By Uzma Faiz
A narrow lane tucked in broken stones and powdered leaves led to the gates of Malcha Mahal. The barricades that I left behind suggested against trespassing but an internal instinct propelled exploration. The dome in sight was flattened by time and it looked like Abba’s head without his Farsi hat. Two arches ahead of the lane were almost protected by a retractable rusty fence and thickets. When we enter an unexplored land, our brain pulls out old memories to deal with the fear of the unknown. It constructs a bridge between nostalgia and novelty. I, the bridge between my grandfather and the Malcha Mahal. The wide steps on the left led to the darwaza (main entrance), followed by successive pointed arches, ending at a cloverleaf exit that further opened into the forest. Had Abba taken the exit, when the entire neighbourhood left for Pakistan our history would have taken another course.
“Are they distributing gold in Pakistan that I should leave my house?”
The walls were adorned by names meticulously scratched with love. A man named Basant peeled a wall for Sarita. But unfortunately, Gaurav with some black ink snatched his beloved by writing his name on top of Basant. The lovers had chosen English as their language instead of the usual Arabic Calligraphy peculiar to Mughal architectures. And I was grateful for their decision, for Arabic puts undue pressure on my tongue.
“What is खतम ? ख़त्म, ख़त्म ! ख़त्म !!”
Abba did not leave India but he left my great-grandfather, a zamindar in Sikandrabad district of western Uttar Pradesh, for a job in Delhi. Addressed as Masaab (Master Sahab) in Jamia, Abba was a figure of fear in the University. A staunch advocate of education familiar with Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, and English. But he had a special place for Urdu which developed from the love of poetry. The coarseness of his accent inherited from western U.P. was refined by the touch of great poets. Abba would recite couplets (sher) in the midst of a conversation, at times playfully and at times to emphasise his point. For as long as memory permits remembrance, the weekends were blocked for Mushairas broadcasted on ETV-Urdu, the modern-day courts of the new rulers and patrons.
The Mughal conquerors spoke Persian, not understood by the inhabitants. Consequently, a synthesis between Persian and vernacular Hindi gave birth to Urdu. But with the collapse of the empire and patronage, the language faced a significant decline.
Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who reigned over the Delhi Sultanate, had built Malcha Mahal in 1325 as a hunting lodge. As I was walking towards the center, the light dimmed and details of the architecture blurred. Even in the clear light of day, it appeared to be haunted by the ghosts of the past. There were ashes from a bonfire near a pillar which confirmed that Malcha sheltered vagabonds now. Small tunnel-like gates at the corners led upstairs to a dry and grassy roof, which overlooked the vast ridge forest surrounding the ruins. Besides the ancient lodge, ISRO’s earth station was the sole indicator of a changed time. Perhaps, seclusion from progress had preserved the Mahal from modernity and debased national politics.
“Jinnah wanted to be the Prime Minister… They were responsible for the partition. But those who chose to stay on their land are paying the price till now… in both countries.”
In her investigation, Ellen Barry of the New York Times revealed that the last inhabitants of the Malcha Mahal, Begum Wilayat, and her two children were actually imposters who had portrayed themselves as the descendants of the Awadh dynasty. The false Queen Begum Wilayat was suffering from a mental illness and had lost her wealth and prestige in the Partition of 1947. Her family was scattered in India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. Reading Ellen’s essay one is forced to believe that the motive behind their fraud was not greed but a lamentation of political violence. And Wilayat’s family scattered across these three regions is a poetic symbol of injustice owing to the shifting empires.
On 16 March 2018 ETV-Urdu was rebranded as News18 Urdu. In the age of OTT platforms, ETV-Urdu struggles with a limited audience. Decreased number of consumers both in literary and media form is a daunting hurdle. And Abba in his sickness has lost the energy to sit through the three hours long Mushairas.
Wasim Barelvi a contemporary renowned Urdu poet recited his verses in All India Mushaira 2020. His face appears from the nights of my childhood when I wished to switch the channel, unable to understand Abba’s sentiments. If only I had known the fate of my inheritance.
“Waah!! Waah! Kya Kehne! Kya Kehne”
Before independence, the Muslim League, tacitly supported by the Britishers, created an impression that Urdu was the language of Muslims in India, opposed to the real picture of its usage amongst wider sections. This image was carried forward by the right-wingers post-independence. And this issue has become more poignant during the recent developments in Hindu Nationalism. Sampooran Singh Kalra, whom we know as Gulzar, is one of those poets who broke the affiliation of Urdu with religion with his acclaimed work in literature and cinema. Left and right conspiracies, and communal tensions, once obliged Javed Akhtar to write,
zabane mazhabon ki nahin, illaqon ki hoti hain.
(Languages do not belong to religions, they belong to regions.)
In 2020, Abba met with an accident and fractured his pelvic bone, incapable of walking without aid since. He has shifted back to Sikandrabad and has no intention of returning to Delhi. Maybe your roots call you in your old age. I went to see him in a city which I had not cared to visit before. Abba has lost much of his hearing capability and prefers silence. The only thing that brings him out of this vow of silence is Urdu. Out of a sudden jolt, as if experiencing an epiphany, he recites couplets of some poets, whose names he does not remember, and on some days he leaves the lines midway, forgetting the end.
The language is on my tongue in bits and pieces. It was lost in generations, cultural osmosis, and migration. In our last meeting, I had written down this couplet by Brij Narayan which Abba had recited with his old zeal:
zindagi kya hai anasir mein zahoor-e-tarteeb
maut kya hai inhin ajza ka pareshan hona
(What is life, if not the meticulous arrangements of elements
And then what is death, if not the disintegration of these elements)
Begum Wilayat and her daughter had died earlier, while the son lived a recluse until 2017 when his death drew attention to the mystery of the Malcha Mahal. He has been buried with the number DD33B, an unclaimed body. How swiftly earthly glory passes. Who is to be blamed for the death of heritage?
When I left Malcha Mahal that afternoon, a policeman at the barricade fined me for trespassing. Everyone had paid their share for their association with the past. And rightfully so, it was my turn to pay.
Uzma Faiz is a writer and an aspiring journalist from New Delhi.
Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetry and the City”, Sayan Aich Bhowmik, University of Calcutta, India.