The journey to Calcutta began from Banda, as Ghalib made his way from there to Allahabad and onwards. The details of the first leg are narrated in Ghalib’s letters to Muhammad Ali Khan. it was slow going because the mule that drew the baggage cart (chikra) was scrawny and sluggish, and could not travel more than 25 miles a day.

After spending a night in an obscure village, the party reached Chilla Tara on the banks of the Jumna (Yamuna). They decided to abandon travel by land and take a boat instead. it turned out that the boat was just as slow. After a week or so, they arrived in Allahabad, on 27 November 1826.

Allahabad didn’t prove to be very hospitable. Perhaps Ghalib’s host was Ghulam imam Shahid, a pupil of the Persian poet Mirza Qatil (whom Ghalib despised). Malik Ram and Qazi Abdul Vadud speculate that some unpleasant incident may have triggered Ghalib’s dislike for Qatil. Khaliq Anjum writes that Ghalib and Shahid may have exchanged some sharp words at a gathering.

Whatever the case may have been, Ghalib did not tarry at Allahabad for more than a day. in an oft-quoted letter to Muhammad Ali Khan, Ghalib described Allahabad as a desolate place where nothing was available. The people were uncultured and inhospitable. Allahabad was like hell. It wasn’t long before Ghalib left the city by boat; his spirits were buoyant as they approached Banaras.

Banaras seemed to be the city of his dreams.

Another long, scintillating letter to Muhammad Ali Khan describes the wonderful ambience of the city in exaggerated poetic terms: “The air is so refreshing that it breathes life into dying souls. The flowing river is like a sea whose waves touch the sky.” The second part of the letter goes into the actual challenges of travel, of the five days spent at an inn for no reason except to recoup his energy, of finding a house on rent that was “darker and narrower that a miser’s grave”.

Ghalib clearly was in a dilemma about what to do next. Should he travel by land or by boat? These uncertainties, coupled with ill health and no money, bothered him considerably. Ultimately, he stayed on in Banaras for a month. This seems like an odd choice, given that he had no friends or mentors, no pupils or followers in Banaras. Perhaps he was waiting for funds to arrive, for some additional help from Muhammad Ali Khan.

Meanwhile, he poured his frustrations out into a beautiful masnavi on the city, calling it Chiragh-e Dair (Lamp of the Temple). This masnavi, consisting of 108 Persian verses, is a masterpiece. it is adorned with unusual similes and metaphors. Banaras is personified as a beautiful woman with the enchanting face of a fairy who can see her reflection mirrored in the Ganga.

The masnavi builds on this idea of reflection from many charming, poetic aspects: how the city’s image in the water is like revealing the face of a new bride; how the reflection creates a duplicate of the city, protecting the original from the evil eye; how Banaras’s wildernesses are gardens, as flower- filled as if spring were eternal; how it is the Mecca of Hindustan; how its inhabitants are saving the rest of humankind from the Day of Judgment!

A noteworthy point is that this masnavi may bear the influence of three masnavis by eminent indian Persian poets (who, as we shall see, ceased to captivate Ghalib later): Mirza Bedil’s Tur-e Ma’rifat, Munir Lahori’s Dar Sifat-e Bangalah and Ghanimat Kunjahi’s Nairang-e Ishq. For his masnavi, Ghalib adopted a well-known metre used by Jami (in Yusuf–Zulaikha), Nizami (in Khusrau–Shirin) and by the above-mentioned indian Persian poets as well.

This is one of the sweetest, most mellifluous of all metres. it creates an aura of untrammelled feelings, bubbling freedom and unsuppressed passion.

Ghalib was longing to be home, but he also wanted to air his feelings about the hard-heartedness of his compatriots, about his hurt pride and pain at being ignored. He expressed his thoughts not as a lament but as a protest:

Dil az shor-e shikayat ha bah josh ast
Hubab-e be nava tufan kharosh ast
[My heart is seething with the fervour of complaints
It’s like a silent bubble in a thunderstorm]

Ze dihli ta birun avurdah bakhtam
Ba tufan-e taghaful dadah rakhtam
Kas az ahl-e vatan ghamkhvar-e man nist
Mara dar dahr-e pindar-e vatan nist
Mago dagh-e firaq-e anjuman sokht
Gham-e be mihri-e ahl-e vatan sokht

[Fate brought me away from Delhi
i threw my baggage to the storm of neglect
Nobody from my homeland shares my pain
in these times i don’t have pride in my homeland
Don’t say i am burnt by wounds of separation from those gatherings!
I am burnt by the unkindness of my countrymen]

When Ghalib describes the beauty of the women of Banaras, he creates the most eloquent picture of their loveliness: shining faces, tall stature, rosebud lips and long eyelashes that pierce their lovers’ hearts; how their gait makes waves fall still in wonder, and when they step into the water of the Ganga, it creates havoc; how lovers’ hearts writhe like fish; and how oysters’ pearls turn into water because they cannot compare with the glow (ab) of the beautiful women of Banaras.

In his letters from Banaras, Ghalib declares himself to be completely in love with the city:

I felt like giving up religion, tossing away the prayer beads, putting a vermilion stripe on my forehead, wearing the sacred thread, and sitting by the Ganga, purged of the trappings of the dust of existence and merging with the ocean like a drop of water.

He carried away rosy memories of Banaras. Late in life, he wrote to Miyandad Khan Saiyyid:

Banaras is beyond words. Such cities are seldom created. i happened to be there at the height of my youth. if i were young now, i would go and live there and not return.

While Ghalib’s Banaras experience seems to be at odds with his fastidious nature on one hand, on the other it seems like he needed a peaceful space where he could be removed from the cares and sorrows of life.

Tahseen Firaqi writes that this masnavi shows the conflict between Ghalib’s poetic and real self. The attraction for Banaras contains his love for Delhi as well. The beauty of Banaras pierces his heart and reminds him of Delhi, and the heartless compatriots. The masnavi is a journey of the poet’s self. In the concluding section, Ghalib talks about the genuineness of passion (junun), how if his passion is true, then the distance between Kashi and Kashan is merely a short step, and how he needs to get out of the confines of his body and float like fragrance.

In this heavenly place (Banaras), he should think of his dear ones who are in the wilderness. He should not let the flowers of Kashi beguile him but should think of the scars on the hearts of those he loves. Ghalib also mentions how Banaras is only a stopping point and that he should move on. His passion must melt his heart, he must prepare to roam and seek. He must become free.

After a month of anonymity in Banaras, during which he claimed to have put behind his ill health and misgivings, Ghalib set off for Patna. He had wanted to travel by boat, but the demands of the boatmen went beyond his straitened finances. one hundred rupees was the price to sail to Calcutta. Since Ghalib could not afford even Rs 20 for Patna, he abandoned the idea and opted to travel by land, on horseback.

An exc Penguin India.