Chalo aao tumko dikhaeN ham jo bacha hai maqtal-e shehr meN
Ye mazar ahle-safa ke hain, yeh hain ahl-e sidq ki turbaten

The long century from 1739 to 1857– from Nadir Shah’s massacre of the inhabitants of Delhi to the brutal crushing of the Sepoy rebellion – has long been considered a twilight period in the history of Delhi. This is a period, after all, of the repeated conquest and looting of Delhi, the rapid decline of Mughal military and political power, and the ascendancy of the British East India Company. But as Saif Mahmood’s marvellous new book, Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets, shows, as far as the cultural history of the city (and of South Asia) goes, this period was not so much twilight as dawn: this was also the century of the flowering of the classical Urdu ghazal, and of the lives of some of Delhi’s – and Urdu’s – greatest poets: Sauda, Dard, Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Zafar, Zauq, Daagh.

One of the most remarkable things about Mahmood’s book is how lightly he wears his erudition. Elegantly, conversationally, he intertwines the lives, the poetry, and the social world of these poems into a remarkable portrait of a bygone Delhi. The eighteenth and nineteenth century Delhi that Saif describes is a remarkable world, despite the impoverishments and devastation brought about by the decline of the Mughal empire. It is a world in which the linguist and lexicographer Khan-e Arzu – the first person to write about the linguistic affinities between Sanskrit and Persian –became the centre of a circle of poets expressing themselves in a language that, while drawing on millennia of tradition, was in many ways entirely new.

It was not Persian, not Braj, not Avadhi. It was a new vernacular – called Rekhta (“mixed dialect”) – with all the intellectual heft of the classical Persian tradition, and all the emotional depth and subtlety of Indian poetics. All of this was happening in a city, which by our contemporary standards of measuring things, was in irretrievable decline. Such was the cultural self-confidence of the city, as embodied by its poets, that Ghalib could tell Bahadur Shah Zafar that his court was no less than the court of Akbar, because after all, he was part of Zafar’s court.

Who the poets really were

Ghalib and his life are of course relatively well known to people: thanks in large part to Gulzar’s serial. But the lives and personalities of the others, even Mir, are far less known, especially to those unfamiliar with the history of Urdu literature, i.e., most of us. Mahmood skilfully introduces us to the lives and poetry of these poets, illuminating aspects of their biography and personalities through their shers. And what personalities they were. By the end of the book you understand fully why Saif begins the book with this sher of Ghalib:

Maqdoor ho to khaak se poochoon ke ae laeem
Tu-ne vo ganj-haaye gira-maaya kya kiye?

If I were given the power, I would ask the Earth, “O Miser!
What have you done to these precious treasures [that were buried in you]?”

For in our ravaged present, in a Delhi buried beneath the weight of millions of automobiles and their honking horns, it seems impossible that such people could once have existed, could have looked at the same monuments as we do, traversed the same streets. Each of their lives defy and complicate our usual ways of thinking about things.

Writing about Khwaja Mir Dard for example, Mahmood observes that modern critics have long ghettoised him as only a spiritual/Sufi poet, because of the “rather orthodox belief that viewing a mystic as an ordinary man who nurtures worldly desires is sacrilegious, that it demeans or belittles his spirituality.” The classical Urdu poets, as Mahmood points out, did not make such stark binary distinctions. Ghalib was a drinker and a gambler but also “a spiritualist who first celebrates god’s manifest presence and then immediately pitches it against the need for his unmanifest, all pervading form.”

And Momin Khan Momin was a Wahabi – in the straightforward theological sense of being a follower of what was then a newly emergent austere interpretation of Islam – and yet this did not stop him from being an exceptional hakim, a markedly debonair dresser, a romantic involved in several affairs, and a poet of such surpassing sensitivity that Ghalib was reportedly ready to give up his whole diwan for just one of his couplets.

The past as the present

There was a breadth of vision that all these poets possessed, as well as “audacity, belligerence, chutzpah and a deep sense of pride and self-respect that would remain uncompromised till the very end,” to quote Mahmood’s appraisal of Ghalib. These men, as they come alive in the pages of this book, seem strange and wondrous, far removed from our present of cretinous certitudes and hatred as casually deployed instruments of power.

This book is undeniably in conversation with the present, as Rakshanda Jalil’s elegant, elegiac foreword and Mahmood’s moving afterword make clear, as do Anant Raina’s lovely photographs, which document the contemporary, largely sorry state of the historic homes and neighbourhoods of the poets featured in this book. And this is why this book needs to be read.

It includes selections from the oeuvre of each poet, with Mahmood’s translations. The English translations are refreshing, with a conversational quality that captures the “spoken-word” nature of much of this poetry. I only have a substantive disagreement with the translation of one couplet in the whole book, which, given the notorious difficulty of rendering Urdu into English, is a testament in itself. With that one caveat out of the way, I can only say please read this book as soon as you can. If you are an aficionado of Urdu poetry, you will learn many things that you didn’t know, and enjoy a remarkable selection of poetry. If you aren’t, you will become one.

Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets, Saif Mahmood, Speaking Tiger.