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The Heart Of The Matter

So what happened when Shirley Maclaine was taken to meet an Urdu poet, teeming with ideas, in a licensed bhaang shop in old Delhi?

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The Heart Of The Matter

So stable was our world those days that the heart transplant performed by Dr Christiaan Barnard in Cape Town registered with our untrained imaginations as something of a miracle which only prophets in Biblical times performed.

Soon after the daily editorial conference most of the reporters (I was the junior-most) assembled in that broad verandah of Statesman House on Barakhamba Road, looked towards CP, lit our cigarettes and discussed the heart of a black man which had been grafted into the chest of a man who was white. The detail was of supreme interest because not only had the frontiers of transplant surgery been pushed beyond belief, but racial distance had also been symbolically narrowed in apartheid-era South Africa.

From behind the columns of CP appeared a man with a receding hairline, long grey hair settled on his shoulders and a thick bushy beard, making him look rather like Karl Marx. It was Niaz Haider, or Niaz Chacha as we called him, an Urdu poet of incredible talent, but permanently at odds with the literary establishment because of his cantankerous ways and frequent, drunken brawls. He had persuaded himself that being a poet in penury gave him total access to the pockets of his admirers.
"Dus rupaye de," he said. He looked disturbed. "They are denying us our symbols — the moon, the heart." He said he was going to the bhaang theka in Hauz Qazi, and would later write a poem on heart transplant.

Just then Lakshmanan in the teleprinter office passed me a message from Desmond Doig, my senior colleague in Calcutta. The filmstar Shirley Maclaine, a friend of Desmond’s, was in Delhi. Desmond wanted me to pick her up from the Imperial hotel and give her an off-beat tour of the city. It was important for my future in The Statesman that she gave a good report of my resourcefulness to Desmond.

Like a flash, an idea suggested itself. An Urdu poet, teeming with ideas, in a licensed bhaang shop in old Delhi! Off we went in my two-door Standard Herald in search of the bhaang shop in Hauz Qazi, along the lane starting at Turkman Gate.

What fascinated Shirley was that marijuana, banned in the west, was openly sold in India. This required some explaining. The cannabis plant yields three intoxicants—the resinous charas, leafy ganja and the root of the plant, bhaang. The first two which are smoked are indeed banned. Bhaang is drunk with milk or mixed with Indian sweets, a standard concoction during Holi.

Shirley and Niaz got on like a house on fire. They both had two glasses of bhaang thandai and retired to the Imperial hotel, in separate rooms, paid for by Shirley Maclaine.

It was in these opulent surroundings that Urdu’s original street poet wrote his poem on heart transplant, including this couplet:
"Woh paimana jo dil ki/ tareh dilkash hai, pila saqi!" (Give me, oh wine-bearer, the cup which is as exquisite as the human heart.)

Like many of Niaz’s poems, this one too was never published and is lost. But if readers are interested, I can coax my memory and reproduce all that I can remember for an instalment some day in these pages.

This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, January 15, 2006

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