A tribute to Ghalib


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.

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 ‘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.

This article was written in 2006. Bhupinder Singh is an IT professional interested in art, literature, history and politcs. He manages a blog here.


Filed under Blogging, Literature, poetry, Urdu

9 responses to “A tribute to Ghalib

  1. Pingback: A Cup of Hot Tea « a reader’s words

  2. buhat khoob bhupinder

    lut’f aa gaya paRh ker

  3. Muse

    great post. very satisfying to read. ghalib is indeed “ghalib” over all past and future poets.

  4. chaiwala

    Nice post. Thanks for drawing our attention to the old master.

  5. About religion of Ghalib, I would like to quote one of his verses:

    Ya masail-e-Tasawuf aur tera bayan Ghalib
    Tujhay hum wali Samajhtay jo na bada khar hota.

  6. Thanks, folks, for your comments, and above all to Raza for inviting me to the Pak Tea House on this cold November day!

  7. Nice write up. Ghalib indeed is Urdu’s greatest poet of all times. His ideas were quite mystical and pantheistic and sometimes agnostical. For example:

    Mujh ko maloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat laiken
    Dil kay khush rakhnay ko Ghalib yeh khayal acha hai

    I know the reality of paradise (afterlife) Ghalib
    But it seems like a good idea to be hopeful about it

    I have noticed a mistake in the translation (or probably meaning) of the shair:

    Na tha kuch to khuda tha, kuch na hota to khuda hota
    Duboya mujhko honay nay, na hota main, toh kya hota?

    The way I grasp the meaning of this shair would be something like:

    When nothing was, then God was there, had nothing been, God would have been
    My being has defeated me, had I not been what difference it would have made?

    It’s like a shikwa from God that why He created me?

  8. Nauman, good point. Your interpretation seems to make sense. However, this sheyr is probably one of those complex ones that are open to multiple interpretations and translation into English can bring out only one of the possible interpretations.

    I guess when I translated it, I was looking at “na hota main, toh kya hota” as a counter to “kuch na hota to toh khuda hota”, If nothing had existed, God would still be there, but if man did not exist, the profound questions about God and nothingness in the first misra would not exist either. In other words, I interpret the last line as a defiance to God and the supremacy of man. “my being has defeated me” shows that it is only because of my (man’s) existence that these questions are posed- I created the idea of God and thereby made myself a creature of a supreme being- thus defeating myself. The last part of the second misra rebounds and turns the first half into its opposite. It raises into question God’s own existence (equating it with nothingness in the first misra).

    Man created God- that is how I interpret the essence of the sheyr.

    This is not to say that your interpretation is incorrect, just that this is a very clever couplet.

  9. Pingback: Buzz around me-1 | Silence