A city in verse

November 11, 2018

A poetic journey that is depicted through terse biographies and incisive commentaries on eight first-tier Urdu poets

A city in verse

The history of Delhi’s love affair with Urdu poetry would fill many volumes. However, Saif Mahmood’s Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Poets, manages this feat through an engaging narrative that spans 384 pages.

Mahmood’s account smartly catches the many moods, flavours and nuances of this dimension of the city’s past without compromising on the finer details.

A quick glance at the table of contents reveals that Delhi’s literary history cannot be made a prisoner to a chronological retelling. Beloved Delhi is a poetic journey that is depicted through terse biographies and incisive commentaries on eight first-tier Urdu poets from the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

At no point does the book come across as a hagiographical text. Mahmood turns an intimate gaze on the life and times of Mirza Muhammad Rafi ‘Sauda’, Khwaja Mir Dard, Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Momin Khan Momin, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Shaikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq and Nawab Mirza Khan Daagh Dehlvi. The chapters on each of these  lay bare the intricacies of their stories and draws on their idiosyncrasies, wit and charming irreverence. Fascinating anecdotes are weaved into the narrative to breathe life into these poets and make us acutely aware of how poetry informed the cultural and intellectual landscape of Delhi. Readers may find themselves transported to a long-forgotten chapter of the city’s past. Many of them may also wonder what propelled the political and cultural milieu to change so drastically in the metropolis.

Subversive and stubborn, these poets cared little for officialdom and revelled in their ability to talk truth to power. Their reluctance to conform may appear alarmingly bold in our day and age when nation-states evoke fear and the proverbial power of the pen is little more than a static stereotype.

These poets wrote with an uncommon assurance that their work was a much-needed critique on the status quo. But all of them were disheartened by the cataclysms that shook Delhi at the time. Each of these poets shared a soul-stirring connection to a battle-scarred Delhi. It was a city that had risen like a phoenix after every invasion, but eventually drove away those poets who were drawn to its splendour. Mahmood’s account captures the pathos of this devotion and disconnect, with precision. By turns a celebration of Delhi’s Urdu poets and an indictment of the sociopolitical fabric that shaped and stifled them, Beloved Delhi takes us on a journey to explore the city’s lost grandeur.

The author’s insights and observations on each poet’s body of work are layered with rich detail and analytical precision. His literary criticism delves into complex themes and ideas in a simple and effective manner. There is a sense of order to the analysis that makes Mahmood’s interpretations of each poem seem like an attempt to bring the pieces of an unfinished puzzle together.

His persuasive explanations of Mir Taqi Mir’s friction with his beloved or Ghalib’s disdain for frivolous worldly affairs don’t veer beyond the parameters set by the poets. Sauda’s biting satire and Zauq’s precision of style are also depicted through the avowed intentions of both poets. But the author’s conversational style and crisp narration add a richness and originality to his interpretation.

Mahmood has painstakingly translated each couplet that he cites in the book. But there is little or no risk of spotting errors in these verses. The essence of these verses cannot be lost in translation because, if the author’s introductory note is anything to go by, "poetry defies translation". As a result, these couplets are merely "English renditions of the verses mainly explanatory and illustrative of the poets’ intent in the original". This serves as welcome proof of the author’s mastery over Urdu verse and his ability to evoke its essence with care.

In his afterword, the author shifts the focus from Delhi’s centuries-old preoccupation with Urdu poetry to the city’s modern-day realities. Communal politics in India, the Sanskritisation of language and the challenges involved in "tracing the literary and cultural arc over two hundred years of a city that boasts such a rich history" compel readers to ask an important question: can Urdu survive the onslaught of officialdom and fight for its longevity in a city where it is little more than an echo from the past?

Beloved Delhi is a reminder of how indispensable Urdu was to Delhi’s past. The book also bears a sense of optimism over the possibilities that this ‘aborted language’ could hold for the city’s future.

Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Poets
Author: Saif Mahmood
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Pages: 384
Price: $10.26

A city in verse