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Default Mirza Ghalib - A creative Biography

Mirza Ghalib - A creative Biography

author: Natalia Prigarina

Review by Mohammad Gill

The book under review is a critical study of Ghalib’s life and poetry in the perspective of the Mughals’ declining political power in India and the emerging British rule from the warring campaigns and adventures of the East India Company. The book traces Ghalib’s roots to Samarqand Aibeks.

The author, Natalia Prigarina, is a Russian scholar who, according to the thumbnail sketch on the flap of the book, is Head of the Department of Textology and Literary Monuments at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. She graduated from Moscow State University, Philological Faculty, Iranian Department, in 1956. She received her doctorate from the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, in 1967 and in 1995 wrote her doctoral thesis (D. Litt.) at the same academy. She has written several books among which are: The Poetry of Muhammad Iqbal, The Poetics of Muhammad Iqbal, and the Indian Style and Its Place in Persian Poetry.

The book clearly shows the depth and profundity of author’s comprehension of the Urdu idiom and poetic metaphors. She has analyzed Ghalib’s poetry with great and skillful mastery and pointed toward the inherent subtle meanings of the metaphors that Ghalib had used with unsurpassed artistry and technique.

Recently, valuable critical work on Ghalib and his poetry has been undertaken in different countries of the world. The author has referred to several works on Ghalib by Russian authors, in her book. Notable among the Continental Orientalists is Ralph Russell, Reader Emeritus, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Some of the books, which he has written or edited, on Ghalib and the other Urdu poets are as follows:

• Ghalib: The Poet and His Age, (editor)
• The Seeing Eye: Selections from the Urdu and Persian Ghazals of Ghalib
• Ghalib 1797 – 1869: Life and Letters, (editor)
• The Oxford Indian Ghalib: Life, Letters, and Ghazals, (editor)
• Three Mughal Poets (Mir, Sauda, Mir Hasan), co-author with Khurshid-ul- Islam

Tracing Ghalib’s genealogy, Prigarina described Ghalib’s parents and his forefathers who were mostly soldiers of fortune and fought for money for whoever was able to pay handsomely. Ghalib’s father, Abdullah Beg, was attached to Nizam’s court in Hyderabad although his domicile was in Agra. At the apex of his mercenary career, Abdullah Beg had earned the title of ‘Kamin dan’ from the English, which apparently stood for Commandant. According to the author, “His house in Agra was one of the richest and it was here that his three children were growing up – his sons Mirza Asad Ullah Khan and Mirza Yusuf Khan, and his daughter Choti Begum or ‘Little Lady’.”

Sick of the intrigues and conspiracies at Nizam’s court, Abdullah Beg fled from Hyderabad and offered his services to the Raja of Alwar, Bakhtawar Singh, who politely excused himself from accepting the offering.
“ However, they parted on good terms and the Raja saw Abdullah Beg with the full honors which he could expect to be accorded.” Nevertheless, Abdullah was destined to give his life in Bakhtawar Singh’s cause. A local zamindar’s militia attacked the detachment of Bakhtawar Singh’s soldiers and Abdullah Beg fought for Singh’s defense and was shot to death in the scuffle. Bakhtawar Singh showed his appreciation for Abdullah’s loyalty by “bestowing the income from the village of Talra on the family of the deceased.” Ghalib was thus orphaned in his childhood at the age of five. His uncle, Nasrullah Beg, undertook the responsibility of taking care of Ghalib, his siblings, and his mother. Nasrullah did not have any child of his own. Nasrullah was in the pay of the East India Company when he died soon after the death of Ghalib’s father. According to the author, “The jagir (which was conferred on Nasrullah Beg) consisted of two villages yielding considerable income, from which the Company used to get Rs.1,500 as tax….The patent conferring the ownership of the estates was signed by General Lake. After Nasrullah Beg’s death, the cavalry was partly disbanded. The jagir was not granted in perpetual and inheritable possession; on the owner’s death it was meant to be restituted to the Company. In lieu, the relatives and near ones of the former owner were entitled to an allowance or ‘pension’ as Ghalib called it.”

For some reason or the other, the pension was discontinued after Nasrullah Beg’s death and Ghalib’s whole life was spent in the efforts for its restoration. For this, he went even to Calcutta, which was the capital of East India Company’s possessions and territories. During his sojourn in Calcutta, he wrote his famous poem (qita’a), Chikni Dali, impromptu. The author described its background as follows:

“…at some literary assemblage when the merits of Faizi’s poetry were being discussed. It is known that Faizi was good at impromptu verses – an example of which was the qasida composed for the Emperor Akbar, which has gone down in the history of literature as a model of the use of the figure of speech ‘tashbih’, i.e. simile. Ghalib mentioned that to some extent he was also capable of composing impromptu verses. At that moment, Maulvi Karamat Husain was about to dispatch to his mouth a chikni dali.. Proffering this nut on his palm, he said: Here is a subject for you. Let us hear your verses with its similes….sitting there I instantly composed and read a qita’a of about ten couplets (actually thirteen). I (Ghalib) handed over the verses to Maulvi Karamat Husain and he paid for the verses by giving me the nut.”

According to Hali, twenty one similes were used in this qita’a.

Ghalib wrote several qasidas eulogizing army generals, Mughal Emperor Bahadar Shah Zafar, and one in particular for Queen Victoria. Great poet as he was, it was his misfortune that he survived on the subsidy from Bahadar Shah Zafar’s, the last Mughal Emperor, court and later on from the hand-outs from various well to do Nawabs.

Prigarina has included critical appreciation of Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian poetry in her book and has translated some of the ghazals adroitly. The book requires serious study and cannot be completely digested in one reading. The biographical details are scattered all over the book and patience is needed to synthesize all these pieces together to make sense. The ghazals and other poetry pieces included in the book have their own subtlety and require slow and careful study. The book should be an interesting and useful companion for Ghalib lovers.

In his ‘Ma’azrat Namah’ (Note of Excuse), Ghalib wrote:

Sau saal sey haiy pesha-e-aaba sipahgari
Kuchh shairi zariya-e-izzat naheen mujhe

However, the fact is that shairi (art of versification) is responsible for Ghalib’s universal fame and popularity. Very few care to remember that his forefathers were soldiers of fortune although the art of soldiery was held in high esteem at that time.

In Appendix A, the author has included the translation of one of Ghalib’s ghazals, which can be considered as poignant self-introduction. The translation was done by Dr. Yusuf Husain Khan. It wouldn’t be out of place to reproduce it here together with its original Urdu version.

Ghalib in his own words

It is not possible that even by mistake
I should find ease and comfort
In the wilderness of grief, I am the deer
Which has espied the hunter

(Mumkin naheen keh bhool kay bhi aarmeedah hoon
Mein dasht-e-gham mayn aahoo-e- sayyad deedah hoon)

Whether by predestination or free will
I remain afflicted; sometimes
I am a long-drawn sigh
And sometimes a trickling tear

(Hoon dardmand jabr ho yaa ikhtiar ho
Gaah naala-e-kasheedah, gaah ashk-e-chakeedah hoon)

I have nothing to do with the rosary
Or with the wine bowl
In a dream, I am as one
Whose hands have been cut off

(Neiy subbha sey alaaqa nah saaghir sey waastah
Mein ma’arz-e-masaal meyn dast-e-bareeda hoon)

Being most humble
I bear enmity to none
I am neither a fallen grain
Nor a stretched-cut share

(Hoon khaksaar par nah kissi sey haiy mujh ko laag
Neiy daana-e-fatadh hoon neiy daam-e-cheedah hoon)

My value and my position
Are not what they should be
I am that Joseph
Who is sold to the first bidder

(Jo chaahiye, naheen woh meri qadr-o-manzalt
Mein Yusuf-e-beqeemat-e-awwal khareedah hoon)

There is no place for me
In the heart of any one
I am an eloquent speech
Which is so far unheard

(Har gizz kissi kay dil meyn naheen haiy meri jagah
Hoon mein kalam-e-naghz walay na shuneedah hoon)

My songs are prompted by delight
In the heat of my ideas
I am the nightingale
Of the flower-garden of the future

(Hoon garmi-e-nishat-e-tasawwar sey naghmah sanj
Mein andleeb-e-gulshan-e-na aafreedah hoon)

In the circle of the pious
I am contemptible
But in the company of sinners
I am the most select

(Ahl-e-wara’a kay halqay meyn har channd hoon zaleel
Parr aasiyoon kay zumray meyn, mein bargazeedah hoon)

O Asad as one bitten
By a dog fears water
So I, being man-bitten
Am afraid of the mirror

(Paani sey sagg-gazeedah daray jiss tareh Asad
Darta hoon aeenay sey keh mardam-gazeedah hoon)

The above is in fact a selection from two ghazals with the same rhyme and meter, which are included in Hanif Raamay’s compilation of Diwan-e-Ghalib on pages 239 and 279-280.

It is nearly impossible to do full justice to the book under review in the limited space herein. Ghalib lovers should read the book first hand. The book was published by the Oxford University Press, Oxford, in 2000 and is spread over 361 pages including the index. The Foreword is additional.
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