Sunday, October 07, 2018

Grave matters

The paths of glory, a poet has said, lead but to the grave. What the poet may not have imagined is the path that leads to the actual graves of famous writers. Certainly, Thomas Gray would have had some experience of inglorious pathways. Nineteenth century England was no stranger to rubbish dumps and the poet would certainly have corresponded with the occasional turd, an open sewer, or a bit of bone sitting quietly in narrow alleys. One must go down one such a lane to reach the grave of Meer Anees, one of the most celebrated Urdu poets.

This part of Lucknow is not unlike the ailing heart of India's grand old cities. The streets are narrow, the houses crumbling, and infrastructure is rather hit and miss. To visit Meer Anees, you'd make your way to Chowk, and then to a small, elegant mosque called Tahseen wali masjid. You'll find a book shop at street level (and dark whispers of a campaign to force the owners out of business through the persistent dumping of rubbish above) and then a lane as narrow as the waist of a beloved, though less perfumed. You'd do well to send word to the descendants of the poet before you found the grave.

Anees was buried on private land and though a considerable tomb has been built, it is encircled by a metal fence and the door leading to it is locked. Apparently, “anti-social” elements had begun to frequent the place, so locking up was the simplest way to keep them out.

What made me really sorry, though, was that there wasn't a signboard in sight to point tourists and lovers of literature in the right direction.

On my first visit to London, I had very little money and not much time to look around. However, I was determined to take in a visit to Charles Dickens' house. The writer had shaped more than just my literary tastes; he also gave me a moral view of the world and, in that sense, his work finds a home in me. Even so, I wanted to see one of the houses he lived in. It was listed on the tourist map and there were at least three street signs pointing the way. But more than three were not permitted by the city and, to my dismay, I realised that a fourth sign was desperately needed.

After wandering in circles for an hour, I nearly gave up. No passersby helped; many seemed not to know who Charles Dickens was! Eventually, I stopped to buy water at a department store where a schoolboy came to my rescue.

In India, we tend not to preserve writers' homes as living monuments. The houses are inherited by families who can't always afford to preserve them. Even so, it would be useful if the state put up a few signs that informed and encouraged visitors who came looking for the city's cultural heritage.

At any rate, a culture that celebrates poetry is neither built in stone nor buried in stone. It is found half lying in a bright yellow kurts, smoking a cigarette with the mosque to his left, garbage dump to his right, and couplet by Anees on his ready lips.

I have now forgotten the verse he sent up into the overcast afternoon. But another will serve just as well: 
Ahtiyat-e-jism kya, anjaam ko socho Anees
Khaak hone ko ye musht-e-ustukhwan paida hue

Worry less about this body, Anees, think of what comes after,
This bag of bones was meant to be ground into dust.

First published here:

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