Happy Birthday, Mirza Ghalib

(On the 209th birth anniversary of Mirza Assadullah Khan Ghalib- 27 Dec)

Over the last fifteen years, there is only one book that has always accompanied me. I had bought it in 1991 for rupees twenty, a pretty neat sum considering my first job paid me a microscopic amount. The cover has seen more than one adhesive tape ‘bandages’ on the sides, many pages have threatened to tear out and have been supplicated to be in their place with glue and tape. The pages of my copy of Diwan e Ghalib have, over these years, turned yellow, even brown.

My attempts to learn Urdu have been erratic in a persistent sort of way.

But the magic of the words has never changed over the years.

I have often wondered what is it about Ghalib that makes him so eternal? His language is certainly more difficult than of many others, he belongs to the “high” tradition that used a very Persianized form of Urdu, unlike Mir his sheyrs in the short behr (length) are few, his concerns, again unlike Mir, are often didactic and even his collection of ghazals and sheyrs is much smaller than that of many others.

So why is it that Ghalib appeals not only to such great poets like Allama Iqbal (who, like me, or me, like him, always carried a copy of the Diwan e Ghalib with him) and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose first book of verse bore a title after Ghalib’s ibtidayi sheyr of the Diwan, as well as the commoner folk?

I think one of the reasons is that Ghalib roars over and above his predecessors as well as successors. He rarely whimpers. He is a lively, even a gregarious character. For a long time and especially till the age of twentyfive, 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)

Another is his irreverence. Ghalib was hardly a ‘good’ Muslim. For one, he drank wine, as is famously known (French wine, in case you were wondering). 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
Na thaa kuch to khuda thaa, kuch na hota to khuda hota

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? )

This irreverence was driven by a spirit of transgression, of crossing the accepted norms of society that excited Ghalib. He echoed in his poetry a popular Punjabi saying:

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)

That is why Ghalib continues to surprise- there are frontiers that we become aware of only when we cross them with his poetry.

Even as I browse his diwan umpteenth time, I find myself marking sheyrs that had escaped my attention earlier.

Here is a selection of some that have been marked in my copy over the years, a handful of selection, of course:

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

Ghalib zamanaa mujh ko mitaataa hey kiss liyay,
Loh-e-jahaan peh herf-e-mukerrer naheen hoon main

(Ghalib the world should not erase or displace me, since I am the β€˜word’ not to be written twice on the Eternal Slate)

Bas ke hun Ghalib, asiri main bhi aatash zer e pa
moo e atash deeda, hai halka meri zanjeer ka

Ishk taasir se naumeed nahin
Jaan supari shajar e bed nahin

Bhaagey the hum bahut, so usi ki saza hai yeh
hokar aseer daabtey hain, rahzan ke paon

Ishk ne pakda na tha abhi vehshat ka rang
rah gaya tha dil main jo kuch, zauk e khawari hai hai

Saaya mera mujh se misl e dood bhaagey hai, Asad
paas mujh aatash bazan ke, kis se thehra jaaye hai

A related post.

Source of Mirza Ghalib’s image

22 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Mirza Ghalib

  1. diwan-e-mir and diwan-e-ghalib were both there in my home in patna. i never managed to read much though πŸ™‚

    I think it was the same rajkamal paperback edition. one grouse i have with these regional language publishers is that they don’t have a good introduction or adequate footnotes. for a beginner and an amateur it is very difficult to find a grounding in the technicalities of poetry without some guidance. it is true for all forms of literature actually. in english there is a wealth of secondary literature which is comparatively very easily available.

    nice post though. the earlier review was also very informative. thanks!

  2. It is true that there is much more secondary litt available in English. But in case of major Urdu poets like Ghalib and Mir, there is no dearth of inexpensive litt available, I read Ghalib mainly in the Devnagri script. I think those of us who know English have just got used to reading more in English.

  3. Fine tribute, Bhupinder saahab!

    Only Ghalib could say

    Ghalib-e-Khastaa ke baGhair, kaunse kaam band haiN
    roiye zaar zaar kyaa, keejiye haaye haaye kyuuN


    haiN aur bhii duniyaa meN suKhanvar bahut acche
    kahte haiN ke Ghalib kaa hai andaaz-e-bayaaN aur

    with elan.


    Thanks are also due to Gulzar and Jagjit Singh for introducing the master to a whole new generation.

  4. i don’t think the gulzar/jagjit series captured ghalib’s true spirit, but it did do alot to make ghalib more accessible for young people especially.

    my favourite is (a bit morbid albeit):
    naadaaN ho jo kahte ho kih kyuuN jiite haiN Gaalib
    qismat meN hai marne kii tamannaa koii din aur

  5. Chanad, Mohib, thanks for your comments.

    It is indeed true that the TV serial Mirza Ghalib did a lot to reawaken interest in him. I personally don’t like Jagjit Singh’s renditions, somehow he makes them sound very sad and morose, while Ghalib’s poetry is full of life and what Allama Iqbal called “confident restlessness”.

    My grouse, against no one in particular, is that the strain of philosophical questioning from within an Indian/ Eastern tradition that Ghalib and later Iqbal ingrained in their poetry is not being taken forward.

    Alok: I think you do have a point when it comes to the availability and treatment of Iqbal in post- 1947 India. I could not find his works in any language except in Urdu. Even essays and writings on Iqbal are past now, I wonder if there is anyone at all interested in Iqbal in India. In his own times, he was on the lips of the youth of his generation, cutting across political and religious lines.

  6. you will find this article by hindi critic and scholar Namwar Singh very interesting. (If you haven’t read it)

    One great tragedy of the two nation theory that doesn’t get mentioned generally is the decline of both Urdu and Hindi because of forced separation between the two and their identification with the nation state. So a highly artificial sanskritised hindi became the “rajbhasha” and urdu became a minority language always written in persio-arabic script. Iqbal’s case might be related to the same. Iqbal is perhaps considered as a “foreign” poet from the perspective of India…

    It is possible to get these books easily specially if you are in that region, but even there it will be really hard to get essays, critical studies, scholarly appreciations of these poets. The cow belt media is entire ignorant of its own cultural heritage. it is very depressing to read some of those newspapers and magazines. there are a few (like Hans) but they are still marginal. not that english langauge media is any good. it is perhaps even worse.

  7. btw, have you read the Hindi poets Nagarjun, Raghuvir Sahay and Muktibodh? they wrote in the 60s and 70s. they are all wonderful poets. all rebels, revolutionaries, socially and politically committed but all bitterly and very harshly anti-romantic and anti-sentimental. they are also very innovative in form. they are three of my favourites.

  8. Thanks for the link to Namwar Singh’s text, I found some of his observations very pertinent- specially the argument against using the Nagari script.

    I haven’t read much of Hindi poetry except in school. Part of the reason is that these were too didactic for me when I tried to read them, and also they used a very Sanskritized Hindi. and last, but not the least, I had a few friends who mistook my interest in Hindi poetry to be interest in their poetry and inflicted me with some heavy duty stuff of their own.

    I haven’t yet recovered from those damages. (LoL)

    BTW, I like the way you always remark about the cow belt πŸ™‚
    >The cow belt media is entire ignorant of its own cultural heritage.

  9. lol… i understand what you mean there. I have come across some very ambitious wannabe poets myself. πŸ™‚ sometimes i think there are more poets and shayars in this world than there are readers to read them πŸ™‚

    I wonder who first invented the phrase. hindi dailies use the term “gobar patti” πŸ™‚

  10. Alok:
    >Iqbal is perhaps considered as a “foreign” poet from the perspective of India…

    I guess you meant the Hindutva version of India. I think I will need to write another post on Allama Iqbal and why he is needed for a secular, progressive India..

  11. Yes i was being ironical there. in fact the same can be said of the fate of the urdu language too.

    that’s not my translation btw thats what i have read in many places in hindi media.:)

  12. Nice post, bhupinder.My first exposure to Ghalib was through a DD serial, given my Madrasi background.I was so enamored by his poetry that I attempted to learn Urdu script (there is an excellent urdu book in dsal.uchicago.edu) rather unsuccessfully.The only other poet who appealed to me was Iqbal.

    With my meagre understanding of both Hindi and urdu I have felt that Bacchan’s Madhushala was inspired by Ghalib in a lot of places but somehow I maintain that Hindi alloyed by Urdu is more malleable and dexterous for poetry

  13. Alok: Thanks for clarifying πŸ™‚

    Vidya:Bacchan’s Madhushala, I believe was inspired by Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat.

    Leaving aside the script, it becomes difficult to say where Urdu stops and Hindi starts- I think it is merely a question of using vocabulary from Arabic/Persian or Sanskrit that decides whether it is Urdu or English.

    I can understand for someone from a Tamil background learning Urdu ! And must say that trying to learn itself is an achievement !

    Siyaah: Most welcome, it’s my pleasure- one owes so much to the man.

  14. Nice post Bhupinder. Your blog has become one of my favorite places to visit. For a Pakistani extremely interested in Indian politics and history, I have found the insights on the Indian Left particularly informative.

    Not to be didactic, I believe that you might have misquoted one of the Ghalib verses. I think it goes:
    Na thaa kuch to khuda thaa, kuch na hota to khuda hota
    Daboya mujh ko hone ne na hota mein to kya hota

    I share your admiration for Iqbal and am generally saddened by how little most of my Indian friends here in the US know about him and his poetry despite his “saare jahan se achha” fame. However, in Pakistan there is plenty of material available on Iqbal including a substantial body of secondary lit and books explaining his verses (including my father’s book “Tafheem-e-Baal-e-Jibreel” (Understanding Baal-e-Jibreel)).

    Thanks for posting the documentary “Final Solution” on your site. It was heart rending and left me in a state of deep despair about the human capacity for hatred and cruelty. That sage Ghalib again:
    Bus ke dushwar hai har kaam ka aasaN hona
    Aadmi ko bhi muyassar nahiN InsaaN hona

    Keep up the good work.

  15. Fawad: I have corrected the first misra in the post. Thanks for pointing out.

    On Iqbal: There is some amount of literature available on Iqbal in India. My own ‘shikwa’ is that Iqbal’s poetry is not available in any other script besides Urdu that places Urdu- illiterates like me at a disadvantage. This has much to do, as Alok has hinted, with the fact that while Iqbal’s song was adopted as the national song, both Iqbal and Urdu were over the years pushed under the carpet. The same has been the case with Tagore as well, despite his work being adopted as the national anthem, his critique of nationalism has been ignored.

    Thanks for the reference to your father’s book and for your kind words on the blog.

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