At Ghalib’s threshold, again!
By Syed Nomanul Haq
Ghalib longed to build another abode on that side of the high horizon, another place, opening up another view of the world:
If only, we could make another spectacle on the heights —
O, how we long for a place on that side of the sky!
What a wish this is! And here is a poetic genius speaking — the one who would never flirt with the frivolity of small talk. In this longing of Ghalib so much meaning is generated, and this in a manner so pleasing, coming with its rhythms and dancing sound patterns, its conceptual balance and ambiguities, and its idiomatic simplicity and familiar voice. Then, the connected series of questions raised here is indeed formidable. Why this thrust of a creative jet to burn through like a wild flame to a place on the other side of the high horizon? What new spectacle can manifest itself from that place? Why is this side of the high horizon stifling?
A fundamental issue is involved in this chain of queries — the issue of the relationship between two entities typically confused by Urdu poetry’s exegetes of the day. On the one hand, a poet’s experiences of real life, in body and flesh, in the day-to-day realm of “generation and corruption,” a realm trapped in, to quote Iqbal, “near and far and now and then”. And, on the other, the alternative cosmos, the metaphorically generated “spectacle,” an abode the poet creates in a free world of imagination. What is the relationship between the two? Is poetry not just an ordered expression of what the poet goes through in his personal and social life? Is not the second of the two entities in fact an eloquent articulation of the first? And more adamantly, is the poetic world in the strict sense not identical with the real world, identical in essence but clad in a different cloak?
Indeed, Ghalib is a historical figure who lived in this actual space-time world, not on that but on this side of the high horizon. We also know that he experienced in imperial India of his times dramatic and highly complex vicissitudes of personal history, palpable history to be sure. Orphaned at the age of five, he fell into the lap of an uncle who too succumbs to death when the orphan is barely nine. Then in the very first year of his teens he is already married to Umrao Begum, the niece of Nawab Ahmad Bakhsh of Loharo — Ghalib calls this matrimonial onus “the decree of eternal incarceration… a heavy chain tied to my feet!” A host of anxieties and misfortunes now await him, all in a single fateful year: his brother goes mad, his father-in-law, a caring benefactor, dies, and creditors hound him. And the famous pension dispute raises its head, the dispute over his share in the hereditary pension that the British officials had granted to his uncle.
Just one year later, when he is a 30-year-old man, the mess of the pension case, laced now with internecine intrigues in the Nawab of Loharo’s family, takes Ghalib from Delhi to Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of the colonial East India Company. He returns after two years — frustrated, slighted, working up for himself an enduring mêlée of acrimonious notoriety. Having failed to make any real headway in sorting out his financial claims with the British officials in the capital, Ghalib managed to generate during the visit a vicious literary and linguistic scandal concerning the syntax, morphology, and usage of the Persian language — a bitter controversy that culminated 34 years later in his daring Qate‘-e-Burhan (The Cutter/Destroyer of Proof) written in refutation of a hitherto standard Persian lexicon from the time of Aurangzeb, the Burhan-e-Qate‘ (The Cutting/Definitive Proof), producing a contrary by the intriguing device of a simple word reversal in the lexicon’s title. Indeed, the matter was so sensitive for Ghalib that in the years to come he would take a critic of the Cutter to court for defamation!
But this only gives a flashing glimpse of an intricate personal history. Ghalib’s journey through time in the larger social and political world is no less turbulent, and no less eventful. In 1835, some four years following the official dismissal of his pension claim, the British Resident of Delhi, William Fraser, was murdered. At the conclusion of the ensuing investigative process, the Raj officials pronounced Nawab Shams-ud-Din to have been at the head of a shady instigation for the commission of the act. This gave yet another twist to the public and private struggles of our poet — the convicted instigator of Fraser’s murder had taken over as the heir of Nawab Ahmad Bakhsh of Loharo, turning out to be Ghalib’s unyielding adversary in the ugly pension fight. Two years later, Shams-ud-Din was publicly hanged.
One day the police raids Ghalib’s house, catching him red-handed in the middle of gambling with some of his accomplices. He is convicted and fined. But much worse: charged some years later with the crime of running a gaming house, this proud genius subsequently suffers a crushing humiliation not only of a heavier court conviction but also of imprisonment now at the ripe age of 50. And more, a family tragedy befalls him not long thereafter — his virtual son Arif dies; Arif, Umrao Begum’s nephew for whom Ghalib had developed a caring father’s affection.
But the pattern of this personal history moves like a sinusoidal wave carrying a luminous body up and down in a ruthless excursion. If the wave made Ghalib ride to an abysmal low, some peaks too awaited him in his silver and golden years, now adding another vantage from whose elevation he could see the sport of life. He gains access to the Mughal court, an access bringing not only honour but also decent financial yields. The ruler of Rampur humbles himself to become his literary pupil and grants him a stipend. He gets a reassuring reply from London in response to an appeal he had sent to Queen Victoria, beseeching Her Majesty to bestow upon him a financial grant in recognition of his standing as a poet. His pension case is reopened and he receives a grant pending a decision. Then, at long last, his pension is reissued.
And yet, in between all of this, the vexing crisis of 1857 intervened. A 60-year-old Ghalib lived through the mayhem that characterises this ‘mutiny,’ the ghadar, something that is found ever-ablaze in his memory, burning until his decrepit days that consumed his biological life. He recounts his experiences not in Urdu but in a Persian work, giving it the archaic title Dastambu. Practically no more Urdu poetry now — but then, conversely, Persian is largely abandoned in favor of Urdu for letter-writing. This linguistic exchange, let us acknowledge in passing, turned out to be a monumental privilege for Urdu prose, for these letters of Ghalib embody a breakthrough in the history of this language, masterpieces of flowing spontaneity, unencumbered crisp expressions, and a dancing wit that is uniquely Ghalib’s own. They stand supreme in the annals of Urdu. “What fray was here?” — he asks in a letter written in the wake of the bloodbath, and then in a poignant lamentation writes those famous words that are forever carved in our literary consciousness —
“Alas! So many friends have been killed, so many — Now who is left to cry over my own dead body!”
Why did Ghalib virtually stop writing Urdu ghazal after the calamity of 1857, in fact effectively ending his poetic career altogether? And why did he choose this very same language as the medium of his superb conversational writings that constitute his letters? We may never know for sure. But when we juxtapose the two entities identified at the outset — the vicissitudes of his external life, on the one hand, and his poetry on the other — we find something very significant. There is, to be sure, no direct, simple, linear, logical, predictable, or intuitive relationship between the two!
Many an unmindful commentator has lapsed here — trying to connect the two in a one-to-one mode of parallelism. So when we hear him say in helpless resignation:
Lord, why is the time erasing me?
On the tablet of the world I am not a repeated letter!
When Ghalib said this, what was going on in his real life? In fact, the ghazal in which this verse appears — laden as it is with a dislocating pathos, a ghazal in which the poet counts his deep injuries — was written in happy days when Ghalib had been admitted to the Mughal emperor’s entourage — some seven years before the ghadar!
Let’s carry out more juxtaposition. Note the voice coming as if from a dark chamber of gloom:
That union and that separation — where?
Those nights and days and months and years — where?
Leisure for the business of passion — who has it?
A relish for the glance of beauty — where?
Is there a causal relation, even a correspondence, between this ghazal and Ghalib’s external circumstances of life when the two are juxtaposed? The answer will frustrate many a naïve critic looking without chronological sense for a simple parallelism here. No, this ghazal was not written when the poet was sitting in gloom’s dark chamber; he wrote it around the year 1821, way before the pension case, long before heavy misfortunes befell him, distant in time from the madness of his brother and the tragic loss of his benefactor father-in-law. Indeed, Ghalib himself, in actual fact, speaks of his “dark chamber” in another famous pathos-laden ghazal, and this ghazal too came into being around the same time — yes, here he literally does talk about “the night of sorrow,” and of “extinguished candle,” and of “the death of joy and passion”; but more, he even asks us to learn a lesson from his defeated life! What defeated life?!
Such examples can be multiplied without much effort, and multiplied on both sides: for there came to pass many joyous verses of Ghalib in times of experiential pain, and again no direct relationship between the two are to be discovered in this case either. What does it all mean? The conclusion raps hard at our doors — the poet has two beings, his poetic being and his experiential being. He lives in two autonomous spheres of life. And yet it ought to be pronounced loudly that the two are not utterly unconnected: it is only that the connection is highly complex, and it is our responsibility to discover and explain this complexity.
Two things ought to be noted: one that a presupposition is hidden underneath the searches for a one-to-one correspondence between this real cosmos and that poetic universe of imaginative creation — the presupposition that human nature is linear and that external experiences cast a unique image into the inner vicissitudes of a poet. This is an absurd denial of multiplicity of meanings that our experiences can engender. The second thing to be noted is that we are not here talking about what should be called mere versifications; no, we are talking about real poetry. Think about it: why did Ghalib never write any poetry about the ghadar despite the overwhelming intensity of his experiences — the answer is not too far to seek: he was a poet, not a versifier! His experiential life had become so overpowering that he practically gave up writing poetry almost totally. He did not want this side to contaminate that side.
So Ghalib longed for an abode on that side of the high horizon. That side where he could see an alternative universe, nay create it…
This article, that draws upon the translations of Frances Pritchett, was written on Ghalib’s death anniversary on 27 December.
The writer is a former scholar-in-residence at the American Institute of Pakistan Studies and teaches at Lums. He is General Editor of the Oxford University Press book series, Studies in Islamic Philosophy, and recently shared the Waldo Leland Prize of the American Historical Association.