Mirza Ghalib, b. Agra, 1797-1869
By Mayank Austen Soofi
Do we laugh or cry for Ghalib? Is it possible without writing a book-length biography to convey the contrasts of his low life and high career, and also suggest his astonishing feat of transcending a vanished era to become the greatest Delhi poet and a great letter writer of all times?
Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Khan wrote in Persian and Urdu. Ghalib, meaning ‘most excellent’, was his pen name. Born in Agra to a family of military adventurers, he spent almost all his life in Delhi, which then was in a transition phase custom-made for poets. The Mughal dynasty fell, the British took over and a civilisation ended. Ghalib was a prop in this play. Like a newborn baby, he cried, frowned and flailed his arms on being forced into a new uncertain world. But he also captured the essence of the times in verses so elemental that no matter where we live, we could relate the twilight years of Mughal Delhi to our individual despairs. In the destruction of Ghalib’s city, we could see the ruin of our dreams.
We smashed the wine cup and the flask
What is it now to us?
If all the rain that falls from heaven
Should turn to rose-red wine?
After the British crushed the uprising of 1857, the Red Fort and Jama Masjid were converted into barracks. Fatehpuri Masjid was sold to a Hindu merchant. Bahadaur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king and also a poet, was imprisoned in a cell, on the walls of which he wrote verses with a burnt stick. He was later exiled to Rangoon. In order to bring the city to its knees, the British tried to flatten it by razing down gallies and kuchhas that gave Delhi its distinctive character. The buildings close to the Red Fort were demolished. Most Muslims fled the city.
In a letter to a friend in 1861, Ghalib wrote, “The city has become a desert… by God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment… No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses… Four things kept Delhi alive – the fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-sellers. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes there used to be a city of this name in the land of Hindustan.”
With such a chest-beating account, you might think that Ghalib must have hated the British. In his book Dastanbuy, a day-to-day account of the uprising, Ghalib wrote: “Readers of this book should know that I… have eaten the bread and salt of the British and, from my earliest childhood, have been fed from the table of these world conquerors.”
In the best traditions of Delhi’s sycophancy culture, Ghalib was trying to be in the good books of the winning side. Or, perhaps, he was merely trying to save his life. The revengeful British were killing anyone who had to do with the old court. Ghalib was a court poet.
Three years before the uprising, he had succeeded his rival, Zauq, as Zafar’s ustad, his master. His job was to edit the emperor’s verses. During court days, Ghalib reached the Red Fort by nine, returned home for lunch and then go back again to the court. In evenings, he might be required to fly kites with the emperor.
Ghalib Academy, Nizamuddin Basti, New Delhi.
“There are two Ghalibs,” the poet wrote. “One is the Seljuq Turk who mixes with badshahs, the other is poor, in debt and insulted.” Being so close to the royalty didn’t translate to wealth. Forever in debt, sometimes Ghalib would not leave home for fear of being harassed by debtors. At one point, his debt stood at Rs 40,000, an astronomical sum for those times. The bard never owned a house, and he always read borrowed books. But every evening – till the uprising – he drank French wine. And he gambled. In 1847, a British magistrate sentenced him to six months imprisonment for gambling, along with hard labour and a fine of Rs 200.
But Ghalib was not a poet prone to self-pity. He had a massive ego, an inferior view of his contemporaries and a bawdy zest for life. When someone praised a rival poet, he said, “How can Sahbi be a poet? He has never tasted wine, nor has ever gambled; he has not been beaten with slippers by lovers; nor has he once seen the inside of a jail.”
A lover of mangoes, the poet-gambler was a womaniser. Consoling a friend whose mistress had just died, Ghalib said:
Take a new woman each returning spring
For last year’s almanac is a useless thing.
While many of his verses, especially the ones in Persian, have complex structures, some are simple and so romantic that a street Romeo could swing to it:
(You say) It is not love, it is madness
My madness may be the cause of your fame
Sever not my relationship with you
If nothing then be my enemy.
Although a Muslim, Ghalib never fasted during Ramzan. When asked of his religion, he said that he was a half-Muslim, explaining, “I drink wine but I do not touch pork.”
A provocative intellectual, he loved messing with people’s heads. Once he dared both Hindus and Muslims by writing:
In the Kaaba I will play the conch-shell
In the temple I have draped the ahram.
The hypocrisy of mullahs too were not spared:
The tavern door and the preacher,
Are truly poles apart.
All I know is I saw him enter,
As I left to depart.
The poet’s contempt for religious formalities prompted him to compose this verse:
God is one, that is our faith;
All ritual we abjure.
‘Tis only when the symbols vanish
That belief is pure.
In 1827, on his way to Calcutta, imperial India’s administrative capital, where he wanted the case of his hereditary pension redressed by the British, Ghalib stopped at the temple town of Kashi for four weeks. Its beauty left a deep impact on him. In the Persian poem Chirag-i-Dair, he wrote:
…Why has not doomsday come?
Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?
Who holds the reins of the final catastrophe?
The hoary old man of lucent ken
Pointed towards Kashi and gently smiled.
‘The Architect,’ he said, ‘is fond of this edifice
Because of which there is colour in life; He
Would not like it to perish and fall.
Ghalib lost the pension case.
When just short of 13 years, Ghalib, who was tutored at his widowed mother’s home by a Persian scholar, was married to Umrao Begum. She was pious, he was almost godless. Their marriage survived although all their seven children died in infancy. Ghalib adopted his wife’s nephew, Zain-ul-Abidin Khan, aka Arif, as his son. When Arif died of tuberculosis at 35, Ghalib wrote:
O, Eternal Sky,
Arif was still young,
How would it have harmed you
Had he lived a little more.
In bad times, the zesty poet would seek solace in private tragedies:
O, heart, consider even sorrow’s song
To be a consolation;
For, one day, this body
Will lie without sensation.
Mirza Ghalib's tomb, situated close to Hazrat Nizamuddin's dargah, New Delhi.
By 1867, at the age of 70 years, Ghalib’s memory had gone, his hearing had failed, his hands trembled, his teeth had fallen off, and he couldn’t walk. Mentally alert of his disintegration, he wrote, “I sleep in the courtyard. Two men carry me onto the veranda and dump me in a small, dark, side room. I spend the day lying in its dingy corner. In the evening, I’m again carried out and dumped on the cot.”
Two years later, even in the final stage of his life, Ghalib would write letters, and edit poems that were sent to him for corrections. By the time he was ready to die, Ghalib had become famous but he was still struggling for patrons and money. Just before the end, on February 15, 1869, he said:
My dying breath is ready to depart
And now, my friends, God, only God, exists.
Ghalib was buried the same noon in central Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti, in the family graveyard of the Nawab of Loharu. His wife died on the same date, a year later.
Until a few years ago, the haveli in Ballimaran where Ghalib died was a coal store. Recent restoration has transformed it into a makeshift museum with facsimiles of Ghalib’s letters, some grainy pictures, and curiously, utensils of his time. Apart from his books on display, a chart shows Ghalib’s favorite dishes (bhuna ghosht and sohan halwa). The courtyard looks onto the back of a high-rise, the wall of which is spattered with paan stains and lined with sewage. Ghalib would have chuckled at the setting.
Suggested reading: Diwan-e-Ghalib (A collection of Ghalib’s verse; available in English translation), Ghalib: Life, Letters, and Ghazals by Ralph Russell, Ghalib – The Man, The Times by Pavan K. Varma.
Mayank Austen Soofi is author of four books and works as a journalist with a newspaper, Mint, in Delhi.
Photo: (From T to B) Painting of Ghalib, Mayank Austen Soofi.