A Crazy Story This Chick Told Me About A Mughal Slam

I met this poetry chick – on the 86 – who spun me this story about how she went out to visit this old guy – some old character who owned a bookshop or something – somewhere out a Melbs. He told her all this stuff. All the way-out stories. Like about dudes who walked on water, and dudes who got paid to write poetry. And some old lady who got buried alive and turned up somewhere else perfectly ok. I mean, I’ve heard stuff like that before. I’m into good stories.

So anyway she told this fella about slams and he told her all about these poetry competitions way back in the day. And she reckoned the way he talked about them you’d think he’d actually been there. And I was like – yeah…he’s old isn’t he? And she was like – yeah…but not that old!

He was going to get her a book about it off the bookshelf but he changed his mind and said nah…maybe he wouldn’t…and it was a men-only thing anyway – those old school poetry comps – so maybe it wasn’t a good idea. And she thought that was pretty stupid – that she shouldn’t be able to even read a book about something because she didn’t have a dick.

So when he went out to answer the phone she just went ahead and grabbed the book. She thought she’d have a quick look at least. Pretty much just because she was mad at him for saying whatever he said.

But when she pulled on the book, the whole bookshelf moved. It was a door! And she went through it. And on the other side was a stinking fucking toilet! But not like a nice flushing toilet. But a 19th century, hole-in-in-the-ground, back-of-the-bazaar, long-drop fucken toilet – with a bucket and dipper and a whole lot of flies. And it smelt like a public toilet.

So she got out of there – through the front door. And ran all through the streets and wound up in the back of some antiquated printing press. And a dude with an ink-stained pajama sat her down and gave her tea – as though six-foot tall white women in jeans, from 150 years in the future were a normal sort of visitor.

Then the old guy turned up – the one from the bookshop. And she reckoned he was kind of annoyed – but kind of impressed. And she wasn’t sure if that was cos she was there, or cos she had her head stuck in a freshly printed mid-19th century book of Urdu philosophy looking like she was reading the bloody thing. Which she reckons she kinda was. Reckons it wasn’t that hard. Lots of Persian words in there – and all the other languages she reckons she knows. I reckon she’s pretty full of shit.

But yeah. She gave the old guy a surprise, I guess. Just waltzing into the middle of his own private 19th century world. But she reckoned he was kind of like oh well you’re here now and we’ve got a fucken lot of work to do so you’ll just have to fit in.

So what was going on was: this old guy from friggen 21st century country Victoria, and the printing press guy from 19th century Delhi were organizing one of these poetry competitions – like what the book was supposed to be about that he supposedly didn’t want her to read – but that was actually a door handle to a time portal anyway!

And all this shit happened. She met the Shah who was like the Mughal Emperor and who was a pretty hot poet. Like I mean, his poetry was hot. Not he was hot. But he might have been. But she didn’t say. What she said was that his throne was a toilet. Or like – in a bathroom. But like a really really nice bathroom with a lot of marble and like 19th century air-con. And she reckoned that he was pretty chilled about meeting a chick from the future and asked her lots of questions and said she was welcome anytime and stuff.

And she was like going around with the old guy while he was organizing this poetry thing. And they went to all these other old guys’ houses who were all poets. And half of them had big fucken fancy houses and were all respectable cos the Emperor was a friggen poet! And he loved poetry and would just like give people houses and money for being amazing poets. Fuck! I’d be a poet if that was the deal.

So she was doing that for a few days. And she was staying at the house of the guy with the printing press and hanging out with his wife – who pretty much ran the press and was cheeky as fuck and irritated about the whole poetry competitions thing taking up all her husband’s time, while she kept up with the endless proofing for the press.

But then what happened was that after a week or so the old guy started to get a bit shitty about how it was creating issues – her being there – and how of course he wanted her to be at the competition…but…she’d be the first woman…and blah and blah.

And so she said well she didn’t want to go to his stupid boys’ club anyway – and she could read all those doddery old overly-romantic dudes’ work any old time in whatever century she liked – cos it all gets written down and recorded for posterity anyway – so whatever the fuck! She was going to go find the chicks! And what they were writing – which would probably be better anyway – and Rabia al Basri this and Meera that…and blah and blah.

And he didn’t tell her to go back to the toilet for having a mouth so full of shit, or anything like that. He actually really liked the idea and got all excited about it. And so did Mrs Printing Press. So then it was like back to the Shah’s bathroom – except on the other side of the curtain, where the women were. And kind of the whole process again – except going in the other door of mostly the same houses and convincing all these women to get together and share their stuff.

And most of them were like no I’m not a poet but I do sometimes write for amusement and sometimes my father or brother or husband or uncle – Ustad blah blah – corrects my work, along with his other students – or publishes my poems under his own name, or under a dudes name.

In the end they managed to get together a bit of a crowd and the Shah’s daughter wanted to be part of it but was about to have a baby and couldn’t go out so they ended up having the thing in the friggen bathroom of the red court. And this chick – my friend from the 86 – was pretty friggen pumped about it.

And I gave her shit and said isn’t that pretty un-socialist to be all excited about some royal fucker’s fancy bathroom. And she suggested that I didn’t know anything – which is kinda true. And she said I didn’t have any idea – which I didn’t – what it was like to be with all these incredible women who spoke four or five languages and had read everything that existed to be read in those days – which was a lot if you had a rich poet husband or father and could get hold of books – and they all knew half the literature of half these languages by heart.

And she said it wasn’t all rich women with libraries either. There were some pretty down to earth mummas with rough hands and strong backs who couldn’t read or write but who would just keep their compositions in their heads and recite them. And she said these women were amazing too – and knew half the literature of the known world in their heads too. And what was more amazing was the respect they were given even by like the royals and that mob.

And she said the English sucked for mucking all that up – like people being respected for their art and stuff. When has that happened since? I pointed out that the women’s poetry thing probably wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t organized it. And she prob’ly had an English grandparent. She gave me a look that I knew meant not only that I didn’t know anything but also that I was an in danger of getting my arse whipped and not hearing the end of the story. So I shut up.

But that kinda was the end of the story – or anyway she had to go cos there was like a slam or something. But the other thing she said was how nice it was the way these women sung their poems. And that that was a whole thing – how well you sung your poem. Kind of like chanting-singing. But no – she wasn’t going to give me a demonstration. Maybe another day. She had to go.

So yeah that’s the story. I dunno. She could have made it all up. But I mean – pretty interesting hey. I like a good story.

When the Mughal Empire was on its last legs politically, the Urdu language reached a level of rich complexity – blending Persian, Arabic and various Indian languages into a perfect tongue for poetry.

Poets (male only, but of all social classes and ages) were invited to Musha’irah – formal gatherings for the sharing and comparing of one another’s most finely crafted verses.

Mirza Farhatullah Baig Dehalvi’s work ‘Dehli ki Akhri Shama,’ written in Urdu in the early 20th century, is an imaginative recreation of the last of these gatherings to take place before the end of the Mughal empire. It’s based on oral and written histories of that mid 19th century golden era of Urdu verse.

‘The Last Musha’irah of Dehli’ is an English translation and contextualisation of Mirza Farhtullah Baig Dehalvi’s work prepared by historian Akhtar Qamber and published in 1979.

The above story is my imaginative response to ‘The Last Musha’irah of Dehli’ – and will demonstrate to anyone who knows anything about history my profound ignorance and lazyness. But I embarrass myself in the hope of inspiring others to find out more about this fascinating chapter in the history of poetry.

Thanks to Paul Smith of New Humanity Books for the lend of ‘The Last Musha’irah of Dehli.’

Kendra Keller
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