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Saturday, January 28, 2023
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Mirza Ghalib: The paragon of urdu expression

27th December marked the 224th birthday of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, famously known by his pen name, ‘Ghalib’. He was born in 1797, in erstwhile India that was ruled by the Mughal Empire, shortly before the British arrived. Ghalib wrote in both Urdu and Persian languages, and while his Persian writing was longer than his Urdu writing, he is remembered for his ‘shayaris’ or ‘couplets’ that he wrote in Urdu.

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Let’s remember Mirza Ghalib (1797–1869), popularly known as Ghalib, on his 224th birth anniversary. Ghalib was not only a powerful and erudite poet but also the paragon of Urdu expression. I always liked Ghalib for his ‘unsettled’ relationship with power but my interest expanded when I moved to the US. My American friends are curious about my culture and history. Among many other great things, I decided to introduce them to Ghalib.

Ghalib’s relationship with his wife, Umrao Begum, was amazing. Raza Mir writes: Despite differences in temperament, Umrao being rather religious and Ghalib a bit of a libertine, they appeared to have been quite a well-adjusted couple. Their relationship was marked by levity. For example, Ghalib is reputed to have brought home a large cache of liquor. When Umrao asked him where he got the money for it, he said he had spent his stipend on it. ‘God has promised food for His subjects, so I am not worried.

But he did not promise them wine, so I have made my own arrangements.’ She threw him out, liquor and all. He eventually returned, with his shoes in his hand. When she asked him why, he said, ‘Since this house has been turned into a mosque by you, I need to take appropriate precautions.’

Read more: Pakistan, Uzbekistan to jointly produce film on Mughal Emperor Babar

Was Ghalib a complex personality?

Ghalib had, in Facebook terminology, a “complex” relationship with power, God, religion, and society. He explains some contradictions and overall context to understand Ghalib and his poetry. Raza Mir in his book Ghalib: A Thousand Desires intends to introduce the new generation to ‘real’ Ghalib. He uses simple league to develop the interest of ‘lay readers’. Mir offers both a rudimentary understanding of Ghalib and history and overall context to situate the great poet.

With time, I have realized that Ghalib was never too easily available as a lover. For example, in his old age, he wrote a letter and recounted an event when a woman who was in love with him had died: ‘In my time, I too was cruel, and made a beautiful songstress suffer. May god’s peace be with her . . . Forty years have passed and now I have abjured such actions, but the memory of that girl’s wondrous ways often haunts me. I shall never forget her death.’

الزم تھا کہ دیکھو مرا رستا کوئی دن اور

تنہا گئے کیوں اب رہو تنہا کوئی دن اور

Should you not look after me another day?

Why did you go alone? I leave in only another day.

Similarly, Ghalib’s contradictory attitude towards religion, in Mir’s words, “provide[s] one lens into his complex personality.”

عقائد وہم ہیں مذہب خیال خام ہے ساقی

ازل سے انساں بستۂ اوہام ہے ساقی

O cupbearer, religion and faith are but superstitions Blind customs have for aeons imprisoned imaginations

Ghalib’s influence in the West is increasing as new works are being done to introduce and reintroduce him. In 1969, Aijaz Ahmad – a Pakistani-American, on Ghalib’s centennial death anniversary published Ghazals of Ghalib to familiarise the American audience with the great poet and his timeless verses.

Read more: Quarreling over Iqbal’s statue

Ghalib’s work was noted by Americans too 

This was the time when the American translators and poets such Adrienne Rich, WS Merwin, David Ray, Mark Strand and William Hunt were able to have an understanding of Ghalib, and started working on the translation of his works.

Robert Bly’s collection The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib (1999) and Russel Ralph’s The Seeing Eye: Selections from the Urdu and Persian Ghazals of Ghalib (2003) give us an idea that Ghalib continues to have a place in the American literary consciousness.

دل ناداں تجھے ہوا کیا ہے

آخر اس درد کی دوا کیا ہے

Innocent heart, what should I make of thee?

Is there a cure for your disability?

ہم ہیں مشتاق اور وہ بیزا

یا ا ٰلہی یہ ماجرا کیا ہے

I’m supplicant; yet my love is irked O god, what is this quandary?

جب کہ تجھ بن نہیں کوئی موجود

پھر یہ ہنگامہ اے خدا کیا ہے

When without you nothing does exist Why this brouhaha, O lord, verily?

ہم کو ان سے وفا کی ہے امید

جو نہیں جانتے وفا کیا ہے

Alas, I seek allegiance from one who knows not the meaning of loyalty

جان تم پر نثار کرتا ہوں

میں نہیں جانتا دعا کیا ہے

I will sacrifice my life for you Empty prayers? They are not for me

The writer is a research assistant at San Diego State University, USA. He tweets @Farah_adeed. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.