Feb 15, 2009

Slumdog and still penniless

THERE have been a few movies on Indian slums, and a recent one is doing wonderfully well for depicting the transition of a street urchin into a Richie Rich-like character.It goes without saying that these movies don’t make any difference to life in the slums, which has a dynamic of its own. It is easy in the glitz to forget the Muslim ghetto that Delhi’s Jama Masjid has become. It was reduced to one 150 years ago and though it struggled to crawl out of a bitter history, and periodically succeeded in that effort, this time round it looks condemned to wallow in its increasingly brutalised existence for the foreseeable future.I normally go to Jama Masjid — generic name for the old quarter of Delhi and not just the beautiful Mughal mosque located there — with foreign friends who insist on savouring its “Muslim food” and “Muslim culture”. Last week I went there for a personal reason. Armed with a 200-page handwritten tome on Mir Anis, which my 92-year mother in Lucknow has successfully culled from the vast collection of the 19th century poet, I went looking for a calligrapher that would make a book out of it.The search took me to the famed Urdu Bazaar on the southern face of the grand mosque. The place is of course a poor replica of the original. Mirza Ghalib had described its destruction by the British invaders thus: “This whole city has become a desert. Delhi people still pride themselves on Delhi language! What pathetic faith! My dear man, when the Urdu Bazaar is no more, where is Urdu? By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment.” That was in 1857. By the time Delhi hobbled back to its feet, 1947 came and along with it more death and destruction and this time with helpless refugees in tow, most of them robbed of their last penny in what became Pakistan.Apart from an elderly man, who still ekes out a living by translating application forms from Hindi or English into Nastaliq script there was no one around to evince interest in the Anis project. There he was, perched precariously on a plastic stool in a small side-lane off the Urdu Bazaar. Clad in a crumpled suit and tie, he smiled politely in the knowledge that he would not be equal to the task. It didn’t take long for him to admit he was slow and of little use as calligrapher for what he thought was an ambitious book. Having said that he resumed patiently working on a cash voucher. Someone had proffered it for a quick transcription, for a small fee.There were no real calligraphists left anymore, a shopkeeper whispered to me trying to ease my frustration. He offered a cup of tea, a possible consolation for the disappearance of calligraphers from Old Delhi. Get it typed, he advised. That’s the best way these days. I asked him if he could get the Mir Anis book composed for me, and perhaps sell a few copies too. He comforted me instead with a couple of fairly oldish books on Anis. Prof Akbar Hyderi, a Kashmiri scholar, whose work on Anis was admired by Josh Malihabadi among others, wrote two of them. About my mother’s book the shopkeeper was apologetic. “I wish I could help. But there is no room for literary books any more. There is only one demand: religion and more religion.”There’s never a visit to Jama Masjid, which is complete for me without visiting Ghalib’s haveli, or what remains of the house once occupied by the 19th century magician of words. Along the way from the rickshaw I saw wall posters with pictures of Kapil Sibal.He is India’s minister for science and technology, elected to the Lok Sabha as a Congress party MP from Old Delhi. Needless to say, Mr Sibal’s portfolio has had little impact on the lives of his Muslim constituents. They elected him because he seemed secular enough and the other candidate belonged to the Hindu right.Mr Sibal was fond of the Bush administration and he was chosen the minister in waiting when President George W. Bush came visiting in 2006. It was a strange equation. Muslims from Jama Masjid who were jailed for opposing the Bush visit had elected his chief Indian ideologue as their representative in parliament. Now you could blow Gaza Strip to smithereens but you would not find a Palestinian voting an Arab Kapil Sibal to parliament. That’s the difference between a living people and the ghettoised ones.Visiting Ghalib’s haveli in Gali Qasimjan was a heartbreaking affair. It was past the visiting hours, but the tall wooden gates were still open with no one to guard the entrance. As I went in and pored over the facsimiles of the manuscripts once again, I noticed that in the list of the food items that Ghalib is thought to have liked, they had included various meats, kebabs, vegetables and the hookah. The Government of India was obviously too embarrassed to admit that Ghalib loved his drinks, and that he celebrated the tippler in dozens of his beautiful couplets.The unnecessary censorship was not the only problem I noticed this time. A portly man, probably hurrying to the mosque, had no inhibition in urinating against the wall, followed by quick ablutions and a prompt departure. There is a telephone booth and a beauty parlour in the other half of the haveli. I complained to the owner about the man who had just defiled what is a sacred pilgrimage to millions of Ghalib fans from across the world. His reply was unnerving. People had to find somewhere to ease themselves, and so it was normal for passers-by to use the haveli as a makeshift toilet.Returning to the mosque, I headed for its eastern wall, where a cluster of shops sell a range of things from heavy motors to old music. My favourite is shop number 256, where its owner has stored some of the oldest 78-rpm records. Gauharjan and Kamla Jharia are passé. He played an old Hindi film song from the 1950s whose music was composed by the legendary Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. But you would have to wade through squalor and human filth to reach there. If you have a sensitive nose, you can smell whiffs of crude heroin and hashish that little boys and girls are smoking. Right there, two young women — sisters as it turned out — were hurling unprintable abuses at each other. And a man nearby smiled indulgently.I am told that nights in the slums are hell for the women and children alike. The day looks slightly better. For example, there was this policeman sitting by a metal detector to prevent terrorists from entering the Jama Masjid. Mir Anis will have to find a better welcome elsewhere.
By Jawed Naqvi. The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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