Waiting at the bus stop, I saw Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862) staring at me through vicissitude of time and space. The deposed Mughal emperor lived tragically; striped of power, prowess and prestige. Zafar’s influence was circumscribed within the walls of the Red Fort. He lived to see the murder of his two sons and family. The last gasp of of Mughal empire was also the golden age of Urdu poetry. Zafar’s court included some of Urdu’s most influential poets including : Mirza Ashudallah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869), Momin Khan Momin (1800-1851) and Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789–1854)–who was also Zafar’s poetic mentor. Zafar was deposed by the British for complacency in the Rebellion of 1857 and exiled to Rangoon (in modern day Burma). The British brutally suppressed the uprising, some estimates put the total death count in the millions.
The world at times conforms to poetic reality and Bahadur Shah Zafar is found peering through a bus stop window–in Northern New Jersey. I had been reading Zafar’s poetry the last few months. This was a crazy coincidence–what are the chances? A picture of Zafar taken right after his trial in 1857, before his exile to Rangoon–with a caption “One More Hit.” Perhaps, the person who plastered this picture was unaware of who Zafar was.
Looking at the picture (strangely) did not remind me of verse by Zafar but of Walt Whitman (1819-1862). I was commuting into Whitman’s old stomping grounds, Manhattan. In the second edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1856 Whitman included a new poem : Crossing Brooklen Fair. Where he speaks to his further reader, I con’t help but see Zafar through Whitman’s eyes. Whitman writing in Brooklen and Zafar in Deli one perceiving his immortality, the other lamenting his ephemeral reality.
in Crossing Brooklen Fair had written: ***
|It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;||20|
|I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;|
|I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.|
|Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;|
|Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;|
|Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;||25|
|Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;|
|Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.|
|I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;|
|Closer yet I approach you;|
|What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;||90|
|I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.|
|Who was to know what should come home to me?|
|Who knows but I am enjoying this?|
|Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?|
Zafar : Not The Light of Any One’s Eyes
not the light of any one’s eyes, nor the solace for any one’s heart of no use to anyone, I am that one fistful of dust I am not the song infusing life, why would anyone want to hear me I am the sound of separation, I am the wail of much distress my complexion and beauty is ravaged, my beloved is parted from me the garden that got ruined in autumn, I am the crop of its spring I am neither anyone’s friend, nor am I anyone’s rival the one that is ruined, I am that fate the one that is destroyed, that land why should anyone come to sing a requiem why should anyone come to offer four flowers why should anyone come to light a candle I am the tomb of that destitution translation (by Philip Nikolayev)
A poet of Brooklen and of exile Agha Shaid Ali (1949-2001) writes in : After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi :
*** I think of Zafar, poet and Emperor, being led through this street by British soldiers, his feet in chains, to watch his sons hanged. In exile he wrote: “Unfortunate Zafar spent half his life in hope, the other half waiting. He begs for two yards of Delhi for burial.” He was exiled to Burma, buried in Rangoon.