MIRZA ASADULLAH KHAN GHALIB (27 December 1797 – 15 February 1869)
Poochhte hain vo ki ‘Ghalib kaun hai’ ? Koi batlaao ki hum batlaaein kya (they ask “Who is Ghalib” ? Someone tell me what shall I say)
In the mid 18th and the 19th centuries, while Indian monarchy was plunging into a disgraceful eclipse and the precincts of the Mughal Empire barely extended beyond the Red Fort, Delhi was playing capital to a parallel kingdom – the Kingdom of Urdu poetry. Well before the end of the 19th Century, the Mughal Empire came tumbling down with the incarceration of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the parallel Kingdom crumbled with the death of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib.
By mid 1700s, Delhi had become the seat of Urdu literature. It was customary for Urdu poets to adopt a nomme de plume (takhallus). The first of the Delhi school of Urdu poets was Shaikh Zuhuruddin (1699 – 1792) who adopted the takhallus ‘Hatim’ and is, thus, known as Shaikh Zuhuruddin ‘Hatim’. He was followed in the same century by Mirza Rafi ‘Sauda’, Khwaja Mir ‘Dard’ and Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ and in the next by Shaikh Mohammad Ibrahim ‘Zauq’, Momin Khan ‘Momin’, Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ and Nawab Mirza Khan ‘Daagh Dehelvi’. Many of the last Moghuls themselves were poets. Shah Alam-II (1761-1806) wrote under the takhallus ‘Aftab’ and his nephew, Bahadur Shah-II, the last Mughal Emperor (d. 1862) called himself ‘Zafar’.
Towering high over all his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, Ghalib is today regarded as the greatest poet Urdu language has ever produced. In one of his early biographies, Mahasin-i-Kalaam-i-Ghalib (Beauties of Ghalib’s Poetry), his biographer Barrister Dr. Abdur Rehman Bijnori writes :
There are only two divinely revealed books in India – the Holy Vedas and the Diwan-e-Ghalib
Ghalib was born in Agra in 1797 as Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan to parents of Turkish lineage. His family descended from Aibak Turks of Samarkand. His father, Mirza Abdullah Beg Khan died in a battle in 1803 in Alwar when Ghalib was only five. For a couple of years after his father’s death, his Uncle, Mirza Nasrullah Beg Khan took care of Ghalib, but he too died in 1806. Resultantly, the boy spent a number of childhood years with his mother’s family. Scholars unanimously maintain that the absence of elderly male influences showed its legitimate share in Ghalib’s unredeemed spirit of independence till he died, and a somewhat more than legitimate one in his social and financial instability till he lived.
The history of Ghalib’s early education is mysterious. Ghalib himself claims to have been taught by a Zoroastrian tutor in Agra – one Mulla Abdus Samad Harmuzd. However, scholars have doubted the claim. Azra Raza, a Penguin Viking author, calls the Ustaad a “ghostly presence whom the poet can conjure up . . . to satisfy the traditional tastes of his contemporaries as well as to shield his prolific genius” [Ghalib : Epistemologies of Elegance, 2009]
In or around 1810, at the age of 13, Ghalib was married to the 11-year old Umrao Begum, niece of the first Nawab of Loharu and Firozepur Jhirka, Ahmad Bakhsh Khan and soon thereafter shifted to Delhi. He had already started writing by then. In fact, some of his best works were completed by 1816. Ghalib was just 19 then. Ghalib initially adopted the takhallus ‘Asad’ (part of his first name meaning ‘lion’). In or around 1816, he adopted ‘Ghalib’ (meaning ‘dominant’) in addition to ‘Asad’. Ghalib wrote both in Urdu and Persian. His Urdu diwan was first published during his lifetime in 1841 at Saiyid al-Akhbar Press at Daryaganj, Delhi. Four new editions appeared while he was still alive, the last in 1863. In Delhi, the poet lived in different houses in Ballimaraan in the walled city, the last being the Haveli of one Kaley Khan at one end of Gali Qasimjaan.
To understand his poetry in its correct perspective, one needs to take an overview of Ghalib’s social, economic and societal circumstances. Ghalib was an orphan. He was unemployed but fond of expensive alcohol. He always lived either as a tenant or as a guest. Obviously, he was continuously in debt. He was an unabashed agnostic, if not an atheist. He was married to a deeply religious woman who could hardly satisfy his intellectual needs but bore him seven children, none of who survived the first two years. He was expected to take care of his younger brother, Mirza Yousuf Khan who developed schizophrenia at a young age.
The story of his legal battles is also interesting. Ghalib’s uncle, Mirza Nasrullah Baig was appointed by Lord Lake as an officer of 400 cavalrymen in the British Armed Forces at a handsome salary of Rs. 1700 per month. When he died in 1806, his pension was fixed as Rs. 10,000 per year, linked to the Estate of Firozepur Jhirka. The Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka, later to be Ghalib’s Uncle-in-law, reduced the pension to Rs. 3,000 per year, out of which Ghalib’s share was Rs. 62.50 per month. All his life, he fought for a proper division of the shares of this annuity amongst various claimants. He first approached the Court of the British Resident of Delhi and then the Governor of the North West Provinces. At both levels he lost. In 1826, he set out on a journey to Calcutta to petition the Governor General-in-Council. On his way to Calcutta, he stopped by at Lucknow, Allahabad, Benaras, Banda and Murshidabad. He wrote a long poem in praise of Benaras in which he referred to the Holy city as the “Kaaba” of India – a description on which present-day clerics would have created a storm. He arrived in Calcutta in February 1828. The Governor General-in-Council refused to hear him. He then approached the Sadar Diwani Adalat at Calcutta only to be told that it had no jurisdiction in the case. An appeal preferred before the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London was summarily dismissed.
Privations and hardships – social, economic, financial and personal – therefore, constituted the core of Ghalib’s life and resonate in his poetry all the way. Despite his indigent state, he never compromised on his self-esteem, often to the extent of being considered narcissistic. In 1842, Delhi College (now ‘Zakir Husain College’), was looking for Persian teachers and Ghalib’s name was recommended to the British Secretary, Mr. Thomason, by one of his friends who knew well how badly the poet needed funds. Ghalib was asked to meet Thomason. He arrived at the College gate in a palanquin and asked to be announced to the Sahib. He waited for the Sahib to come out and receive him at the College gate, which the latter did not, saying that Ghalib had come as a candidate for an employment interview and not as a guest. Ghalib left saying that he had thought that an academic appointment in the British Government would be a “reason for additional honour, not something in which I would lose my existing honour too”. Ghalib indicates at this incident in one of his Ghazals :
bandagi mein bhi vo azaadah-o-khudbii’n hain ki hum / ultey phir aae, dar-e-kaaba gar vaa na hua
thi khabar garm ki Ghalib ke udeinge purzey / dekhne hum bhi gaye thay, pa tamaasha na hua
Even in servitude I am so independent and self-regarding that / I turned and came back if the door of the Holy Kaaba did not open There was rumour that Ghalib would be torn apart / I went to see but the spectacle, but the show was not on
A literary jester had once translated the second couplet as :
News was hot that spare-parts of Mr. Ghalib would fly / We too went to see but the show was not held
Even in this deprivation, no desire, howsoever great, was good enough for Ghalib :
Hazaaron khwaahishein aisi, ki har khwaahish pe dam nikley / Bohot nikley merey armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikley
I have thousands of desires I would die for / Many of my desires were satisfied, yet there were not sufficient
Ghalib spent a good part of his life litigating. Some money-lenders took him to court for non-payment of their dues. Biographers report that once a wine-merchant sued Ghalib for recovery of debt. The case came up before Mufti Sadruddin Aazurdah, an ardent admirer and a close friend of Ghalib. When Ghalib appeared before the judge to answer the claim, he recited a couplet :
Qarz ki peete thay mai aur samajhte thay ki haan / rang laavegi hamaari faaqa-masti ek din
I used to drink on borrowed money and feared / Making merry in penury will bring wonders some day
On this poetic admission, Mufti sahib decreed the Wine-merchant’s claim and paid the amount to him out of his own pocket.
In 1835, in a civil suit filed against Ghalib, a decree for Rs. 5,000 was passed against him. In 1847, he was charged with gambling and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fine. In appeal, the conviction was confirmed by the Sadar Nizamat Adalat. In 1867, Ghalib instituted a criminal defamation case against a writer who had used slanderous language against him. Making a virtue out of being embroiled in controversies, he says about himself :
Ho ga koi aisa bhi ki Ghalib ko na jaane / Shaayar to vo achha hai, pe badnaam bohot hai
Would there be anyone who wouldn’t know Ghalib / He is a good poet, albeit notorious
His experiences in court find echo in the form of legal terminology used in many of his Ghazals. See how in this verse-set, Ghalib uses legal jargon – “adaalat”, (court) “faujdaari” (criminal law), “sarishtedaar” (court officer), “gawaah” (witness), “talab” (summon), “hukm” (order), “muqadma” (case) :
Phir khula hai dar-e-adaalat-e-naaz / Garm bazar-e-faujdari hai
Ho raha hai jahaan mein andher / Zulf ki phir sarishte-daari hai
Phir hue hain gawaah-e-ishq talab / Ashkbaari ka hukm jaari hai
Dil-o-mizhgaan ka jo muqadma tha / Aaj phir us ki roobakaari hai
The door of the court of coquetry is open again / There is a bazar like briskness about the criminal case Acts of tyranny are being committed in this world / Her tresses have been appointed as court officials Again the witnesses of love have been summoned / An order to shed tears has been passed The case between the heart and the eyelashes / Is today coming up for hearing again
Ghalib makes no bones about his religious beliefs, or the lack of them. He ridicules both the Hindu tradition of idolatry and the Islamic belief in the life thereafter :
Dekhiye paate hain ushhaaq buto’n se kya faiz / Ek Brahman ne kaha hai ki ye saal achha hai
Hum ko maloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat, lekin / Dil ke khush rakhne ko, Ghalib ye khayaal achha hai
I know the reality of Paradise but / To keep the heart happy, it’s a good ideaLet’s see how lovers benefit from idol-worship / Some Brahmin has predicted this to be a prosperous year
His favourite disciple and the renowned Urdu poet, Maulana Altaf Husain Hali, reports that once soon after the month of Ramzan, Ghalib went to the Fort. Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar asked him :
Mirza, kitne rozey rakhkhey ? Mirza, how many days did you fast ?
Pat came the reply
“Bas huzoor, ek nahin rakhkha” Sir, I did not fast for one day
Mirza had not fasted even for a single day.
He was flustered to find a mosque next to his rented accommodation at Gali Qasimjaan :
Masjid ke zer-e-saaya ek ghar bana liya hai / Ye banda-e-kameena, hamsaaya-e-khuda hai
In the shadow of a mosque, he has made his house / This despicable fellow is now a neighbour of God
Ghalib loved his mangoes almost as much as he loved his wine. His close friend, Hakim Razi-ud-Din Khan did not like mangoes. One evening, Ghalib was treating his friends to some gifted mangoes in an open space just outside his house. A man carrying some load on a donkey passed by. Some mango-skins were lying there in the lane ; the donkey sniffed them and left. Hakim Sahib taunted :
Mirza aapne dekha, gadha bhi aam nahin khaata”
Mirza, did you see ? Even the donkey doesn’t eat mangoes
Ghalib continued devouring his mango and, without looking at Hakim Saheb, nonchalantly retorted :
Ji haan, gadhey aam nahin khaate”
You are right. Donkeys don’t eat mangoes
In a serious debate on the question of use of the correct gender for the word ‘taanga’ (horse cart), Ghalib was asked to render his opinion, which would be decisive. Dilliwaalas would use both the masculine and feminine genders for taanga. Ghalib replied : “if a woman is seated in the taanga, it would be feminine and if a man, it would be masculine”.
On the one hand, Ghalib was a submissive romantic, yearning for his beloved and always complaining of her indifference. On the other, a pompous and somewhat condescending poet. Look at the longing and desire of the man :
Ye na thi hamaari qismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota / Agar aur jeetey rehtey, ye hi intezaar hota
Terey vaade par jiye hum, to ye jaan jhooth jaana / Ke khushi se mar na jaate, agar aitbaar hota
Kahoon kis se main ki kya hai, shab-e-gham buri bala hai / Mujhe kya bura tha marna, agar ek baar hota
It was not in my destiny to meet my beloved / Had I lived longer, there would have been the same waiting Had I lived on your promise, this life would have been a deception / Would I not have died of happiness, had I trusted you ? To who should I say what it is ? The night of grief is a disaster / Why would I mind dying, had it been just once ?
And now, examine his poetic vanity and conceit :
Hain aur bhi duniya mein, sukhanwar bohot achhe / Kehte hain ki Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaa’n aur
There are many other good poets in this world / But they say that Ghalib’s style of expression is something else
jo ye kahey ki rekhta kyon kar ho rashk-e-faarsi / Gufta-e-Ghalib ek baar parh kar usey suna, ki yoon
He who asks how Rekhta (urdu language) can be the envy of Persian / Read out to him the words of Ghalib and say, “this is how”
Ghalib believed that he was not meant for engaging in petty worldly affairs :
Fikr-e-duniya mein sar khapaata hoon / Maiyn kahaan aur ye vabaal kahaan
I break my head over worldly worries / Am I meant for this suffering ?
However, despite his self-admiration, he appreciated good poetry. He is reported to have offered to trade his whole diwan for just this one couplet of Momin :
Tum mere paas hotey ho goya / Jab koi doosra nahin hota
You are with me, as if / When no one else is there
And comparing himself with Mir, he says :
Rekhtey ke tum hi ustaad nahin ho Ghalib / Kehtey hain agley zamaane mein koi ‘Mir’ bhi tha
You are not the lone scholar of Rekhta (urdu language) / They say that in olden days there was a ‘Mir’ too
A well-known courtesan of his times had fallen for Ghalib’s poetry and, perhaps, also for the poet. In a letter to one of his friends in 1860, Ghalib writes :
Mughal bachchey bhi ajab hote hain. Jis pe martey hain, us hi ko maar rakhtey hain Ek badi sitam-pesh domni ko mainey bhi maar rakhkha hai
These Mughal children are strange. The one whom they die for, they end up killing. I too have killed a cruel courtesan.
Ghalib used to be at loggerheads with the Royal Poet, Shaikh Ibrahim Zauq. He believed, and rightly so, that his entry into the Royal Court was being proactively impeded by Zauq who was the Emperor’s Ustaad. He once sneered at Zauq commenting that his only claim to fame was his Royal connection :
Hua hai sheh ka musaahib, phirey hai itraata
Having become the King’s companion he moves around with arrogance
The Ustaad made a strong complaint to the Emperor. In the next mushaira at the Fort, Bahadur Shah Zafar asked Ghalib if he had actually made this comment. Ghalib admitted its authorship but added that the comment was not on Zauq ; it was the first line (misra) of the last couplet (maqta) of his latest Ghazal. The Emperor asked him to recite the whole maqta and Ghalib immediately turned the tables on himself :
Hua hai sheh ka musaahib, phirey hai itraata / Wagar na sheher mein Ghalib ki aabroo kya hai
Having become the King’s companion he moves around with arrogance / Lest what reputation does Ghalib command in the city ?
He received a tremendous applause from the audience but Zauq understood that Ghalib had just come up with the second misra. He insisted that Ghalib be asked to recite the entire Ghazal. There was none. Thus was composed, on the spot, one of Ghalib’s most oft-quoted and well-sung Ghazals :
Har ek baat pe kehte ho tum ki ‘tu kya hai ?’ / Tum hi kaho ki ye andaaz-e-guftgoo kya hai
Jala hai jism jahaan dil bhi jal gaya ho ga / Kured-te ho jo ab raakh, justjoo kya hai
Rahi na taaqat-e-guftaar aur agar ho bhi / Toh kis ummeed pe kahiye ki aarzoo kya hai
At every single utterance you retort “what are you ?” / Pray, tell me, what is this style of conversation ? Where the body has burned, even the heart would have / In search of what are you now raking the ashes ? The strength in my speech is no longer there and even if it is / With what expectation shall I express my desire ?
The audience was mesmerized and gave him a standing ovation. It is reported, though unsubstantiated, that when Ghalib recited this couplet, Ustaad Zauq forgot his grievance for a moment and himself showered praises on Ghalib :
Rago’n mein daudte phirne ke hum nahin qaayal / Jab aankh hi se na tapka to phir lahoo kya hai
We do not believe in its running in the veins / Till it does not drip from the eye, it is no blood
Ghalib was admired by the Emperor but, despite his penury which was known to his Royal admirer, he was not called to the Court for long years. In 1850, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar commissioned him to compose the history of the Mughal Empire in Persian and conferred upon him the titles of “Dabir-ul-Mulk” (Intellectual of the Country) and “Najm-ud-Daulah” (Star of the Nation). After the death of Zauq in 1854, Ghalib was appointed as the Royal Tutor.
Ghalib was an extraordinary letter writer. He wrote in conversational Urdu as if he was talking to the person he was writing to. Had Ghalib not been a poet, he would still have had the same literary stature because of the contribution he made to Urdu literature in the form of his letters.
The 1857 mutiny and the years thereafter proved to be the most painful years of Ghalib’s life. Delhi was prey to a wholesale massacre at the hands of the British who tried to subjugate the revolt. He lost his schizophrenic brother to a bloodbath in his neighborhood. Most of his friends had died. Some had been killed, others had fled for the fear of being killed. His regal patron, Bahadur Shah Zafar had been imprisoned and deported to Rangoon. The Emperor’s three sons, Princes Mirza Mughal, Mirza Khazr Sultan and Mirza Abu Bakr were beheaded by Major William Hodson near the Khooni Darwaza, opposite what is today the Maulana Azad Medical College and their headless bodies were then hung in front of the Kotwali, the present-day Fountain Chowk opposite Gurudwara Shishganj Saheb in Chandni Chowk. Ghalib remained confined to his house. Some biographers hold that for some time, he took refuge in Sharif Manzil, the next-door haveli of his neighbour, Hakim Mahmood Khan (father of the well-known freedom-fighter, Hakim Ajmal Khan) guarded by the soldiers of the Maharaja of Patiala to who the Hakim was the State Physician. By October 1858, Ghalib had completed his diary of the Revolt called the “Dastambu”. But he was frail and friendless. His admirers were no more with him. There were no mushairas to attend, no gatherings to be applauded at, no literary companions to share with, no poetic rivals to scorn at. His main source of income was a stipend from the Nawab of Rampur. He was aware of his failing health but was going on :
Rau mein hai raksh-e-umr, kahaan dekhiye thamey / Nae haath baag par hai, na paa hai rakaab mein
The stallion of my life is in a race, let’s see where it stops / Neither are my hands on the reins, nor my feet in the stirrup
In October 1868 was published “Ood-i-Hindi”, the first collection of his letters. Four months after the publication, on 15 February 1869, Ghalib died. He was buried the same day in the family graveyard of the Nawab of Loharu at Basti Nizamuddin. His wife died on the same date, a year later.
Today, Ghalib is the most oft-cited Urdu poet. So much so that even frivolous nonsense masquerading as poetry is often ascribed to him for want of remembering any equally prominent name. His Ghazals have been sung by almost every noticeable Ghazal singer. Commercial and documentary films have been made on him. Hundreds of books in various languages have been written on him. Scholars have been awarded doctorates on research on the poet and “Ghalibiyaat” (Life and Works of Ghalib) is today an established branch of Urdu literature. In a recent ruling, the High Court of Delhi, rejecting the argument of a former law-minister that expenses incurred on his heart treatment were deductible while computing income tax, began its judgment with one of Ghalib’s most well-known couplets :
Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai / Aakhir is dard ki dawa kya hai
O naive heart, what has happened to you ? / After all, what is the cure for this pain?
In one of his Persian couplets, Ghalib had prophesized that the world would recognize his worth only after his death. However, little did he know that even after his death, he would have to continue to litigate for his rights. In response to a PIL filed in the High Court of Delhi in the year 1996, the court directed the Government of Delhi to restore Ghalib’s Haveli at Gali Qasimjaan, where he breathed his last. Following the judicial order, some feeble attempts at a cosmetic conservation of some parts of the building were made by the State.
Last year, in a laudable, yet shoddy, endeavour to “infuse new life” in the Haveli, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Government of Delhi have created a museum of sorts at the spot and have posted a single official there in the form of a rather rustic chowkidaar. No one in the neighbourhood where Ghalib lived all his life knows where the poet lived before he shifted to this Haveli as late asin 1860. Following landscaping and conservation work by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India, the surroundings of his Mazaar at Nizamuddin have recently been restored with stone screens and marble. However, far from encouraging tourists to visit the mausoleum, a lone guard appointed to take care of the place is either absconding with the keys or hesitant to unlock the gate. Perhaps, the Government took one of Ghalib’s couplets rather seriously:
Ghalib-e-khasta ke baghair, kaun se kaam bandd hain / Roiye zaar zaar kya, kijiye haaye haaye kyon ?
What tasks have stopped without the wrecked Ghalib / Why would you weep bitterly, why would you lament ?
Ghalib’s legacy, however, lingers. He requires neither judicial intervention nor State patronage. He continues to live in the hearts of millions and be part of the lives of thousands who proudly recite :
Hum-pesha o hum-mashrab o – hum-raaz hai mera / Ghalib ko bura kyon kaho, achha merey aagey ?
He shares my vocation, my drinks and my secrets / How dare you criticize Ghalib before me ?
The idea for writing a column about Urdu poets of Delhi was mooted by Sunny Narang, whose defiant bizarreness and rebellious dynamism has inspired many like me. In my research, I have been joined by Anant Raina and Kanishka Prasad – both lovers of Urdu poetry – whose enthusiasm has made this maiden piece even more worth its while.
Photographs by Anant Raina, a photographer and documentary film-maker based out of New Delhi.
Excerpts from this piece first appeared in First City Magazine, Mar 2012, as a regular series on Delhi’s Urdu poets titled “Dilli jo ek sheher tha”. Comments may also be sent to First City on firstname.lastname@example.org