This imaginatively conceived presents highly original renderings of the timeless ghazals of Mirza Ghalib 1797-1869) by seven well-known American poets. Using Aijaz Ahmad’s literal translation of thirty seven selected ghazals, the poetic re-interpretations remarkably reflect the evocative richness of Ghalib’s poetry.
Offering fascinating insights into the work of this major Urdu poet and poetic creation in general, this volume includes a lucid introduction by Aijaz Ahmad. A must have for all lovers of Mirza Ghalib’s verse this volume will also interest general readers and students and teachers of Indian literature and cultural studies.
The seven decades of Ghalib’ life (1797-1869) was not a very auspicious time for the writing of poetry for anyone who lived in the city of Delhi. The British conquest of India was completed during those decades the fabric of the entire civilization came loose. And the city of Delhi became a major focal point for countless traumatic crises. Ghalib was not, in the modern sense, a political poet not political, in other words in the sense of a commitment to strategies of resistance. Yet, surrounded by constant carnage, Ghalib wrote a poetry primarily of losses and consequent grief a poetry also of what was what could have been possible, but was no longer. In sensibility, it is a poetry somewhat like Wallace Stevens meditative, full of reverberations, couched in a language at once sparkling and fastidious, and testifying to a sensibility whose primary virtue was endurance in a world that was growing for him, as for many other s of his time and civilization, increasingly unbearable. The journey from nothingness to a totally human affirmation which is the essential growth of a poet of that tradition beyond time, beyond the merely spatial relations was achieved in his case with a necessary and austere urgency related, finally, to the experience of having been possessed. He is a tragic poet.
Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan Known to posterity as Ghalib a nom de plume he adopted in the tradition of all classical Urdu poets was born in the city of Agra of parents with Turkish aristocratic ancestry, probably on December 27th, 1797. As to the precise date Imtiyaz Ali Arshi has conjectured, on the basis of Ghalib’s horoscope that the poet might have been born a month later, in January 1798.
Both his father and uncle died while he was still very young and he spent a good part of his early boyhood with his mother’s family, this of course, began a psychology of ambivalences dominance by adult, male father-figures. This it seems to me, accounts for at least some of the independence of spirit he showed from very early childhood. On the other hand, this placed him in the humiliating situation of being socially and economically dependent on maternal grandparents, giving him, one can surmise, a sense that whatever worldly goods he received were a matter of charity and not legitimately his. His preoccupation in later life with finding secure, legitimate and comfortable means of livelihood can perhaps be at least partially understood in terms of this early uncertainty.
The question of Ghalib’s early education has often confused Urdu scholars. Although any record of his formal education that might exit is extremely scantly, it is also true that Ghalib’s circle of friends in Delhi included some of the most eminent minds of his time. There is finally, irrevocably, the evidence of his writings in verse as wll as in prose, which are distinguished not only by creative excellence but also by the great knowledge of philosophy, ethics, theology, classical literature, grammar, and history that they reflect. I think it is reasonable to believe that Mulla Abdussamad Harmuzd the man who was supposedly Ghalib’s tutor whom Ghalib mention at times with great affection and respect but whose very existence he sometimes denies was in fact, a real person and an actual tutor of Ghalib when Ghalib was a young boy in Agra. Harmuzed was a Zoroastrian from Iran, converted to Islam and a devoted scholar of literature, language, and religions. He lived in anonymity in Agra while tutoring Ghalib, among others.
In or around 1810, two events of great importance occurred in Ghalib’s life: he was married into a well to do educated family of nobles, and he left for Delhi. One must remember that Ghalib was only thirteen at the time. It is impossible to say when Ghalib started writing poetry. Perhaps it was as early as his seventh or eighth years. On the other hand, there is evidence that most of what we know as his complete works was substantially completed by 1816 when he was 19 years old, and six year after he first came to Delhi. We are obviously dealing with a man whose maturation was both early and repid. We can safely conjecture that the migration from Agra, which had once been a capital but was now one of that many important but declining cities, to Delhi, its grandeur kept intact by the existence of the Moghul court was an important event in the life of this thirteen years old newly married poet who desperately needed material security, who was beginning to take his career in letters seriously and who was soon to be recognized as a genus, if not by the court at least by some of his most important contemporaries, as for the marriage in the predominantly male oriented society of Muslim India no one could expect Ghalib to take that event terribly seriously, and he didn’t. The period did, however mark the beginning of the concern with material advanced that was to obsess him for the rest of his life.
In Delhi Ghalib lived a life of comfort, though he did not find immediate or great success. He wrote first in a style at once detached, obscure, and pedantic, but soon thereafter he adopted the fastidious, personal, complexly moral idiom which we now know as his mature style. It is astonishing that he should have gone from sheer precocity to the extremes of verbal ingenuity and obscurity to a style of the ghazal in the Urdu Language before him as even twenty.
The course of his life from 1821 onward is easier to trace. His interest began to shift away from Urdu poetry to Persian during the 1820s and he soon abandoned writing in Urdu almost altogether, except whenever a new edition of his work was forth coming and he was inclined to make changes, deleting, or additions to his already existing opus. This remained the pattern of his work until 1847 the year when he gained direct access to the Moghul court. I think it is safe to say that throughout these years Ghalib was mainly occupied with the composition of Persian verse, with the preparation of occasional editions of his Urdu works which remained essentially the same in content and with various intricate and exhausting proceedings undertaken with a view to improving his financial situation, these last consisting mainly of petitions to patrons and governments, including the British. Although very different in style and procedure, Ghalib’s obsession with material mens and the accompanying sense of personal insecurity which seems to threaten the very basis of selfhood, reminds one strongly of Baudelaire. There is through the years the same self- absorption, the same overpowering sense terror which comes when material want is experienced as moral hurt, the same effort to escape from the necessities of one’s own creativity and intelligence, the same illusion never really believed viscerally that if one could be released from need one could perhaps become a better artist. There is the same flood of complaints, and finally the same triumph of a self which is at once morbid, elegant highly creative, and almost doomed to realize the terms not only of its desperation but also its distinction.
Ghalib was never really a part of the court except in its very last years, and even then with ambivalence on both sides. There was no love lost between Ghalib himself and Zauq, the king’s tutor in the writing of poetry; and if their mutual dislike was not often openly expressed it was as a matter of prudence only. There is reason to believe that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Moghul king, and himself a poet of considerable merit, did not much care for Ghalib not only regarded his own necessarily subservient conduct in relation to the king as humiliating but that he also considered the Moghul court a redundant institution. Nor was he well known for admiring the king’s verses. However, after Zauq’s death Ghalib did gain an appointment as the king’s advisor on matters of versification. He was also appointed by royal order, to write the official history of the Moghul dynasty, a project which was to be titled Partavistan and to fill two volumes. The one volume, Mehr-e-NeemRoz, which Ghalib completed, supposedly because of the great disturbances created by the Revolt of 1857 and the consequent termination of the Mughul rule. Possibly Ghalib’s own lack of interest in the later Moghul kings has something to do with it.
The only favorable result of his connection with the court between 1847 and 1857 was that he resumed writing in Urdu with a frequency not experienced since the early 1820s. Many of these new poems are mere panegyrics, or occasional verses to celebrate this or that. He did, however, write many Ghazal which are of the same of the same excellence and temper as his early, great work, in fact, it is astonishing that a man who had more or less given up writing in Urdu thirty years before should, in a totally different time and circumstance, produce work that is, on the whole, neither worse nor better than his earlier work. One wonders just how many great poems were permanently lost to Urdu when Ghalib chose to turn to Persian instead.
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