Book Review: 'Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography' by Mehr Afshan Farooqi reveals a great classicist with a modern mind

Print edition : April 23, 2021

"Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography" by Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Penguin, 2021) Photo: by special arrangement

Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An incisive, comprehensive study of the textual history of Urdu and Persian poet Ghalib’s verse.

Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography could have been written only by a scholar who has spent a lifetime studying Ghalib, untying the knots of his difficult poetry and looking for both his extant manuscripts and lost divans (selections of poems). The writing of such a book also required an investigator with a command over English, Urdu, Persian and knowledge of a smattering of Arabic, for the author, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, is clear that “to not be aware of Ghalib’s Persian poetry while assessing him is to present an incomplete picture of his poetic genius”.

This book is not so much a biography of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib as an incisive and comprehensive study of the textual history of his poetry. It discusses at length the logic, rationale and the justifications behind Ghalib’s rigorous selection of his verses in his different divans.

It is the author’s interest in Ghalib’s non-inclusion of many of his verses in his published divans that sets this book apart from the majority of studies of Ghalib’s poetry. Mehr Afshan Farooqi is not happy with the many Ghalib editors who thoughtlessly merged his different divans. For her, each divan of Ghalib’s has a sanctity. She writes: “Divans provide a specific temporal snapshot of the time in which the poet was writing.”

There is a detailed discussion in the book of different divans and handwritten manuscripts of Ghalib prepared at different times in his poetic career. There are also interesting vignettes of the discovery of some of Ghalib’s lost manuscripts and divans, such as a lost divan of 1821 (Nuskhah-e Hamidiyyah) serendipitously coming Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s way in 2015.

Ghalib’s divans have been assigned different names, sometimes on the basis of the place where they were found and sometimes on the basis of the name of the researcher or editor who found them and published them. Chapter 2 is devoted to the divans of 1821 and 1826, known as Nuskhah-e Bhopal/Nuskhah-e Hamdiyyah (the name of the library in Bhopal) and Nuskhah-e Sherani (named after its discoverer Hafiz Mahmud Sherani) respectively.

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Chapter 3 talks about the divan of 1816 (Nuskhah-e Amroha); Chapter 5 details Ghalib’s 1828 combined divan of Urdu and Persian poetry titled “Gul-e Rana”, while Chapter 6 is about his first published divan in Urdu in 1841. Beginning with 1841, five different editions of Ghalib’s Urdu divan were published in his lifetime, the last three of them being much bigger (with 1,794, 1,802 and 1,795 verses) than the first two (with 1,094 and 1,157 verses). Ghalib’s Persian divan was first published in 1845.

Ghalib, who in 1841 became the first Urdu poet to publish a divan, realised the importance of print modernity before any other poet of his time. In the new print culture, the whole concept of patronage would undergo a change, and an ordinary reader who bought his books would emerge as the new patron.

‘Curated publishing’

The author considers “curated publishing” an important factor in Ghalib’s popularity as “he took to print like a fish to water”. Ghalib had a warm relationship with the publisher Munshi Naval Kishor (1836-95) of Lucknow who published Ghalib’s prose works Panj Ahang, Mehr-e Nim Roz, Dastanbuy, his Persian kulliyat (complete works) and Qati-e Burhan, his Persian polemic work lambasting a popular Persian dictionary.

In her efforts to establish a proper chronology of important textual moments in Ghalib’s career, the author gives credit to other fellow researchers, editors and critics who have charted this difficult trajectory, talking about their strengths and pointing to the limitations of their work. The list of these researchers is long as the rich tradition of Ghalib scholarship. It includes Altaf Husain Hali, Ghalib’s most influential biographer whose book Yadgar-e Ghalib (1897) sometimes falters on facts; Ziyauddin Ahmad Khan Naiyar, who wrote an introduction to Ghalib’s 1841 divan; and critic Abdur Rahman Bijnori who famously wrote: “India has two divine gospels, the holy Vedas and the Divan-e Ghalib”. The list also includes famous Ghalib editors such as Mufti Anvarul Haq, Abdul Latif Hyderabadi, Hamid Ahmad Khan, Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi, Nisar Ahmad Faruqi, Akbar Ali Khan, Malik Ram, Saiyyid Qudrat Naqvi and Kalidas Gupta Raza. The author has also pored over various Tazkirahs (anthologies), a form of writing containing brief information about poets’ lives and times.

A poet in poverty

Ghalib’s poverty, his perpetual indebtedness to his creditors, and his dependence on his patrons are all well-known. Faced with extreme financial difficulties, Ghalib undertook a long, difficult and taxing journey to Calcutta in 1826 to plead the case of his pension before the British Governor General.

The author writes about Ghalib’s Calcutta experience with great insight and verve. Ghalib first went to Kanpur via Farrukhabad, spent five months in Lucknow, then arrived in Banda in July 1826, from where he started his journey to Calcutta in a baggage cart, driven by a slow mule. He had to stay for a day in Allahabad, not a pleasant experience for him, and then in Banaras for a month, a city he gushes about in his letters and in a masnavi (a poem using rhyming couplets). In fact so enamoured was Ghalib ofthe richness that Banaras offered to his poetic imagination that not only did he describe the city “as a beautiful woman with the enchanting face of a fairy who can see her reflection in Ganga”, he also remembered Banaras fondly in his old age in a letter: “Banaras is beyond words. Such cities are seldom created. I happened to be there at the height of my youth. If I were young now, I would go and live there and not return.”

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He finally reached Calcutta on February 19, 1828 and immediately took to the city, describing it as a “world where everything except a remedy for death is available”. The author says that Ghalib’s stay in Calcutta from February 1928 to August 1929, where he interacted with a slightly different literary culture and was exposed to print modernity, was a turning point in his career. Unlike Delhi, Calcutta gave Ghalib an opportunity to show off his mastery of Persian verse. However, he did not take kindly to some fellow poets’ and critics’ objections to his mastery of Persian grammar when he read a Persian poem at a mushaira in Calcutta. He wrote in a letter: “I heard that some stupid, ill-advised persons caught the one verse from my verses, and declared themselves to be the dispensers of meaning.” There were more objections to his Persian verses in other mushairas in Calcutta.

As if to prove a point, Ghalib would devote the next two decades of his life almost exclusively to Persian poetry. Not only did he disparage the Indian poets’ command over Persian, he also attacked Indian lexicographers, the most important of them being Muhammad Husain Tabrizi, whose Persian dictionary Burhan-e Qati was considered an authoritative work.

Devotion to Persian

The author argues that by devoting his full attention to Persian at a time when it was gradually losing ground to Urdu, Ghalib realised the possibility of being recognised in Persia which produced great masters such as Mawlana Rumi, Shaikh Saadi and Hafez Shirazi. She writes: “Upon his return from Calcutta, his mind was made up regarding his future path. He was going to be the leading exponent of Persian in India”, not to be compared to any Indian Persian poet. Ghalib wrote Ashtinamah to join issues with his critics, and also produced a long Persian divan (1845) of 6,000 verses, compared to his Urdu divan which had only 1,094. His Persian prose works such as Panj Ahang (1849) and Mehr-e Nim Roz (1854), among others, complete the picture of his Persian oeuvre.

Ghalib’s identification with the Dasatiri movement of the 16th and 17th century, which projected an Iran-centred view of history and language, and his efforts to write in a Dasatiri language (which focussed on pre-Islamic usage in Persian) were part of his desire to project his Persian literary lineage. The author discusses “Ghalib’s claim of a connection to a language in concurrence with the wider, exegetical parameters of the ethnic-linguistic rivalries between Iranian and Indian Persian poets in the nineteenth century, the restyling of the Persian language and the reimagining of Iran’s pre-Islamic history through linguistic and prophetic claims of the Dasatiri movement of Azar Kayvan and his cohorts.” Ghalib’s description of the turbulent events of the Revolt of 1857 from May 1857 to July 1858 titled Dastanbuy was written in pure Persian, where he made conscious efforts to avoid using any Arabic words. However, when despite his best efforts, an Arabic word, “nahib”, instead of Ghalib’s preferred Persian expression, “navae”, crept into the printed text, Ghalib offered to pay the printer from his pocket for withdrawing “four hundred or five hundred pages” and making the required change.

Ghalib even invented a Persian tutor, Abdus Samad Hurmuzd, to strengthen the idea of his command over pure Persian as against Indian Persian. Mehr Afshan Farooqi considers the timing of Abdus Samad’s identity important. She argues that although Ghalib faced humiliation in Calcutta in 1828, Samad’s identity was revealed when Ghalib wrote in 1862 Qati-e Burhan, a “half-baked critique” of Muhammad Husain Tabrizi’s Persian dictionary Burhan-e Qati. Likewise, she considers Ghalib’s horoscope, written in his own hand and included in his Persian divan of 1848 “a poetic flourish to further enhance his reputation for the knowledge of the classical arts”.

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In a well-researched chapter of the book, the author studies the dibachahs (a foreword/preface written in a florid style, often praising God, but also discussing issues of style and subject matter) written by Ghalib to preface his Urdu and Persian divans.

The rhetorical-poetic style in Ghalib’s long dibachah for his Persian divan of 1845 defies easy translation as “the language is loaded with cultural allusions, multiple meanings, puns, plus an inherent ambiguity”. In this dibachah, he talks about the tradition and wide reach of Persian poetry, puns on the word zaban (meaning both tongue and language), dwells on an orthographic and calligraphic practice in Persian, takes a dig at the short-sightedness of his rivals and playfully manipulates religio-cultural notions by identifying the Creator with nur (light) “that permeates both the Ka’bah and the Zoroastrian temple”.

However, the short dibachah (written in Persian) for his Urdu divan of 1841 in which Ghalib claims to bring freshness to Urdu poetry by emphasising the Indianness of his material and the Iranian fire, has none of that rhetoric seen in his dibachah for the Persian divan, revealing Ghalib’s attitude to his poetry in the two languages.

This chapter also includes the author’s examination of the first ten of the 61 qitas (series of couplets in a ghazal having continuity of thought) with which the Persian divan opens and the Khatimah (afterword) to Ghalib’s Persian divan.

Thus the first qita in which Ghalib speaks about his mythical Persian ancestry and roots gives a fair idea of Ghalib’s self-presentation. In the Khatimah, he pays tribute to a good number of Iranian poets known for their contribution to tazah-goi (new style), and in the process, establishing the newness of his own style of poetry. To quote the last two lines of his rubai (verse of four lines): “And, Ghalib, if this art of poetry were a religion/This book of poems would be its Revealed Book”.

At least two conclusions from the author’s reading of Ghalib’s dibachahs are significant. One, Ghalib showed that it was “possible to belong to multiple heredities especially in the world of literature”. Two, “Ghalib comes across as a great classicist with a modern mind” both in Urdu and Persian. In Urdu poetry, he drew from the Indo-Persian style, created new meanings, often producing abstractions. She writes: “As a Persian poet he preferred to carve his own path, branching out from the classical tradition, but not straying too far from it. He has a distinct authorial voice, but he did not create a new style.”

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Ghalib did return to Urdu and paid utmost attention to the selection of his verses in the last phase of his life. The author astutely observes that Ghalib took advantage of nascent print capitalism at this time and the growing demands for textbooks for the new curriculum in Urdu. Ghalib’s letters and large selections from his Urdu divan, which inspired a series of commentaries, became part of the new syllabuses, enhancing Ghalib’s reputation further.

Three appendices presenting the author’s painstaking English translations of Ghalib’s dibachahs to the divan of 1841 and Gul-e Rana, and Ziyauddin Ahmad Khan Naiyar’s Introduction to Ghalib’s 1841 divan provide a feel of Ghalib’s poetic prose and the context of his poetry. The exhaustive notes at the end of the book contain a wealth of useful information about literary conventions, terminology and researches on Ghalib.

In all, Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep is an invaluable offering, a modern classic of the Ghalib canon. Ghalib may not have been happy with Allahabad, but Mehr Afshan Farooqi, with her roots in Allahabad, has done full justice to his oeuvre.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor of English at Aligarh Muslim University.