Ghalib, Kolkata and a Heritage of Harmony – Musings by Piyali Gupta

कलकत्ते का जो ज़िक्र किया तूने हमनशीं
इक तीर मेरे सीने में मारा के हाये हाये

North Kolkata with its serpentine lanes, red brick houses and hidden histories in every corner has continued to fascinate me over the years. Named after Sir Cecil Beadon, who served as the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal from April 1862 to 1867, Beadon Street, nestled between Rabindra Sarani and Bidhan Sarani, has been home to heritage structures such as the Minerva Theatre built in 1893, Chaitanya Library which was set up in 1889 and Ramdulal Nibas, the mansion belonging to one of the earliest Bengali merchants, Ramdulal Dey after whose sons Chhatu Babu and Latu Babu, the adjoining market is named. A stretch of Beadon Street from C.R. Avenue to Bidhan Sarani was renamed Dani Ghosh Sarani after the famous actor Dani Babu who was also Girish Ghosh’s son. The stretch between Rabindra Sarani and C.R. Avenue was called Abhedananda Road but has been renamed to Utpal Dutta Sarani after the legendary actor, many of whose plays were staged in the Minerva Theatre. This area is also known for the quaint little eateries lining each side of the road where one can still spot trams meandering their way forward. From the famous ​telebhaja shop Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons (c.1918) which, it is rumoured, was visited by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, we have the sweet shop started by Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy (c.1844) which has been visited by the likes of Uttam Kumar and Satyajit Ray. Here, in this part of North Kolkata, time stands still and without Rowling’s time turner, you can savour the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a bygone era.

Right behind Bethune College, the first college for women in Asia that dates back to 1879, is a lane called Bethune Row that meets Ramdulal Sarkar Street. At the junction of these two lanes, right opposite to the Nakur sweet shop is a towering four storied red brick building with green wooden shuttered windows and latticed balcony. The address of this building is 133, Bethune Row. It could have been just another of the North Kolkata heritage structures if one Mirza Ghalib had not chosen to stay in it years ago in 1828-1829.

Around 193 Years ago, Mirza Asadullah Baig ‘Ghalib’ set out for Calcutta, the capital of British India, travelling from Delhi to Lucknow in May 1827, and via Banda and Allahabad reached Benaras. He stayed in Benaras for a month to recover from illness and then reached Kolkata on February 21, 1828, almost a year after he left Delhi. It was a painfully slow journey and Ghalib covered most of the journey on horseback. Sometimes he used the ​ladhiya or cart, ‘alone, with two or three servants, in a state of great exhaustion and debility without any equipage or comfort’, as reported by Pavan Verma in ​Ghalib: The Man, The Times(2000).

Why did he undertake such an arduous journey? To plead the British for his pension, due to him from his uncle’s estate. He stayed in Mirza Ali Saudagar’s ​haveli at Simla Bazaar, arranged at a rent of Rs 10 a month on his friend Raja Sohan Lal’s recommendation. In his letters from Calcutta, Ghalib talks of the Simla Bazaar, Chitpore Bazar and the Gol Talab that was near his quarters. In Gulzaar’s production ​Mirza Ghalib, and in several other accounts by Ghalib scholars like ​Malik Ram and Shakeel Afroz​, it is identified as the house Number 133 on Bethune Row.

Ghalib could not fulfill his mission and left Calcutta a year later in 1829. During his stay, however, he wrote about the city, its lush greenery, its beautiful women and its succulent fruits and delicious wine :

कलकत्ते का जो ज़िक्र किया तूने हमनशीं
इक तीर मेरे सीने में मारा के हाये हाये

वो सब्ज़ा ज़ार हाये मुतर्रा के है ग़ज़ब
वो नाज़नीं बुतान-ए-ख़ुदआरा के हाये हाये

सब्रआज़्मा वो उन की निगाहें के हफ़ नज़र
ताक़तरूबा वो उन का इशारा के हाये हाये

वो मेवा हाये ताज़ा-ए-शीरीं के वाह वाह
वो बादा हाये नाब-ए-गवारा के हाये हाये

In one of his letters from the city, he wrote: खुदा की कसम, अगर मैं मुजर्रद होता और खानादारी की ज़िम्मेदारी और ज़ंजीरें मेरी राह में हायत न होतीं, सब कुछ छोड़ छाड़ के यहीं का हो रहता (“By God, had I not been a family man, with regard for the honour of my wife and children, I would have cut myself free and made my way there. There I would have lived till I died, in that heavenly city, free from all cares”).

The colonial capital offered various distractions to Ghalib. While in Calcutta, he was introduced to daily newspapers, something that had not reached Delhi yet. Due to the presence of the printing press, translations of English classics into Urdu and Persion, in the recently established Fort William College were available to him. The printing press, the steam engine,

newspapers, the wireless, made a great impression on Ghalib’s mind. He is said to have observed, “बंगाली सौ साल आगे भी जीते हैं और सौ साल पीछे भी”

In an extremely nuanced study on the influence of the city on Ghalib’s mind, A. Sean Pue, talks about Ghalib scholar Mumtaz Hussain who opined that Ghalib embraced the positive, ‘constructive’ effects of British rule in his poetry and letters only after his visit to Calcutta. He recalls the spread of technology and the introduction of Western education in the era, both of which, he notes, led ‘not only to a new critical and rational consciousness but to a new political consciousness as well​.’ He also talks of Raja Rammohan Roy’s establishment of the Sadharon Brahma Samaj and conjectures that such a liberal atmosphere must have had a positive impact on Ghalib’s creativity.

The last four months have been very difficult, we have watched, sometimes with seething anger and sometimes with helpless resignation, men, women and children travelling, like Ghalib did, for miles and miles, in search of a sense of security. As I write this today, struggling to make sense of the uncertainties due to the pandemic and a general environment of apathy and intolerance, I cannot help but marvel at a city that could make a weary traveller one of its own. A city that has a street named after Mirza Ghalib, a city that has his couplets scripted on electric meter boxes, and a city that honoured this weary traveller poet in week long celebrations titled Bayaad-e-Ghalib beginning on the International Mother Language Day, February 21, 2020. As a city, as a race and primarily as humans, perhaps we need to introspect about this difference between being born as men or women and embracing empathy, tolerance and compassion as human beings. As one tired traveller to my city pointed out, years ago, that there indeed is a difference between being merely an “आदमी​” and being an “इंसान.” Maybe, it is time to bridge this gap, if not now, then when?

बस-कि दुश्वार है हर काम का आसाँ होना

आदमी को भी मयस्सर नहीं इंसाँ होना

(bas-ki dushvār hai har kaam kā āsāñ honā

aadmī ko bhī mayassar nahīñ insāñ honā)


Piyali di

Piyali Gupta teaches English Literature in Bethune College, Kolkata, is fond of quoting Eliot, exploring heritage, brandishing exquisite sartorial designs and tasting sweets.


One thought on “Ghalib, Kolkata and a Heritage of Harmony – Musings by Piyali Gupta

  1. It was a time travel reading your words Ma’am. The timezone Calcutta witnessed, is best among any other city might have established. A soothing and beautiful history.


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