The poet Ghalib took a broad view about spirituality and ritual. He told a British friend he was half a Muslim, because while he wouldn’t eat pork, he enjoyed as hurrah peg of whiskey. Did Ghalib retain a medieval belief in cultic efficiency, or did he have a modern’s skepticism about revealed religions in general? That question comes to mind when reading his 108-verse long praise poem to the city of Vanarasi—so holy to the Hindus.
In 1826, Ghalib, perpetually beset by debts and cheated out an inheritance by conniving relatives, set off mostly by foot and bullock cart from Delhi to Calcutta, in order to meet the higher ups responsible for his lost family pension, a mission that ended in failure. On the way Ghalib spent a month recuperating from the fatigues of travels in Vanarasi. In those days the city was famous for more than its bathing ghats where Hindu pilgrims performed ritual purification. Full of gardens and reflecting pools, pleasure pavilions, temples and schools, the city had been adorned by the gifts of wealthy Marathas, Rajputs and Mughals. Vanarasi also hosted a thriving musical community. Ghalib lodged in the middle of the music district, where the tawaifs practiced their trade. All this inspired him to write a poem in the tradition of Persian praise poems for cities—recalling the beauty of the environment, and physical beauty of the people, their clothes and their manners. In this edition, the first full translation into English, illustrations from evocative period engravings show us the sights Ghalib would have seen.
It doesn’t escape Ghalib that Vanarasi is a holy city. He calls it the “Ka’aba of Hindustan”.
He admires the spiritual devotion of the Hindus, whom he calls “conch blowers”. He relates the doctrine of “moksha”, the goal of the pilgrims to the Ganges.
ke harkas kāndarāñ gulshan bimīrad
All captive souls that quit their prisons
from this garden
never again find union
with their bodies.
He also refers to Hindus as “idol-worshippers”, but this phrase is softened by its metaphorical sense in Persian as “devotees of beauty”. Does the beauty that pleases Ghalib manifest itself in the austere ablutions of the pilgrims? Or is he beguiled by the tawaifs performing in the amusement quarter? Does he fall for the rich Varanasi brocaded silk? Or the simple cotton of the pilgrims? Ambiguity is Ghalib’s stock in trade. Translator Bin Bilal wisely uses “they” to translate the genderless Persian third singular person pronoun, protecting Ghalib’s original intent. We never learn if Ghalib is syncretistic or simply a freethinker, for his spiritual journey in Varanasi ends in a sudden urgency to hit the road to Calcutta.
Bin Bilall helpfully provides the Persian text in Latin characters, so readers can get a feel for how musical Ghalib’s verses are, eg,
tanāsukh mashrabāñ chūñ lab goshāyand
be-kesh-e-khesh kāshī rāstāyand.
When they open their lips,
the believers in reincarnation,
they sing praises of Kashi,
they have their reasons.
or this verse:
darīñ dairīnā dairistān-e-nairang
bahārash aimanast az gardish-e-rañg
In this ancient temple
city of magic,
its spring is free
from change of colour.
The translation is brisk and workman-like, conveying the sense of Ghalib’s enchantment with his new surroundings. Some phrases, however, are too resolutely modern, departing from the traditional correspondence that exists between Persian and English. For example, Bin Bilal writes “a fleck of dust” for “kaf-e khâk”, which lacks the patina of “a handful of dust.” Similarly, he translates “nâz” as “pride”, when the true sense is “coquetry.” Perhaps coquetry is a dated concept, but that does not make pride the only alternative. The transliteration is marred in places by either by hyphens missing or superfluous. Penguin could do a better job proofreading these.
Bin Bilal’s introduction, making good use of Ghalib’s extensive correspondence with his friends, helps the reader situate the liminal character that is Ghalib, an Indo-Turkish aristocrat, a master of what passed for social media in his day, a free-thinker who wrote devotional poetry to the Shiite Imams, a beggar who borrowed money so he could live like a lord, and above all, a Muslim engaged with a spiritual tradition so different from his own, but which he could so fully appreciate. As India today tends to reject from its rich cultural heritage the centuries of Turkish, Persian, Afghan and Muslim influences, the example of Ghalib is precious to preserve.