A layman’s primer to Mirza Ghaalib…by a layman

So, I have just now completed executing my 25-year old ambition to read about Mirza Ghaalib and to try to understand some of his famous shaayari. Well, I think that, at least, I have completed the first part well. To achieve this feat, there had to be a translation into English, obviously. My schooling in Maharashtra Board Hindi used to leave me gasping for breath whenever I heard some Urdu couplets, and I could make about 60% of what was being said. Or at least I could guess. So, when I came across a book by Kuldeep Salil, an English trans-literation and translation of Deewan-e-Ghaalib, the most popular work of Ghaalib, I hit the “buy” button.

Asad Ullah Khan Ghaalib seemed to be a happy-go-lucky sort of person who was never revered so much when he was alive. He lived from 1797-1869 in an interesting era when an incoming British culture was mixing with an outgoing Mughal culture (or receding from its pure form), and where the science/rationale of the western world was encouraging several poets and artists to ask tough questions of the existing Mughal culture. I think this nudging was only a catalyst and not a cause, since generations of poets starting from Kabir downwards had been harbouring such an irreverent & interrogative stance towards religious rituals. Continuing this stance and brought up in this unique mix of cultures, Ghaalib has written irreverently about the chequered character of the Mullah, the nobles and everyone in general. He was a secular writer and wrote about all faiths with reverence till God was involved. The moment it came to rituals, he was an aggressive iconoclast.

Many of his shers are humorous and laced with satire and ironical twists. His resilience of bouncing back from each of his insolvent situations crept into his work, and he is found cracking jokes about his own imprisonment – self-deprecation at its best. However, modest he was not. All his shers have reference to himself by name, a style of shaayars and poets of that era. I think this was a smart way to imprint their copyrights on their work.

He suffered abject poverty at points of time in his life and at the age of 51, he had to take a steady job (the shame of it !) of tutoring the royal prince. He was imprisoned a couple of times for becoming insolvent and owing people money. The bloody aftermath of the 1857 Revolt shook him up a bit. He died of old age, and after a prolonged sickness.

Of the 50 ghazals from Deewane-e-Ghaalib covered in the book, about 30-35 are on love, lover and the on the pain of love (the emotional wrench or amazingly, Runj in Urdu – my own poetic discovery of homophonic trans-lingual pairs). Rest are on friendship, drinking, irreverence towards customs. The English translation has been made to rhyme and that makes it funny to read and many times looked a bit forced-down-your-throat. I would have preferred a better translation which may or may not have rhymed.

Listing down below a few popular ones of Ghaalib that I found in the book…you will see what I meant about the translations :  

  • Woh aaye  ghar mein  hamaare Khuda ki kudrat  hai; Kabhee ham unko, kabhee apane ghar ko dekhte hain (He comes to our house, God shows his grace; sometime we look at him, sometime at our place).
  • Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ki hur khwahish pe dum nikle; Bahut nikle mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kum nikle (Thousands of desires, life-consuming and tough; I had them fulfilled in plenty, but not enough)
  • Yeh na thi humari kismet ki visaley-yaar hota; Agar aur jitey rehte, yahi intazaar hota (It wasn’t my luck to meet my beloved ever; I would have only waited and waited, if I had lived longer)
  • Aah ko chaahiye ik umra, asar hone tak; Kaun jita hai tiri zulf ke sir hone tak (It needs a whole age for a sigh to reach somewhere; Who lives long enough to conquer the heart of his beloved fair?).

Brilliant stuff – no wonder, Ghaalib is also called the Shakespeare of Urdu poetry !!!

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