Poet: Listen, brother, you will not be able to sell you melon this way. You, too, should get a Mirza or Mir to write a few verses on your water melon. Then we will also buy your melon if only as a tribute to their poetry.
Laughs and moves on.
Melon Seller: (going to the right to the laddoo seller) Do you know what the secret was? He wants some poet to write verses on his kakri!
Laddoo Seller: Why doesn’t he memorise the couplet that the madaari had used:
Come, buy my kakri and be quick!
Or you’ll get one blow of my stick!
Melon Seller: Yes, quite right! (They both laugh) Laddoo Seller: (Laughing) If poets were to start writing verses on kakris and melons, they might as well give up poetry and start selling kakris and melons.
Melon Seller: Or better still, why don’t we give up selling these and take to writing poetry instead. If we have to starve, we may as well starve that way. What do you say?
Poet: (at the book store, looking through a book) Now look at this. He writes:
Now even alms are denied to them in Delhi town,
Who till yesterday dreamt only of scepter and crown.
Bookseller: (settling in his seat) Wonderful! I hear that `Mir” sahib suffers from bouts of insanity these days?
Poet: It’s remarkable that he is still alive. He’s above eighty.
Companion: And what times has Mir sahib seen in this life! In this very town, he saw the unfaithfulness of his own dear ones; left home, left his native town. He even left Delhi which was once the ultimate destination of every sensitive and accomplished person. He wandered from place to place witnessing the attacks by the Persians and the Turks. He witnessed also the oppression of the Afghans, the Ruhelas, the Rajputs, the Jats and the Marathas; saw a river of blood flow through Delhi with human heads floating like bowls. In front of his own eyes his house was destroyed:
My house burned before my eyes and I watched helpless
He went through all this. And now he lives in Lucknow and is witness to the havoc caused by the English.
Bookseller: You are right, these are turbulent times. When I look at it, what I see is not the Mughal empire but a big, powerful lion being attacked by hundreds of cats and dogs. Seeing it wounded and helpless, vultures and other birds of prey have also gathered to bite it into pieces. And the lion has neither the leisure to moan nor the luxury to die.
Poet: Very good, Maulvi15 sahib! Only you can speak like this. What language, what style! I am only a poet in name. But you talk poetry in every day conversation!
Bookseller: This is only a result of the company of persons like you!
Companion: You are both being modest.
Poet: (Sitting near the bookseller) Call it our modesty or your own graciousness. In any case, I feel that my poetry should be published only by a person who is a connoisseur of poetry.
Bookseller : And I believe that if I am to publish poetry, it must be the poetry of a genuine poet. I don’t like to publish all and sundry.
Companion: (To the poet) Your collection must be ready now?
Poet: A poet’s collection gets completed only with the termination of his life. However, I do have a sufficient number of verses to make up a book.
Bookseller: And you did not even mention it to me once.
Companion: He’s laid-back. He is a poet, after all.
Poet: I thought there was no formality between us. That I could give you my manuscript at any time and let you decide what to do with it.
Bookseller: Don’t be so unfair. You must send me your manuscript the first thing tomorrow.
World loves the flatterer
God loves him too.
Flatter to serve your own interest
Bookseller: Gentlemen, just before you arrived, the whole place was rocked by such din as though doomsday itself was at hand.
Bookseller: There was a dispute among some low class persons. Before we knew, it developed into a full fledged brawl. There was looting and rioting.
Poet: I hope nothing happened to your shop?
Bookseller: Perhaps one should feel thankful that there is no great demand for books in the world.
Companion: Why, they can always be sold as waste paper.
Bookseller: (laughs) The mischief was started by a kakri seller.
Poet: That man who is sitting out there?
Bookseller: Yes. That’s the one.
Poet: He approached me a while ago and requested me to write verses on his kakri.
Bookseller: Oh, really?
Companion: But isn’t it possible for a poet to capture this entire environment in words?
Poet: What do you think Mir’s work is all about if not a profoundly moving picture of these tragic times. “Life in turmoil and a restless heart“--this single phrase encapsulates a whole world of meaning.
Companion: No, sir, here he is only expressing his personal difficulties.
Poet: (interrupting) Why should the poet carry the burden of the whole world’s woes?
Companion: No, what I meant was that perhaps the ghazal as a form lacks that broadness of scope which would allow all kinds of subjects and ideas to be written about.
Poet: You are attacking a centuries-old tradition of great Persian and Indian masters. In what other culture can you find a thing as beautiful as the ghazal?
Companion: I am not disputing its beauty. I am only commenting on its limited scope.
Poet: What you cannot write about in ghazal, you can always say in quaseeda16.
Companion: Besides encomiums for kings and rulers, what else can you write in a quaseeda?
Poet: But the mathnavi17 allows you freedom to write about anything you please.
Kakri Seller: (seeing the tazkiranawis18 coming) Sir, you are a person of eminence, I am a small man. Your mind is like the very sun in the sky and I am no more than the dust under your feet. It may sound like an audacity on my part but please forgive my impudence. Kindly listen to a small request that I have.
Tazkiranawis looks towards him, frowns, and moves on.
Taskiranawis: (on reaching the book store) Assalaam Alaikum!
Bookseller: Walaiku Assalaam! Please come in, Maulana!
Gives his seat to the tazkiranawis and sits down on a stool in front of the shop.
Poet: The poor guy had been waiting for you since the morning to request you to write a couple of verses on his kakri. And you did not even bother to answer him.
Tazkiranawis: I do not want to pollute my speech by talking to riff-raffs.
Bookseller: It seems that you are following Mir sahib in his footsteps. It is said that, from Delhi to Lucknow, Mir Sahib shared a horse-carriage with a man from Lucknow but did not speak at all throughout the journey lest it should corrupt his speech!
Tazkiranawis: Sahib, it is these traditions which will probably keep the language and literature alive in the times to come. Otherwise, everything is all but ruined! Look at the kind of language that is spoken in Delhi these days. I just shut my ears.... I understand that an Urdu translation of the Holy Book is available now.
Bookseller: Yes, Shah Rafiuddin’s translation is already there. But if you want Maulvi Abdul Quadir’s translation, it will be available in a week or two.
Poet: These are times of progress, Maulana.
Bookseller: Call it progress or call it decline. The fact, however, is that times are changing very fast. Machines have arrived and there are printing presses everywhere. There are translations of the Holy Book, as well as those of the Bible. I have heard of an Englishman in Calcutta who is an expert in Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, and several other Indian languages. He has started a school called Fort William College. Various Indian languages are taught there and now I understand that they will also hold mushairas. Poet: I have heard that a college will open in Delhi as well where they will teach English, Chemistry and Physics.
Bookseller: This is the age of atheism. We need a crusader to alter the course of times. There are many who feel concerned but what we lack is a crusader.
Companion: What the age really needs, Maulana, is not crusaders but human beings. But, unfortunately, there is no sign of human beings.
Poet: (standing up) What are we then? Beasts? (They all laugh. The poet sits down.)
Companion: I believe that this new system of education will also give birth to human beings. These are difficult times. Every person one meets complains of lack of jobs. Hopefully, these new colleges will at least be able to provide employment to some people.
Bookseller: (to the tazkiranawis) I don’t think, Maulana, that there is much future for writings like your Sharah-e-Hadith,Tabsira-o-Tanquid, and Tazkira Naweesi19. I think you should also explore new avenues now. (Rises and sits next to the tazkiranawis) There is a rumour that a publishing house is coming up in Delhi and that soon there will be journals and newspapers in Urdu. I think I should also shift my book store to Delhi and join newspaper publishing.
Tazkiranawis: These are tough times! Truly tough times! Only yesterday I met Nasrullah Beg Sahib at Abul Fatah Sahib’s clinic. We talked about how Delhi and Agra have been ravaged by the rapacity of some people. We went on to discuss poetry and literature.... Beg sahib told me the tragic tale of Mir Amman Khan. It seems Surajmal Jat has destroyed his home and has seized his property. Mir Sahib is now living in the English madarasa in Calcutta and writing Kissa Chahaar Darvesh.20 He wants me to come to Calcutta and says that I can earn a living there by teaching Persian. I have received a similar message from Rajjab Ali Suroor. Nasrullah Beg is also of the same opinion.
Bookseller: (rises to go out) Now look at Suroor himself. He is a risaladar in the British Army and living in comfort. (Goes out through the left.)
Poet: It is said that his nephew Asadullah has married?
Tazkiranawis: That’s right. He is an unusually bright boy, this Asadullah! Even at this young age he writes poetry in Persian. And such poetry that, frankly, even I cannot fully comprehend.
Companion: He is no more than thirteen or fourteen years old, is he?
Poet: Yes, but what is so surprising about it? Take Sheikh Mohammed Ibrahim `Zauq’. He couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20 when he went to the court of Akbar-e-Saani21. He challenged and overthrew the dominance of veterans like Shah Nasir and now he is the tutor to the Emperor. He is held in high regard by everyone in Delhi.
Tazkiranawis: Mian, which Delhi are you talking about? Which court and which Akbar-e-Saani? After Akbar and Alamgir and other great rulers, Alamgir-e-Saani, Shah Alam Saani, and Aakbar-e-Saani come like the recurrent motif on the tablet of the mughal rule. And in that frightfully lonely place in the devastated city of Delhi which was once known as quila-e-mualla22, a rag-tag court is established. Sounds of poetry and literature are heard for a brief moment and then a terrifying desolateness again takes over. People have started escaping to Awadh and to Deccan, and Delhi’s royal cemetery is once again home to dogs and owls.
A customer enters from the right.
Customer: (mistaking the biographer for the bookseller) Sir, would you have a copy of Munshi Mirza Mehdi’s Nadirnama?
The bookseller enters briskly from the left tying the string of his trousers.
Voice: (from the left, in anger) What is this, mister? Every day you just sit down in front of the shop. The place has started stinking to high heaven!
A stranger, who had been strolling about in the market, peeps out of the lane and listens attentively to all this. Looking at the bookseller he bursts into loud uncontrollable laughter.
Bookseller: (to the customer) Sorry, I do not have Nadirnama. However, an Urdu translation titled Tarikh-e-Nadiri is available.
Bookseller: Amir Khusro’s Quissa Laila-Majnoon is also out of stock. However we have just received Haidri Sahib’s translation of it.
Customer: Could I see it?
The bookseller and the customer go inside the shop. A group of villagers, dressed in colourful clothes, enters from the left, singingabout Baldevji’s fair. A group of Sikh devotees enter from the opposite side singing in praise of Guru Nanak. There is tension in the air as the two groups seem about to clash, and swords, spears and lathis are brandished. Eventually all bow before Guru Nanak’s portrait. They all sing together and go out peacefully. Sikhs devotees:
Nanak Shah is a learned saint, our revered Guru
Lights our way like a brilliant star, our revered Guru
Makes all our hopes come true, our revered Guru
The giver of peace and happiness, our revered Guru
He is generous, kind and all-loving, our revered Guru
All worship him and bow their heads and, “hail our revered Guru!”
The groups exit to the right, singing. Benazir, an attractive young woman, enters. She is wearing a tilak on the forehead and a bracelet of flowers. She is being pursued by a young rake.
Rake: My heart-warmer, my darling sweet, when and where can we meet?
Benazir: (smiling) What do you want?
Rake: To bare my heart.
Benazir: Go ahead.
Rake: As Lord Rama conquered Lanka, your heroic beauty has conquered the fort of my heart--:
My heart was always like Ravana, and Ravana alone.
Conquered by a pretty idol I am now all for Rama.23
Benazir: Who will bear witness to it?
Rake: Hanumana. (The young woman laughs and the two of them move on, talking.) Dear matchless beauty! Bird of radiant colours! Lovely and desirable destroyer of hearts! By what name shall I call you?
Benazir: My humble self is called Benazir. May I have the honour of learning the gentleman’s name?
Rake: This insignificant creature is called Badre Munir. Where do you dwell?
Benazir: I live in Beauty Colony. And the gentleman?
Rake: I live on Desire Street.
Poet: Maulana, I hear that you are writing a tazkira of Urdu poets?
Tazkiranawis: Yes. I am but I don’t know why!
Poet: At what stage is it now?
Tazkiranawis: Well, sir, it is stumbling through one blind alley after another. The late ‘Soz’ sahib was a friend and companion. It was he who encouraged me to write. There was a time when one frequented Delhi and its environs. Apart from `Soz’ sahib, one often had the pleasure of the company of such figures as `Mir’, Khwaja Mir `Dard’, `Sauda’, Mir Hassan and `Fughan.’.
Bookseller: (stopping a village lad) Boy, come here a moment. (The boy does not respond.) Hey, you scoundrel, come here! (The boy comes to him.) These idiots do not understand simple prose, unless one uses abusive words. (Giving money) Go and get four paans from that shop there!
The boy goes to the paan shop.
Boy: Can you make four paans, brother?
Paan seller: Yes sir, sure. Large Banarasi leaves with lots of cardamoms.
Tazkiranawis: `Mir’ sahib returned to his birthplace Delhi after a gap of some thirty years. He met scholars and intellectuals. He received honour and recognition. But he did not meet anyone who could provide succour to his restless soul. “Oh God,” he thought, “is this the same town in which one could find distinguished poets, scholars, munshis, and intellectuals in every lane and bylane. Today there is not a person here who can provide pleasurable and edifying company.” Saddened by the experience, he went back having spent only four months in his dear homeland. (The boy returns with the paans.)
‘Mir’ he entered the room, that’s all I remember
And then all was dark as the lamps went out.
In other words, sahib, tazkira and tazkiranawis are things of the past now. However, a golden page from the old times continues to twinkle in some remote corner of my mind. If the gloomy shadows of the present era do not snuff out that light too, I just might be able to leave something behind for posterity. Otherwise, it is enough that I am still alive.
A man briskly enters from the back door and goes out to the left. Kakri seller, calling out to him, runs after him.
Poet: (referring to the bookseller) Maulvi sahib here insists on publishing my collection. If you would look it over it will help me improve it. It may also provide you with a fresh breakthrough in your idea of writing a tazkira of Urdu poets.
Tazkiranawis: Well, there is hardly any chance of a new breakthrough. However, I am happy to be of service to you at any time.
The same man enters from the right and goes out the left. The kakri seller also enters pursuing the man, but stops on reaching the centre of the stage. His voice becomes faint. He slowly walks towards the paan shop and sits down on a bench near it.
Bookseller: (to the customer) No, sir. The Persian text of “Laila Majnun” is not in stock. I had informed you earlier too.
The customer leaves.
Tazkiranawis: Do you see how depressing the times are? These days you cannot find Persian books in book stores. Now even prose is written in Urdu. So what commentary can one write and to what purpose?
Bookseller: Oh that reminds me. Recently a disciple of Nazir came to me with a poem of his and inquired if I would use my influence and have it published. Now, you tell me who would want to read Nazir’s poetry?
Three or four men walk across the stage laughing. The kakri seller runs after them.The men go off. Kakri seller is disappointed.
Poet: In times to come only these vulgar things will be read. Anyone who can write a few cheap rhymes on holi or diwali will be thought to have scaled the heights of scholarship and creativity. After all, that is what popular taste demands these days. A little while ago, this kakri seller came running up to me and requested me to write a poem on his kakris. Now what would you say to that!
A Voice Off-stage: I have told you a hundred times, I do not want your kakris. Have you gone mad or what?
Kakri seller: (off stage) No, sir, no....It is like this....
Voice: Just lay off. I have told you I don’t want your kakris. Nor can I write poetry. Driving me crazy when I am myself in such dire straits.
People have begun to gather at the potter’s shop. A group of eunuchs--which include Kariman and Chameli—enters.
Kariman: May God save you and the saints protect you! The proud father of the new baby boy! Accept my love and my blessings, dear soul! And may God save you and the saints protect you!
Tailor: Ramoo, hey, Ramoo! How long are you going to be closeted with your wife? Come out and sit with your friends for a while. (Ramoo comes out laughing) Silly shy fellow! Won’t you offer us sweets?
Kariman: May God save you and saints protect you! On this happy day I must have a new dress. I will settle for nothing less. May God bring you prosperity!
Ramoo: Hey, why are you all barging in like this. Move, make way!
Kariman: May you live long and Allah protect you! Hey, Chameli why are you sitting there like a statue? Come here, Miss Lost-soul!
Ramoo: Get out, all of you! Go away from here! Will someone drive these bloody eunuchs out of here!
Chameli: Why do you shout and scold us on this happy occasion? I will call you such names as would make you see stars, sweep you off your feet. Hey, Kariman! Where the hell has she disappeared, the fool! (Spotting her) There you are! I am hoarse from calling out for you! Now don’t just stand there gaping, sing a song!
Kariman: May Allah grant long life to the baby boy! May he flourish and replenish the earth! May God save you and saints protect you! How can I refuse to sing on such an auspicious day! Come on, start the seeties.24