Art & Culture

Why Mirza Ghalib is Delhi's truest metaphor

Rakhshanda JalilDecember 23, 2015 | 13:45 IST

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) lived through one of the most turbulent periods of recent history. Two worlds - the decaying and the emergent - fused and merged. Pathos, confusion and conflict reigned supreme as the Great Revolt of 1857 marked the end of an era and a new world order lay waiting to be unfurled. Ghalib lived in the city of Delhi, saw with his own eyes madness and mayhem descend upon the streets of his beloved city and witnessed the siege and slaughter of an entire way of life.

While to some extent his response to the events of 1857 are contradictory since he was dependent on the pension he received from the British (he was, in his own words, a namak-khwar-e-sarkar-e-angrez or an eater of the salt of the British government on account of his hereditary pension), there is much in his oeuvre that is in the nature of a testimony to his times. There is, of course, the blood-chilling ghazal he wrote immediately after the revolt, which speaks of the here and now in unequivocal terms: 

Now every English soldier that bears arms

Is sovereign, and free to work his will


Men dare not venture out into the street

And terror chills their heart within them still


Their homes enclose them as in prison walls

And in the Chauk the victors hang and kill


The city is athirst for Muslim blood

And every grain of dust must drink its fill

Then there are countless other instances where Ghalib speaks of an emptiness, an indefinable almost existentialist angst, that goes beyond the topical. There are, for example, the three couplets he wrote in 1862, possibly in response to the Nawab of Farrukhabad who was picked up by the British for aiding the rebels, and abandoned on an island off the shore of Arabia.

While some verses, such as those below, reflect the hopelessness and escapism that afflicted many Muslims of his generation, there are countless others that voice a predicament that rises above the here and now of human existence:

Let us go and live somewhere where there is no one

No one who speaks to me in my language, no one to talk to


I will make something that is like a house

(But) There won't be any neighbours, nor anyone to guard it


Were I to fall ill, there will be no one to tend me

And when I die, no one to mourn me

The point of this extended introduction is not so much to establish Ghalib as a chronicler of his time but to point out how Ghalib transcends his time and circumstance and speaks of universal concerns. For, who amongst us has not been touched by the void? Who has not known emptiness? Who has not felt the terrible loneliness of being? At the same time, who has not known pride and rejection, pain and pleasure?

Just as there is the Ghalib who wrote of metaphysical angst, there is the other Ghalib who could wax eloquent about the joys of eating mangoes in summertime, who enjoyed nothing more than a glass of good wine, who could compose an extempore verse on a betel nut! This other Ghalib wrote verses on the miseries of a leaking roof during the monsoons and how he declined a perfectly good job teaching Persian at the Delhi College because he felt he hadn't been accorded sufficient dignity by the English administrator.

Just as the Delhi of Ghalib was a metaphor for many things - change, survival, growth, modernism, a catholic worldview, the end of an era and the beginning of a new one which rises phoenix-like from the ashes of the old - Ghalib himself was man of many moods. From rhapsodising on the charms of the beloved - in the best tradition of Urdu poetry - to ruing the insignificance of all human endeavour, from displaying a delightful sense of humour to wallowing in self-pity all the myriad shades of life and living are reflected in this one man's vast and varied oeuvre. For, as he himself declares:

In our sight is the path of the road of oblivion, Ghalib

For this is the binding-thread of the signatures of the world

Another way of "seeing" Ghalib is to view him from the perspective of a literary historian. As the last of the classicals and the first of the moderns, it was Ghalib who brought Urdu poetry to the point where it was ready to take wings and soar. It was Ghalib who formed a bridge between the old masters and the revivalists who appeared on the literary scene at the turn of the century. What is more, it was Ghalib who showed the way forward after the debacle of 1857 - and his younger contemporaries like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Nazir Ahmad, Zakaullah and Hali followed suit.

Ghalib visualised a world not in terms of Islam, but in terms of a colonised world where one's claims for survival and prosperity would be buttressed by one's ability to come to terms with western enlightenment, all the while holding on to the staff of one's own deep-rooted faith and sense of self.

Last updated: February 15, 2016 | 16:00
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