Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Ghalib-Mr.Thomson incident

When I read this in Narayani Gupta's book Delhi Between Two Empires,pg 9,  I knew it stank (or as we say in India, mera maatha thanka!) -
Ghalib, like others, realized that the British had come to stay, and shrewdly thought that a qasida to the Queen would be a useful investment. But he went that far and no further. When Thomson, the provincial Secretary, treated him boorishly, Ghalib sacrificed the offer of an appointment at Delhi College, though he desperately needed a steady income to cushion him against his extravagances and his gambling debts.

And sure enough. William Dalrymple describes the incident in greater detail in the Last Mughal, pg 129-130 -
Ghalib, like  many writers before and since, suffered from the potentially combustible combination of expensive tastes, a keen sense of his own worth and insufficient financial resources to support either. Always precarious, his finances had become especially troubled after his sense of personal honour compelled him to turn down  the lucrative chance to become the Persian Professor at Delhi College. Ghalib had arrived at Delhi College in his palanquin having being  invited to apply for the new post. But after reaching the college gate, he refused to enter until Mr Thomason, the secretary, came and welcomed him, as he insisted his aristocratic status dictated. After a long stand-off, Mr Thomason came out personally and explained that a formal welcome was appropriate when he attended the Governor's durbar, but not in the present case, when he came as a candidate for employment.

Ghalib replied, 'I contemplated taking a government appointment in the expectation that this would bring me greater honour than  I now receive, not a reduction in those already accorded to me .' The secretary replied, 'I am bound by regulations.' 'Then I hope you will excuse me,' Ghalib said, and came away.

What a difference in the two narrartives! And I don't mean the detail.

Ms.Gupta leaves an impression of Ghalib being a victim of colonial arrogance - you know, those racist, rude British that pepper our films and stories and official histories.The truth, as in the account of  Dalrymple, appears just the opposite. It is Ghalib who in his aristocratic loftiness and vanity did himself much harm while  Mr.Thomson(or Thomason) was politely correct and rule bound.

Mr. Thomson has long left this earth, of course but I hope that Ms.Gupta would do the departed soul justice and correct her description of the events.