Review of The Famous Ghalib by Ralph Russel

The Famous Ghalib
Selected, Translated and Introduced By Ralph Russell
Roli Books, New Delhi Rs. 295 (HB), Pages 192

Ralph Russell came to India as a British soldier during World War II and went on to join the Department of Oriental Studies at Cambridge. His previous works over the years, mostly written along with Khursidul Islam, have made him known as an authority on Urdu literature especially on Mirza Ghalib.He remarks that, “If his (Ghalib’s) language had been English, he would have been recognised all over the world as a great poet long ago. My translations are an attempt to present some of his poetry in English so that English speakers may be able to judge the work for themselves.” However, the book caters well even to those already familiar with the poetry of Ghalib, this is so both in the selection and translations of the poetry and in the accompanying essays.

The sheyrs and ghazals translated into English are followed by the original in Urdu and the transliterated versions in Roman and Devnagari. An essay on ‘Getting to Know Ghalib’ serves as an insightful introduction to Ghalib, his poetry and the milieu that it grew on. Another essay ‘On Translating Ghalib’ brings forth the problems and techniques of translating from Urdu to English. These essays help to supplement and explain the translations. They weave together the translated sheyrs into a cohesive whole.

The current translations are marked by a stress on the literal meaning of the sheyrs, though there are some sheyrs and ghazals where the translator has tried to practically recreate both the meaning and the form in English. This is not a mean achievement and as compared to the other two significant translations (one by Qurrat-ul- ain Haider and another edited by Aijaz Ahmed), Russel has attempted -and achieved- much more. One hopes that it will encourage the reader to read the original.


Ghalib roars over and above his predecessors as well as contemporaries, he rarely whimpers. He is a lively, even a gregarious character. For a long time and especially till the age of 25, Ghalib refused to consider any criticism of his poetry. Consider the following sheyr:

Bandagi men bhi vuh azada o khud-bin hain ki ham
Ulte phir ae dar I kaba agar va na hua.(We serve You, yet our independent self regard is such
We shall at once turn back if we would find the Kaba closed)

This assertion of the self was to reach its crescendo in Iqbal (with the development of the concept of khudi) and still later metamorphosed into the collective individual in the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Aur raaj kareygi khalaq-e-khuda,
Jo main bhi hoon, aur tum bhi ho(And the Creations of the Lord, which is you and me,
Shall rule the world)

Russel’s selection rightly brings forth this aspect of Ghalib’s poetry. One cannot stress this enough as the traditional ghazal form does not facilitate presentation of the poet’s world- view in a systematic form. Each sheyr is a complete poem in itself, and it is not necessary for a ghazal to express the same mood in all the sheyrs- in that sense it can be said that the form tends to dominate the content. The exposition is, therefore, disparate and scattered in sheyrs across different ghazals. One has to wade through to pick and choose and then reconstruct- a difficult and onerous task.

Understanding Ghalib requires that one understands not only the literal meaning of a verse, but also the allusions that occur in them. Ghalib wrote from within the Muslim tradition and it is therefore necessary to understand that tradition, the religious concepts, references to aspects of the Muslim way of life and so on. Russell explains some of these and illustrates the usage in some sheyrs.

Ghalib himself, however was hardly a ‘good’ Muslim. For one, he drank wine, as is famously known. He did not keep fasts or say his prayers or go on pilgrimage. In this he follows other Urdu poets who stand on the verge of transgression or beyond. For instance, Mir had said:

Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ko, ab poochtey kya ho, unney toh
Kashka khaincha, dair main baitha, kab ka tark islam kiya

(Do not ask what Mir’s religion is, he has
Put on the sacred mark on the forehead (tilak), sits in the idol house, and has given up Islam)

Ghalib wrote much that ridiculed and often put to serious cross-examination many of the religious and Islamic concepts. One of his somewhat cryptic posers is:

na tha kuch, toh khuda tha, na hoga kuch toh khuda hoga
duboya mujhko hooney ney, na hota main, toh kya hota?(When nothing was, then God was there; had nothing been, God would have been,
My being has defeated me, had I not been what would have been? )

Regarding the references to idol- worship and Hinduism in Ghalib’s poetry, Russell observes that Hinduism was the nearest religion outside Islam known to Ghalib. He points out that the practices of Hinduism afford a vivid symbol of the worship of God through the worship of beauty. “The idol is the symbol of the irresistibly beautiful mistress you ‘idolise’ and adore… All these concepts make ‘Hinduism’- that is, Hinduism as a symbol rather than actual Hinduism- the expression of one of the mystics’ key beliefs.”

Ghalib was aware that the milieu in which he grew up was in its twilight and was being replaced by a more advanced civilization. At the same time, he saw the emerging world from the framework of ‘medieval ways of thought and shared many of the attitudes of his eighteenth century predecessors in poetry.’ Hence, the conflicting pulls in the following sheyr:

Iman mujhe roke hai, jo khainche hai mujhe kufr
Kaba merey peeche hai, kalisa merey aagey(My faith restrains me while the lure of unbelief attracts me,
That way, the Kaaba, and this way, the Church before my eyes)

It was the spirit of transgression, of crossing the accepted norms of society that excited Ghalib. “If you are to experience life to the full, you must not confine yourself to actions approved by the virtuous”, remarks Russell. This recalls to mind a Punjabi Sufi couplet:

Jo had tapey so auliya, behad tapey so pir
Jo had, behad dono tapey, us noon aakhan fakir

(The one who crosses all boundaries attains the exalted title Auliya, the one who crosses non- boundaries becomes the Pir,
The one who crosses both boundaries as well as non- boundaries, becomes a Fakir)

And Ghalib, of course, prided himself on being a fakir. He remarked:

Banakar fakeeron ka hum bheys ghalib,
Tamasha-e-ahl-e-karam dekhtey hain(Taking on the garb of a fakir, Ghalib
I watch the goings on of the world with a detached air)

Russell points out that Urdu poetry, unlike poetry written in English, is meant to be primarily recited and not read. “It is significant that in Urdu idiom, you don’t write verse; you say verse; and the poet who ‘says’ it presents it to his audience by reciting it to them. Only later does it appear in print… Clearly, poets who compose in this tradition need qualities which those who compose for a tradition of written transmission do not need at all….”

“The mushaira is a long- drawn out affair and the poet’s main enemy is monotony. If they are to participate effectively in a mushaira, which will perhaps last for hours together, they cannot hope to do so without resort to variety. The audience knows as soon as the first couplet has been recited what the metre and the rhyme scheme are. Unless the ghazal is one of quite exceptional force, uniformity of tone and emotional pitch are likely to pall.”


The present selection has a number of sheyrs from what is considered to be one of the finest ghazals that Ghalib wrote in Urdu and whose matla is:

Muddat huee hai yaar ko mehmaan kiye hue
Josh-e-qadah se bazm chiraaghaan kiye hue

Russel has translated this as:

(An age has passed since I last brought my loved one to my house
Lighting the whole assembly with the wine- cup’s radiance)

One would only have appreciated if the author had included the ibtidaayi (first) ghazal of Diwan-i- Ghalib. It provides the poet’s own introduction to his diwan, despite it being a little complicated for a beginner:

Naqsh fariyaadee hai kiskee shokhee-e-tehreer ka
Kaaghazee hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka

Ali Sardar Jafri wrote that visionary is the one who sees and speaks to the future. It is to this exalted group of remarkable men that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib belonged. In his own time, he had rued:

Today none buys my verse’s wine, that it may grow old
To make the senses reel in many a drinker yet to come
My star rose highest in the firmament before my birth
My poetry will win the world’s acclaim when I am gone

Urdu poetry, Kaifi Azmi once remarked once in an interview, will keep the Urdu language alive. In the last one-decade or so, interest in Ghalib’s poetry has seen something of a revival with the increasing presence of audio and visual mediums in addition to print. While the TV serial ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and the rendering of his poetry by a variety of singers have increased the reach of his poetry, one still has to turn to the written word to drink deep and not merely taste the Pierian Spring. This is clearly illustrated by the book under review- a masterly introduction to the Urdu language’s greatest poet.

April 3, 2001
Published: The Tribune 20 May 2001


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

9 thoughts on “Review of The Famous Ghalib by Ralph Russel”

    Bartanvi Baba e Urdu Janab Ralph Russel bhi eis Duniya main aub
    nahein rahai.
    Ralph Russel ki wafat ki khaber perhker bohut afsos hua.
    Duniya main Urdu sai Mohabbat kernai walai logoon main
    eis khabar sai bohut afsos hua hai.
    Urdu World is definitely very sad after hearing the news of passing
    away of ‘British Ba Ba e URDU’ RALPH RUSSEL.
    Marhoom Ralph ki Urdu sai Mohabbat aur Urdu kai lieay khidmat
    hamaisha yaad rahaingee.

    Saghier Ahmed Jafri,
    Urdu Manzil

  2. Ralph Russel ko bahut dino Ek adeeb ki haisiyat se jaant hoon, Jinhone Urdu ke Classical Shoara ko Maghrabi Duniya se Introduce karaya. Lekin unke bare me tafseelaat se waqfiyat unki biography part-I padhne ke baad hui. Is me koi shak nahi jab koi bada adeeb is fani duniya se kooch karta hai to behad afsos hota hai. Ralph Russel ne Three Mughal Poets aur Mirza Ghalib ke zariya Mughal Tahzeeb aur Urdu Shaeri se rooshanas karaya. Akeer me main yahi kahoonga ke agar unhe Bartania ka Baba-e-Urdu Kaha jata hai to ghalat nahi hai. Wo is khatab ke mustahaq hain.
    Dept. of Urdu
    Ch. Charan SIngh University
    [Fiction critic] Meerut


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