....now we are nothing, but at one time our qasbah had two ornaments- the humble Sheikh who, nonetheless, was the greatest Jurist of his time, and Noor, the courtesan, whose bewitching coquetry could not distract from the purity of her angelic voice.
Our qasbah had an honest kotwal (police sergeant) whose plain dealing and blunt manner of speech had given offence to a certain coxcomb.
That intriguer used his cunning to falsely accuse the kotwal and have him thrown in jail.
The Sheikh came to the policeman's rescue. He was acquitted and reinstated. Later, not just from gratitude, the kotwal begged and importuned the Sheikh to come for his daughter's wedding.
As part of the celebration, the Sheikh was forced to attend a performance by the courtesan, Noor. Thankfully, she did not play any of her tricks on this occasion, being wholly immersed in exploring the thematic complexities of the raaga (melodic pattern) appropriate to the hour. Nevertheless, the Sheikh- in an unobtrusive manner- was able to slip away at an early point in her performance.
The Sheikh never mentioned the singer again and, in any case, had never sought to gain a cheap sort of fame by denouncing the wretched inhabitants of the Musician's quarter.
The courtesan, however, showed no such restraint. Clearly, she had recognized him in the audience- perhaps, by his white beard and nobility of countenance- and felt slighted by his decision to leave early.
The courtesan began to mock the old man and compose unflattering little couplets about him. So artful was she, such was her skill as a comedienne, that people enjoyed her sallies against the saintly Sheikh.
However, the courtesan was not content to let things stop there. The degrading nature of her profession meant that she had no compunction in dragging the most venerated of her fellow townsmen down to her own level- or, indeed, an even lower position- depicting the Sheikh a sort of simpleton, a moonstruck fellow.
Of course, no one dared mention such matters in front of the kotwal. His love for the Sheikh was well known. But, then, the debauched intriguer saw an opportunity to revenge himself on his old enemy.
That Acherontis pabulum came to the kotwal under a show of humble contrition and reported what the courtesan was saying about the Sheikh. The intriguer professed himself shocked and unable to decide how to proceed. 'Kotwal Sahib,' the intriguer confessed, ' you know very well of my wicked ways. My change of heart was entirely because of the Sheikh's influence. Yet, now I hear the courtesan mocking the Sheikh, my new found faith begins to falter. You tell me- what should I do?"
The kotwal became absolutely furious. He was determined to confront the courtesan. However, as a police officer, it was his duty to verify the complaint and gain damning evidence.
He thought to himself- 'Women, speak more openly amongst themselves than they do to men. If the courtesan is really seeking to ridicule the Sheikh, her language to the women will be less moderate than that which she dares to use in front of men.'
Thus, the kotwal went to his wife and asked her about what the courtesan was doing. Seeing her husband's face, the woman's color changed. She said, "look here, if you go and kill that courtesan, the intriguers will say you did it because she refused your advances. You will be executed. Our family will be ruined. Let me deal with this matter. I will go and speak to her. Once she understands the danger in which she is in, she will immediately make a public recantation. She will compose songs in praise of our Sheikh. Wouldn't you like to hear such songs? Say what you like, she has the voice of an angel!"
The kotwal was mollified. In truth he wanted to hear her songs praising his beloved Sheikh.
His wife went to the courtesan. She warned that reprobate of the danger in which she stood. That little baggage gave her back-chat. Suddenly, the vain whore was claiming that her 'art'- itself nothing but lascivious display and an open advertisement for the sale of her body- was, nonetheless, on a level with the religious knowledge of the Sheikh!
The kotwal's wife was astounded. She beat and slapped and pulled the hair of that filthy slut. To no avail. Those creatures of the devil are strangers to shame. Also, they are expert play-actors. The courtesan now uttered some self-pitying speech about how blows and slaps had forced her into this filthy trade- but that 'mousike' had redeemed her! Does this sort of trashy Music really redeem? And who actually practices this 'art' save those predestined to Hell fire? That is why it is condemned by Scripture.
The kotwal's wife made one final effort. She said, "I go down on my knees to you. Please stop insulting the Sheikh. My husband will kill you. As a consequence, he himself will be executed. My children will starve. Have mercy upon those innocents."
The courtesan became quiet. She said- "I agree, on one condition. You yourself go, with your husband, in front of the Sheikh."
"Stop!" said the kotwal's wife, "I understand your plan! You want me to tell this whole story to the Sheikh. But let me tell you, not just my husband only, I too am his lover! I would prefer to see my own children put to death before my eyes rather than trouble that Saint with your ribaldry! "
"No," said the courtesan, "I don't want you to tell the Sheikh anything about all this. Just say to your husband, in front of the Sheikh, 'The courtesan, Noor, claims she loves the Sheikh ten thousand times more than any in this City. Can she be prosecuted for uttering a falsehood, or a slander upon pious men?'"
"Impudent baggage!" said the kotwal's wife, "still trying your low tricks! But this time you are destined to fail. I know, full well, the Sheikh will deliver honest judgement. He is incapable of error. He can never fall for your low wiles. I have no fear for him on that score. I will do as you ask."
Our qasbah had two ornaments. We lost both at the same moment. The moment our Sheikh heard his love was returned.
Since that fatal day when two funeral processions set out from our qasbah- one solemn and grand for the Sheikh, one furtive and mean for the courtesan- our mourning has been continuous.
This tragedy should be set right. But, how is it to be done? Where now are there hearts as of the old days?
Science must come to the rescue for it too has two ornaments- viz. Socialist Egalitarianism and Secular Rationality.
Let the Central Planning authority locate the proposed Union Carbide factory here and our qasbah of Bhopal will once again flourish.
(extracted and abridged, with the permission of Chief Conservator, National Archives, from a petition to, then President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussain. There is a faded annotation in red ink which reads-
غم نہیں ہوتا ہے آزادوں کو بیش از یک نفس
برق سے کرتے ہیں روشن شمعِ ماتم خانہ ہم
(Since Sorrow can tax the free no more than one breath
Lightning's the lone candle we now light for a death!)
Thinking about the strange manner in which the courtesan's insults united her to her beloved- and reflecting, more generally, on the topic of the 'hangamah-e-khuda'- the whole commotion about God and Morality and, therefore, 'Freedom' and 'Equality' and so on- I feel increasingly uneasy in my mind.
Especially as there is another couplet in the same ghazal by Ghalib quoted earlier.
باوجودِ یک جہاں ہنگامہ پیدائی نہیں
ہیں چراغانِ شبستانِ دلِ پروانہ ہم(Ours too is a world- but one barren to its own passion, tumult & wrath
& we the nuptial taper of the heart's bed chamber of its moth!)