Eternally Ghalib

Print edition : October 12, 2018
In this insightful book, the author places before the reader the lived reality of the poet Ghalib’s life, the width and acuity of his vision and, of course, the brilliance of his words.

THERE was a time when knowing Ghalib (Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib) meant knowing life. No gathering of friends was complete without recourse to a couplet or two of Ghalib’s. Those who had experienced love had experienced sorrow. And those who had experienced either had lived Ghalib. A man who knew no Urdu poetry was considered unsuitable for social company.

Back in pre-Partition days, it was not uncommon for a leather merchant or an optician to recite Ghalib even as he tended to daily business. Ghalib’s couplets descended from the soirees to the street. And students in universities did not tire of quoting Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali and his memoir of Ghalib, Yadgar-e-Ghalib, the treasure through which many recovered Ghalib.

The poet though needed no yadgaar (memorable) work of Hali. He did not need to bask in reflected glory. He was that fount from which each drank according to his taste. Some revelled in his Persian divan (poetry). Those unaccustomed to the depths and width of the language happily drank from the potion of Urdu poetry.

Today, one lives in an age when the common man struggles to even pronounce the word Ghalib. And Hindi cinema lampoons Urdu poets with cheap gimmicks. In these circumstances, Gopi Chand Narang’s Ghalib: Innovative Meanings and the Ingenious Mind might just have come too late in the day. Or it may have come in the nick of time to bolster young people’s sagging understanding of the man who defied the tide of time in his time and yet could not get his contemporaries to understand his mettle.

When Ghalib was at his peak, very few people tried to understand the rhyme and the metre of his poems; few had the profundity to understand their depth, deflection and understatement. As Narang says in the book: “He [Hali] was disappointed that Mirza [Ghalib] failed to gain recognition for his poetry in his lifetime, which he richly deserved. The mood of the times had changed and therefore, Divan-e-Ghalib, was not one of those creations that the people needed.”

A lasting love affair with posterity and posthumous glory, this was Ghalib’s fate. How then did it come about that in the 21st century a person experiencing the ecstasies of life or battling against the agonies of existence could find solace in the work of the same man, Ghalib? Was he an eternal pessimist who managed to mock the vagaries of life? Or was he an optimist who looked in the mirror and wondered aloud at the vicissitudes of life? Ghalib expressed it himself thus: “Aaiina kiyon na duun ke tamaasha kahein jise/ aisa kahaan se laaun ke tum sa kahein jise” (Maybe I should give you a mirror/ so that you can watch your own spectacle./ Where can I find another whom people will consider as magnificent?)

Narang realises as much and proceeds, rather meticulously, to give us a book that, according to Nasir Abbas Nayyar, opens “the knot of Ghalib’s mysteriously magical creativity that no one was yet able to do”. Across 12 chapters and 440-odd pages, Narang builds his narrative, moving from one mystery to the next. The mystery is heightened, the excitement of stumbling upon a fresh discovery palpable.

A personal favourite here is the section on the published divan of the poet. As Narang points out, Ghalib’s divan, often taken to be a uniform, static entity, is dynamic. The first manuscript was ready as early as 1833 though it was published only in 1841. The long lapse between manuscript and publication did not dim the charm of the work. Its 1,093 couplets vied with each other for a date with posterity. Yet there was more to come. The divan was published an incredible five times, with the fifth edition coming out in 1863, some 30 years after the first manuscript was ready! It was no relaunch of the old. It had an astonishing 1,802 couplets, which tells one how prolific the poet was in the intervening years.

It is here, however, that one senses Narang could have used a fine-toothed comb to select couplets to analyse the poet’s mind. He, however, chooses to stay safe by opening with the couplet: “Milna tera agar nahein aasaan to sahl hai/dushvaar to yahi hai ke dushvaar bhi nahein” (Meeting you is not easy, yet it is easy./ Otherwise, I would have given up trying to see you./ The challenge is that there is no challenge). Yes, there has been no challenge to Ghalib for more than a century.

As the couplets continue in the section, Narang’s analysis too improves with each misra (a line of couplet). Gradually, Narang begins to revel in the poet’s paradoxes, the ironies that clouded his work, the mystery that never stopped enveloping him. The author gives ample evidence of the mystery with the couplet “Havas ko hai nishaat-e-kaar kya kya/ na ho marna to jiine ka maza kya” (Desire drives us to gain much pleasure before we die/ But if there were no death life would not be as much fun). The couplet, as Narang informs the reader, was composed when the poet was travelling to Kolkata. If in the first line the poet appears to be a prisoner of desire, the second raises metaphysical questions: is pleasure pleasure only because life is ephemeral? Or does death make life more enjoyable?

The section has a Ghalib couplet that has been “done to death” on All India Radio’s Urdu programmes where hosts in years gone by almost invariably ended their programmes with it: “Mehrbaan ho ke bula lo mujhko chaahe jis vaqt/ main gaya vaqt bhi nahin huun ke phir aa bhi na sakuun” (Call me back in magnanimity whenever you are kind/ I am not the time past or departed that I would fail to show up). Surinder Deol’s translation, however, fails to reproduce the magic of the original, though he has otherwise done justice to Ghalib’s inimitable genius.

Bedil’s influence

The book endeavours to give credit where it is due. For instance, Narang talks of Bedil’s influence on the poet with a couplet. The section “Bedil, Ghalib, Masnavi Irfan, and Indian Thought” opens with Ghalib’s words of gratitude: “It is because of deep allegiance to the spirit of Bedil that my own work displays a prophetic quality. As Bedil is my guide like Khizr, I am not afraid of treading unknown paths and being waylaid.”

This little submission willy-nilly reveals another facet of Ghalib’s life. Not known to be a practising Muslim, he, however, quotes with relish the reference in the Quran to Prophet Musa and Khizr, probably a prophet too. It so happened that Musa became Khizr’s companion on a journey on the condition that he would ask no questions. Musa though could not maintain his silence as a series of incidents unfolded when the two entered uncharted territory. Anybody who has grown up with Ghalib’s oft-repeated views about drinking in a mosque or at a place where there is no god will be pleasantly surprised with his grasp of the Quran.

It is in such instances that the book rises above similar ventures in the past, and the author deserves credit for this. Through painstaking research allied with a scholar’s perceptive mind, Narang is able to bring together in a cohesive manner seemingly intractable incidents in the poet’s life.

Narang does not shy away from quoting Hali when it comes to discussing the evolution of Ghalib’s language, his use of phrases, indeed, even his unfolding mindscape.

In the section “Dead Leaves, a Romantic Interlude, and a Stricken Heart”, Narang writes: “Persian had coloured Mirza’s day-to-day speech and his power of imagination from the very beginning. The language was unfamiliar just like the thoughts it expressed. Mirza used Persian’s specialities such as the use of infinitives and the word connectors liberally in his Urdu. There were some couplets where if you just changed one word, the whole verse would turn into a Persian couplet. These expressions were special inventions of Mirza that were neither seen before in Urdu nor in Persian.”

No wonder, Ghalib’s contemporaries failed to gauge his genius. Some found him difficult to comprehend, while others felt he defied the established norms of Urdu poetry. He neither toed the line nor slipped into stereotypes.

The ace poet understood this rather well. Not one to allow silence to rule over speech, he said it all in a Persian couplet (this translation is by Deol): “The vintage wine of my verse/ will gain in its maturity/ because of the famine of customers./ But the ones who taste it in the future/ will surely get the benefit of ageing/ and will thus receive rare flavour and leisure.”

Well, we are that posterity, “the future” Ghalib refers to. And we are the fortunate ones to “receive rare flavour and leisure”.

This book should be read for two reasons. First, it is about Ghalib. And Ghalib is never out of season or form. Second, Narang bases his Ghalib study on the plurality of the poet’s thought, on the Indian aesthetic, and on his deep Persian influences. It is no fan’s account. Rather, it is an insightful venture where the author places before the reader the lived reality of the poet’s life, the width, even acuity, of his vision and, of course, the brilliance of his words. Even in couplets, he goes beyond the surface and gives one the circumstances that induced them. One may not necessarily agree with Narang’s evaluation of the poet, but going through his arguments is an enjoyable exercise in itself. Like life, here too the joy lies in the journey. Narang’s book is a fine landmark.

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