DELHI: Going in search of Ghalib’s haveli through Balimaran in Chandni Chowk, one might miss the entrance while standing right in front of it. The arched mansion, which was once home to Mirza Asadullah Khan, better known as Ghalib, one of India’s most celebrated and quoted poets, is now a museum and a heritage site protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Mohammad Sulemaan, who owns a fruit stall, cheerily guides people in search of the way to the haveli saying, “Ghalib can bring the dead alive with his poetry. Go and cherish his work which is being neglected by everyone.”

The comfort of the haveli with its locality makes it grounded. At the arched entrance a sign states that “Mirza Ghalib had spent the last phase of his life in this Haveli from 1860 to 1869.”

Ghalib was born to Mirza Abdullah Beg in 1797 in Agra. At the age of five he lost his father and was raised by his uncle, who also passed away when Ghalib was 8 years old. As an 11 year old child he wrote his first poetry without tutelage from any poet.

Hindustani or Urdu was Ghalib’s first language, and he received an education in Persian and Arabic. In 1810 he was married to Umrao Begum at the age of thirteen. After his marriage he left Agra and spent the rest of his life writing poetry in Delhi.

The story is told that once, when someone asked Ghalib his postal address, he said “Asadullah Ghalib, Dilli, will be enough.”

Today the haveli stands divided, with a wall separating the museum on one side from the commercial rooms on the other. The room dedicated to Ghalib has a sculpture of him kept in the middle and his handwritten books displayed on either side.

The sculpture was made by the artist Bhagwan Rampure and commissioned by the poet and lyricist Sampooran Singh Kalra, widely known as Gulzar. A portrait of Ghalib commissioned by former President of India Zakir Hussain served as the blueprint for the sculpture.

On the adjacent wall hangs a dress that belonged to Ghalib’s wife, beside poems that introduce him through a collage of the places he visited in his lifetime.

Three school girls on their Sunday evening stroll enter, and heading straight for Ghalib’s sculpture share that they don’t know to whom this museum is dedicated.

“We don’t know him but we frequent this place very often because he is highly celebrated on his birthday. The entire locality blooms with people and decorations on that day. Also, it is closer to our home and does not charge any entry fee which makes it easy to visit,” says Shaheen Nazia.

The place has its own silence calling out for people who pass by the entrance without a second glance.

The science educationist and Urdu poet Gauhar Raza is of the view that we as a nation do not treat history with respect: we tell and retell it without imagination or proper knowledge. He adds, “Ghalib has been ignored for long. The agencies responsible for the haveli’s care and publicity have not done their duty properly.”

Upset with our treatment of historians and poets, Raza shares the example of the poet and playwright Bertholt Brecht – a museum in the German village where Brecht was born, got destroyed during World War II, but has been restored. The place now hosts its guests with everyday performances based on Brecht and his work.

Moving ahead towards the hall, walls with framed couplets greet visitors inside Ghalib’s world. A life-size sculpture has him sitting at his desk, hookah in hand.

The utensils and bric-a-brac on display bring out the essence of his times. And they bring out Ghalib’s passion for books, poems, games, and hookah. His playing sets of shatranj (chess) and chausar (its progenitor) are on display here.

His handwritten notebooks placed at intervals give life to the museum, which is trying hard to tell visitors about the lifestyle of its muse.

The haveli can host only a limited number of people at a time. The visitors are mainly foreigners accompanied by guides, and college students who come to the place to study Ghalib, shares a security guard who has been working here for seven years. “His birthday draws a good number of people performing qawwali and poetry events, but the rest of the days are dry,” he says.

I ask him what he thinks of Ghalib. “People always praise his poetry, so there might be something really good in him. I have memorised almost all the poems hanging on the walls of the museum, as I come across them every day.”

He adds in a lower voice, “If any of the exhibits are damaged, they are not repaired immediately - it’s only looked into once a year on his birth anniversary.”

Munnu Bhai, a visitor who has been staying in Balimaran since he was a kid, says that “People of older times staying in this locality knew the value of Ghalib, but now as new people have come, they don’t understand the importance of sharing the same locality with his memory, which is visited by people from everywhere.”

The haveli was gifted to Ghalib by a hakim or physician who was also an admirer of his poetry. After Ghalib’s death, the hakim would sit in the haveli for hours on end, refusing to let anyone to occupy the place.

The government took possession of the haveli in 1964 but soon auctioned it to one Mohammed Ali Farooqi, whose bid was the highest at Rs.22,400. Farooqi rented it out to tenants, but a few years later he died without leaving a legal heir.

Since then the haveli has changed hands multiple times, from being a poets’ residence to a heater warehouse, to hosting wedding parties. Initially it was spread over 400 square yards. Finally, in 1999, the government managed to restore about 130 square yards of it.

“Ghalib is not a thing to be forgotten,” says Mohammad Sulemaan, who observes the visitors to the haveli while running his fruit stall near it.

“Being an ardent poetry lover, visiting Ghalib’s haveli was my first priority after coming to Delhi” shares Yash Trivedi, a college student from Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh.

“Ghalib has been ignored in his own city,” Trivedi says, “as suggested in this sher:

humne maana ki tagaphul na karoge lekin
khak ho jayenge hum tumko khabar hone tak

(I know you won’t be neglectful, but
I’ll be dust by the time you hear of it)”