Ghalib, A Diary: Delhi 1857-1858, Arvind Krishna MehrotraThe jacket is filled with a full colour photo of part of a city, looking upwards into the sky across stone walls, ramparts, something hung up to dry. No people, but it looks hot and dry. The author's name and the title are left justified in the black shadow of a triangle shape that takes up the top left hand corner. They are lettered in small white caps.

New Walk Editions, 2022       £5.00


We are the flower
of roots we don’t know,
the roots whose flower
we don’t know.

These lines come from the pamphlet’s introductory poem. It catches my eye and keeps me wondering. The poem muses about origins, but does more than that. Maybe it’s also about possibilities when not knowing, because it ends like this:

We only see one side
of the moon,
one side of the word,
one side of our flower-like

moon-like faces.

I never tire of reading this. Somehow, it always seems fresh.

That short piece leads into the long poem inspired by Ghalib’s Dastanbūy (Nosegay) — an eyewitness ‘diary’ of the 1857 rebellion and its aftermath. Ghalib’s musings in the early pages of that account might well have inspired the introductory piece by Mehrotra. This pamphlet’s cover image, ‘View from Ghalib’s Haveli’ (2021), is right in more ways than one.

There’s something captivating about a long narrative poem, especially one like this which dives straight in:

Except that there were no fountains
and Catherine wheels to slow
their advance through the countryside,
units of rebel sepoys,
like wedding processions
arriving from different directions,
entered the city gates, triumphant.

The dive is deep, straight into the Delhi of 1857.

The poem’s intertextuality is enticing, and a joy. The poet explains the work’s origins in his ‘Author Note’ preface: Faruqi’s 1971 translation from Ghalib’s original Persian is the basis of Ghalib, A Diary, and ‘its incidents, details, often its very words are drawn from that translation’. Mehrotra also acknowledges his debt, ‘broadly speaking’, to Basil Bunting’s ‘Chomei at Toyama’, which ‘provided […] the inspiration to condense a prose work into verse’.

Reading this long poem’s like watching a film. I skim past seven particularly vivid lines and wonder at how, amid big happenings, small things stand out. Unable to get to the well ‘When it rained / we tied up a sheet in the courtyard / and placed jars beneath it to collect the drops’. Then, later, the narrator says he would

lie awake at night,
no oil in the lamp,
waiting for a flash of lightning
to look for the water jug.

Enid Lee