in appearance as Jama Masjid. Her sister Zeb un Nissa was credited as the author of Diwan I Makhfi, a collection of 400 ghazals. However, Mubarak Begum, the woman said to have hosted one of the last great poetry soirees before Delhi fell to the British, had a less exalted past. Entering society as a nautch girl, a mosque built by her in Chawri Bazaar is known as Randi ki Masjid. Randi, as most Delhiwallas know, being a slur for prostitute.
“Ecriture feminine or ‘writing the feminine’ always existed in Urdu. In earlier times, there was the poetic genre of rekhti where male poets spoke in a feminine, but fake, voice,” Ms Jalil says. “This was followed by courtesan-poets, or dancing women who were accomplished as poets but beyond the pale of society. It was only late into the 20th century that women from Delhi’s sharif families began to compose poetry; their output, slender and scattered as it was, was read privately and not meant for publication. Women were allowed to read but not write, resulting in a huge disparity between women’s readership and authorship.”
“You can be a shaayar (Urdu poet) only if you are fearless and outspoken, dreamy and passionate, traits that make it tough for women to survive to this day,” says Ms Zarrin. “With such qualities, Ghalib wouldn’t have got a husband and neither, I suspect, would she have lived with one. Consequently, she would have been four times poorer than the male Ghalib was. Then, as now, a penniless poet could have survived in the chai khanas (tea shops) but not a penniless poetess. In order to live so as to write, Ghalib would have served as a prince’s kept woman or as a courtesan in a public house. Her Shahjahanabd, then, would have showed us a world as comprehended in the bedrooms of the Red Fort or as seen in the kothas of Chawri Bazar.”
Is she Ghalib?