At four past midnight
They said I had tried
‘Twas the head you see
That truly killed me
Caution and safety
Those could not save me
Sometimes I wonder
If ’twas a blunder
‘Twas the head you see
That truly killed me
Caution and safety
Those could not save me
Sometimes I wonder
If ’twas a blunder
(Warning: If you find my normal posts tiring, do not read this. This is so mind numbingly long that it might kill you. And if you still go ahead, don’t haunt me after you die.)
Time: 5:00 PM
It was a hot day. Despite the departing sun, the temperature was still somewhere around the mid thirties. My friend Gaurang checked his watch. Wiping the sweaty glaze off his forehead, he asked, “Do you want to go?”
“Of course, I want to go. But I’m afraid the place will be closed by now. They won’t allow us inside.” I sounded as disappointed as I felt.
“That’s immaterial. This is Ghalib we are talking about. Even standing in front of his closed doors would mean the world to us.”
He was right. We had planned this trip for some time now. Visiting Ghalib ki Haveli was one of our most important objectives. Due to shortage of time and other pressing needs, we had to postpone the visit to the latter part of the day. So what if they don’t allow us inside? We will touch the walls. We will admire the old doors. We will be where Ghalib breathed, walked and wrote; the place where he existed. The rest was indeed immaterial.
“Yes, you are right. Let’s go then.”
Hiring a cab, I searched on my phone for the exact location of the Haveli. For some reason, Google showed two locations. One was in Nizamuddin West while the other was in Chandni Chowk.
The driver asked, “Sir, where do you want to go?”
“Ghalib ki Haveli.” The driver just blinked, utterly nonplussed. He had never heard of it.
“Nizamuddin,” I prompted.
“No, go to Chandni Chowk,” said Gaurang.
After hearing two more minutes of fruitless arguments in the backseat, the driver decided to take us to Nizamuddin. It was closer and free from the harrowing Old Delhi traffic.
We reached the place in less than half an hour. As we stepped out of the cab and started walking the streets of Nizamuddin West, something told us this wasn’t the place we were searching. Even though the alleys had narrowed considerably, we were still too close to the fast cars and the even faster life of New Delhi. Ghalib could not have lived here.
I checked my phone again, this time turning on the GPS. A place called Ghalib Academy was showing; and it was almost adjacent to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Sure enough, we spotted a board hanging outside a relatively old building that read “Ghalib Academy.” I also saw a couple of medieval looking doors to our left, which seemed out of place.
A couple of elderly men were sitting at the entrance of the Academy. On enquiry, they told us what we already knew. The place was closed. I asked one of them about those old doors.
“It’s Mirza Ghalib’s Mazaar,” came the reply.
We both gasped. It was like looking for a treasure chest and finding a boat filled with gold. I had been to Nizamuddin’s Dargah a few times before, yet I had never seen those doors. I had never even heard of another tomb at that location. No one even thought about telling us about this place before we had actually sought it. A page lost in history it was.
Racing out of the Academy, we walked as quickly as possible towards the gates of the Mazaar (Mausoleum). A sole guard was visible through the small window set in the door. There was an old woman sitting inside on a raised platform too. We could also see some children playing inside on what looked like a courtyard.
When we approached the guard, he reiterated the sentence we were expecting – it is closing time. We exhorted him to allow us just two minutes as we had travelled from faraway lands. After much persuasion from Gaurang, the guard finally let us in, while the old woman croaked, “Don’t be late.”
As we walked past the gate and turned towards our right past the courtyard, we noticed a number of graves. But those weren’t the ones we were looking for. The guard led us down a small flight of steps, and we emerged upon an opening with a sole decorated grave at the centre. We need not have asked. This was Mirza Ghalib’s grave.
Since we were in such a hurry, I could not stop for ziyarat. However, a quick glance brought to my attention a marble tablet with the following inscription:
“Na tha kuch toh khuda tha, kuch na hota toh khuda hota,
Duboya mujhko hone ne, na hota main toh kya hota.”
I showed it to Gaurang and almost immediately, he breathed:
“Hui muddat ki Ghalib mar gaya, par yaad aata hai
Woh har ek baat par kehna, ki yun hota toh kya hota”
And I thought it was the perfect tribute for Ghalib. Here we were two lost souls searching for the soul who had enraptured so many lost souls for generations. In those few moments, time stood still. We were silent. We just stood there and kept reading those words. We had memorised them long back. Yet here, it felt as if, they had come to life. It was as if, their creator was whispering them himself in our ears.
A gentle prod by the guard brought us out of our musings. It was almost dark now. We also remembered that our true objective was yet to be fulfilled. With a last glance towards the grave, we left the Mazaar, and called another cab. This time we were sure of our destination.
A few minutes later, we were being jostled by the overwhelming crowds and dazzled by the bright sparkling lights of Chandni Chowk, with the colossal Red Fort behind us. Climbing a rickshaw, I instructed the puller to take us to Ghalib ki Haveli. A blank stare told me that even Ghalib’s neighbours have forgotten that he used to live here. And here we were thinking Google was confused. He knew Ballimaran, though; so that is what we told him was our destination.
Soon we were racing past other rickshaws; weaving our trail through the sea of controlled chaos that was Chandni Chowk; twisting our bodies and grimacing as the rickshaw licked the sides of unwary pedestrians on the bustling alleys of Ballimaran; before stepping on the hallowed grounds of Gali Qasim Jaan. A few rushed steps later, emerged from relative darkness, the ancient-looking wooden doors of the place the arguably greatest poet of India lived in his twilight years. Here we were, finally, standing in front of Ghalib’s home – Ghalib’s Haveli.
We waited on the front steps for some time. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the doors were back to the magnificence of their heydays. The curtains would part slightly and the hushed voice of Umrao Begum would filter past them from the other side.
Shaking myself out of my reverie, I strode inside, into the hallway. A second set of doors on the right were closed, as were the set on the left. Despite expecting this due to the odd hours of our visit, I could not shake off the bitter feeling of disappointment. We were so close and yet so far. However, there was nothing to be done. I looked over to Gaurang, and it was like looking at a mirror, as his face had the same despondent look as mine.
We came out of the hallway and stood on the front steps again. Many people were passing by; yet no one even turned their heads to look at this place. It was as if Mirza Ghalib was just a name from the history books; a remnant from a bygone era; just another Djinn in this City of Djinns. How sad it was that while his words found home in the hearts of people all around the world, his own people had forgotten him; forgotten that he was only a human. That he too had a home; that he too needed people to visit him, think about him, and ask him if he was all right. Maybe, he was wrong after all when he had said:
“Dil hi toh hai na sang-o-khisht
Dard se bhar na aaye kyun”
Maybe, the hearts of men are made of bricks and mortar. Perhaps, compassion and remembrance are just words. Words written by mad poets like Ghalib.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone said, “Come back after an hour and talk to the night watchman. He will let you in.”
While we were lost in our thoughts, an old roadside shopkeeper had been observing us intently. He must have read the disappointment on our faces, and wanted to help us out. He told us that with a little “persuasion,” the night watchman would let us in for a few minutes.
I could hardly believe him. Was there hope after all? Would we breathe the air inside Ghalib’s home? Was it possible that we could hope to be his mehmaan? Who was this old man? How did he know Ghalib? Wasn’t that name lost? To add to my amazement, he also offered to talk to the guard himself on our behalf.
Therefore, accordingly, we waited for an hour, and the night watchman let us in. Finally, after all that effort, we were invited to Ghalib’s abode. We already knew it was a museum these days. There were stone busts of Ghalib and replicas of his Diwan. There were murals on the walls with his pictures and couplets. These were all fine, but these were not the things that almost made me shout out loud in happiness. It was the fact that we were inside Ghalib’s Haveli at a time when it was not accessible to visitors. We were alone with him. It was dark outside, but I was glowing on the inside. Everything around us said Ghalib. Everywhere we looked, there was Ghalib. Every moment we spent there, it was with Ghalib.
As we left the place and started walking towards the Lal Qila, Gaurang started reciting Gulzar’s memorable lines on Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan:
“Ballimaran ke mohalle ki wo pechida daleelon ki si galiyan
Saamne taal ke nukkad pe bateron ke qaseede
Gud-gudaati hui paan ki peekon ki wo daad wo, wah-wa
Chand darwaazon pe latke huye bosida se kuch taat ke parde
Ek bakri ke mimayaane ki awaaz.
Aur dhoondhlaayi huyi shaam ke be-noor andhere
Aise deewaron se mooh jod kar chalte hain yahan
Chudi-waalan ke kade ki badi bee jaise
Apni bujhti hui aankhon se darwaaze tatole
Isee be-noor andheri si gali qasim se
Ek tarteeb chiragon ki shuru hoti hai
Ek quran-e-sukhan ka safaa khulta hai
Asadullah Khan Ghalib ka pataa milta hai.”
I have a new problem in life. I can’t stand people who cannot distinguish between chemistry and chemical engineering. For instance, this is the conversation I have had numerous times in my life:
Random Uncle ji: Beta, Ershad, how have you been? Don’t you recognise me? I used to visit your folks when you were little. I am your uncle’s brother-in-law’s sister’s father-in-law’s nephew. I would often carry you on my shoulders, and we would go for walks.
Me (thinking): Uhh, who? I’m sorry, but I don’t remember you. If I had seen you, I might have remembered you. It’s not often you see a face that so closely resembles a goat’s. And what walks? Besides, that’s too much information in one go.
Me: Oh, yes. I remember! I am fine. How can I forget those walks? How have you been Uncle ji?
Random Uncle ji: I am fine, thank you. I heard that you have been working in the oil sector. Your Aunty and I are so proud. We always knew you would make it. You studied chemical engineering, right? I heard chemical engineers earn more than any other engineers?
Me (thinking): Made it? Dude, Mark Zuckerberg made it. This guy I know who cracked the UPSC and became an IAS officer made it. That chaiwala who became PM made it. Not me. Oh, and nice try. I ain’t telling you my salary.
Me: I am not sure, but thank you Uncle ji. It’s because of your dua that I am where I am today.
Random Uncle ji: No, no, you are being modest. I always tell my son, “Follow the footsteps of your Ershad bhaijaan.” You have always been good in studies. By the way, what do you do in your free time?
Me (thinking): Okay, this is going somewhere. And I don’t like it.
Me: Oh, not much. You know the usual, TV and stuff.
Random Uncle ji: Oh, why don’t you come over to our place. Young men like you should socialise more. You should utilise all that free time you get. Once you have a family, you won’t have time for yourself. Your aunty was also telling me the other day about this.
Me (thinking): All right. First of all, I don’t have any free time. When I am not working, I am busy inventing lame stories about normal strangers, writing weird unfunny posts, fantasising about going to the gym and getting a six pack, and playing corridor cricket. I spend my time planning what I would do when I become the President of Mars. Don’t tell me I have free time. Secondly, I think I will find staring at my ceiling fan much more interesting than spending an hour at your place, thank you.
Me: Oh, thank you. I’ll plan something.
Random Uncle ji: No, you must come tomorrow. I’ve already told your aunty. Oh and when you come over, could you give a little guidance to my son regarding his studies?
Me (thinking): Oh, great! So nice of you to ask my consent. And what is with all that aunty invocation in every other sentence?
Me: What kind of guidance?
Random Uncle ji: You know, how competitive it is these days. He really wants to be an engineer. Now, he is all right with physics and mathematics, but he is finding chemistry a bit difficult. Then I remembered who better than you to teach him chemistry. Just help him with the concepts a little bit.
Me (thinking): “He” wants to be an engineer? Oh, you mean, “you” want him to be an engineer.
Me: Yes, that is fine, but Uncle ji, I studied chemistry a long time ago. I don’t recall any of it. Besides, I was never good at chemistry anyway.
Random Uncle ji: What are you talking about? Chemistry is in your blood. You deal with chemicals every day. Chemical engineering – Chemistry/ Potato – Potaato. You will be fine. Okay, I have to go now and buy some potatoes. I’ll pick you up tomorrow around this time.
This is how it ends. Always. And I just want to scream my head off at all these morons. Therefore, at the risk of sounding exactly like the nerd I am, let me clarify some things for all of you who think chemical engineers know chemistry. (Disclaimer: I am speaking about strictly Indian chemical engineers and especially those who weren’t brilliant enough to go to the IITs. Those IITians are weird.)
Where do I start? Oh, organic chemistry. You know that hexagonal thing they call benzene? Yes, the only thing we know about that is that it looks hexagonal. We actually learned the word hexagonal after we saw the benzene structure instead of it being the other way around. We don’t know where the hydrogen atoms are and where the carbon lives. We have no idea where the reactive sites are and which bonds are broken for benzene to become a phenol or aldehyde or ketone or whatever else is left. Oh, and don’t even ask us anything about resonance. The only Resonance we know is that lame band we formed in college where we experimented with heavy metal ghazals.
Moving on to the topic of physical chemistry, I can assure you that we only like the stuff that is common with physics. Stuff like atoms and electrons and their ilk are all right. However, we are stumped when you start talking about how these things interact during bond formation. What we are more interested are in the awful jokes about protons and neutrons like the following one:
“A neutron ordered a coffee at the coffee shop. When it asked for the bill, the owner said – for you, no charge.” …. Hahaha *frowns*
If this doesn’t convince you that we suck at chemistry, how about this: we have no idea what to do in the chemistry labs. For instance, remember the titrations and stuff? Yes, we only know that you have to either make the colour disappear, or in case it is a transparent liquid, make it appear. We don’t know anything about which one is acid and how much alkali we have to add. Phenolphthalein is something we can’t even pronounce (phenol-pa-thalein, penol-palein-thin, phenol-polythene?), let alone use.
Trust me, chemical engineers know nothing about chemistry. Due to unfortunate fate, or poor engineering entrance marks, we ended up studying chemical engineering. It had nothing to do with choice or a passion for the branch. Besides, the chemical part is mostly because we deal with chemicals every day. But isn’t that the case with those warehouse people who store chemicals? Or those doctors and pharma guys who use them? No one asks them to teach their kids chemistry.
Anyway, I think that’s enough for today. I will continue again as soon as another moron asks me to teach his kid.
P.S. Jokes aside, this is what chemical engineers actually do (especially those who work in chemical process industries). Imagine you have to synthesise a few grams of a substance Z. To do that, you have to react a few grams of substance X with a few grams of substance Y. And since the reaction is endothermic, you have to supply external heat. A chemist in such a case would normally use a test tube and heat the test tube over a Bunsen burner.
Now imagine you have to synthesise the same substance, but this time in tons of quantities. Where do you find such a big test tube and such a powerful burner? This is where chemical engineers come in. They design (or help other engineers design) equipments that can take care of such large quantities. Then they also take care of the operation of these equipments to deliver the desired quantity and quality of the product.
(Let me share a piece I wrote a couple of years back. )
Towards the end of the movie Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufrense says, “Hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things – and no good thing ever dies.” That simple statement made a lot of sense to me. Hope epitomises all that is good in this world. It is the beginning of every new adventure, and the cure for the nervousness we feel while approaching a stranger. It is the sliver of light which keeps us going in our darkest hours.
For me, the worst feeling imaginable is the feeling of hopelessness. It is arguable that the fear of death may be the worst feeling. But I think even when people are fearful of mortal danger they carry the hope that they will escape their impending doom somehow. Any kind of fear is accompanied by a curiosity for the future where we imagine ourselves coming out unscathed. There cannot be anything more terrible than when you feel you cannot do anything to change your fate.
This was precisely what I felt in the two minutes that followed the moment when I saw the flames engulf the hydrocracker unit on the evening of 7th April, 2012. The inferno seemed to grow by the second, and the flames were so bright that they appeared six stories tall. There didn’t seem to be anything left except the terrible yellow light and the blood-red sky. And I knew it was the end. There was nothing I could do to change what I was sure was going to happen next – a bigger explosion followed by total incineration of everything in view. A hundred and sixty atmospheres of hydrogen was bound to explode sooner or later.
I averted my gaze from the horror unfolding before me and looked to my left. Some people were running here and there in a chaotic manner. I did not know where they were heading. The look on their faces was of pure terror, and I remember wondering why were they scared? For one wild moment, I felt the urge to join them – to run – to which destination I don’t know, but to run, if only to escape my fate. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t feel any fear. Fear had left me, and as it left, it drained all the hope in me. I didn’t see any point in running away, for I could never outrun the flames. I didn’t see any point in going back to the control room and saving my plant, because there wouldn’t be anything left to save within a couple of minutes, anyway. I just stood my ground and watched them run, all the while thinking that this wasn’t the end I had imagined. So many dreams never realised, so many adventures never embarked upon…so many secrets never told. I had accepted my fate.
As if out of nowhere, one of my unit’s operators shouted, “Hussain, I’m going to the explosion site. You go and normalise the plant.”
Those words went through me like a blast of cold air on a December morning. It felt like someone had turned on a switch which made my senses go into overdrive, which only moments ago had been numb. Suddenly, I was fearful. I was fearful for my life, for my subordinates who were out in the field, and for my friends who were in the main control room, which was closer to the fire. I was fearful for my career, which was at stake if I couldn’t take a safe shutdown. But through all these emotions, I saw the elusive hope. I, somehow, saw myself coming through this terrible nightmare. All the things I was made to memorise to handle such emergencies started coming back one by one. All the necessary emotions filled my mind: logic, reason and faith in my abilities. I was thinking clearly again.
I still don’t know why his words affected me so strongly. Perhaps, it was the sight of a man running towards the possibility of death, or serious injury. Or maybe, it was all those people – seniors, bosses, and friends – who kept calling and reassuring that they were coming soon. I realised those men I had spotted running before, were actually running towards the fire and not away from it. No one seemed to care that they were risking not only their lives, but also the futures of their families.
As every one of them went to the explosion site and started helping the fire-fighters, the lines which divide us ceased to exist. There were no bosses, no managers, no operators, and no foremen. Everyone was equal, fighting for the same cause – even if they had different reasons. Were they fighting for their families who lived close enough to the refinery to get hurt in case of a bigger explosion? Were they fighting for their friends who were in the refinery? Were they fighting so that they wouldn’t be branded cowards later? Whatever might have been their reasons, they all knew this was something they had to do. They were the owners, the servants…the experts. Guiding them was the self-belief, born out of technical expertise and dedicated training exercises. Guiding them was hope, born out of a fear for the lives of their close ones.
And they were not giving up. The never say die spirit that was on display shone brighter than the blaze. Hopelessness could not conquer me for long because hope was all that was around me: through the hard work of the operators, through the calm headedness of the engineers, and through the courage of the fire-fighters. Soon it all ended. The fire was put out. We were victorious.
For me, all that remained was the faint memory of those dreadful moments – and a major realisation – that the greatest fear is the fear of losing hope, which if we apply the rationale I mentioned above, is a contradiction in itself.
This piece is in reference to the major fire that occurred in the refinery where I work. The cause of the fire was determined to be a technical fault. It was the biggest fire in the history of the refinery. It took the fire-fighters and the refinery employees nearly three hours to put out the fire. Fortunately, no casualties took place.