Review: Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep by Mehr Afshan Farooqi

By focussing critically on both Ghalib’s Persian and Urdu poetry and prose, Mehr Afhsan Farooqi’s work becomes the definitive literary biography of the poet
A stamp issued in 1969 to mark the 100th death anniversary of poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869). (Shutterstock)
A stamp issued in 1969 to mark the 100th death anniversary of poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869). (Shutterstock)
Updated on Oct 02, 2021 12:00 PM IST
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By Maaz Bin Bilal

If someone would say: Why would Rekhtah [Urdu] be the envy of Persian?Read out Ghalib’s verse, just once: ‘Like this!’

Look at my Persian so that you may see different coloursPass over my collection in Urdu because it doesn’t have my colour.

416pp, ₹799; Penguin
416pp, ₹799; Penguin

Both these self-assured verses are by Mirza Ghalib and translated by Mehr Afshan Farooqi. It should also be pointed out, as it may not be self-evident to all, that the first is from Urdu, and the second from Persian. Yes, Ghalib wrote in both languages, and, in fact, his output in Persian was more than double of that in Urdu — facts that are not widely known despite his abiding popularity in South Asia and the world. And as seen in the above verses, Ghalib prioritised either Persian or Urdu, at different points of time in his writing career.

Mehr Afhsan Farooqi’s book, Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep, by focussing critically on both Ghalib’s Persian and Urdu poetry and prose, becomes the definitive literary biography of 19th century’s greatest poet. In contrast, most critics in Urdu or English have focussed largely on Ghalib’s Urdu work; fewer others writing in Persian, Urdu, or English have analysed his Persian oeuvre. Farooqi writes not just on the biographical or anecdotal while strewing Ghalib’s exalted verses around, as prior biographies in English such as Pawan Verma’s did. Instead, she closely examines the history of his manuscript and printed editions of Ghalib’s work, their editing and selection by the poet, the various prefaces written to different editions by the author and/or his friends, and also their reception.

Drafted in the increasingly popular genre of non-fiction by academic scholars meant for a non-academic audience, the book is thoroughly researched and heavily annotated. While undertaking the literary studies pathway of close study and archival and textual research of various editions of Ghalib’s works and secondary writings upon it, the book also acquires the hues of a bibliomystery, investigating the various motivations behind Ghalib’s choices, as well as the appearance and disappearance of his various manuscript diwans (collections) and anthologies.

This is achieved rather self-reflexively and Farooqi remains at pains to highlight her own position in the investigation. She dedicates the book “To Fran Pritchett, The first woman commentator on Ghalib. With love and admiration,” and places herself in this long tradition of commentators on Urdu’s greatest poet, by being the next major feminine voice in the tradition, with Natalia Prigarina being another woman author who penned a biography on Ghalib (in Russian). But Farooqi’s work is not to be appreciated while being bracketed among women’s writing alone. She makes interesting and novel claims and refutes other canonical opinions, such as those about Ghalib expunging his “difficult” verses from his early phase for his published Urdu diwans, the first of which was published only in 1841, even though Ghalib had his first collection ready possibly by 1816. She also examines Ghalib’s reasons for concentrating on Persian in his mature phase, such as to participate in a larger Persosphere spanning from Turkey to Bengal. Why is the Urdu diwan so closely edited while the Persian diwan is double the size? Why is the Persian poetry an easier read than the highly complex Urdu poetry? These are some of the other key questions Farooqi seeks to answer.

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

While placing herself in this long tradition of Ghalib scholarship from Hali, Tabatabai, Malik Ram, Vazir-ul-Hasan-Abidi, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (her father) to name only a few, Farooqi creates a historiography of the interpretative history of Ghalib. And while doing so, she clarifies the timelines of both criticism and also Ghalib’s compositions, which other biographies in English have failed to do. She also asserts Ghalib’s travels in 1826-7, the long journey to Calcutta, with its various stops en route as the reason for his mature understanding of the Persosphere and the value of print cultures. These, she avers, become the reason for his enduring success.

However, at times, Farooqi’s constant self-consciousness, which is concomitant with the desire to present Ghalib in all his bilingual glory to an English reading public, as well as possibly to cast herself in this long Ghalibian tradition, becomes a bit of a hindrance to the reader. The narrative voice is that of an “I” throughout the book, which intrudes a little too often and takes away from the subject at hand that is Ghalib. Such a tradition is valued in certain critical-academic traditions where the author’s function is to be consciously articulated, but it could have been kept to a minimum. The book also gets slightly repetitive in its claims where “As I mentioned above…” becomes a constant refrain. Would it matter too much if the “I” were to give way here in this book on Ghalib?

Despite these minor quibbles, this book is the best addition to Ghalib scholarship and biographic writing in English in the recent many decades. It combines the best of Western academic standards of intensive and extensive reading and citation with the author’s native understanding of Urdu and Persianate traditions, as especially inculcated by her father, who was a doyen of the field. Ghalib’s canny wilderness has been tamed for us and brought to our doorsteps by Mehr Afshan Farooqi with great insight and felicity in the traditions of Urdu, Persian, and English, and we must doff our topis, karakuls, and hats to this expert Ghalibian.

Maaz Bin Bilal is a poet, translator, and cultural critic. He teaches literary studies at Jindal Global University.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021