“Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep” by Mehr Afshan Farooqi

Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep; A Critical Biography, Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Penguin Allen Lane, January 2021) Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep; A Critical Biography, Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Penguin Allen Lane, January 2021)

The 19th-century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib always evoked strong opinions about his literary worth. An early 20th-century critic proclaimed, “India has just two scriptures or divine gospels, the holy Vedas and the poetry of Ghalib.” Meanwhile an anonymous Delhiwallah  quipped: “I get the verse of Mir[1]Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor but Mirza’s just too odd. Maybe he gets himself, or maybe only God.” Indian-born, US academic Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s biography does not try to resolve the paradox of how Ghalib achieved such a towering reputation when readers struggled to understand him. By providing a deep reading of Ghalib’s oeuvre she allows patient readers to find their own solution.

There can be no doubt about the position in literature occupied by Ghalib. The scholarly corpus of Ghalibiana runs to tens of thousands of references. “Ghalib’s role in Indian literature,” wrote Simon Digby years ago “is like Shakespeare, Swift, Dr Johnson, Sidney Smith and Byron all rolled into one.” He added that hundreds of thousands of south Asians knew many of his poems by hearts, and enjoyed them daily as songs on the radio and on the large (and now small) screen. And yet, as Farooqi shows us, his reputation relies on a relatively small selection of his work. Scholars do not fully understand the inspiration and chronology of his poetic production. It would be as if we did not know that Julius Caesar precedes the Tempest in Shakespeare’s body of work.

 

Ghalib’s life has been reasonably well documented in English since Ralph Russel and Khorshidul-Islam published their 1969 book, Ghalib: Life and Letters. Born to a landowning, military service family in Agra, Ghalib came to Delhi to pursue literary fame, suffered poverty from the loss of his family’s pension, made a host of distinguished friends as well as dangerous enemies, survived the British sack of Delhi in 1857.  A flood of encomiums followed his death in 1869. Farooqi’s clarifies many details of the received narrative. She examines the surviving manuscripts, autographs or authorized copies, and by comparing the changes and corrections revises the chronology of their production. Sometimes this changes the chronology of Ghalib’s life. Farooqi finds that an earlier birth year (1790 to 1793 as opposed to the traditional date of 1797) corresponds better to what she knows about Ghalib’s debut as a poet.

The daughter of a famous Urdu poet and novelist, Shamshur-Rahman Farooqi, the author writes for an audience in India who will appreciate every nuance of language, poetic form and even calligraphic techniques. Farooqi’s investigation of Ghalib’’s writings is both exhausting and exhaustive. She provides us for the first time in English with a number of prose texts that Ghalib used to introduce his poetry collections and explain his views on poetics. Farooqi makes many interesting points, but sometimes she belabors them. We are for example told seven times that Ghalib’s Persian tutor was probably a literary fiction.  It is still worthwhile for readers less familiar with Urdu to make the effort to read, because it offers a glimpse into poetic creation and the relationship between the poet and the public that is both unique and universal.

Ghalib’s life represents a fascinating intersection between pre-modern literature, when poets depended on the pleasure of princes for their living, and the now familiar literary world of printers, publishers and journalists. Ghalib prepared beautifully scripted manuscripts for nawabs, while at the same time correcting proofs for printers. He snobbishly defended his status in glittering gatherings of insiders, but he eagerly put his writing into the hands of the man with three rupees to buy a book. To come up with a parallel phenomenon in western literature one has to go back to Ariosto, who had both noble patrons and plebian publishers.

 

The strangest aspect of Ghalib’s oeuvre is that he abandoned writing poetry in Urdu, the vernacular language of the educated classes in northern India at the time, in favor of Persian. Imagine if Milton had given up English for Latin. In the 1830s, it would not have required a soothsayer to predict that Urdu would completely replace Persian in Indian public life. Again, Farooqi does not provide the reader with a black and white answer as to why Ghalib spent the greatest part of his literary career writing in a classical language. Perhaps Ghalib believed that a poet of his stature should write in a transnational language, as Persian still was. His desire to be printed and so universally accessible, sharpened his focus on Persian. The irony is that today no native speakers of Persian in Iran, Afghanistan or Tajikistan acknowledge Ghalib as part of their canon, just as no one in France reads the French poetry of TS Elliot.

Ghalib considered Urdu as a language suited for wit and expressiveness, useful in public poetry recitals, the mushairas, but not as a vehicle for the ages. He returned to writing Urdu poetry only when he became the poet laureate of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah, because court attendance and courtly amusements required him to show off his talents at ephemeral compositions. Paradoxically, these proved to be some of Ghalib’s most enduring verses.

Ghalib’s overall corpus remains difficult to understand. He is closer to TS Elliot than Emily Dickinson. Yet some poems possess an intensity of meaning that they even survive in translation. Farooqi shows how this diamond polisher of words and images worked tirelessly to craft these. Her close readings leave us with a better sense of the art, the age and the man.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor