Mirza Ghalib’s grave in Nizammudin, New Delhi. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Archive)
Mirza Ghalib’s grave in Nizammudin, New Delhi. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Archive)

Interview: Mehr Afshan Farooqi, author, Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep

In her critical biography of Ghalib, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, Associate Professor at University of Virginia’s Department of Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures, and daughter of late Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, analyses and interprets Ghalib’s Persian as well as Urdu oeuvre to understand why he didn’t publish half of his Urdu compositions
By Nawaid Anjum
PUBLISHED ON FEB 05, 2021 10:07 PM IST
416pp, ₹799; Penguin
416pp, ₹799; Penguin

Understanding Ghalib and his poetics is often seen as a journey into the unknown. Your critical biography, Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep (Penguin, Allen Lane), however, not just turns a sharp gaze on his life, work and philosophy, it also breaks new ground. While most Ghalib studies have been mostly focused on his Urdu Divan, in your textual history you analyse and interpret, among other things, Ghalib’s Persian as well as Urdu oeuvre, including a large corpus of his rejected verses (mustarad kalam). What has been your approach to reading Ghalib? How do you arrive at his work? When I began my study of Ghalib my focus was his “rejected” verses. I was curious why he did not publish half of his Urdu compositions. There was a simplistic theory that Ghalib dropped his so-called difficult verses. But anyone who has read Ghalib knows that his poetry is dense. His divan which is actually an intikhab, or selection, has plenty of ambiguous verses so much so that one needs help to get the meaning right or enjoy the fine points embedded in them. Ghalib’s Persian Divan is five times the size of his Urdu. Clearly, he did not prune it as drastically as he did his Urdu. I was bothered by Ghalib’s asymmetrical corpus. I was interested to find out more about Ghalib’s approach in editing his poetry so drastically. Did it have something to do with publishing? The transition from manuscript to print culture impacted the circulation of literature. Then there was the decline in Persian learning and the rise of modern languages such as Urdu. My approach to reading Ghalib was to look at his oeuvre as a whole — as a Persian and Urdu poet. I had to dive into the dynamics of the literary culture in Ghalib’s time.

Ghalib wrote a lot more than what is available in his authorized Divan that he published in 1841. Despite Altaf Husain Hali mentioning his unselected verses in Yadgar-e-Ghalib, which has an entry point to understanding his life and work for many scholars, the unselected verses have not got much attention. What impact did the discovery of several rare manuscripts, nearly half a century after Ghalib’s death, have on the commentaries on his poetic output? In 1918, nearly half a century after Ghalib’s death, the manuscript of a divan was found in the Hamidiyyah library of the princely state of Bhopal. This divan contained hundreds of verses that were not in the Divan-e Ghalib. People had forgotten that Divan-e Ghalib was a selection done by Ghalib himself. This momentous discovery produced a literary storm. Should the poetry that Ghalib had not selected for publishing be published? Would those imperfect verses tarnish Ghalib’s image? The manuscript known as the Nuskhah-e Hamidiyyah was published in 1921. I discovered the interesting fact that despite being “published” the unselected verses always remained marginal in Ghalib scholarship. While Ghalib’s authorized Urdu Divan inspired many commentaries and exegesis, there are only three commentaries on the Nuskhah-e Hamidiyyah. Although definitive editions of Ghalib’s divan such as Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi’s contain Ghalib’s entire Urdu oeuvre, the unselected verses continued to be ignored. Indeed, a sizeable portion of the unselected verses consists of repetitive themes, dense, unfamiliar metaphors, incomprehensible, dizzy imaginative flights, but there are many gems among them. Perhaps Ghalib himself could have retrieved some of those verses, but he had moved on to composing more in Persian than Urdu. In subsequent editions of his Urdu Divan, he added new verses. His poetry from this later phase is very polished and appealing. The difference between Ghalib’s early verses and his mature poetry is his use of language. He relied more on original, unfamiliar expressions earlier but showed more delicate nuances in his later compositions.

How did Ghalib’s life as an Urdu poet change after his famous Calcutta sojourn, a 3000km journey that was full of tribulations and stopovers, and interrupted by long episodes of illness, during which he kept pouring out his heart in letters written in ornate Persian?Ghalib’s epic journey to Calcutta was path-changing. Calcutta was metropolitan; print was in evidence in pamphlets and newspapers, its ambience different from Delhi. Ghalib had opportunities to meet Iranians and also people from Central Asia at literary gatherings. The gatherings were not of the courtly type; there was more openness and greater freedom to disagree. When Ghalib presented his Persian poems at a prestigious mushairah some poets criticized his Persian usage! This annoyed Ghalib. He held a grudge against those critics for the rest of his life. Ghalib began writing mostly in Persian perhaps because he realized the wider reach of Persian language and literature. His letters to friends back in Delhi (written in ornate Persian) constitute a valuable archive that shines a light on north Indian literary culture in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Ghalib’s voice, you write, presents us with “a double bind, a linguistic paradox”. What does Ghalib’s poetic trajectory — beginning from Urdu, moving to composing entirely in Persian and then swinging back to Urdu — reveal about his felicity with both languages and fear, if any, of not being understood in Persian? Why did his Urdu works become more popular than his Persian compositions even though his poetic output in Persian is far more than what he wrote in Urdu? Do you think a closer scrutiny of his bilingualism could open a window on his decision to lean more towards Persian when Urdu seemed to be in its golden age, and help us understand his “kaleidoscopic and asymmetrical” corpus better?I don’t think Ghalib had any fears of not being understood in Persian. He emphasized his God-gifted, natural felicity in Persian and reiterated that his Persian was as good as a native speaker’s. Maybe that is why he “invented” a tutor, Hormuzd who taught him the language. In Persian, Ghalib followed in the style of classical masters. Nonetheless, his Persian poetry was overlaid with metaphors that were culturally Indian and sounded alien to native Persians. Thus, in spite of his copious output, he did not get the kind of fame that Amir Khusrau, Mirza Bedil and Allama Iqbal earned for their Persian compositions.

Ghalib’s imagination in Urdu soars to great heights. He is able to adapt Persian into Urdu to create new imagery and powerful metaphors. He, in fact, creates a language within a language. Ghalib scholars take his bilingualism for granted and almost never assess his poetic genius as a Persian and Urdu poet. Similarly, the verses that Ghalib excluded or did not select for his intikhab, the Divan-e Ghalib, did not get the attention they deserve. Ghalib’s “asymmetrical” corpus had not been studied until I began working on the so called “rejected” verses. I always wondered why Ghalib did not prune his Persian Divan like he did his Urdu. I have tried to answer all the questions you ask in my book.

In the book, you offer critical readings of Ghalib’s forewords (deebachas) and afterwords (khatimahs) with a view to tease out his poetics as well as understand the genre of Indian Persian literature. Though there are challenges of translation and interpretation, what critical perceptions were you able to sift through them? What do they add to what we already know about his poetic self?Reading Ghalib’s Persian prose was not easy. I would never have managed to do that on my own. But I am so glad that I persisted in brushing aside earlier scholars’ impressions that there was nothing in the dibachahs and khatimahs but fancy, pretentious prose and self-praise. But what does Ghalib’s self-presentation tell us? Why are his dibachahs to his Persian Divan longer and more intense? I found answers to many questions through a careful reading of these elaborate prose pieces. Ghalib broaches questions on the prickly problems of language currency and literary use. He holds forth on the qualities of good poetry. He even talks about the importance of the poet’s access to literary gatherings so that the poetry can have wider circulation.

Author Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Richard Cohen)
Author Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Richard Cohen)

You also write about the reach of Ghalib’s ‘ineffable’ imagination, his engagement with literature beyond political and geographical boundaries, his following of the tradition of intertextual dialogue (jawab-goi), and his creative engagement with the poets of the classical past and those who stylistically represented tazah-goi (freshness of thought), the influence of Bedil, etc. Ghalib’s preoccupations as a poet remained the mystery of being, the human condition, the wishes and yearnings of the people, and the paradoxes of everyday life. What were Ghalib’s literary influences? In what ways did he change the contours of Urdu poetry? What is his greatest legacy and what makes his work evergreen?Almost the first thing I noticed when I began my work on Ghalib was that he did not follow in the footsteps of his great predecessor Mir Taqi Mir in Urdu. Ghalib was drawn to Bedil, Shaukat Bukhari and other poets of the so-called Indian style (Mughal-Safavid). He practised the style of tazah-goi, (fresh or new style) in Urdu. However, in Persian he preferred or admired the classical style. One reason why Ghalib preferred Persian is that he wanted to be associated with a deep tradition. He wanted to be in dialogue with the long line of illustrious poets who preceded him. The Urdu tradition was young. In the beginning, Ghalib struggled to find the language that would enable him to grasp his thoughts, put his ideas into words. In a verse he did not publish but which shows the intensity of his thought he wrote:

Hujum-e fikr se dil misl-e maujlarze haiKehshishahnazuk -o sahba-e abginahgudaz

(My heart trembles like a wave with the multitude of thoughtBecause the wine is bubbling and the wine glass delicate)

Ghalib’s mind was modern in that he was always questioning and looking at objects anew. He was aware of the insecurities of the times in which he lived. He responded to the challenges of colonialism. He embraced new ways of literary expression.

What role did the print industry play in establishing a literary canon around Ghalib’s work and his rising popularity?Ghalib’s acceptance of print must have played an important role in establishing his popularity, otherwise, how did a poet who only had modest success in mushairahs, and whose poetry was known for being obscure become a household name? Publishers like Naval Kishore sought Ghalib. Ghalib’s Urdu Divan went through five editions in his lifetime. It has never been out of print ever since.

Ghalib’s farsightedness in embracing print is extremely important not just for his poetry but also his prose works. For example, the letters he wrote to his mentors, peers, and friends. Ghalib’s letters were exemplary of a new style quite different from the formal tenor of Persian. This was a time when textbooks for modern Indian languages were being compiled, and Ghalib’s letters were great examples of Urdu prose.

Book publishing was gaining ground. Owning printed books became a matter of pride. The fact that the very first edition of Ghalib’s Urdu Divan (1841) survived to this day shows that it must have been a prized possession.

What marked Ghalib’s return to writing in a language in which he was better understood — Urdu?In 1850, he was appointed to write a history of the Mughals in Persian. He returned fully to Urdu upon being appointed Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ustad in 1854. He was also the ustad of the heir apparent, Mirza Fakhru. Zafar’s poetry was in Urdu and Ghalib offered islah or corrections. His attendance at the court mushairahs also became frequent. Ghalib now produced ghazals tempered by his 20 years of composing in a classical mode in Persian. His mature poetry is more polished in that he seems to be paying greater attention to crafting than ineffable imaginative flights. As he grew older, he preferred writing letters in Urdu instead of Persian. In my opinion, Urdu as a modern language was more in sync with his ideas. Ultimately, it is in Urdu that he won everlasting fame.

Nawaid Anjum is a critic, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.

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