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Old Tuesday, May 20, 2008
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Default Mirza Ghalib

Mirza Ghalib
Ghalib was born in 1793, in the North Indian city of Agra, to parents of Turkish aristocratic ancestry. Having lost his father and uncle at an early age, Ghalib grew in an environment free of oppressive dominance otherwise characteristic of a patriarchal set up.

It is believe that while there are no records of Ghalib's formal education there are evidences within his writings and profound verse that indicate a deep absorption and understanding of issues pertaining to philosophy, ethics, literature, theology, literature, world history and other theoretical sciences.

The history of Persian and Urdu literature never has and in all probability never will witness the evolution of a poet of this caliber. Accused of being hopelessly hedonistic with an intense attachment for all things material in life, one has to admit that Ghalib, despite several character glitches, has been Urdu's most prolific writer. (He wrote as many as two hundred and thirty five ghazals that included 1,818 verses).

Needless to add, his contribution to the evolution of the ghazal as a rich medium of poetic expression remains unsurpassed.
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Post Mirza Asadullah Khan GHALIB


Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan -- known to posterity as Ghalib, a
`nom de plume' he adopted in the tradition of all clasical 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 young, and
he spent a good part of his early boyhood with his mother's family.
This, of course, began a psychology of ambivalences for him. On the
one hand, he grew up relatively free of any oppressive dominance by
adult, male-dominant figures. This, it seems to me, accounts for at
least some of the independent spirit he showed from very early child-
hood. 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 pre-
occupation in later life with finding secure, legitimate, and
comfortable means of livelihood can be perhaps at least partially
understood in terms of this early uncertainity.

The question of Ghalib's early education has often confused
Urdu scholars. Although any record of his formal education that might
exist is extremely scanty, 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 well 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 mentions at
times with great affection and respect, but whose very existence he
denies -- was, in fact, a real person and an actual tutor of Ghalib
when Ghalib was a young boy in Agra. Harmuzd 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 occured in
Ghalib's life: he was married to 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 eight years.
On the other hand, there is evidence that most of what we know as his
complete works were substantially completed by 1816, when he was 19
years old, and six years after he first came to Delhi. We are obviously
dealing with a man whose maturation was both early and rapid. We can
safely conjecture that the migration from Agra, which had once been a
capital but was now one of the 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 year old, newly
married poet who desparately needed material security, who was
beginning to take his career in letters seriously, and who was soon to
be recognized as a genius, if not by the court, at least some of his
most important comtemporaries. As for the marriage, in the predomin-
antly 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 beginnings of concern with material advancement 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 which, next to Meer's, is the most important and comprehensive
styles of the ghazal in the Urdu language before he was even twenty.

The course of his life from 1821 onward is easier to trace.
His interest began to shift decisively away from Urdu poetry to Persian
during the 1820's, and he soon abandoned writing in Urdu almost
altogether, except whenever a new edition of his works was forthcoming
and he was inclined to make changes, deletions, or additions to his
already existing opus. This remained the pattern of his work until
1847, the year in which 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 the 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
government, including the British. Although very different in style
and procedure, Ghalib's obsession with material means, and the
accompanying sense of personal insecurity which seems to threaten the
very basis of selfhood, reminds one of Bauldeaire. There is, through
the years, the same self-absorption, the same overpowering sense of
terror which comes from the necessities of one's own creativity and
intelligence, the same illusion -- never really believed viscerrally
-- that if one could be released from need one could perhaps become
a better artist. There is 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 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's style of poetry or
life. There is also reason to believe that Ghalib not only regarded
his own necessary subservient conduct in relation to the king as
humiliating but he also considered the Moghul court as a redundant
institution. Nor was he well-known for admiring the king's verses.
However, after Zauq's death Ghalib did gain an appiontment as the
king's advisor on matters of versifiaction. 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 is an
indifferent work, and the second volume was never completed, supposedly
because of the great disturbances caused by the Revolt of 1857 and the
consequent termination of the Moghul rule. Possibly Ghalib's own lack
of interest in the later Moghul kings had something to do with it.

The only favouarble 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 1820's. Many of these new
poems are not panegyrics, or occasional verses to celebrate this or
that. He did, however, write many ghazals which are of the same
excellence and temper as his early great work. Infact, it is astonis-
hing 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.

In its material dimensions, Ghalib's life never really took
root and remained always curiously unfinished. In a society where
almost everybody seems to have a house of his own, Ghalib never had
one and always rented one or accepted the use of one from a patron.
He never had books of his own, usually reading borrowed ones. He had
no children; the ones he had, died in infancy, and he later adopted
the two children of Arif, his wife's nephew who died young in 1852.
Ghalib's one wish, perhaps as strong as the wish to be a great poet,
that he should have a regular, secure income, never materialized. His
brother Yusuf, went mad in 1826, and died, still mad, in that year of
all misfortunes, 1857. His relations with his wife were, at best,
tentative, obscure and indifferent. Given the social structure of
mid-nineteenth-century Muslim India, it is, of course, inconceivable
that *any* marriage could have even begun to satisfy the moral and
intellectual intensities that Ghalib required from his relationships;
given that social order, however, he could not conceive that his
marriage could serve that function. And one has to confront the fact
that the child never died who, deprived of the security of having a
father in a male-oriented society, had had looked for material but
also moral certainities -- not certitudes, but certainities, something
that he can stake his life on. So, when reading his poetry it must be
remembered that it is the poetry of more than usually vulnerable

It is difficult to say precisely what Ghalib's attitude was
toward the British conquest of India. The evidence is not only
contradictory but also incomplete. First of all, one has to realize
that nationalism as we know it today was simply non-existent in
nineteenth-century India. Second --one has to remember -- no matter
how offensive it is to some -- that even prior to the British, India
had a long history of invaders who created empires which were eventu-
ally considered legitimate. The Moghuls themselves were such invaders.
Given these two facts, it would be unreasonable to expect Ghalib to
have a clear ideological response to the British invasion. There is
also evidence, quite clearly deducible from his letters, that Ghalib
was aware, on the one hand, of the redundancy, the intrigues, the
sheer poverty of sophistication and intellectual potential, and the
lack of humane responses from the Moghul court, and, on the other, of
the powers of rationalism and scientific progress of the West.

Ghalib had many attitudes toward the British, most of them
complicated and quite contradictory. His diary of 1857, the
"Dast-Ambooh" is a pro-British document, criticizing the British here
and there for excessively harsh rule but expressing, on the whole,
horror at the tactics of the resistance forces. His letters, however,
are some of the most graphic and vivid accounts of British violence
that we possess. We also know that "Dast-Ambooh" was always meant to
be a document that Ghalib would make public, not only to the Indian
Press but specifically to the British authorities. And he even wanted
to send a copy of it to Queen Victoria. His letters, are to the contr-
ary, written to people he trusted very much, people who were his
friends and would not divulge their contents to the British authori-
ties. As Imtiyaz Ali Arshi has shown (at least to my satisfaction),
whenever Ghalib feared the intimate, anti-British contents of his
letters might not remain private, he requested their destruction, as
he did in th case of the Nawab of Rampur. I think it is reasonable to
conjecture that the diary, the "Dast-Ambooh", is a document put
together by a frightened man who was looking for avenues of safety and
forging versions of his own experience in order to please his oppr-
essors, whereas the letters, those private documents of one-to-one
intimacy, are more real in the expression of what Ghalib was in fact
feeling at the time. And what he was feeling, according to the letters,
was horror at the wholesale violence practised by the British.

Yet, matters are not so simple as that either. We cannot explain
things away in terms of altogether honest letters and an altogether
dishonest diary. Human and intellectual responses are more complex. The
fact that Ghalib, like many other Indians at the time, admired British,
and therfore Western, rationalism as expressed in constitutional law,
city planning and more. His trip to Calcutta (1828-29) had done much
to convince him of the immediate values of Western pragmatism. This
immensely curious and human man from the narrow streets of a decaying
Delhi, had suddenly been flung into the broad, well-planned avenues of
1828 Calcutta -- from the aging Moghul capital to the new, prosperous
and clean capital of the rising British power, and , given the preco-
ciousness of his mind, he had not only walked on clean streets, but
had also asked the fundamental questions about the sort of mind that
planned that sort of city. In short, he was impressed by much that was

In Calcutta he saw cleanliness, good city planning, prosperity.
He was fascinated by the quality of the Western mind which was rational
and could conceive of constitutional government, republicanism,
skepticism. The Western mind was attractive particularly to one who,
although fully imbued with his feudal and Muslim background, was also
attracted by wider intelligence like the one that Western scientific
thought offered: good rationalism promised to be good government. The
sense that this very rationalism, the very mind that had planned the
first modern city in India, was also in the service of a brutral and
brutalizing mercantile ethic which was to produce not a humane society
but an empire, began to come to Ghalib only when the onslaught of 1857
caught up with the Delhi of his own friends. Whatever admiration he
had ever felt for the British was seriously brought into question by
the events of that year, more particularly by the merciless-ness of
the British in their dealings with those who participated in or
sympathized with the Revolt. This is no place to go into the details
of the massacre; I will refer here only to the recent researches of
Dr. Ashraf (Ashraf, K.M., "Ghalib & The Revolt of 1857", in Rebellion
1857, ed., P.C. Joshi, 1957), in India, which prove that at least
27,000 persons were hanged during the summer of that one year, and
Ghalib witnessed it all. It was obviously impossible for him to
reconcile this conduct with whatever humanity and progressive ideals
he had ever expected the Briish to have possessed. His letters tell
of his terrible dissatisfaction.

Ghalib's ambivalence toward the British possibly represents a
characteristic dilemma of the Indian --- indeed, the Asian -- people.
Whereas they are fascinated by the liberalism of the Western mind and
virtually seduced by the possibility that Western science and technology
might be the answer to poverty and other problems of their material
existence, they feel a very deep repugnance for forms and intensities of
violence which are also peculiarly Western. Ghalib was probably not as
fully aware of his dilemma as the intellectuals of today might be; to
assign such awareness to a mid-nineteenth-century mind would be to
violate it by denying the very terms -- which means limitations --, as
well -- of its existence. His bewilderment at the extent of the
destruction caused by the very people of whose humanity he had been
convinced can , however, be understood in terms of this basic

The years between 1857 and 1869 were neither happy nor very
eventful ones for Ghalib. During the revolt itself, Ghalib remained
pretty much confined to his house, undoubtedly frightened by the
wholesale masacres in the city. Many of his friends were hanged,
deprived of their fortunes, exiled from the city, or detained in jails.
By October 1858, he had completed his diary of the Revolt, the
"Dast-Ambooh", published it, and presented copies of it to the British
authorities, mainly with the purpose of proving that he had not
supported the insurrections. Although his life and immediate possesions
were spared, little value was attached to his writings; he was flatly
told that he was still suspected of having had loyalties toward the
Moghul king. During the ensuing years, his main source of income
continued to be the stipend he got from the Nawab of Rampur.
"Ud-i-Hindi", the first collection of his letters, was published in
October 1868. Ghalib died a few months later, on February 15th, 1869.

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