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A Brief Sketch of Ghalib- Greatest Urdu Poet of All Times

























Couple of months back, it occurred to me that while in a world of WhatsApp and Twitter, Urdu poetry has come into vogue after being vaguely dormant for a long time. Owing to the wit, the wisdom and snappy style, while it has grabbed the attention of the millennial child, but it still lacks the affection it got in pre-90's days. The tragedy of any language is to link it to a religious faith and elevate it with puritanical elitism to such a level, where it becomes obsolete. A language is like a lovely butterfly, which needs to play, dance, float and fly in an open garden. Once it gets appropriated by elite, it loses its gait, its charm and eventually its life. This happened to Sanskrit, to Persian and seemingly Urdu faces the same challenge. Although this is not a singular plight of Urdu as a language, in a world of emoji, all classical languages bear the brunt of too much of technology and too little of time. 

With this in my mind, I created a fresh page on my blog, dedicated to the work of greatest poet of Urdu, Ghalib (Ghalib himself disagreed when he wrote, referring to another stalwart of his times, Meer, 

रेख़ते के तुम्हीं नहीं हो उस्ताद ग़ालिब 
कहते हैं अगले ज़माने में कोई मीर भी था। 

You are not the only master of poetry Ghalib, nor the only one
Some say there was much better Meer, in the  days bygone.)

and try my humble attempts at translating and interpreting it. Audacious as it might seem, I decided to embark on this task. Two posts went in. Strange reverts came, especially from overseas friends who although now share different origin, came from the same larger Hindustaniyat of undivided India. A lovely young friend, quite creative in art and literature, quite active in cultural roots of Bangladesh, where she hails from, asked me who was the poet for those lines. I replied 'Ghalib' believing that nothing beyond the name would be needed. I was surprised at the next question, "Is he a famous poet?". I could well visualize that slightly naughty smile playing on that face, amid dense beard, a twinkle in the eyes, adjusting his tall cap, muttering 

"वो हमसे पूछते हैं ग़ालिब कौन है 
कोई हमें बतलाये के हम बतलायें क्या।" 

(They ask me who is Ghalib,
Pray, tell me
what should I tell them.)

While the root of this question could be in the national boundaries re-drawn between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when British left India,to lose an intellectual giant like Mirza Ghalib in the dusty by-lanes of narrow nationalism is saddening. We can not afford our heritage like Ghalib to fade away in the oblivion. 

I read Ghalib first as engineering student, like all young people used to in those days of early 90s. Reading Urdu poetry and falling in love was essential part of growing up those days. While poets like Sahir, Faiz and Daagh also stayed with me for long time, but Sahir and other poets were like the loving worshiper of Urdu, Ghalib was like one of the Gods of Urdu poetry. The sense of being ancient, the mysticism of poetry and the man himself and his life, gave him this stature to my young mind. 

Ghalib, Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan was born on 27th of December, 1797 in Agra. Most genius minds are plagued with there own insecurities and uncertainties of their own talent. Ghalib was very unlike them. He was at all times, very much aware of his own station in life. Although most of his life, he spent chasing the government, earlier, Mughals and later, the British for what he believed was his dues, mostly on account his martial and aristocratic heritage, he was very much conscious of his literary and philosophical position.He presumed his literary excellence to hold in British view as venerable a position as it was to the Mughal courts. However, Mughal sultanate was on a decline and the Emperor himself was a pensioner. In 1805, Mughal scion Akbar Shah II was committed a pension of INR 15,00,000 later; the Company-Bahadur however, rescinded and reduced it to 12,00,000. The protests made by the Emperor to the court of director, did not yield any result. If such was the state of the patrons, what would happen to the court? If the emperor was to face such a fate, what would be the fate of the plea of the court-poet of a fading language in a fading empire, is anybody's imagination.

Even in those days of abject apathy and financial hardships, Ghalib was never for once, in doubt about his talent. We see this audacious self-confidence in a couplet like:

हैं और भी दुनिया में सुख़नवर बहुत अच्छे 
 कहते हैं कि ग़ालिब का है अंदाज़-ए-बयाँ और|

(There are and will be great poets and writers,
But Ghalib's verses are unlike anything present in literature)

His father, a soldier, came to India in search of employment during the time of Mughal King Shah Aalam II, almost around the time when British obtained the decree for collection of taxes, still ostensibly under the Empire of Mughals or the pretense of it. He worked with the king of Alwar, Nawaab of Lucknow and eventually settled in Agra. Ghalib, however, was orphaned at a young age of five. He started writing by the age of Eight, legendary talent that he was. His biographer, Hali writes that someone called Kanhaiyyalal had preserved a Masnavi (collection of 6 books) he wrote at the age of Nine. He initially was charmed by Persian and wrote in Persian, considering it chaste and purer language than Urdu. He was a prolific writer. Hali writes that Ghalib often composed while drinking in the evening. Sitting alone, his fingers playing with a long sash, he would tie a knot, whenever he finished a verse. In the morning, he would untie the knots, recall the verses and write them down. 

He married at the age of 13 to Umrao Begam, a fanatically religious and pious woman, for a long life of companionship. Ghalib's sharp intellect stood at odds with religious dogmas and caused very interesting interaction between the husband and wife. Ghalib writes in a letter to friend Mirza Tufta, while expressing his inability to write introduction to a friend's collection of poem- "God has exempted me from Namaz and Roza (Fasting during Ramzaan), can't you exempt me of writing a Preface.

He further says, I do observe Roza, but I keep Roza in good humour, a sip of water here, a smoke, a bite of bread (रोज़ा रखता हूँ लेकिन रोज़ा बहलाए रहता हूँ ). There is an interesting episode about his interaction with the last Mughal Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar - a pious, practicing Muslim. When asked by His Majesty if Ghalib was observing Roza, he responds, एक नहीं रखा (Not one Roza observed). He further adds 


जिस पास रोज़ा खोल के खाने को कुछ न हो 
रोज़ा अगर न खाये तो नाचार क्या करे। 

(The poor who has nothing to eat for breaking the fast,
what would he do rather eat through the fasting)

He writes to his friend, that the emperor laughed at his quick wit and plain-speak. 

However, when he eventually moved to Delhi for prospects and recognition in Mughal courts, he began writing in Urdu. Bahadur Shah Zafar was Mughal Emperor and the anti-British revolt of 1857 was yet to happen. The emperor already had Zauq as his Ustaad or master of literature. His was the fate of any talented migrant. The talented poet had no one to vouch for him, no support system in the largely disinterested and highly networked city, going through the period of political turmoil. The Emperor did not acknowledge Ghalib till 1850 when he was eventually offered the title of Nazmud-daula, Daabir ul-mulk, Nizam Jung (Star of the Realm, Scribe of the state, Marshal of war). Mughal Emperor was by then the ruler for namesake, while the real political power rested with the Governor-General. Ghalib had an acute appreciation of his own aristocratic lineage and his own genius, which made the royal ignore even more unbearable.

Ghalib watched the politics and religious beliefs being put to test, and was one of the most progressive and liberal minds of his time. Writers and poets of those time were far ahead of our times in terms of challenging religious dictum, whether it be Ghalib's writing,

ईमाँ मुझे रोके है जो खींचे है मुझे कुफ़्र 
काबा मेरे पीछे है तो कलीसा मेरे आगे 

(My faith holds me back, while evil tempts me forward,
Ka'aba is behind me and the church is in front of me)

Or it be Momin, writing

उम्र गुज़री है तमाम इश्क़ ए बुतँ में मोमिन 
अब आखरी वक़्त में खाक़ मुसलमाँ होंगे। 

(Spent all my life worshiping idols, Momin
What purpose would becoming a pious muslim in the end serve?)

These were brave, illuminated souls, free in spirit. Ghalib attacked the hypocrisy mercilessly when he wrote couplets like 

कहाँ मयखाने का दरवाज़ा ग़ालिब और कहाँ वाइज़ 
पर इतना जानते हैं कल वो जाता था कि हम निकले। 

(How could the learned be near the tavern, Ghalib
But all I know, is that I saw him on the way in, as I departed)

Ghalib loved his drink, mostly french wine in the evening, which he always had in moderation, much to the annoyance of his wife. He was a man of joyous disposition and ready wit, but he was eaten away by the feeling that the world did not treat him with justice. His pension was withheld for long, and all his effort, to his king, the light of the world, and to the Governor-General and eventually to the Queen, did nothing to increase his salary. While his biography mentions that he took it into stride as he wrote quasida (Panegyric) praising the Nawabs, Emperor and even the British while seeking the restoration of rightful pension, I would feel his conscience did not much agree with what he had to write. In fact, in his collection of Persian verses he wrote in the preface that he regretted that half his life was wasted in praising fools. I feel this reflected in 

हुआ  है शाह का नौकर फिरे है इतराता 
वगरना शहर में ग़ालिब की आबरू क्या है। 

(He roams around parading is false pride, being King's servant,
Else scant is Ghalib's respect among the citizens)

He was not sparing even to himself. 

I would even stick out my neck to say that while the city offered all it could in those difficult times to Ghalib; what with the empire breathing its last and impending failed rebellion which would see the definitive collapse of old ways of living with grace, poetry and literature, he was for a long time disenchanted soul. Recognition came late, respect even later as he wrote, 

हरेक बात पे कहते हो  तुम कि तू क्या है 
तुम्ही कहो की ये अंदाज़-ए-गुफ़्तगू  है। 

(You ask on every question, who are you?
Tell me what kind of graceful conversion this is.)
Although in 1850, he reached the royal court and eventually, was after the death of Zauq, became the Ustaad of emperor Zafar and eventually of his son, as he was last left in the triumvirate of poetic genius of Momin, Zauq and Ghalib. Ghalib was 57 by then and was still not given Zauq's title of Malikush-Shuara (Poet Laureate)

Ghalib was told many times that his writings were quite complex and he should dilute his writing to make the comprehension easier. He refused to do so famously writing,"

ना सताइश की तमन्ना ना सिले की परवाह 
गर नहीं हैं मेरे अशआर  में मानी  सही। 

"Neither am I looking for praise, nor prize,
If there isn't any meaning in my verse, let there not be."

सताइश- Praise; अशआर - Verses मानी  - Meaning

An irreverent, audacious poet who refuses to bend down to commercial demands, but that is not all that is there to Ghalib. His deep intellectualism, Sufism in his verses, makes him some kind of visionary, a saint in his own right. 

Probably Ghalib was also aware of his spiritual position and understanding, when he wrote,

ये मसाएले तसव्वुफ़  ये  तेरा बयान ग़ालिब 
तुझे हम वली समझते जो ना बादा ख्वार होता  

(These complex matters of spirituality, and your explanation Ghalib,
We would have considered you a saint, had you not been a drunkard).

तसव्वुफ़- Spirituality; वली- Saint; बादा ख्वार- Alcohalic

He was not aloof and disinterested in getting his work read. He eventually started writing in Urdu publishing his first Urdu Diwan (Collection of poems) in 1821. Before publishing this, Ghalib did edit his work with a vengeance at the advise of Fazl-e-haq, discarding around two-third of all he had written. In a letter, he even confessed in his old age that most of his writing during the age of 15 to 25 was rubbish. He then torn off the Diwan, retaining merely 15 -20 of the verses. In 1828, he published a combined selection of Urdu and Persian verses- Gul-i-Rana. His Urdu Diwan was published in 1841 and sold out. It was republished in 1847. His collection of Persian verse was published in 1845.

I welcome you to the world of Ghalib. Ghalib, often terms as Eliot of East, is a source of inspiration not only to his readers, but also to other writers. In his life and reflections, I personally find him closer to Oscar Wilde. His life is an example of unyielding spirit of a true artist. Ghalib continuously had brushes with authority in spite of being court poet and a noble. He even ended up being jailed for three months, in spite of the intervention by the Emperor, His Majesty, The shadow of God. This was a rude shock to Ghalib, in terms of his own estimation of his worth as a noble and as a poet, and also in terms of the fast-diminishing authority of the last Mughal (this was much before 1857, when the pretense was still alive). He always had friends among the British who were appreciative of his literary prowess, but it never helped him. As early as 1842, he was offered the job of Persian teacher in Delhi College. He went for the interview but declined as his interviewer, secretary to the Government of India, Thomson did not come out of his office to receive the poet. Ghalib took that as an affront and refused the job. This was customary in old ways of Delhi, and little did Ghalib know at that time that those days were just couple of decades away from the end. Ghalib suffered much in long life- obscurity, ridicule and infamy, although he was, for most of his long life a poet of masses. He probably referred to this aspect when he wrote

होगा कोई ऐसा भी कि ग़ालिब को ना जाने 
शायर तो वह अच्छा है पे बदनाम बहुत है। 

(Would there be anyone who would not know Ghalib,
He is a good poet, but is so very infamous.)

In his private life, he was always in debt, and lost all his children. His brother died in the aftermath of 1857, when the whole city of Delhi was destroyed. Ghalib lived to see the city limping to life, but never regaining its earlier glory, before finally departing on 15th February 1869. He wrote his last Urdu verse in 1866 and last Persian ghazal in 1865. Before his death he saw the whole way of living as he knew it crumbling in the face of strong winds of change, with Quila-e-Mualla (The red fort) converted to barracks, Mughal emperor exiled to Rangoon. The world of literature and poetry and art, gave way to the sounds of marching soldiers on the streets of Delhi. Ghalib, who counted Raja Bansidhar, Mushi Hargopal Tufta among his friends and was so secular in his views, would have also seen with some sadness the changes, as beef ban imposed by the Mughals being lifted by the British with little understanding of India, triggering first communal riot  in modern times. His wife died exactly one year after him.

(I hope you will enjoy reading my posts on Ghalib's poetry. I invite you to join me in this reverential homage to one of the greatest poets we have had in recent times). 



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