Of “Streets that Follow like a Tedious Argument”


That day I didn’t visit Ballimaran. I returned from Chawri Bazaar and have been grappling, since then, with what follows.

Ballimaran ke mahalle ki wo pechida daleelon ki si galiyan
saamne taal ke nukkad pe bateron ke qaside
gud-gudaati hui paan ki peekon mein wo daad wo wah-wah
chand darwaaze par latke huye boshida se kuch taat ke parde
ek bakri ke mamiyaane ki awaaz
aur dhoondhlaayi huyi shaam ke be-noor andhere
aise deewaron se moonh jod kar chalte hain yahan
chudi-waalan unke katri ke badi bee jaise
apni boojhti hui aankhon se darwaaze tatole

isi be-noor andheri si gali qaasim se
ek tarteeb chiragon ki shuru hoti hai
ek quran-e-sukhan ka safa khulta hai
Asadallah Khan Ghalib ka pata milta hai (“Ibteda [nazm on Ghalib],” Gulzar)

The mahalla of Ballimaran — the streets of a labyrinthine argument;
Of partridges chattering by a lumberyard in a shayarana2 rendezvous
Of laudations which gurgle out the hukka, the snuff-heavied voices —
Where embarrassed doors have parted to conceal the bristly rotting curtains.
The bleating of a goat has just thwarted the prayers …
The blood-dimmed vapours of the unlanterned dusk
Hide their faces against the riven limestone
Of the walls of Choodiwalaan’s Miss Havisham’s manor —
Her eyes left gazing at the blinding clocks.

Nearby, from the dimmed recesses of Gali Qasim Jaan
A stream of beacons upturns to a courtyard,
And like into an estuary empties in a Quran of villanelles
Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib reads from a ghazal (translation mine).

The Indian modernist consciousness has a lot to thank its cinema for, and those who are dispersed in its background. Of these, Gulzar, although sometimes a very overrated artist— due to the indiscriminating self-orientalisms our tastes have yielded to — has taken on single-handedly the task of translating modernism’s most charismatic squalors into an Indian vocabulary. It is single-handed for so it seems to us in our modernist complacency of consuming popular cultures founded on nostalgias and decadence. Baaqaida3 Gulzar laboriously addresses all his literary predecessors’ debts, and in no way can a critical gesture, such as this, claim to do it on his behalf. Mine is only a tedious argument, which for instance I could never visualize in TS Eliot’s cipher of a Bond Street description, from “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” In Gulzar’s nazm it became, however, the image of the solicitors and the parliamentarians following the Mutiny, or the language debates of the early 20th century in Uttar Pradesh, pleading their arguments before the Company Sahib, of whose tardy responses the Urdu journalist and politician Hasrat Mohani wrote in his ghazal, chupke chupke raat din:

berukhii ke saath sunna dard-e-dil kii dastaan
vo, kalai mein tera, kangan ghumaanaa yaad hai

You listen to the legends of my battered heart
And tilt your bangles for the perfect glint (translation mine).

Bairhaal, 4 I was compelled to write on Ballimaran, Gulzar, Eliot and even our bard from the Mutiny, Ghalib, by none of the more significant attractions of Chandni Chowk’s literary tourism but a spectacle that grew on me, as I returned from the place last weekend. I will come to it rafta rafta.5

There was something that evening which stopped me from making my way into Ballimaran and join the hordes of the thanatourists. The tradition of paying homage to literary artists, certainly loaned out from the Western construct of necromanticism around Westminster Abbey, Hampstead Heath or Stratford on Avon, is still too small in India to be an industry, and yet too obscene to be any less than an epidemic. It is prominently seen in the benign elite and the very perilous struggling-elite. It happens a lot around Santiniketan, the abode of Rabindranath Tagore, and I am told in Pondicherry where people visit to return with a piece of the spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. Visiting Ghalib’s haveli, now a museum, is therefore the most natural step in the possible trajectory of a diversity in this literary tourism or thanatourism.

The methods adopted by the pilgrims are those of a sovereign or a colonial. In any sustainable marriage between the arts and commerce of a place there must be either a useful exchange entirely on a local scale between the two cultures, or a traffic of consumers into the place as alien as possible. In this alienation the dyad of the elites and the struggling-elites has acquired sheer mastery. There is, for instance, a huge industry around Ballimaran in Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar of literature, food, garments and hosiery, jewellery and also iron works. Compared to all of this Ghalib, is and must be a rather humble commodity. This is not to make the shayr6 any small but to foster a spirit of pragmatic sensitivity towards a kind of economy which serves silently its bidding alongside the chosen spirits of great renown. So, among these gauntlet runners there are other hegemonic establishments, in addition to Ghalib Museum, such as the Gali Paranthe Wali and Karim’s restaurant. These markers, much more popular than the haveli, serve almost the same function which is to secure a passage for modern Indian elitism to discharge its colonial duties.

A visitor to these places, must know the precise geography of his destination. If by any chance he doesn’t know it he must invest all his energies into proving how much he does. This method is manifested in the ritualistic arrogance one sees in the visitor’s haggling for a price with the cycle-rickshawwallahs. In addition, frequently nowadays the rickshawwallahs refuse to acknowledge either the existence, or their knowledge of the existence, of the archetypal tourist spots of Purani Dilli. In such cases, the tourist must not betray any clue of his lack of knowledge of the same. It is as if the spectre of Ghalib lurks in the stubbornness of the pedlar’s inquisitive eyes that asking instead of where, and what: why are we bound?

To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit (“The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot)

I, for one, am definitely not an expert on the place, and this would lead one to wonder what then the rationale behind my writing this is. The truth is I am not an expert on any place, and in fact far from being so, I am easily and compulsively lost in all places. Only with some positive efforts can I find the way back home, and in cases of Karim’s and even Jama Masjid — which is as hegemonic a structure as one can be — I am completely at the mercy of the rickshawwallah. I might on a day pay him anything between 20 and 100 rupees for the same distance, for inside the gullies of Chawri the distances seem to multiply. The spots are more spectacular than the spectacles that have outlasted our powerful regimes. Once, about ten years ago, I gave a friend a completely fictional description, much in the manner of Tridib, of the road from Sunehri Masjid to Jama Masjid. Worse still, the description was not based on a real walk but on another description I had recently heard. All this is not to be proud of, and I genuinely regard those who have a good memory of directions. They can bring places alive, much more alive than a badly composed imaginative geography. But this, my tendency to get lost, or lost in the fragmentary aspects of culture — the squalor instead of the glitter of a Meena Bazaar — enables me to unabashedly note that although it is almost a decade now I first visited Ballimaran, I still could not tell you the way to it.

In what is a very memorable poem on Ghalib and Ballimaran, poet and friend Manash Bhattacharjee wrote a few years ago in Coldnoon:

I ask a man, “Which way
to Ghalib’s home?”
His eyebrows arch, “Why didn’t
you ask him the address? A
name is not enough.” (“A Visit to Ballimaran”)

The poem was later published in a book titled Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems, by The London Magazine. The work was critically very well-acclaimed but the question of Prufrock’s “insidious intent” (also Eliot’s question) remained the haunting question to ask, after this beautiful poem. Not simply to ask why Ghalib didn’t leave behind an address, but to ask instead had Ghalib ever spoken to you? Why then are you bound, and who is the witness to this feigned sophistry? I do not think Bhattacharjee really meant that the locals have forgotten Ghalib, and that this struck him as a shame. But what is a more legitimate query is whether they were ever supposed to remember him? Or, further, whether they were ever supposed to do so for our benefit? The sweetshops and the rickshaw-stands, the kachoriwallahs and the bangle-sellers, the rabri-makers and the jamun-vendors have a much nobler task to perform. Theirs is not the task of answering the wandering poet, or as more often is the case, the unpoetic wanderers.

I stood before my earlier home that afternoon as we left for Purani Dilli. It had been my home until just two weeks ago. And now I was only a spectator, trying to locate a trace of home from the falsehood of a row of balconies. I couldn’t claim which one was mine. I was still preoccupied with the question, should I go to Ballimaran today?, as though this were the most important, even more than the looming silence of my new unfurnished home. It couldn’t have been just a fortuitous accident that while returning from Chawri I saw him. The rickshaws were clashing with rods and tyres, along with human hands. The queues of buzurgs sat over tea and shirmal,7 perhaps discussing Obama’s visit to New Delhi. And amidst the din and vulgar traffic of Chandni Chowk sat the key-maker, chiselling and slicing … filing his keys. He had what seemed like an awl, or for want of my knowledge of his trade appeared to me to be concerning all. I asked myself: Why do I want to visit Ghalib? Do I have the keys to his home? The key-maker oblivious of the poetic endeavours of a world spiralling into oblivion, went strictly about his own business, sculpting, refining, sniffing and then blowing upon his miniature idols. With his tongue arched outwards he felt for his nose — an artistic idiosyncrasy. Will he have the key to Ghalib, will he know the way to his home? And suddenly I felt myself searching for the keys to my own. I have lost many real keys, and have often broken to locks to my home, much to the chagrin of neighbours who have suspected me as a trespasser.

I returned quietly that evening. I think the next time I intend to go to Ballimaran, I will first look for the key maker. This time I have made a note of the serpentine lanes of Chawri Bazaar. For the time being:

It is time to go home. Time to leave
what is left of Ghalib in
Qasim Jaan. To leave what is left
of Qasim Jaan in Ballimaran (“A Visit to Ballimaran,” Bhattacharjee)

For the remainder of my journey back home that day I hummed to myself, and the spectre of Ghalib:

Ballimaran se Daribe talak
Teri meri kahani Dilli mein (Gulzar)

From Ballimaran to Dariba kalan
Where our trysts were made, we have called Dilli (translation mine)



[1] A locality in Old Delhi, which along with the rest of the neighbourhood — and the names mentioned in this essay — bears the legendary pin code: Dilli 6 (110006). Ballimaran also houses Mirza Ghalib’s old haveli, now a museum.
[2] Poetic
[3] With due ceremony.
[4] Be that as it may.
[5] By and by.
[6] Poet.
[7] Sweet bread.


Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee is a recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship, 2014-15, to UK. He received his PhD from the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways (Bloomsbury, 2017), apart from numerous other prose or poetic works and opinion articles published worldwide. He is Assistant Professor of English at the Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, and the founding chief-editor of Coldnoon.