Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Beg Ghalib[1]

Part I: His Life

Today no one buys my verse’s wine, that it may grow in age/

To make the senses reeling 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.

I am not someone on whose death the world will not shake/

Zahid will weep and wail and the Brahmin will do the plaint.[2]

My family and I visited India in the winter of 1983–84. We stayed in Delhi and Rampur and took a daytrip to Agra. In Delhi, we spent an afternoon at the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia, where we paid homage at the graves of Abul Hasan Yaminuddin Amir Khusrau (1253–1325) and Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Beg Ghalib (1797–1869). We also know the two poets by the honorable titles they were given: Tuti-e-Hind (Parrot or Songbird of India) to Amir Khusrau and Bulbul-e-Hind (Nightingale of India) to Mirza Ghalib. Coincidentally Amir Khusrau and Mirza Ghalib had their roots in Central Asia (Samarkand in today’s Uzbekistan), one from the Lachin clan and the other from the Aibak clan. Khusrau’s father migrated to India when Khusrau was a boy, whereas Ghalib’s grandfather came to India and probably married in an Indian family. Amir Khusrau is known for his beautiful Persian poetry, Hindi dohay (self-contained rhyming couplets) and the qawwali (devotional song or hymn). Besides these he made contributions to the Indian classical music, for which he also invented some instruments. More importantly, he laid the foundation of a language we call Urdu, using the grammar of Hindi and the vocabulary of Arabic, Persian, and Brij Bhasha (a dialect of Hindi). Mirza Ghalib paid this tribute to Amir Khusrau.

O Ghalib! Why shouldn’t my verse (words) be elegant in taste?/I wash the feet of Khusrau, the sweet reciter, and drink that water.

Today Urdu — aka Rekhta, Hindi, Hindustani — is the national language of Pakistan and the first language of most Muslims in India. Urdu literature, particularly in verse, started to flourish among Muslims in India in the second half of eighteenth century as the British rule was getting a firm hold on the subcontinent. Urdu had remained in the shadow of Persian since Persian was the language of the Mughal court. Persian came to India with the Muslim invaders from Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Turan), starting in about the tenth century. But its dominance started to wane in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century after the Mughal Empire had shrunk in area and Emperor Shah Alam II (1759–1806) became a captive (or puppet), first of the Marathas and then of the British in 1803.[3] His kingdom was confined to the Red Fort where he resided. Urdu literature in its distinct form was considered inferior to the Persian verse and prose until the time of Mirza Ghalib, whose poetry and prose in both Persian and Urdu are considered probably the best in their diversity, depth, and subtlety. I will illustrate it in the next two parts of this essay — Ghalib’s letters and poetry).

Who was Mirza Ghalib? He was born at Agra on December 27, 1797. On his father’s side, he was a Turk and on his mother’s side an Indian. His grandfather, Mirza Quqan Beg, had migrated from Samarkand to Lahore sometime in eighteenth century. He spent some years in the service of the Governor of Lahore and then he wandered around for twenty years. He appears at the Mughal court in Delhi in or around 1782. He and his family eventually settled in Agra in 1787. Quqan Beg had four sons and three daughters. We know the names of his two sons, Mirza Abdullah Khan Beg and Mirza Nasrullah Khan Beg. The two brothers, like their father, were Turani mercenaries. Abdullah Beg married Izzatun Nissa, daughter of Khwaja Ghulam Husain, a man of means and honour in Agra.[4] The pair had two sons and one daughter, Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Beg (Mirza Ghalib), Mirza Yusuf Khan, and Choti Khanum. Nasrullah Beg was married to a sister of Nawab Ahmed Bakhsh of Ferozepur Jhirka. Mirza Ghalib’s father served the Nawab of Awadh in Lucknow, then the Nizam of Hyderabad, and finally the Maharaja of Alwar. It was on the way from Alwar to Delhi that he was killed in a skirmish in 1802, when Mirza Ghalib was only five years old. His uncle, Nasrullah Beg , took the guardianship of his brother’s family. Nasrullah Beg was first with the Maratha army and then shifted his allegiance to the British army. He was handsomely rewarded with a good salary and a hefty jagir. But he died after falling from an elephant in 1806, when Mirza Ghalib was nine years old. Throughout his life Ghalib took great pride in his Turkishness and in his claim that he belonged to an aristocratic family, though there is little evidence to support the latter claim.[5]

After his uncle’s death, Mirza Ghalib and his two siblings were entirely dependent on their maternal grandfather, Khwaja Ghulam Husain. Apparently, they had a happy life under his roof. Nasrullah Beg’s jagir was taken over by the British administration as was the tradition. The dependents were awarded a reasonable annuity (pension) for each member. However, the size of the pension was reduced by one half and an outsider was added as a recipient, leaving the family with limited means to live on. This pension became a bone of contention and a source of many woes for Ghalib throughout his life. In fact, he spent a lot of his time, energy, and money in seeking what he thought belonged rightfully to him and his family. It was a life-time struggle without a happy end.[6] That was not all. Ghalib never acquired a salaried profession, except for his service in the Mughal court for some years. He depended on whatever he received as pension and as donations from patrons, friends, and pupils. But it was never enough, thanks to his imprudent profligacy. He spent freely on alcoholic drinks, company of female dancers and courtesans, and gambling.[7] He was almost always in debt to moneylenders and friends. On at least two occasions he spent time in government custody for debt and gambling. These were humiliating incidents about which Mirza Ghalib lamented in both verse and prose.

Ghalib started to show literary talents at around ten or eleven; he was lucky enough to be tutored by two or three outstanding teachers of languages, literature, and religion. He made remarkable progress in Persian, thanks to a man named Abdus Salam originally from Persia. Ghalib’s family life also started early. He was married when he was 13 and his bride was 12. His wife, Umrao Begum, was the daughter of Ilahi Bakhsh, the younger brother of Nawab Ahmed Bakhsh of Loharu. It seems that his grandfather provided him all the comfort and more but demanded little from Ghalib. Consequently, he acquired indolence and some undesirable company — dancers, gamblers, and drinkers. Ghalib’s wife bore him seven children, but every one of them died before completing the first year of life. The couple adopted Zainul Abdin Khan (Arif), who was the son of Ghalib’s sister-in-law or his wife’s sister. Arif died at a young age in 1852, and left two boys, Baqir Ali Khan, and Husain Ali Khan, for the Ghalibs to look after. Mirza Ghalib loved the grandchildren, though he complained a lot about the burden he had acquired. The Ghalib family moved to Delhi permanently when he was about 19 and making a name for himself in both the Persian and Urdu verses. (Ghalib and his family lived in rented houses (havelis), mostly in the Ballimaron area of the city. He used to remind his correspondents that they just had to write his name and the city on the envelope and the postman will deliver it at his door!)

After moving to Delhi some of Ghalib’s friends wanted him to get into to the Mughal court to increase his income and improve his status. For that purpose, he wrote qasidas for the Royal family on various occasions during the reign of Emperor Akbar Shah (1806–1837) and his son Bahadur Shah Zafar (1837–1857). In the times of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Ghalib wrote a contemptuous poem in Persian addressed to Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq, the Court Poet and literary preceptor of the emperor.[8] It did not endear him with the emperor, but eventually Ghalib was accepted in the court from 1850 and rose in rank after the death of Zauq in 1854. But the patronage ended with the revolt of 1857, after which the British deported Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon (Burma) where he died in 1862.

Ghalib has left at least twenty-two documented manuscripts or publications.[9] In his poetry, we have about 11,000 couplets (ash’aar) in Persian but no more than 1,800 couplets in Urdu.[10] Of his extant letters, 346 are in Persian and 850 in Urdu. Every one of the nearly ninety correspondents was a man and most of them were Muslims. But the largest number of letters were written to one of his Hindu friends and pupils, Munshi Hargopal Singh Tufta, whom he loved and held in high regard for his Persian and Urdu poetry. Ghalib regarded Persian superior to Urdu in both verse and prose; and he regarded himself superior to almost all poets of Persian in India. He thought that most Indian literati did not understand or appreciate his Persian poetry. Since Urdu poetry had become more popular in the Mughal court, Ghalib moved away from Persian to write in Urdu, especially after arriving in Delhi. In Urdu, however, he paid tribute to some of his predecessors, Sauda, Dard and Mir Taqi Mir. Consider his two couplets about Mir:

Ghalib! You are not the only master of Rekhta/People say that there once was a Mir!

Ghalib! What should I say about Mir’s poetry?/His diwan is no less flowery than the gardens of Kashmir.

Mirza Ghalib was a proud, perhaps somewhat conceited, generous, sensitive, and soft-spoken man. He took much pride in his ancestry and his literary talents. He had no occupation besides writing gems in verse and prose for which he was rewarded with money and titles. He received stipends from the Mughal Emperor and some indigenous rulers, Nawab of Rampur prominent among them, and received three titles from the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar: Najam ud Daulah, Dabeer ul Mulk, Nizam-i-Jang. Look at some of his expressions in self-deprecation, humility, and self-confidence. In a letter written in Persian Ghalib writes.[11]

Alas for my fate! Born to be struck down by misfortune and to see mt granaries reduced to ashes! I had not the means to ride to war like my ancestors. . . . nor the capacity to excel in knowledge and ability like Bu Ali Sina (Avicenna) and the wise men of old. I said to myself, “Be a darwesh and live a life of freedom.” But the love of poetry which I had brough with me from eternity assailed me and won my soul, saying, “To polish the mirror and show in it the face of meaning — this too is a mighty work. The command of armies and the mastery of learning is not for you. Give up the thought of being a darwesh and set your face in the path of poetry.” Willy nilly I did so, and landed my ship upon the illusory sea of verse. My pen became my banner, and the broken arrows of my ancestors became my pens.

Ghalib! Do not think ill of them when enemies abuse you/Does any man exist of whom all men speak only good?

Ghalib! I am truthful in my word; God is (my) witness/I say the truth because I do not have the habit of lying.

I have no wish for tributes, nor the need for any reward/Let it not be if there is no meaning in my couplets!

Ghalib was not a religious man, but he believed in one God, His prophets, Mohammad as the seal of prophets, and Ali (son-in-law of Mohammad) as the first Imam. He was from a Sunni family, but at some stage in his life he became a Shia. Altaf Husain Hali says this about Ghalib’s religion.[12]

From all the duties of worship and the enjoined practices of Islam he took only two — belief that God is one and is immanent in all things, and a love for the Prophet and his family. And this alone he considered sufficient for salvation.

While Ghalib was a believer, he kept an idiosyncratic relationship with his faith in God, at times chiding, challenging, and questioning.

When there was nothing, there was God/Had there been nothing, there would be God.

My existence is a curse on me/What would I be had I not existed?[13]

When no one else exists but you/Then what is this ruckus, O God?

Was it the godhead of Nimrud on earth?/My subservience yielded no good.

My faith is stopping me while infidelity is pulling me/K’aba is at my back and the church in front of me. [14]

I have built a house adjoining the mosque/This lowly creature (servant) is God’s neighbour![15]

O Rascal! For God’s sake, do not lift the cover from the K’aba/May it not be that here too the infidel idol is uncovered?[16]

O Ghalib! When my life has gone through these travails/How would I remember that I had God with me?

Ghalib’s wife was an observant Muslim; she prayed regularly. One time, after she left the prayer mat, she saw Ghalib standing bare feet with his shoes (sandals) on his head. His wife said, “What’s the matter?” He replied, “Since you have turned the house into a mosque, I must observe its protocols and be barefoot inside.” I should add that among his correspondents and friends, Ghalib was surrounded by Muslims (Sunni and Shia), Hindus and Christians (British and Indian). His natural inclination was towards mystic humanism as is well reflected in his verses and letters.

The years following the revolt of 1857 were full of grief and ill health for Mirza Ghalib. The aftermath of the mutiny was traumatic for him as it was for most Muslims in Delhi. Some of his friends and acquaintances were killed, others were put in jail, and still others fled the city. Ghalib had much to say about these times in his letters and poems. Then there was the perpetual concern about money problems. His meagre pension was stopped for over 15 months after the mutiny. He wrote in his diary: “In this time of deprivation, I have sold all the clothes, bed sheets and comforters to feed the family. It’s like other people eat bread, I was eating clothes! The end of the present state of destitution is either death or begging.” In the same period, Ghalib wrote the following couplets.

Let us now go and live in a place where no one lives/Neither someone to converse with nor someone of our tongue.

Let us build a house that has no door and no walls/Neither should there be a neighbour nor a passerby.

If we fall ill there should be no one to take care of us/And if we die, there should be no one to lament us.

Towards the end of his life, Mirza Ghalib wrote several letters in desperation to Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan of Rampur who was one of his major patrons. In probably the last letter to the Nawab, he wrote.

My affairs have gone from bad to worse, until now they have reached such a pass that I have only Rs. 54 of the hundred rupees left. . . . Altogether I need Rs. 800 to save my honour. . . . Just give me Rs. 800. If my honour is saved, it is enough to be thankful for. . . . In brief, my life and my honour are in your hands; but let what you grant me to be sent quickly.

But Ghalib received nothing in return. He also wrote to his grandson, Baqir Ali Khan, in Alwar to approach the Maharaja of Alwar, but nothing came of it either. This was a month or so before he died. According to Altaf Husain Hali, a few days before his death — he died on 15 February 1869 — Ghalib dictated a letter to Ala ud Din Ahmed Khan Alai, who had written him from Loharu asking him how he was. In it he said “Why ask me how I am? Wait a day or two and then ask my neighbours.” He also wrote a couplet in Persian, of which the first line was: “You could not come to see me. Well God keep you.” Hali says that towards the end Ghalib used to recite:

My dying breath is ready to depart/And now my friends, God, only God, exists.

Mirza Ghalib’s funeral was well attended — Muslims, Hindus and Christians were there. People of every status and class paid their tribute. There was, however, some controversy about the final prayers because it was performed according to the Sunni tradition only. He was buried in the precincts of the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia. That’s where his marble-covered grave is.

Ghalib belonged to one of those rare species of writers of prose and verse whose message is for all places and ages. He was mortal, but his word lives.

Part II: His Letters

Mirza Ghalib loved receiving and writing letters. Of his extant letters, I have counted 346 in Persian and 850 in Urdu.[17] Every one of his ninety correspondents was a man, and most were Muslims. But he wrote the largest number of letters to one of his Hindu friends and acolytes, Munshi Hargopal Singh Tufta (aka Mirza Tufta), whom Ghalib loved and held in high regard for his Persian and Urdu poetry. Several of his correspondents were his pupils. They wrote to him to review and correct their writings in Persian and Urdu. Ghalib responded to their requests, mostly ungrudgingly, even when he was not well. He did not expect, nor did he demand any reward for his effort; some of them sent him donations in different forms. In his letters, Ghalib also discussed his own Persian and Urdu verse and that of others to enlighten the recipient. He readily accepted requests from poets to correct their verse and gave his full attention no matter how much work it involved. His attitude was the same for those who aspired to write Urdu or Persian prose.[18]

Mirza Ghalib had the following views about letter-writing

Know O keen learner that the letter-writer should not let his expression go far away from what he wants to say. He should give a conversational touch to his writing and should so state his points that they should not be difficult to understand . . . . On no account should he use strange metaphors and unfamiliar or difficult words . . . . The words should be plain, sober, and easy to understand.

Ghalib had developed a unique style in letter-writing. In a letter to Mirza Hatim Ali Beg Mehr, he writes.

Mirza Sahib,

I have invented a style of writing that has transformed communication (correspondence) into conversation (dialogue). You can talk through the pen from a thousand kos (2,880 km) away. Enjoy the pleasures of union (companionship) in separation. Have you sworn not to talk to me? At least say what is in your heart. I haven’t received a letter from you for ages. . . .

Mirza Ghalib adopted an idiomatically colloquial style. And his moods are bewildering. They are formal, conventional, reverent, business-like, humorous and witty, plain, pleading, cajoling, chiding, beseeching, reprimanding, friendly, tender, affectionate, dramatic and theatrical, bemoaning, informal, and personal. No aspect of human emotion or behaviour is left out. Look at the variety of titles he uses to address his correspondents.

Janab-i-a’ali (Your lordship); Your holiness; Maulana (religious elder); Banda parwar (Helper of humanity); Pir-o-Murshid (Guide and teacher); Qibla-o-Ka’aba (Direction to the sacred cube in Mecca); Janab (Sir); Mohtarim (Respected); Sahib (Mr.); My life’s comfort; Light of my eyes; Gift of God; Jan-i-Ghalib (Life of Ghalib); My son; My boy; Salute Sir.

In most of his letters, at the end, he would write simply Ghalib. But he also used some interesting expressions:[19]

seeker of death, Ghalib; seeker of salvation, Ghalib; seeker of the unpredictable death, Ghalib; seeker of response, Ghalib; from Asad Ullah, the afflicted; seeker of receipt of the letter, Ghalib; seeker of appreciation, Ghalib.

Let us take some examples of how Ghalib addresses his correspondents. In a letter to Mir Mehdi Majruh, Ghalib writes:

Ha, Ha, Ha! My dear Mir Majruh has come. Come brother. I hope you are well. Sit down. This is Rampur. It’s a place of comfort. Where else one can find the pleasures one gets here? Water, God’s grace! Close to the city is a river named Kosi. Without doubt, its water has something like the spring-water of life. Even though the spring-water prolongs life, it is not as sweet (as the water from Kosi). . . .

In another letter to Mir Majruh, he says:

My boy! Where are you wandering? Come here. Listen to the news. . . .

(Ghalib ends this letter: Desirer of his own death, Ghalib.)

To Munshi Shev Narain, Ghalib writes:

Why my life? Have you taken an oath to not write a letter (to me)? Or you forgot to write? Are you in town or not?. . . .

And to Nawab Yusuf Mirza, he says:

Is there someone? Please call Yusuf Mirza. So here he comes! “Dear, I sent you a letter yesterday. But didn’t address a question you had raised.”

Mirza Tufta was one of Ghalib’s closest friends and pupils whom he admired. Of all his correspondents, Ghalib wrote the most (at least 123) letters to Tufta. Let us look at how Ghalib addressed his friend.

Come Mirza Tufta, hug me and listen to my story . . . .

In another letter to Tufta, Ghalib complains:

Why Sir? Will remain sour, or will you ever be sweet again? Let me know the reason for your estrangement. In my loneliness, I live only because of letters. When I receive some one’s letter, I think as if the writer has come (to me), By God’s blessing, no day passes when I do not receive two to four letters from here and there. There are days when the postman delivers the letters two times: one or two in the morning and in the evening. It delights me because my day passes reading letters and responding. So why is it that I do not receive letter from you sometimes for ten to twelve days? It’s like you have not visited me! Write to me. Sahib, tell me the reason for not writing. Don’t be a miser, not spending half an anna (price of postage stamp). If so, send me the letter bairang (without postage stamp).

Another close friend and pupil of Ghalib was Ala ud Din Ahmed Khan Alai, a relative of Ghalib’s wife. In a letter to Alai, Ghalib gives a grim account of his life.

You are the fresh fruit of that tree which came to maturity before my eyes, and whose cool shade I have rested, blessing his name. How can you be otherwise than dear to me. . . . Listen: there are two worlds, the world of spirits, and this world of earth and water. The Ruler of both these worlds is One Who has Himself proclaimed the question: “Whose shall be the kingdom this day (Day of Judgement)?” and has Himself given the answer: ”That of one God, the All-Powerful.” Though it is the general rule that those who sin in this world of earth and water receive their punishment in the world of the spirits, it has sometimes happened that those who have sinned in the world of the spirits are sent to undergo punishment in this world. Thus I,. . . . was sent here to stand trial. I was kept waiting in the cells for thirteen years and then. . . . I was sentenced to life-imprisonment.[20] A chain was fastened on my feet, and the city of Delhi having been designated my prison, I was committed there, and condemned to the hard labour of composing prose and verse. . . . After some years, I escaped from prison and ran away to the east.[21]. . . I was brought back and thrown into the same jail. Seeing that I would try to escape again, they fettered my hands as well.[22] . . . But I am a man without shame. . . . Last year I got my feet free, and ran off, leaving my fetters in a corner of my cell. . . . A few days short of two months had passed when I was apprehended and brought back again. Now I have promised not to run away again. And how can I? I no longer have the strength. I await now the order of my release. When will it come? There is just a faint possibility that I may get out this very month.[23]. . . .But, be that as it may, a man released from jail makes straight for home, and I too, when my deliverance comes, will go straight to the world of spirits.

Happy that day when I shall leave the prison house of earth/Forsake this barren vale, and reach the city of my birth.

Ghalib was a master of humour, often at his own expense. For example, in a letter to Mir Mehdi Majruh, he gives a glimpse of Nature’s fury.

Don’t ask about the rains. It’s God’s fury! Qasim Jan’s alley (lane) looks like Saadat Khan’s canal. In my house, the door on the side of Alam Beg Mart has collapsed. The door at the end of the courtyard on the mosque side has fallen. The stairwell is about to go. My anteroom for the morning sittings is tilting. The roofs have turned into sieves. If the rain falls for one minute, the roofs rain (leak) for hours.

Take another piece of Ghalib’s grim humour. In a letter to Mirza Tufta, he writes.

Your letter has come and told me all I wanted to know. I feel sorry for Umrao Singh, and envy him too! Wonderful are God’s ways! There is he, who has twice had the fetters struck from his feet, and here am I hanging for the last fifty-one years with my neck in the hangman’s noose — and the rope doesn’t break, and I don’t die. Tell him, “I’ll look after his children; why do you let your troubles get better of you?”[24] The line you have quoted is one of Hakim Sanai’s and the story is in his Hadiqa: ”A son came to his father and said, ‘Please arrange my marriage.’ The father replied, ‘My dear son, live in sin with some woman, but do not talk of marriage. Learn sense, not just from me, but from all the world. If you are caught in fornication you will still be released in the end. But if you marry you are bound for life, and if you leave your wife you are disgraced.’”

In another letter, this time to Qurban Ali Beg Salik, Ghalib writes.

I have become my own spectator. I feel happy in grief and humiliation as if I am someone else. I say Ghalib has been slapped again with shoes. He was so proud of himself as a great poet and scholar of Persian. No one can match me. Now face the creditors. The truth is that Ghalib died as a great infidel . . . .Come now “Najam ud Daulah” (Star of the Empire).[25] I am asking the debtor, “O Nawab Sahib! You are Seljuki and Afrasiabi. How are you being humiliated? Say something.” What could he say? Shameless, without honour. He has been taking on credit wine from the wineshop, rose water from the flower-shop, cloth from the cloth merchant, mangoes from the fruit merchant, money from the moneylender. He should have thought how would I pay back?

Read Mirza Ghalib’s reply to a letter from Syed Sahib-i-Alam Marharvi, a friend and a religious scholar, in which he had sent a poem praising Ghalib.

What can I say about the opening line of the beauty of its expression! And how am I to thank you for it? This is an instance of the strange bounties of God, that I who am a disgrace to His creation, is praised by those who are near to Him! Now, sometimes I think my abode is the Throne of God and sometimes I feel that paradise is my side garden! For God’s sake do not send me such verses again, otherwise I shall not hesitate to declare that I am god!

Ghalib had a large circle of friends, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, whom he regarded with love and respect. In a letter to Mirza Tufta, who had complained about the rude behaviour of Abdul Rahman, a distant kin of Ghalib, he replies in his usually humorous way.

My dearest friend,

What are you thinking of? Can every created mortal be Tufta or a Ghalib? Each man was made to fill his proper role. “Last thoughts are best.” Sugar is sweet, salt savoury, and nothing can change a thing’s inherent taste. I write and remonstrate with this man, can’t you see what he will think?. . . . As for what you write about my numbering him among my kinsmen, my gracious friend, I hold all mankind to be my kin and look upon all men — Muslim, Hindu, Christian — as my brothers, no matter what others may think. And as for that kinship which the world calls affinity, in that, community and caste and religion and way of life all have their place, and there are grades and degrees of affinity. Viewed by these standards, you will find that this man isn’t related to me in the smallest degree. . . . In short, when he can’t behave with ordinary decency, to write to him is pointless, useless, and even harmful. . . .

Mirza Ghalib, like many others, was traumatised by the events that followed the mutiny (revolt) against the British East India Company in 1857. In one of his letters to Mirza Tufta, Ghalib says.

. . . . So when my heart sinks, I recite this couplet:

O Ghalib! When my life has passed through these travails/How would I remember that I had God with me?

And when I am quite upset and tired, then I recite the following line and go into silence:

O unpredictable death! Why are you waiting?

No one should think that I am dying from the grief inflicted by darkness. The pain I have, you know my view about it. Among the English people who were murdered by those shameless blacks, there were some friends, companions, and pupils. Among the Hindustanis (Indians) were some friends, relatives, pupils, and beloveds. They all are now part of dust. You know how painful is the grief of one relative? When one is burdened by the grief of so many, is it not unbearable? Oh! So many of my friends are dead/ When I die, there will be no one to weep (mourn)! From God one comes and to Him one returns.

Ghalib lived in a turbulent time and his way of life didn’t make it any easier. Occasionally, he was overwhelmed by woes some of which were of his own making but others on which he had little or no control. Read this letter to Nawab Yusuf Mirza in November 1859.

Yusuf Mirza,

No one knows my condition, except myself and my God. Men turn dark by excess of grief. They lose their mind. So, what is surprising if in this storm of grief I have lost some of my power of thinking. Ask me what the grief is? Is it of death, food, or honour? About death, I count some residents of the city who have died (ignoring the Red Fort): Muzaffar ud Daulah; Mir Nasir ud Din; Mirza Ashur Beg, my nephew, his son Ahmed Mirza, nineteen-year-old boy; Mustafa Khan son of Azam ud Daulah, his two sons, Irtaza Khan and Murtaza Khan; Qazi Faiz Ullah. Didn’t I count them as my relatives? I forgot. Hakim Razi ud Din Ahmed Khan, Mir Ahmed Husain Maikash. God, Oh God! How can I bring them back? Then there is the grief of separation of Husain Mirza, Mir Mehdi, Mir Sarfraz Husain, Miran Sahib. God keep them living. I wish they are happy no matter wherever they are. Their homes are without light and they are wandering. When I imagine, my heart is torn into pieces. While any one can say these words, but I say, Ali be my witness, that to me the world looks dark because of grief for the dead and the separation of the living. My own mad brother has died.[26] His daughter with four children and his wife are in Jaipur. I haven’t sent them a rupee in the last three years. What does my niece think of me? Here I see the children and kinsmen of the rich and sundry begging. One needs a strong heart to absorb the shock.

Now I must turn to my own woes. One wife, two children and three or four house servants, Kallu, Kalian, Ayaz, and outside a madari and his children. . . . I don’t have income of even one paisa and there are 20 people to feed!. . . . I am a human, I am neither a giant nor a ghost. How can I bear these burdens? Now if you look you will know my condition, old age, weak body. I can barely sit for few minutes; rest of the time I am bed ridden. Neither I can go out nor does anyone visit me. I cannot afford the wine that used to give me energy. I used to go to the darbar where I was well received. Now I see no way out. I am neither dead, nor innocent, nor a sinner, nor an informer, nor an agitator. You tell me, if now they (British rulers) hold the darbar here and invite me, how would I arrange the nazrana (gift) to give?. . . .

But there was a humorous side to the aftermath of the mutiny. Anecdotally, Ghalib describes his encounter with the British this way (Cited by Ghulam Rasul Mehr, in Khutut-i-Ghalib, pp.582–583).

During the days of the mutiny (revolt) I did not go out of the city; nor was I arrested; nor was I interrogated. I stayed home. My house was in Ballimaron. Unannounced, one day seven or eight white men came down over the wall in my lane. No more than 50 or 60 souls lived there. They (the white men) gathered them all and ordered them to march. On the way, a Sergeant joined the soldiers. He exchanged greetings with me and asked me if I was a Muslim. I said, “Half Muslim.” He said, “Well. What is half Muslim?” I said, “I drink (wine) but do not eat ham (pork).” The Sergeant took me to Colonel Burn in the Chandni Chowk area. He (the Colonel) asked me my name and others their profession as well. After hearing my name, he said, “Asad Ullah Khan, I am surprised you did not visit us at the flagstaff.” I said, “If you want to listen, I will tell you.” He said, “Say.” I said, “The rioters wouldn’t let anyone go out of the house. How could I come? Even if I had deceived them and had come near the flagstaff a soldier on duty would have shot me. But even if the rioters had allowed me and the soldier would have spared me, look at me and ask about my condition. I am old, my hands and legs do not move; my ears are deaf; I am in no condition to fight or give advice. I could only pray and no more!” The Colonel laughed and said, “OK, you go back to your house and don’t mix up with your neighbours.” I thanked God and Colonel Burn and came to my house.

Mirza Ghalib’s letters of condolences, while they reveal his empathy with grieving friends, are a commentary on faith and healing. In a letter to Nawab Amin ud Din Khan of Loharu, he writes.

Dear brother,

Until today I was thinking about what to write to you about the death of Begum Sahiba (Nawab’s mother). On such occasions, one writes three things — to express grief, to enjoin patience, and pray to God for forgiveness of the sins of the deceased. So, to express grief is a mere formality: how can another person feel the grief you have? To exhort you to be patient would be heartless: how can one ask for patience at this unbearable loss? For God’s forgiveness to the deceased, who am I and what are my prayers? But since she was my patron and benefactor, the prayers well up from my heart.

Read Ghalib’s reply to a letter from Nawab Yusuf Mirza who informed Ghalib about his father’s death.

Yusuf Mirza,

How can I bring myself to write these words, “Your father is dead”? And if I do, what am I to write next? What am I to tell you to do now? To bear it patiently? That is the well-worn custom of the world — formal condolence and formal repetition of the phrase, “Bear it patiently.” Alas that when a man’s heart is cut out people can tell him to be still! How can he be still? This is not the occasion to offer advice, nor one where prayers and remedies have any place. First your son dies and now your father. If anyone were to ask me what it means to have nowhere to turn, I would say, “To be in Yusuf Mirza’s place.”

To Muzaffar Husain Khan on the death of his beloved, Ghalib writes in Persian.

In the days of my youth, my face was as dark as my hair (with my sins) and I was mad after the peri-faced beauties of the day. The poison of that obsession was then poured into my wine and endurance was made a mockery when the bier of my beloved passed along the way. On bright days (thereafter) I sat on a bit of matting and wore black in mourning for my dear friend. And on dark solitary nights of my sorrow, I was like a moth, which went round and round a quietly burning candle. What torture it was to think, that the tender body of your partner-in-love whom you would not trust to God, should be laid to rest in the dark grave! And what a terrible shame it was, that the beloved whom you would hesitate to take for a walk in the garden for fear of wounding the self-esteem of the narcissus, should be put away forever in the grave. . . .

As stated earlier, Mirza Ghalib was always in need of money. One finds his financial woes in numerous letters. Just look at three letters to Mirza Tufta.[27] In the first one written in June 1853, Ghalib says.


The day I sent you a letter, three days after that I received Hardev Singh’s application with receipt for twenty-five rupees and a Hundi (bill of exchange) for five hundred. Do you get it?. . . . The Hundi had to be cashed in twelve days, but I couldn’t wait and cashed it in six days. I paid the fee and got the cash. I have paid the debt. I am relieved. Today I have forty-seven rupees in cash in the box, and four bottles of wine and three rose glasses are in the pantry. God be praised!

In January of 1858, Ghalib writes to Mirza Tufta.

. . . . and I on my side have made no move either. I have not been to see any of the authorities, or written to them and made application to them. I haven’t received my pension since May. Judge for yourself how I have passed the last ten months. I cannot tell how it will all end. I am alive, but life is a burden to me. . . .

The next month, in another letter to Mirza Tufta, he says.

Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, 3 February, the postman brought me a registered letter. I opened it and found your draft, or bill or whatever you call it, for one hundred rupees inside. I sent off the servant with the receipt with my seal on it, and in little more than the time it takes to get there and back, he was back with hundred rupees in coins. I had borrowed twenty-four. . . . So, I repaid that, gave fifty to my wife and put the remaining twenty-six in my box; and as I had to open the box to do so, I wrote this letter at the same time. Kalian (Ghalib’s servant) has gone to the shops. . . . May God reward you and keep you. These are evil days, my friend, and I cannot see them ending well. In short, everything is finished.

In a letter to Mir Habibullah Zaka, Mirza Ghalib writes about the restoration of his pension in 1860.

My friend,

Yours to hand and its receipt removed the anxiety I had about any annoyance of yours. . . . My pension has been restored; the arrears of three years have been paid. After paying my debts, I had eighty-seven rupees and eleven annas left. Now I get the pension every month; but for only the next three months, that is September, October, and November. From December 1860, the pension will be paid every six months. On top of that four rupees per hundred will be deducted every year, that is, I shall lose two rupees eight annas per month. I shall get sixty rupees as pension per month instead of sixty-two and eight annas. I get some money from Rampur. All things considered I pass my life somehow. . . .

But in a long letter to Ala ud Din Ahmed Khan Alai, Ghalib describes his money woes in a graphic way.

Give my respects to my dear brother (Alai’s father) and tell him the days are gone when I could borrow from Mathra Das on the one hand and from Darbari Mal on the other, or went and got what I wanted from the lending houses of Khoob Chand and Chain Sukh. . . . Who cared when the capital or the interest was to be paid, if at all? On top of that, my household expenses were borne by my aunt. . . . My income now comprises sixty-two rupees and eight annas of my pension and the one hundred I get from (Nawab of) Rampur. Now who lends me money, but my own agent and he deducts interest from the moneys I get and then the income tax and the salaries of my guard and servants. That is, I pay back part of the loans, part of the interest, maintain a wife and the children and all on one hundred and sixty-two rupees a month! I did not know what to do. . . . At last, I could think of one remedy and that was to cut my morning cool beverage, reduce the meat to one half and give up my wine. My friends asked, “How long will you not drink?” I said, “As long as God wills.” Said they, “How will you live if you won’t drink?” I replied, “I shall live as He will ordain.” But as luck would have it, a month had not passed when I received a present from Rampur besides my allowance. I paid off the capital at once; only minor debts remained. I said, “All right I let them remain!” Soon the evening wine was resumed as also the full quantity of meat.

In the same letter, the imprudent profligate insists that he is a true believer of the Shia creed in Islam.

. . . . I am a true believer and a staunch Unitarian. I say, “There is no God but God” with my tongue and my heart says, “Nothing exists except God” and “Nothing operates in existence except God!” I believe that all prophets are worthy of reverence and in their own times it was imperative to obey them. (Further that) prophethood ended with Mohammad (peace be on him)! He is the last of the Prophets and is a blessing for both worlds. Where Prophethood ends, Imamat begins and Imamat to me does not depend on the will of the people; it is ordained by God and the first appointed Imam was Ali, then his sons, Hasan and Husain till the last, Mehdi the promised one (peace be on them).[28] I live by these (beliefs) and pass my days according to them. . . .

Ghalib had an ambiguous relationship, to say the least, with life and death. His life was full of worries and woes. He often thought of death as a release from bondage of life. In a long letter, he writes to Munshi Mian Dad Khan Sayyah on 31 December 1860.

. . . . My weakness is at its height, and old age has made me useless. I am weak, slothful, lethargic, depressed, and weary of life. My foot is in the stirrup and my hand on the bridle. I have a long, long journey to travel, and no provision for the road, for I go empty-handed. If I am forgiven without being questioned, well and good. If I am called to account, then I shall dwell in the hell and damnation will be my station. Alone to face torment. How well some poet has said: “Tired of all this, we look to death for our release/But what if even after death we find no peace?[29]

In a letter to Mir Habibullah Zaka in December 1866, Ghalib talks about the state of his ill health and poor finances.

My spiritual friend and brother in faith,

. . . .Life is tough. This month I have begun the seventy-third year. In my diet, in the morning I take seven almonds with sugar syrup; in lunch I drink the thick decoction of one seer (kilogram) meat; in the evening sometimes three kebabs; and at night wine worth five rupees from the wine shop and also some more syrup. . . . About the weakness of my body parts, I cannot get up. And I f I try to get out of the cot my legs tremble. I have the urge to urinate several times both in the day and at night. There is a pan for urine next to my bed. I get up to urinate and back in the bed. The reason for life is that I do not have bad dreams at night. I can sleep well. I receive one hundred and sixty-two rupees and eight annas and the expenses are three hundred rupees. So, every month there is shortage of one hundred and forty rupees. Tell me, is life tough or not? Death is not desirable. How would I accept death? Brother, for safe delivery, I am posting this letter bairang (without postage stamp).

Seeker of reply, Ghalib

Mirza Ghalib was not keen about getting his letters published. He had this to say to Munshi Shiv Narain Aram, who had asked his permission to publish his letters.

You want to publish my letters! This is not wise. There is hardly a letter which I have written with care or with attention. They are just casual outpourings. Whatever reputation I may earn from their publication, will go against the fame of my poetic talent. Apart from that, what good will it do to broadcast what passes between us? In short, the publication of these letters goes against my grain.

In response to Mirza Tufta’s desire to publish his letters, Ghalib wrote.

I do not like the idea of having my letters published. Do not bother me and do not persist like a child. But my dear fellow, if your happiness depends on this only, then don’t ask me. You are at liberty, but the whole idea is distasteful to me.

Part III: His Poetry

There is much debate about Ghalib’s attitude towards his poetry in Persian and Urdu.[30] He was ambiguous on this issue — see his qit’a addressed to Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq, the court poet of Bahadur Shah Zafar, cited in footnote 7 of my essay, Asad Ullah Khan Beg Ghalib: His Life. He was sure that his Persian verse was in the tradition of the great poets of Iran and far above the standard used by the Indian poets. In Urdu too, he was able to establish a standard that is hard to match. He adopted a style “which was graceful, mellifluous, simple and yet profound, and wrote verses which in their very sincerity touch the peak of artistic output, without losing any loftiness of thought or poignancy of emotion, can stand the test of an unbiased appraisal.” Ghalib was certain that posterity will admire his poetry because it appeals to almost every human emotion, dark or bright, low or high. In this context, read some of his couplets.

These topics come to (my) thought from the ghaib (Unknowable)/Ghalib! The sound of my quill (on paper) is the voice of angel.

Asad! The world of poetry flourishes because of me/My quill is the leg of the throne of the Sultan of poetry.

I get tribute from him for the quality of my verse/Although the Holy Ghost and I do not share the language.

O Ghalib! The plaint of your pen is making my heart pound/Tell me, what elegant manner of writing you extol?

Today none buys my verse’s wine, that it may grow in age/To make the senses reeling 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.

In the Persian Panj Ahang, Mirza Ghalib calls poetry “the capital of the world of divinity.” On the structure and style of poetry, he writes in the Preface to his Persian poetry.

There should be something virginal in the nature of a verse. In essence it should be pure and novel and in spirit it should have the capacity to melt. In should have the sweetness of kindness and the salt of plaintiveness. It should have the joy of song and the sorrow of tears. . . .

Ghalib’s poems reflect his many moods and thoughts on issues mundane, mystical, spiritual, and philosophic. There is much about love and romance, grief and sorrow, life and death, drinking and debt, longing and nostalgia, lamentation and celebration. All of this is expressed in lyrical rhymes using words and phrases that are both simple and complex. He plays on words, using one word with different meanings in the same line or couplet. Then there are his ambiguities, nuances, ironies, metaphors, allusions, and puns. No translation can capture the subtlety of his expressions. Let us first look at Ghalib’s reflections about himself.

Like the candle, I am burning as a tribute to loyalty/Beyond this I do not know what I really am.

My existence is in the borders of Nothingness/I am the bad sound of the organ of a broken heart.

Whichever way I face, in that is prostration required/Though I am not the Qibla, I am the compass for it.[31]

O floodwaters of annihilation! Do not confront the martyrs of sorrow/I am the deathless embroidery of the mantle front of everlastingness.

I have found a place on the forehead of the wandering breeze/I am the gallant moth who has burnt in steadfast loyalty.

I obey the moods of my captor (beloved) in every state/I am a bird with burnt wings and whose feet are fettered.

O You who speculate between the real and the unreal/Lovers stay above the illusion of the truth and falsehood.

In the rapt of my ardent love, I bend in prostration/Do not ask in front of whom I am prostrating.

Ghalib is not waiting for the tumult of the Doomsday/There are hundreds of tumults in every particle of earth.

O Ghalib! Who considers himself a man of judgement/You have fallen in the estimation of friends and foes.

You have lost touch with your friends and acquaintances/Madness has seized you and you have become crazy.

What wonders have worked with water and flower? /Whatever has happened to you and to your heart?

What glory do you seek in these colourful gardens? /Sacrifice yourself and become your own paradise.

If in your madness you complete your personality/You will find Kashan only half a footstep from Kashi.[32]

Come out of your garments like fragrance out of a rose/Liberate yourself from the imprisonment of the body.

Do not give up the ways of intuitional apprehension/My life be your surety, wrap up the six dimensions!

Rise and be ready to die like a spark! /Shake yourself free from your attachments.

Mirza Ghalib was an eternal lover who had little regret or remorse. His relationships in love were full of joy and sorrow, sweetness and bitterness, flattery, and satire.

O Ghalib! Love has made me worthless/Otherwise, I too was a worthy man.

In love, there is no difference between life and death/I live by seeing that infidel (beloved) for whom I am dying.

Why should I cry for my heart if I find the pleasures of my eyes? /I should but find your face among the houris of paradise.

Do not bury me in your lane (O beloved) after murdering me/Why should people find your house from my address (grave)?

Serve the wine generously tonight because I/Drink as much wine as is served every night.

I have no complaint about you, but my friend/Give my salam to the letter-bearer if you find him.

I should show you what Majnoon did in love/If I can get relief from the grief I am hiding.[33]

I am not bound to follow khizr (the way guide)/But I am happy that I have an elder as company.[34]

O residents of my beloved’s lane! keep an eye/If you see (meet) the madman Ghalib somewhere.

It is heart after all, not a brick or stone that it should not brim up with pain/I shall weep a thousand times, why should anybody bother me in sympathy?

It is not a temple, nor the K’aba, nor beloved’s door, nor a noble’s mansion/I am sitting by the wayside, why should my rival remove me from there?[35]

When that heart-brightening beauty, with a face like the half-moon/Is herself so dazzling, why should she hide her face behind the veil?

When you have the daggers of your charms and arrows of your blandishments/How can your reflection face you in the mirror even though it is yours?

The bondage of life and the fetters of pain are one/Why should man find relief from sorrow before death?

Her beauty and her trust in it saved the rival’s face whose intent was lust/Since she has trust in her beauty, why should she test the rival’s intent?

My beloved is proud and arrogant, and I too had regard of my dignity/How could we meet in the way and why should she invite me in the gathering?

She is not a believer of God, nor does she keep faith with any man/Why should a man who values faith and heart go into her lane?

What will stop to happen once the wretched Ghalib is gone? /Why should one weep profusely and why should one wail?

She is very critical, yet I cannot refrain from telling her my heartache/What can I tell when whatever I say will have no effect on her?

I call her! But O my heart’s desire I shall admit your power only/She should be so affected that she cannot stop herself from coming.

She regards love as a plaything; may she not forget or leave it/I wish it were so that she should not rest without teasing me.

My rival is going about with your letter to him in such a way that if/Someone asks him “What is this?”, he will not be able to hide it.

Damn her delicateness! She may be generous, but so what? /Even if I can reach (get) her, I still cannot touch her with my hands.

Who can say who is behind this beautiful pageant of the world? /She has let down such a veil that I am unable to lift it no matter.

Should I not wait for death? Because it is but inevitable/Should I long for you? If you don’t come, I must call you.

Such burden of life has fallen upon me that I cannot bear/I face such problems that despite effort cannot be resolved.

No one has any power over love; it is that fire O Ghalib/That one cannot lit, nor can it be extinguished by desire.

My pain (heartache) is not indebted to medication/It was not a bad thing that I was not cured of my love.

Why do you gather my rivals to witness my shame? /I came to complain, and you have made it a spectacle!

Where should I go to try my fate (to sacrifice in love)? /When you have not tried your dagger on my heart.

How sweet are your lips (O beloved) that my rival? /Was not discomfited by the foul words you spoke.

The news is rife that my beloved is coming to me/Alas! That today my house has no mat to lay on.

Was it the godhead of Nimrud in the universe?/That my submission did not bring me any good.

I have yielded my life! It was He who gave it/The truth is that I was not true to that gift.

The wound is bandaged but the blood has not stopped/Work has come to stop, though it should not have.

Is it highway robbery, or mere teasing of my heart?/After ravishing it, the heart-stealer merely went away.

Read something because people keep saying that/“Today Ghalib has not recited any Ghazal (poem).”

Because her (beloved’s) every signal is deceptive/When she loves me, I feel it is something else.

O God! she (my beloved) doesn’t understand my word/Give her another heart, if not another tongue to me.

Why should I worry, you are in town? When I leave/I will go and bring another heart from the Bazaar.

I have mastered the art of breaking the clay idol/But my existence is a (stronger) stone in the way.

My heart’s blood is agitated, I would have wept/To my heart’s content if I had more eyes to bleed.

I die at that sound (beloved’s voice); let my head go/The beloved keeps telling the executioner “One more”.

Had I not loved you, I would have enjoyed much peace/Had I not died, I would have lamented for another day.

The channels overflow if they don’t find the way/If my nature is restrained, it moves even faster.

While there are other great reciters (of poetry) in the world/People say, “Ghalib’s style of recitation is something else”.

Mirza Ghalib had a taste for wine, and was hardly ever without it, thanks to his many friends and his line of credit. An apocryphal anecdote may not be out of place here. There were some hard times for Ghalib’s wife to put food on the table because of perpetual want of money. One time, she complained about it. In response, Ghalib said, “My dear wife, God says in the Quran that He is the provider of rizq (food) to everyone, so He will. But He doesn’t say this about alcohol, hence I must make its provision myself.” Ghalib enjoyed the rainy season (late June to end of August) in Delhi and with it the drinking of wine, about which he wrote in his many verses and letters.

It’s time again for the wine to move on water/For friends to drink it from the Swan-necked goblet.[36]

Don’t ask the reason for revelry in the garden/The breeze under the shade of vine makes the wine.

One who is drunk is really full of good luck/Wine is like the bird Huma that elevates him high.[37]

Why the surprise? It is the season of rains/Wine is the source of our blooming spirit.

The new spirit is like the blooming of flowers/The flow of wine is like the drops falling into the river.

O Asad! Looking at the flowers make me tipsy/The time has come that the wine must flow!

O Zahid (pious man)! Let me sit and drink in the mosque/Or tell me a place where God is not present.

Ghalib! I gave up wine, but now occasionally/I drink on a cloudy day and in the moon-lit night.

I used to drink with borrowed money, but I knew it well/One day I shall face the music for the revelry.

Though my hand has no motion, my eyes can see/Let the glass and goblet stay in front of me.

Once the Nawab of Loharu invited Ghalib for a visit. It was the season of rains, wine and mangoes in Delhi. Read his response to the invitation.

The (monsoon) rains bring happiness/So that we can drink wine and eat mangoes.

Am I blind that at the beginning of this season?/I should leave Delhi and go to Loharu.

(There) except for the grains that are lifeless/I will find neither mangoes nor grapes.

The order is given to the cooks that/Go and ask what they should cook tomorrow.

Where can I find the sour flower of tamarind?/Where should I get the bitter gourd from?

There is only sheep’s thickly fibrous meat/What pleasure can I get from eating it?

Asad Ullah Khan was also a man of intellect, had great trust in rationality and human progress. He was forward-looking and occasionally sounded revolutionary in his thought. Let us read some couplets on reason and intellect from the Moghanni Nama.

To the seeker of pearls, let this good news be given that/From dark clay a luminous pearl is sending forth its rays!

And though a discourse may be like a treasure trove of jewels/The brilliance of Reason and Intellect has a value of its own.

To adorn this very ancient world, you must use Reason/For the preservation of order and harmony on earth.

Good action can be pursued only with the help of Reason/God grant that Man’s head may never be empty of Reason.

Intellect is the very source (spring) of life!/Intellect matures (grows stronger) with age.

In Creation, the first to turn towards Being was Reason/It was Reason that banished darkness from the world.

Even now it is bound up with the roots of my being/And my mind is still full of that world of Light.

It is that very Light that you see in me despite my darkened fate/And it still brightens the glowing dark spots of my heart.

I seek wisdom, even though death should bar the way/In life, I am satisfied with Reason as my entire worldly possession.

When you drink this wine, the ear plays the part of a goblet/Reason is the Saqi (bartender) and Intellect is the drinker.

Reason uses its powers after due consideration/It drinks the wine and yet remains unstained.

While Ghalib loved the old order, its courtesies, its class distinctions, its aristocratic privileges, its cultural traditions, its domestic virtues, and its general way of life, he did not spare Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) when he asked Ghalib to write poetry as preface to Abul Fazl’s A’in-i-Akbari (Laws of Akbar) that Sir Syed had translated into Urdu.[38] Mirza Ghalib wrote a Mathnawi, in which he wanted Sir Syed to look to the future and not to the dead past.

Give good news to friends that this old book/Is now available thanks to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

His (Syed’s) eyes are keen and his arms are strong/That is why an old thing has assumed a new shape.

But that he has attempted to edit these old Laws/Seem to me a disgrace for a man of his high ideals.

If we are still talking of the Laws of Akbar, then/Open your eyes and see in this old world: see the Englishmen, their manner and their ways.

So that you may see the laws made by these men/Laws which were never seen by men before.

These craftsmen have so improved the arts and crafts/Their efforts have far exceeded those of others gone before.

Only this nation has the right to make laws and enforce/No other people do better administration than they.

They have combined justice with wisdom and/Have given hundreds of new laws to Hindustan.

The fire we produce by striking stone on stone/These skilled people produce it by using straw.

What magic they have performed with the steam/That drives the boats on the water with force.

Sometimes the steam propels the boat in the river/Sometimes it drives the train in the jungle and desert.

Grief and sorrow were never too far from Ghalib’s heart and mind. Let us look at a couple of his lamentations. One is about the death of his adopted son, Zainul Abdin Khan Arif in 1852; a second one is about Delhi, the Mughal capital, after the 1857 mutiny; and the third is about life and irreplaceable loss of beauty.

You should have waited for me for some other day/Why did you go alone? Now stay alone for some other day.

My head will cease but your stone will remain unstained/If I continue to wail and hit my head on your grave.

You came yesterday, and you say I must go today/I admit it cannot be forever but go some other day.

While going away you say, “We will meet on doomsday.”/What a strange talk? As if there is another doomsday.

O Timeless Heavens! Arif was still in his youth/Would it be a loss to you had he died some other day?

You shone like the moon of the fourteenth in my house/Then why did it not remain the same until another day?

Were you ever prompt (quick) in settling your accounts?/The angel of death could have claimed some other day.

We passed the time no matter it was good or bad/O the young dead! You should have stayed until another day.

You lack sense when you ask, “Why O Ghalib do you live on?”/It is in my fate to await death some other day.

Every English soldier is now an autocrat/He can do whatever he bloody well likes.

If one leaves the house for the market/One melts from what one sees around.

The place called Chowk is a slaughterhouse/And one’s house has become a jailhouse.

Every particle of the dust of Delhi/Is thirsty for the blood of Muslims.

No one from outside can come into the city/No one from here can go out (of the city).

I admit we can now meet. So What?/We will only weep about the state of life.

We will but exchange the burning sensation/Of the scars hidden under every chest.

On occasion we will weep and wail together/And talk about what our tearful eyes have seen.

O God! how can this kind of meeting remove?/The scar of separation there is in the heart.

Not all but only some have come up as tulip and rose/What beautiful faces have gone into dust not to appear.

I remember well the various ways of colourful revels/They have now become decorations of forgetfulness.

Let the blood flow from my eyes, it is the night of parting/I shall think that two candles have been lit with the blood.

Sleep belongs to him, mind is his, and the nights are his/On whose shoulders your tresses are spread during sleep.

As I entered the garden, as if a school were opened/On hearing me song, the nightingales sang the ghazal.

Why O God! Are those glances piercing into my heart?/Those because of my bad luck are beloved’s eyelashes.

I m a Unitarian! My creed is to renounce all rituals!/When creeds disappear, they become part of one’s faith.

If one is accustomed to grief, grief itself disappears/So many woes have fallen upon me that my life is easy.

If Ghalib keeps weeping thus, I say to theresidents:/You see these settlements; they will become desolate.

In much of his Persian and Urdu poetry Ghalib has mystical and philosophic engagement with life and its affairs. Some of it is full of hope and some of despair. Let us take a glance at some couplets.

What friendship is this that friends are my counsels/I wish I had someone who could share my sorrows.

The vein of stone would bleed and it will not stop/Had the sorrow of life penetrated it deep inside.

Who should I tell what it is? The night of sorrow is awful/Why would I mind dying , if it were only once?

I got a bad repute after death. Why didn’t I drown?/There would be no funeral nor a grave any where.

O Ghalib! These mystical issues and your narrative/I would have regarded you a saint if you were not a drinker!

No hope is realised (fulfilled)/No way out seems to exist.

I used to laugh about my heart in love/Now there is nothing to laugh about.

For death there is a day fixed/Why doesn’t sleep come all night?

I am in a place from where even I/Do not get the news about my state.

I am dying in the desire for my death/There is death, but it doesn’t come to me.

With what face will you go to K’aba, Ghalib?/But you do not feel any shame(for it)![39]

Surely it is difficult for every effort to be easy/As it is for a man to become a human (sapien).

O Ghalib! I have my sight on the path to the end of life/It is where the scattered elements will join.

Be he son of Mary (Jesus the healer)/Can he cure the malady I suffer from?

Don’t listen if someone speaks bad of others/Don’t publicise if someone acts badly.

Stop if someone is on the wrong path/Forgive if someone has made mistakes.

Is there anyone who is without need?/Whose need can anyone satisfy well.

O Ghalib! When one has lost expectations/Why should one complain about anyone?

Mirza Ghalib was not free from flattery. He wrote qasidas and qit’at for some of his patrons and friends. In these panegyrics he was liberal and hyperbolic with words. The purpose clearly was to feed the vanity of the recipient. We should read some examples. The first one is a qit’a he wrote some time after he was employed at the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar to write history in 1850.

O King of Kings! Your throne is up in the skies/O ruler of the world! You shine like the sun.

I was someone without work and sitting in a corner/I was person in pain with a wounded chest.

The honour you have now bestowed upon me/I have thus achieved an enviable position.

I who was a worthless particle of dust/I now know the difference between fixed and moving stars.

My guide and teacher! Though I do not have/Any taste or desire for a turban on my head.

But I do need something in the winter season/To protect me from the pain of biting cold.

Why shouldn’t I need warm clothing?/I have a body that is very weak and frail.

Today there is no one like me in the world/A poet who can compose and recite so well.

If you wish to hear the story of a war from me/My tongue is like the bejewelled sword.

And if you organise a literary gathering/My pen’s cloud will rain the drops of pearl.

It would be unjust not to appreciate my verse/It would be a calamity if I am not shown love.

I am your slave. Should I roam naked?/I am your servant. Should I live on borrowed money?

Please give my salary every month/So that my life does not remain in despair.[40]

I end my petition with a prayer/I do not have much to do with poetry.

May you live in peace for one thousand years/Every year should be of fifty thousand days.

In a qasida for his patron Maharajah Sher Dan Singh, ruler of Alwar, on his twentieth birthday in 1863, Ghalib writes.

I have counted knots twenty times in these years/There are left to count one hundred thousand knots!

This counting of knots will remain until judgement day/A knot will be set at the beginning of each year.

It is for his birthday that year by year/The knot brings the spring bloom of flowers.

Listen O friend! This birthday thread of knots/I tell you why it has taken this form.

God has granted power to your birthday/That it doesn’t allow the knots to unfold.

If Your Majesty pays no attention to it/No one will be able to undo the knots you have.

I pray that in the enemy’s jealous heart/There is a malignant and tough knot.

It will tear through his heart like a boil/May God make it appear this way.

Ghalib’s qasida for Donald McLeod, Governor of Punjab, at a darbar in 1866 draws the Governor’s attention to the issue of his pension and titles.

Every day, in hundred ways, the Heavens/Salute the ruler of the land of Punjab.

A ruler who tells the truth, follows and recognises/He is a dignified Nawab who has majesty.

He is brave like Jamshed and in time of war/He will snatch the sword from Mercury.[41]

The government should undo the injustice done/Why should Ghalib be disgraced?

I am not asking about something new from you/If you want, Sir, it is not a difficult task.

The art of poetry it is from the old times/That the long panegyric ends with prayers.

It is my prayer that your rulership remains/Over India and Sindh and Rum and Syria.[42]

Mirza Ghalib’s qit’at to Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan of Rampur and his son Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan reflect his appreciation of their patronage and support. Ghalib visited and stayed in Rampur as their guest on at least two occasions. On Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan’s recovery from illness in 1865, Ghalib wrote.

Greetings! How merciful this year is/The Eid of Shawwal and the Spring (equinox) are here.

This year’s days and nights have no parallel/This month and year are better than all others.

The occasion of Nawab’s shower of health/The Nawab who graces the dignity of throne.

The Nawab who is like a king in dignity/The Nawab who is a slayer of lion in war.

The Nawab whose throne sits high in the skies/The Nawab whose ring has the sun as gem.

How can I describe your graces?/If I can do, who will believe me?

And in this fragile state of old age/When I am weak, unwell and in grief.

In this state, I seek God’s refuge/I possess nothing, and I am in sorrow.

I pay tribute to Your Majesty/For which my pen is in prostration.

I am not flattering, only praying/Ghalib seeks nothing but your good will.

My prayer is that in this world/You live in good health for ever. Amen!

Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan died soon after his recovery. Ghalib then wrote two qit’at for his son, Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan. In a letter to the Nawab in 1865, he sends the following qit’aa in which he refers to his financial difficulties in the hope of getting help.

O residents of this earth be thankful/The cloud with star drops is in full force.

Where is the beautiful Saqi and the rain cloud/Bring the rosy wine and bring the heavy rain!

O cloud! God has given you the pearly drops/Come and pour the rains at the gate of the Nawab.

The angel who comes with every drop would say/May Amir Kalbe Ali Khan live one thousand years.

It is not limited to one thousand years/Many thousand year, but one hundred thousand years.

O helper of others! This bearer of woes (Ghalib)/He has spent four or five years in great suffering.

May you have good health and Ghalib freedom from sorrow/May God make this one a good year.

Ghalib wrote another qit’a for Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan in 1866. This one has a very different tone, though the purpose remains unchanged.

There are two Sunni Sultanates in India/ Hyderabad Deccan, envy for the garden of Eden.

Rampur, in the eye of a connoisseur, is that city/Where eight Heavens have come together.

Hyderabad is far away, so the people from here/Do not go there, but only few of them go.

Rampur, today, is that inhabited piece of earth/To which come and settle the best of humans.

Rampur is a big garden, an unrivaled example/Heartwarming, fresh, fertile, expansive, and delightful.

Like the abundant rains fall in the garden/The hand of generosity is like the unending Dajla.[43]

From the clouds of the generous hands of Kalbe Ali Khan/The raindrops are the jewels of kings

What should I ask God for the Nawab? He has every thing/State, treasury, courtiers, army, flute and flag.

I am neither a publicist, nor do I like to speculate/I have two prayers that I offer for the Nawab.

O God! Give to the patron of Ghalib the sinner/Two things that everyone in the world seeks from you.

First, a long life with a high and stable status/Second, the gift of a glimpse at Prophet Mohammed.

Mirza Ghalib spent number of years in fragile health. It was certainly acute in the last five years. His outlook on life was usually ambiguous, but it became quite dark towards the end. His financial woes exacerbated the condition. A few couplets reflect Ghalib’s state of mind in ill health and old age.

The times have crushed you Asad Ullah Khan/Where are the enthusiasms? Where has that youth gone?

If (I) fall ill, no one should take care of me/And if I die, no one should mourn after me.

O Asad! There is no remedy for life’s sorrows except death/Candle burns no matter until the break of dawn.

O Ghalib! All the woes(miseries) have ended/Only the (one) unpredictable death is left!

[1] I am grateful to Mr. Manzoor Khaliq whom I first met in Pakistan after my retirement from Simon Fraser University in 2002. That gentleman inspired me to study Ghalib — he gave me a copy of Natalia Prigarina’s biography of Mirza Ghalib. I was deeply impressed by Mr. Khaliq’s interest in and knowledge of Ghalib’s life and writings. In this essay, in three parts, I try to give glimpses of Ghalib’s life, letters and poetry. I hope the reader will forgive my lapses since I am not a qualified student of Ghalib, but a mere fan.

I should add a word about the translation of Mirza Ghalib’s writings in Persian and Urdu. No translation — no matter who does it and how — can capture the subtlety of his expressions; his play on words, using one word with different meanings in the same line or couplet; his ambiguities, nuances, ironies, allusions, and metaphors; his tongue-twisting; his flight of fancy; his wit and humour; his mysticism and philosophy; his puns; his regrets and remorse; his lyrical rhymes; and more. I have borrowed some translations from other writers and some I have done myself.

For this essay, I have borrowed material from several sources. Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi (Editor), Makatib-i-Ghalib (Ghalib’s letters), 1937; Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi (Editor), Diwan-i-Ghalib (Ghalib’s collected verse), 1958; Altaf Husain Hali, Yadgar-i-Ghalib (Ghalib’s biography), 1932; S.M. Ikram, Ghalibnama (Life of Ghalib), 1952; Sayyid Fayyaz Mahmud, Ghalib: A Critical Introduction, 1969; Ghulam Rasul Mehr (editor), Khutut-i-Ghalib (Ghalib’s letters), 1957; Ghulam Rasul Mehr (editor), Diwan-i-Ghalib (Ghalib’s collected verse), 1968; Natalia Prigarina, Mirza Ghalib: A Creative Biography. In Russian, 1986. (Translated into Urdu by M. Osama Faruqui in 1997); Partau Rohilla, (Editor), Kuliyat-e-Maktoobat-e- Farsi-e-Ghalib (Ghalib’s Persian letters translated into Urdu), 2009; Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, Ghalib: A Life and Letters, 1994.

[2] Zahid refers to a man of piety in Islam and Brahmin is a learned man and is on top in the Hindu caste system.

[3] The Mughal Empire started to disintegrate after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. He wasted more than two decades in the Deccan trying to bring the Marathas under his rule. By 1720, while the various claimants to the throne in Delhi were fighting and killing each other, the Maratha armies raided the northern parts. By the middle of the century, Hyderabad Deccan and Oudh had become independent dynastic states and the East India Company had taken over Bengal and Bihar. In the meantime, the Persian Nadir Shah invaded India, looted its capital, and killed thousands in the process in 1739. He was followed by the Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali who invaded India several times between 1748 and 1761, a year when his armies crushed the Maratha forces at Panipat. After that Abdali was harassed by the Sikhs in Punjab and the Marathas receded to the south. The East India Company defeated the Nawab of Awadh in 1765 and made him their vassal under a treaty. They then defeated the Rohillas in 1774. Marathas returned to the north in 1771 and their major rivals were now the British. In 1803 the British defeated the Marathas and occupied Delhi. Ghalib was six years old at that time.

[4] After his marriage, Mirza Abdullah Beg lived in the house of his father-in-law. His children were born in that house and raised by their maternal grandfather.

[5] In a letter to Mir Habib Ullah Zaka, on 15 February 1867, Ghalib wrote (cited by Ghulam Rasul Mehr, Khutut-i-Ghalib):

“Brother, I do not know why you like me, and I love you. . . . Let me tell you that I am a Seljuk of Turkish stock. My (paternal) grandfather came to India from Transoxiana (beyond the river) in Shah Alam’s time. The empire was already weakened, and he took service with Shah Alam with a command of only fifty horses. . . . receiving a fertile estate sufficient to provide for his own livelihood and for the upkeep of his troop (Risala). But after his death this was lost in the anarchy of those times. My father, Abdullah Beg Khan Bahadur, went into the service of Nawab Asaf ud Daulah of Awadh. After a few days he went to Hyderabad and took service with Nawab Nizam Ali Khan. There he had the command of a force of three hundred cavalry. He stayed there for several years. He lost the employment because of internal dissentions. He then moved right away to Alwar where he was employed by Rao Raja Bakhtawar Singh, ruler of Alwar. There he was killed in a skirmish. My uncle, Nasrullah Beg Khan, who was employed by the Marathas as Governor of Akbarabad (Agra), became my guardian. In 1803, when General (Lord) Lake took over (from Marathas), the Governorate became a Commissionerate, and an Englishman was appointed as its commissioner. General Lake made my uncle Brigadier (commander) of 400-horse cavalry. His personal salary was one thousand and seven hundred rupees, and he was given land, for the duration of his life, which produced income of one hundred thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand rupees per year. But a year later he died suddenly. The cavalry force was disbanded, and the grant of land was replaced by a fixed allowance. The allowance I still receive. I was five years old when father died and eight when uncle died. . . .

[6] Mirza Ghalib spent three years(1827–30), mostly in Calcutta, pleading his case for the family pension before the East India Company officials. It didn’t, however, yield the desired results.

[7] Ghalib had other hobbies as well, among them chess and kite-flying were his favourites.

[8] “O You have said in the company of the poetry-understanding Emperor that Ghalib cannot be your equal in the volume of verses indited. You have said the right thing, but you should know that if the melody of my lute or guitar is less loud than the sound of a drum, it is no shame. . . . In poetry you neither speak my language nor sing my tune, then why is your heart convulsed with envy of my song? . . . ”

[9] They are cited by Ghulam Rasul Mehr in Khutut-i-Ghalib (Ghalib’s letters)

[10] Ghalib wrote poetry in several well-known forms in the Arabic-Persian tradition. Ghazal, a lyric poem with 7–11 couplets and a repeated rhyme with same meter. It can be amatory, mystical, or rational. Mathnawi (Masnawi), a narrative poem with extensive rhyming couplets or a poem based independent internally rhyming couplets. It can be mystical, moral story. Rubai is a quatrain. Qit’a (plural Qit’at) is a kind of verse in which the meaning of the first line of a couplet is incomplete without the second line following it (a strophe). Qasida is a laudatory poem (panegyric, ode) with rhymes as in a ghazal. Marsia is an elegy or lamentation in verse for a deceased person.

[11] Cited by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, Ghalib: Life and Letters.

[12] Cited by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam, Ghalib: Life and Letters.

[13] This couplet reflects the depth of Ghalib’s thinking about the real and the unreal. God alone is real: His existence has no beginning and no end. The rest is unreal or contingent. So, in the second line, Ghalib says that my existence has lowered me as a contingent being. So, he asks, “Had I not existed, what would I be?” One interpretation is that we do not know. Altaf Husain Hali gives a more interesting interpretation: that I would be God since He alone exists when nothing else does.

[14] K’aba is the sacred cube inside the grand mosque in Mecca. Muslims all over the globe make their prayers facing the K’aba.

[15] Mosque is regarded as the house of God.

[16] It is a reference to the black stone (meteorite) inside the K’aba (the sacred cube) in the grand mosque at Mecca.

[17] Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu Hind has published all Ghalib’s available letters collected by Khaliq Anjum.

[18] One of these was Abdul Latif, son of Munshi Nabi Bukhsh Haqeer, a friend of Ghalib. When Haqeer wrote that Abdul Latif wanted Ghalib to correct his Persian prose but couldn’t write to him directly because he was shy, Ghalib replied in his usual way on 23 April, 1853. (Cited by Ralph Russell abs Khurshidul Islam, Ghalib: Life and Letters.) “Abdul Latif is my life, my soul, my son. Who are you to come forward to plead his case and negotiate for him? Who ever forbade him to send me his work? And who forbids him now? Verse, prose, anything he likes he can send to me. He must not press me to return it. I’ll look at it in my own good time and then return it to you. This shyness he feels will be the death of me. . . . And now there’s this matter of his sending his prose for me to correct. Is this too some thing that his honour feels shy about? God save us!”

[19] He used two pen names (takhallus): Asad and Ghalib.

[20] This is a reference to his marriage.

[21] He travelled east to Benares and Calcutta.

[22] Ghalib and his wife must look after Arif’s two sons, Baqir Ali and Husain Ali, whom they had adopted as infants.

[23] He means he will die.

[24] Umrao Singh has been widowed twice. He plans to marry a third time so that the new wife can look after the motherless children.

[25] Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar bestowed on Ghalib three titles: Najam ud Daulah, Dabeer ul Mulk, and Nizam-i-Jang. Ghalib, status conscious as he was, took these titles seriously.

[26] Ghalib’s brother Mirza Yusuf Khan died during the mutiny in 1857. Yusuf was mentally unwell from a young age. At some point, when he showed signs of recovery, Ghalib wrote a poem. In the last couplet, he says, “God has given to my brother a new life/O Ghalib! Mirza Yusuf is to me the second Yusuf!” The reference here is to the legendary Yusuf (son of Yaqub) in the Qur’an and Joseph (son of Jacob) in the Bible.

[27] Mirza Tufta was a generous supporter of Ghalib.

[28] The concept of Imamat — succession to Prophet Mohammad — is an essential part of the Shia creed.

[29] This couplet is by Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq.

[30] Ghalib wrote poetry in several well-known forms in the Arabic-Persian tradition. Ghazal, a lyric poem with 7–11 couplets and a repeated rhyme with same meter. It can be amatory, mystical, or rational. Mathnawi (Masnawi), a narrative poem with extensive rhyming couplets or a poem based independent internally rhyming couplets. It can be mystical, moral story. Rubai is a quatrain. Qit’a (plural Qit’at) is a kind of verse in which the meaning of the first line of a couplet is incomplete without the second line following it (a strophe). Qasida is a laudatory poem (panegyric, ode) with rhymes as in a ghazal. Marsia is an elegy or lamentation in verse for a deceased person.

[31] Qibla refers to the direction towards the K’aba in Mecca to which every Muslim faces when praying.

[32] Kashan is a town in Iraq and Kashi a town in India.

[33] Majnoon is the lover of Laila in the old Arabic tales. His love for Laila is regarded as the standard for all lovers.

[34] Khizr is a character in the old Arabic tales who guides people to find their right path and destination.

[35] K’aba is the sacred cube in the grand mosque at Mecca.

[36] It is called Surahi, made of clay. Sometimes friends would sit at the edge of a pond in which the surahi filled with wine would float. Each person would get a chance to grab it and drink from it.

[37] Huma is a mythical bird in Persian folklore. Its shadow is supposed to raise a person to great heights in rank and status.

[38] Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a civil judge and a prominent spokesman of the Muslim community in India. He was also a pioneer of modern education for Muslim boys. Abul Fazl was one of the courtiers of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Sir Syed was not pleased with Ghalib’s response to his request, but it put no dent on their friendship. According to Altaf Husain Hali, in 1860 on his way back from Rampur to Delhi, Ghalib stopped and stayed in an inn at Moradabad. Sir Syed — he was a sub-judge in Moradabad — went to the inn and brought Ghalib to his house. When Ghalib arrived there, he had a bottle of wine in his hand. He placed it in a place where everyone could see it. Sir Syed took it and put it in the storeroom. When Ghalib didn’t find the bottle, he was quite upset. Sir Syed said, “Don’t worry, I have placed it in a safe place.” Ghalib said, “Show me where, my friend?” Sir Syed took him to the storeroom and showed the bottle. Ghalib took the bottle in his hand and then said with a smile, “There is some missing, my friend. Tell me truly, who’s had it? Perhaps that’s why you took it away to the storeroom. Hafiz was right: ‘These preachers show their majesty in mosque and pulpit/But once at home it is for other things they do.’” Sir Syed laughed and said nothing. Ghalib stayed with him for a day or two and then returned to Delhi.

[39] Ghalib is asking how can a sinner like him go to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage (umra or hajj).

[40] He was being paid his salary every six months.

[41] In Persian mythology, Jamshid was the fourth and greatest king of the Pishdadian dynasty.

[42] Rum in Arabic refers to Asia Minor.

[43] Dajla in Arabic means Tigris, a river in Iraq.

Retired professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada

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Mahmood Hasan Khan

Mahmood Hasan Khan

Retired professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada