To revisit Ghalib is to revisit a love as deep as devotion
Ghalib took love to the heights of devotion, today is his death anniversary.
qaid-e-hayāt o band-e-ġham asl meñ donoñ ek haiñ
maut se pahle aadmī ġham se najāt paa.e kyuuñ
The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same
Before the onset of death, how can man expect to be free of grief?
This beautiful couplet about the perpetual state of sorrow in our lives was written by the poetry legend Mirza Ghalib who took Urdu to a new pinnacle of literature. Such was his aura, that his mastery of Urdu poetry is unequalled even today, on his 152nd death anniversary. It is often said that a poet can only be successful if he has suffered enough in his life to write it down and express the hurt in an ornate language. Similarly, the grief and woes Ghalib had to face were transformed into pertinent and timeless works of literature that comprised ghazal, sher, nazm, fard, letters and more.
Born as Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan in Agra in 1797, Ghalib had a rough childhood. When Ghalib was nine years old, he lost his father. Just four years later, he married Umrao Begum with whom he had seven children. But, none of these children survived beyond infancy. The unhappy marriage delivered Ghalib’s poem that talks about the pain of life being the only pain greater than that of marriage. Such turmoil led to an unending financial struggle for Ghalib, and with it, an interminable sorrow. Habitual gambling and drinking found a stable place in his life. Debts followed soon. But poetry remained a constant companion and eventually became the meaning of his existence, says Jameela Siddiqi, a British novelist and journalist. People were quick to call him an atheist drunk, to which one of his couplets says:
qarz kī piite the mai lekin samajhte the ki haañ
rañg lāvegī hamārī fāqa-mastī ek din
I drank my liquor on borrowed money, but I thought yes
My cheerfulness in a state of adversity would do wonders one day
Ghalib had started composing poetry by the age of 10, just around the time his father died. It was almost like he found some solace and liberation in poetry. A collection of his ghazals was collated in Ghalib’s first book, Diwan-e-Ghalib in 1841, the year when he was arrested and fined for gambling. The second Diwan was published in 1847, the year when he was arrested and fined for gambling yet again. The ghazals in these books were written in the spoken Urdu language of Rekhta.
His literature comprised themes of love, sorrow, family, relations, life, religion, ambitions, humour and much more. These pieces of literature explain Ghalib's perspective about life. For example, for Ghalib, adhering to religion in its traditional sense was unfit. He wasn’t too fond of the institutionalised theist practices, but he also firmly believed in the existence of God. In one of his works on Ghalib, Siddiqui says that Ghalib equated God with creation, and to some extent, mankind too.
na thā kuchh to ḳhudā thā
kuchh na hotā to ḳhudā hotā
Duboyā mujh ko hone ne, na hotā maiñ to kyā hotā
“When there was nothing, there was God,
when there would have been nothing, therein would have been God
My existence made me drown beneath, if I didn’t exist then what would have happened?
Another primary recurring theme of his work was love which ranged from the delights and sorrows it can bring to one. To this day, his timeless pieces on love remain relatable to many, also because they subtly nudge at the human emotions that are often suppressed. Equating love with God, one of his couplets says:
ishq mujh ko nahīñ vahshat hī sahī
merī vahshat tirī shohrat hī sahī
Not my love, but my madness it may be
My madness, may it be the cause of your fame
But while most believe that Ghalib wrote poetry mostly in Urdu, very few people know about his love for the Persian language and the significant contribution he made to Persian literature. His parentage on both sides was Turkish in race, and military in tradition. Thus, Turkish pride and Persian skills were innate to Ghalib’s life. He has credited his teacher, Abdul ‘Samad, for helping him acquire a taste of Persian literature and perfecting the language. For the most part, Ghalib sneered at the Urdu language and emphasised the beauty of Persian. The year after which Ghalib compiled his first Diwan, he devoted most of his time to composing in only Persian. Yet, when compared to other Persian masters and contemporaries like Rumi, Ghalib’s Persian seemed mediocre. The irony of Ghalib being condescending towards Urdu – a language that gave him the fame he enjoys today – is quite amusing.
Urdu had acquired immense popularity then, urging more writers and poets to convey their art through it, making it hard for Ghalib to part himself with Urdu. Ghalib, who moved to Delhi at the age of 15 and stayed there for the rest of his life, found Urdu more convenient to compose in for the masses and the Mughal court. Albeit, his ‘over-Persianised’ Urdu was criticised by some, but Ghalib didn’t mind it. Even today, houses in the Delhi neighbourhood of Bazaar Ballimaran and Gali Qasim Jan, near Chandni Chowk, have gateway inscriptions that were composed by Ghalib.
Ghalib’s literary and intellectual tastes introduced him to a circle of the learned and literate, and his aristocratic-family connections to the world of Muslim nobles. This further led him to the Mughal Court in the Qila-i-mu’alla (Red Fort), where Akbar II and then Bahadur Shah – who was also a poet and used the pen name Zafar - were the heads of the circles. Ghalib became ambitious of winning the title of court poet for Bahadur Shah, or the title of a laureate. But he first had to compete with Shaikh Muhammad Ibrahim, a poet who went by the pen name of Zauq, and was also the reigning laureate in the Mughal court then. An anecdote says that Ghalib became rivals with Zafar and Zauq when he first paid his tributes to Mirza Salim – Akbar’s candidate for the laureate succession. Regardless of the rivalry that spanned 13 years and 15 qasidas, Ghalib went on to receive the titles of Najm-ud-Daula, Dabir-ul-mulk and Nizam Jang, besides being commissioned to write the history of House of Taimur. What followed was what Ghalib desired – succession to laureateship, but just seven years before the Indian Mutiny of 1857 struck, which left deep scars on Ghalib’s career and mind – glimpses of which can be seen in Dastanbu, his private diaries that were published after his death.
Marked by changes all around, Ghalib rarely ever lived a tranquil life. Besides the familial challenges Ghalib saw, he also lived through the transformation of the world order around him. The Mughal legacy was gradually being replaced by the British Raj. Persian, which until then was the official language of India, was being pushed back to favour English. The language of education, literature and class was changing to English, casting shadows of uncertainty on the future of Urdu and Persian presence in India.
And yet, Ghalib remained loyal to his companion – his poetry – and devoted most of his time to composing pieces of literature that would echo throughout the rest of eternity. He was aware of his mastery, of him being synonymous with Urdu literature, of his poetic genius, which even irked some of his contemporaries to the point of being hostile towards him. But Ghalib flouted it all. One of his self-congratulatory couplets is:
haiñ aur bhī duniyā meñ suḳhan-var bahut achchhe
kahte haiñ ki 'ġhālib' kā hai andāz-e-bayāñ aur
There are many other good poets in this world,
And they say that only Ghalib says it differently!
Even today, on his 152nd death anniversary, the maestro inspires thousands of people across ages to know about Urdu literature, and thus, potentially, also acquire a taste for it. His eloquent genius remains unparalleled at a zenith that has seldom been in reach, and will remain to be so.