"With Meer, Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz, to name only four, the firmament of Urdu poetry is truly star-studded, with numerous starlets strewn around. Ghalib has not only pride of place among them but his stature is growing with every passing decade. He was ahead of his time, and his contemporaries failed to comprehend him fully. It was when India (and Pakistan) celebrated his first death centenary in 1969 that Ghalib was really rehabilitated and recognised as the great poet that he is. There has been no looking back after that.
As with other great poets like Shakespeare, one discovers a new wealth of meaning every time one reads him, and different people find different meaning, suiting their need and situation. In other words, great poets are inexhaustible in their appeal and meaning and do not get dated even when they mirror their times most effectively. Ghalib’s writings are not only an authentic account of this own age, his poetry transcends his times and situation and is universal in its appeal."
Mirza Asad-Ullah Khan Ghalib is the greatest Urdu poet, and
one of the greatest in any Indian language. He could rank perhaps
among the great poets of the world. There is an interesting parallel
between Meer Taqi Meer and Mirza Ghalib on the one hand,
and William Shakespeare and John Milton on the other.
Shakespeare died in 1616 when Milton was eight years old. Ghalib
was about Milton’s age when Meer, who was then in his last
days, read some of Ghalib’s writings, which were taken to him
by an early admirer of Ghalib. And if Shakespeare and Milton
are the greatest English poets, Meer and Ghalib are the greatest
in Urdu. There is one difference though—in English it is the
senior poet who is the greatest, in Urdu it is the junior.
With Meer, Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz, to name only four, the
firmament of Urdu poetry is truly star-studded, with numerous
starlets strewn around. Ghalib has not only a pride of place among
them; his stature is growing with every passing decade. He got
less than his due in his own time. He was ahead of his age,
and his contemporaries failed to comprehend him fully. Then
he was pilloried on conventional moral grounds. Add to these
his difficult language and subtlety of thought. As a result, his
reputation as a poet suffered not only in his own day, but for
decades after his death. In this respect, his friend and disciple,
Altaf Hussain Hali with his ‘ Yadgar-e-Ghalib’ rendered yeoman’s
service in establishing him. Others too saw his merit as a poet,
but it was really when India (and Pakistan) celebrated his first
death centenary in 1969 that he was rehabilitated as a great poet
that he is. There has been no looking back after that. As with
other great poets like Shakespeare, one discovers a new wealth
of meaning every time one reads him, and different people find
different meaning, suiting their need and situation. In other words,
great poets are inexhaustible in their appeal and meaning and
do not get dated even when they mirror their times most
effectively. Ghalib’s writings are not only an authentic account
of his own age, his poetry transcends his times and situation.
It is universal in its appeal.
Ghalib is truly a modern poet. Modern age is characterised
by doubt and scepticism, irony and satire, suggestiveness and
understatement, a rational outlook (at least professedly), a result
oriented scientific attitude and secularism. When asked by Sir
Sayyed Ahmed Khan to write a preface to his edited version
of ‘Aaeen-e-Akbari’, Ghalib wrote it in verse, praising Sir Sayyed
in the beginning but lambasting him for his efforts to flog a
dead horse, pointing out that rather than eulogising Akbar’s
administration, one would do well to learn from modern scientific inventions and works being undertaken by the British—
things like steam-ships, railways, telegraph—and their stream-
lined administration and discipline. His dictum was—murda
parvardan mubarak kaar-neest—(there 1s no credit in praising
the dead ideals.)
Sir Sayyed felt so annoyed that he did not use Ghalib’s
One of the factors in Ghalib’s greatness is his ability to
detach himself from himself. He was afflicted by a whole lot
of troubles, his life was a veritable tale of woe, and yet, he
is able to laugh at himself. He was jailed for defaulting on payment
to the moneylender. After his release, Ghalib agreed to stay at
one Kale Sahib’s house. Says he, "Which bastard says that I
have been released from jail? Earlier I was in white man’s jail,
now I am in black man’s custody." When a friend paid the fine
for the default on payment because Ghalib was in no position
to pay, the poet writes.
We drank on credit, but always knew
that our recklessness will one day a mischief do
Ghalib separates himself from his suffering, looks at them
bemused from a distance, brings out their poignancy, presents
them most effectively—and jokes about them. He can speak about
his humiliations, his misdeeds, his sorrows most objectively as
if they were not his own but those of somebody else. And this
perhaps makes them bearable:
Ghalib would be torn to pieces, the news was hot
We too went to witness the fun, but it was not
He can cast a cold glance at his own situation, be merciless
and lambast himself:
How could you have, the cheek, Ghalib to do, a pilgrimage
But shame is perhaps the last thing to have touched you
An outstanding feature of Ghalib’s poetry and prose is his wit
and humour, often at his own cost:
You are his liege Ghalib, so bless the king
Gone are the days when you could say you ‘re not serving
Wit, humour, irony and satire sum up the sunny side of
Ghalib’s personality. When somebody said that if he continued
drinking, his prayers will not be granted by God, Ghalib retorted
that if somebody gets wine to drink, what does he need to pray
for. He was a courteous man. Once he carried a candle to help
a friend find his shoes. When the friend protested, Ghalib replied
that he was doing so to make sure that "you do not take away
my shoes." And his famous jibe on Zauq, apparently at his own
cost, can amuse us forever and ever.
But a kings courtier he struts up and down
Otherwise who cares for Ghalib in the town
This wit and humour is a strong shield against sufferings.
In fact a sturdiness of mind, even a stubbornness in the face of
sufferings that emerges from his writings is a great thing about
Ghalib. It is noteworthy that misfortunes cannot crush his spirits.
His zest, even lust for life is unlimited.
Although Ghalib has been a part of my growing up from early
boyhood, the idea of translating him is not more than a year
old. I must confess that when the suggestion first came from
a friend, I had serious trepidation. But once I started the work
I experienced little difficulty. In fact, I took more time in writing
the ‘Introduction’ than in translating the ghazals. This was perhaps
because I have been for many years now translating poetry from
Hindi and Urdu into English and vice-versa, my first translation
work being Shamsher Bahadur Singh’s Sahitya Academy award-
winning collection of poems from Hindi into English. A col-
lection of my translation of some of the best-known English
poems from Shakespeare to W.H. Auden was published two years
Translating Ghalib was, however a different proposition al-
together. For one thing, translating a ghazal into English and
still retaining its charm and appeal is, indeed, difficult. And in
the case of Ghalib, this difficulty is even greater. It is relatively
easy to give prose translation of a ghazal. It may serve some
purpose but conveys little of the charm and beauty of the original.
In fact, it is well-nigh impossible to do full justice to poetry,
particularly the ghazal in translation. The best I thought that
could be done was to translate the verses into independent rhymed
couplets. Also, I have tried to be faithful to the original. I have
not attempted to translate the entire Diwan-e-Ghalib; I couldn’t
have. It is only a selection from the Urdu Diwan.
In my assessment of Ghalib’s poetry in the ‘Introduction’,
I have given some of its traits that I have long thought make
him a great poet. I have also given illustrations from the text.
In writing about the life and times of the poet, I have drawn
on many sources. Among them are the works of Quratulain Hyder,
Ijaz Ahmed, Ralph Russel, Pavan Varma and Sardar Jafri. I express
my gratitude to these learned authors. I would, in this regard,
acknowledge my debt particularly to Ralph Russel. I have greatly
benefitted from his scholarly work. Hali’s ‘ Yadgar-e-Ghalib’ has
of course been a primary source.
I would like to express my thanks to Dr. Khalid Ashraf
of the Department of Urdu, Kirori Mal College and to Dr. S.R.
Singh, Dr. C.D. Verma, Professor S.N. Sharma, Professor K.G.
Verma and Mithuraaj Dhusiya at the department of English of
Delhi University and Mr. O.P. Sapra for their valuable help and
suggestions, and for reading through the manuscript. Dr. Khalid,
in fact, settled for me the meaning of some of the controversial
verses. Thanks are also due to my daughters Ritu and Sarika
for their help in preparing the manuscript. I express my thanks
also to Shri Vishv Nath who suggested the project to me and
encouraged me at every step.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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