March 08, 2021
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The End Of Custody

In which the requirements of literary greatness are revealed to the author, in mathematical terms, no less, by one who claims to be greater than Mir or Ghalib - indeed, the greatest Urdu poet of all time.

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The End Of Custody
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The End Of Custody

A hundred years after Ghalib's totalitarian reign as the ultimate arbiter of Urdu grammar and style ended, Bashir Badr - whose biography always mentions that he edited a special Ghalib issue of the Aligarh University magazine - came to the following conclusion, remembered in the "Letter to the ghazal reader of the year 2035" published along with his collection Aamad in 1985:

In 1955, I became certain that ... the ghazal must be placed on a foundation of the living and changing vigour and elegance of language.

Ghalib would not, perhaps, have disagreed with this but I have often wondered what he would have made of the following statement also made in the letter:

The ghazal's language is the literary expression of spoken language.

Like most categorical statements this is only partly true, more manifesto than analysis. And if poets like Nazeer observed this rule almost always, people like Ghalib held it in abeyance more often than they obeyed it. But Badr does not explicitly claim to speak for the entire history of the ghazal here, and to pillory him for doing so would be disingenuous. He speaks for the present and the future, expressing the difficult adjustment literature has had to make with modernity, this condition of our lives in which ideas like equality and democracy are more popular than they have ever been. It's a shift the Urdu ghazal has registered more vividly than other forms in other languages because of its long and coherent history.

Viewed another way, this is a statement of continuity rather than disjunction. The ghazal has always spoken the language of the ruler. It's just that the rulers have changed. Patronage has shifted from a few people with deep pockets to many people with shallow ones.

And so it is that Basant Pratap Singh comes to this remarkable conclusion early in his editor's introduction to Culture Yaksan (Vani Prakashan, Delhi, 2002), a Devanagri compilation of Bashir Badr's poetry:

Literature is the flow of expression from difficult to simple.

It's a simple proposition, easy to prove, easy to refute. It's the sort of thing that rings true when it comes in a volume devoted to Bashir Badr, a poet who has expressed our time and his milieu as intimately and beautifully as Ghalib has expressed all times and every place.

* * *

In Custody, Anita Desai's take on one of Henry James' favourite tropes, has a Hindi lecturer, Deven, traveling to Bhopal to meet a decrepit giant of Urdu letters, Nur. It's a disarming notion of patronage: a passionate reader, possessed of his own ordinariness, travels to meet a great writer. The purpose of this trip, in James's work and in Desai's, is to rescue or protect the great man's legacy. The outcome, in both, is disaster.

Nonetheless, in the summer of 2004 I found myself redoing the In Custody journey: travelling to Bhopal to meet Bashir Badr. Or, to cut closer to the truth, I found myself sitting in Bhopal airport with the uncle I'd traveled to meet, waiting for another uncle's flight from Calcutta. I mentioned that I loved Bashir Badr's work and did he know that Bashir Badr lived in Bhopal. Long story short, he did, and two days of kabab and biryani later, I found myself sitting with my aunt in her spanking new Tata Indigo being driven by her driver through a freshly washed Bhopal morning.

My aunt asked a scooter rickshaw driver where Bashir Badr lived and he asked if we were looking for "shayar sahab", then smiled an inexplicably sleazy smile - probably reserved for single women walking down the street and people who went looking for poets - and told us how to get there.

Nur's haveli in In Custody is hidden in a warren of filthy streets in old Bhopal. Bashir Badr, on the other hand, lives in Idgah Hills: large three-storey houses sharing walls like South Delhi kothis, designed by architects who, unlike the ones who did South Delhi, would rather be safe than sorry.

Bashir Badr wore a long kurta down to his ankles, in the kind of blue often seen in computer desktop backgrounds, with a sleeveless jacket on top, and curved juutis. A TV crew was about to stop by, he explained. He was shorter than I expected. He'd made us wait longer than I expected, then bustled into the small living room we were waiting in. Next to me, on the divan, sat a pink Pekinese; a stuffed toy, I realized later, after initially worrying about its lack of motor function. I wondered what the TV crew would make of it.

* * *

Kings used to patronize Urdu poetry. Their kingdoms, and this patronage, were taken over by the governments of Pakistan and India, who have gone about fulfilling their duties differently in the sixty odd years of their lives. But two years before I sat three feet from a stuffed Pekinese, the danger of being interrupted by a TV crew hanging over me, I got an inkling that another shift was underway.

In 2002 I went to the Ghalib birthday mushaira at Aiwan-e-Ghalib in Delhi. Walking in to the auditorium, inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in the presence of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, I found it plastered with large maroon banners, ETV Urdu's logo emblazoned on them. The audience - the kind of people one sees playing cards at India Gate when government offices take lunch; bearded teenagers in white, their skull caps on; old sikhs; hijaabi women dragging kids; a family of self-consciously beautiful women, out of purdah, unescorted - sat looking embarrassed while a TV crew went about the uncouth business of setting up a shoot. Mushairas go back a few centuries. In the our times they have had to bear a few things - bureaucrats, cellphones, bureaucrats on cellphones - but the kind of language which went around that evening, through the public address no less, when a minor functionary mishandled a major piece of equipment for example, did not fit anyone's notion of tehzeeb.

A commotion over my left shoulder made me turn. We had all been waiting at least an hour by then. There was a safari suit, a tall Malyalee in pants and sleeves and a sherwani wearer who looked like he'd stepped out of the background of a photograph of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed inaugurating an auditorium.

"Just a few frames for the news," the safari suit was saying. "Just to say that this mushaira happened."

"No," said the Malyalee. "ETV Urdu has planned one whole day of programming devoted to Ghalib's birthday and this mushaira is my centrepiece. If you even mention such and such mushaira happened, that will spoil everything."

"But," the Sherwani said. "It is Doordarshan News."

"Doordarshan or BBC, I don't care," the Malayalee said, turning on him with a ferocity he had hitherto reserved for errant cameramen. "We have spent a lot of money on this."

The last word had been spoken. His production team sidekicks started waving the Malayalee back. The safari suit turned to the Sherwani: "You called us here for this," he said in Urdu, then, to his own sidekick. "Put away the camera. Let's sit."

The Sherwani looked like he'd just received a telegram. He'd have to open it before he knew if the news was good or bad.

The Malayalee producer's hands were shaking as he walked past where I sat. His sidekicks were telling him how right he was. At the end of the aisle, he stopped and turned, then walked back to where the Doordarshan crew sat.

"I can give some of my footage for the news," he said. "I just don't want you to shoot."

The Safari Suit put his hand up. "What's done is done."

* * *

Bashir Badr lists the famous people who have quoted him: former President KR Narayanan on Urdu, former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen on fake friendship, former queen of playback singing Lata Mangeshkar on the transience of fame. The evidence is compelling. I myself have turned to Bashir Badr several times over the few years that I have known his work, and have never been disappointed.

After all, this could have been written about the US invasion of Iraq:

gaanv mit jayega shehr jal jaayegaa
zindagi teraa chehraa badal jaayegaa

(villages will disappear, cities will burn
life, your face will change)

Struggling to bring my novel to conclusion after years of living with the beginning and middle, I was soothed by this:

kahaaniyon ka mukaddar vahi adhurapan
kahiin firaak nahin hai kahiin visaal nahin

(stories are fated to that same incompleteness
no meeting here, no parting there)

Trying to make sense of the changing fortunes of the ghazal, this:

unhi raaston ne jin par kabhi tum the saath mere
mujhe rok rok poocha tera hamsafar kahaan hai

(those very roads that you and I had walked together then
tap me on the shoulder now and ask me: where's your friend?)

It's a quality that Basant Pratap Singh, in a blistering, and appropriate, turn of Sanskritized Hindi, calls uddharaniyata which I can best translate as "exemplariness". These shers can take what you're feeling and lay it out for you in a way which deepens it. These shers can make your life and your pain beautiful.

I'm sitting there in front of this man who claims he is greater than Mir or Ghalib, my English-medium notions of modesty rebelling against every word he says. But I know that his shers are more than just quotable, more than just famous. They have uddharaniyata.

Basant Pratap Singh makes different lists in his introduction to Culture Yaksan than the ones Bashir Badr is making for me. He starts by listing Bashir Badr's twelve most famous shers. He follows this up by classifying poets by numbers of popular shers, a quaint way of extending the old triumvirate of lies, damned lies and statistics. Ghalib, he says, has 30 or 40, Mir, Firaq and Faiz have 15 or 20 and then a bunch of people like Sauda and Aatish, Daag and Zauq fall into the 10 or 15 range.

Modest on the behalf of his master, Singh claims that, in the numbers game, after Mir and Ghalib, it's Firaq, Faiz and Bashir Badr. It's not easy to calculate from this claim how many popular shers Bashir Badr has, but luckily when I sit across from the man himself he quickly eases my mathematical load by claiming that his popular shers number more than a 100. That does make him more famous than Mir and Ghalib by Basant Pratap Singh's reckoning, I calculate. But then he contradicts his editor by pointing out that Mir was famous for having 74 famous shers. So now, and here all those years spent adding and subtracting numbers in my head helps, Ghalib would have to have more than 26 for Bashir Badr to be a greater poet than Mir and Ghalib individually but not the two of them combined. Singh's claim puts Ghalib at above 30. It's a close call.

I spot a framed photo of Bashir Badr touching Atal Bihari Vajpayee's feet.

"There was a big mushaira in New York, a big kavi sammelan," he says, following my gaze. "Atalji had to read last. The most senior poets read last, you know. He took a pen and cut out his name on the list and wrote mine. Doctor sahib, he said, you will read last. The Prime Minister of India cut his own name out and wrote mine. What bigger honour can there be?"

I haven't asked him why he decided to join the BJP - an act which drew criticism from Muslims all over the country - I wasn't planning to. Looking at the photo of a major poet touching a minor poet's feet I remember the major poet's sher:

kuchh to majbuuriyaan rahi hongii
yuun koii bewafaa nahin hotaa

(there must have been some compulsions
betrayal doesn't come easy)

* * *

Bashir Badr tries to sell us a volume of his famous shers, each presented in three scripts on a single page. My aunt is falling over the book. I am not able to share her enthusiasm. Finally, I say that I prefer to read complete ghazals. He does not seem put out at all, instead he smiles.

Encouraged, I start talking about the way the tight metres of the ghazal - the way one sher carves out a structure of sound which the next one goes and inhabits - make it possible for different couplets with seemingly unrelated subjects to form a unified and complete work, its disparate components brought together at an abstract level. The matla outlines the frame, the subsequent shers click into place.

He nods and smiles when I say this. At first I think he agrees with me, then the suspicion follows that maybe his smile doesn't mean "you're right." Maybe it means "well said." I can't figure out which one I should prefer.

My aunt buys a copy of the single sher book. This takes the pressure off me. She starts talking about inviting Bashir Badr to "small exclusive mehfils". I feel the interview slipping away. The most important question is unasked.

The progressive poetry movement abandoned the ghazal because they thought its obsession with form would constrict their political message, that it would limit its accessibility. The nazm benefitted tremendously. But, writing at the same time, Bashir Badr decided that he could evict the ornate formalisms of the ghazal and replace them with simple language. It was an act of bravado, but also of courage. The poetry that sprang from it was less political - the progressives had that right - but it was more enduring. It was more approachable, less elitist, more intimate. To ask why he did this is stupid - the benefits are obvious - but there seems to be no other way to broach the subject.

"I looked at the shers of Mir and Ghalib which are still popular today," he says. "And I saw that they were all written in very simple language, in the language of the people. That's it, I thought. And started writing like that. Many other people knew this but no one understood it till this boy came along and thought, that's what I should do."

This explanation, so simple, so natural, has never occurred to me. There are so many different kinds of patrimony, I think. To inherit a tradition is to inherit a duty. Ghalib's famous sher comes to mind:

Vo puuchhte hain ke Ghalib kaun hai
tum hi batlaao ke ham batlayeN kyaa

(they ask who Ghalib is
you tell them, I don't know what to say

Bashir Badr has showed me another layer of this sher.

A quest to have a larger number of popular shers than Mir or Ghalib (or both?) cannot be a noble idea, it cannot be a political idea. But the need to be quoted more than one's forebears can lead to literature which is more important than it is noble, which takes each one of us farther than politics can.

* * *

Later I will analyze my discomfort in meeting Bashir Badr. He is a charming man, but his charming manner does not hide, does not attempt to hide, a naked hunger for success and recognition that my speak-when-you're-spoken-to upbringing deems impolite, common. The Indian middle class is actually a vast and finely subdivided set of strata, and I'm having an out-of-class experience.

Bashir Badr talks about various things: how the new Congress party governor in Madhya Pradesh will probably sack him, a BJP man, from the board of some university on which he is the governor's nominee, and how, to forestall this he has written a long essay in a Hindi newspaper on how Hindi and Urdu are the same language and are basically the "products of Sanskrit's suffering."

Badr complains that some people say he's a pretender, a murderer of Farsi and Urdu. They call him a political opportunist, a charge that Ghalib too had to face from misguided nationalists uncomfortable with the reams he wrote in praise of Queen and Company. People say he has had great luck all his life. All the years I had read his poetry knowing little about the man, I had not considered these possibilities but it strikes me now, sitting across from him, that these allegations are true. It strikes me that this man struggling for recognition in the undignified, cunning, servile way that is the norm in places like Bhopal has managed nonetheless to produce great poetry that lifts the spirit. And lifts it not out of the garbage heap of everyday life, but along with the garbage heap of everyday life to a place of beauty and joy. To the board of poetry no Prime Minister, no Governor can nominate people. And on that board Bashir Badr's position is secure.

* * *

Consumption, custodianship and patronage morph into one another in our times. Anita Desai has a scene in In Custody where Deven visits his colleague, an Urdu professor, the scion of a nawab's family, asking for money to fund his recordings of Nur reading fresh verse. There is no money to be had and, besides, the Nawab's old haveli is being partially demolished when he arrives. That tragic metaphor - as subtle as an elephant rolling down a hill - is hopelessly outdated now. Not that I am blaming Desai. Who could have foreseen ETV Urdu in 1984?

But arguably it was not particularly accurate when it was written either. There has always been a tendency in Urdu poetry to look past kings and bureaucrats and professors to everyday practitioners of language. Basant Pratap Singh's lists bear clumsy witness to this. It may or may not have been a guarantor of longevity in the past, this tendency, but it bodes well for our commercialized democratized present.

Bashir Badr shows me a large piece of shiny tan cloth on which a lady from Dubai has hand-embroidered 74 of his famous shers. He tells my aunt that he would be happy to come to her party, she need only call.

"I've learned how to pose for photographs," he says when I hand my camera to my aunt.

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