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The Return of Mirza Ghalib

By Adab Nawaz

March 2011

One hundred and forty-two years after his death, India's greatest Urdu poet is now remembered with the richly deserved awe and admiration that eluded him in his lifetime. Adab Nawaz explores the phenomenon of Ghalib

Not accorded due acknowledgement in his lifetime, maverick Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) had predicted that people would hail his poetry posthumously. Seeing the kind of interest the poet generates among the literati and the spell he casts over connoisseurs, one can safely say Ghalib was not off the mark when he predicted his immortality. Recently one more chapter in the lengthening memory of Ghalib was added when a bust of the poet—commissioned by renowned poet Gulzar—was instituted at Ghalib's haveli in old Delhi. Holding candles in the cold Delhi afternoon, lovers of Ghalib marched from Chandni Chowk to Balli Maran to install the bust at the restored haveli, which will also house a library soon. Carved by Solapur-based sculptor Bhagwan Rampure, the marble bust is a reminder that the world has not forgotten one of the greatest Urdu poets.

Poetry, both in Urdu and Persian, and a new style of letter-writing are two major areas where Ghalib excelled. He stood head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries in the craft but was not taken too seriously by many of them in his lifetime. However, today, perhaps no Urdu poet has evoked as much interest among scholars as him. Why does this fascination continue even now?

Scholar-poet Shamim Tariq—whose book on Ghalib's era and India's first war of independence (1857), Ghalib Aur Hamari Tehrik-e-Azadi (Ghalib and Our Freedom Struggle) had generated much debate in Urdu circles a couple of years ago—calls Ghalib a "supremely fortunate poet. In his lifetime, he was considered secondary to his two contemporaries, Zauq and Momin. After his death, biographies were written by authors like Altaf Husain Haali and Abdur Rehman Bijnori. They rediscovered him, putting the poet on a pedestal no other poet could reach."

Remarkably, Bijnori heaped laurels on Ghalib when he said that there are only two divine books in India: the Veda and Diwan-e-Ghalib, Ghalib's collection of poems. And renowned essayist Rashid Ahmed Siddiqui writes that Ghalib is among the few personalities about whom "I feel I should have been born in his time and befriended him.... There are two enduring legacies of the Mughals, the Taj Mahal and Ghalib."

Gulzar, who brought the poet to millions at home through his serial Mirza Ghalib in 1988, says he always wanted to pay homage to the poet who also brought him laurels. After the Delhi government permitted him to commission a bust of Ghalib, he asked Rampure to sculpt it, even sending him some rare photographs of Ghalib, sourced by former president Dr Zakir Hussain (another diehard fan of the poet) from Germany.

Apart from his huge poetic oeuvre (11,000 couplets in Urdu, 6,600 in Persian), Ghalib has left behind a great body of letters. He is justified when he congratulates himself on inventing a new style of letter-writing in Urdu. Simple, direct and conversational, Ghalib's letters mirror the poet's personal angst; his taste for the good life; and the "travesty" of the times he lived in. Addressed to his countless friends and pupils in far-flung areas, his letters contributed immensely to the evolution of modern Urdu prose.

Mumbai-based Mir Jaffar Imam's book Mirza Ghalib & the Mirs of Gujarat, testifies to this. Based on his letters, the book focuses on Ghalib's "lesser-known relationship" with Gujarat. Comprising 61 letters—many of them addressed to the Imam's ancestors (the Nawabs of Kamadhia) and dated between 1859 and 1869—the book shows how Ghalib loved Gujarat and its people. Spending his entire life in northern India (Delhi, Agra) and Calcutta, Ghalib never visited Gujarat. And yet the poet comments on various fascinating aspects of life in the state. "Most people think Ghalib is the poet of north India as he remained confined to Delhi," says Imam. "When I stumbled upon his letters to his admirers in Gujarat, I immediately thought of bringing out a book. Ghalib's letters make for delightful reading. As you read them, you feel you're in a dialogue with him." When Imam's great grandfather Nawab Mir Jafur Alee Khan of Surat invited Ghalib to visit his city, an ailing Ghalib, with characteristic humour, replied: "Kisi surat main Surat nahin aa sakta." (By no means can I come to Surat.)

It is Ghalib's universal appeal that inspired theatre director Salim Arif to undertake Ghalibnama, a play-reading of Ghalib's letters, interspersed with rendering of some of his ghazal: "His letters talk about the seasons, his mood swings, his perennial poverty, and his fight for pension," he says. "From trivialities to profound thoughts, his letters speak eloquently for him and his era. I am enchanted with his style. The ghazal we have included have some contextual connection with the letters we read out."

Another well-known admirer is Delhi-based cultural and social commentator Firoz Bhakt Ahmed, who is also Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's grandnephew. In fact, it was his public interest litigation filed in Delhi High Court that initiated the restoration of Ghalib's haveli. "Ghalib's verses reflect that life is a collage of indefinite human expressions—sometimes the beloved, sometimes the observer, sometimes the follower bowing before the Lord, and at times cynical and withdrawn," he explains. "Often, he would bear the biggest hurt, and surprisingly break down over the smallest of accusations. Like him, his poetry was intriguing. Restless by nature, his writing told of his torment. All that he experienced and observed was nakedly poured on paper."

Bakht is aghast that some people are wrongly claiming credit for the restoration of Ghalib's haveli in Chandni Chowk but he leaves it to the poet himself who said: "Gham-e hastii ka Asad kis se ho juz marg ilaj/Shama har rang mein jaltii hei sahar honey tak." (The suffering that is life, Asad, knows no cure but death/All through the night must the candle burn, without taking the breath.)

Through his ghazal and letters, Ghalib continues to enrapture his faithful readers. A much misunderstood man in his lifetime, he nonchalantly made fun of his own defeats, and laughed at his failing health. Mocking his advancing years, he wrote: "Go haath mein jumbish nahin aankhon mein to dum hai/Rahne do abhi saagar-o-meena mere aage." (My hands may not be working but my eyes are still strong/Let the liquor flow before my eyes.) When Ghalib sat down to pen his Aapbeeti (autobiography), he couldn't help but ask: "Poochchte hain woh ke Ghalib kaun hai/Koi batlao ke hum batlain kya?" (They ask who Ghalib is/Can anyone tell me what I should say?). Ghalib may have failed to fathom his own unparalleled greatness, but the world continues to discover his genius.

Source: Harmony Magazine