Mirza Ghalib: The "Godless" Lover
by Byjameela Siddiqi
"When there was nothing, there was God
If nothing had been, God would have been
My very being has been my downfall
If I hadn't been, what would it have mattered?"

These were the words of a poet who had been dubbed 'Godless' by the Islamic establishment of his time. Yet his Urdu (and Persian) verse shows a constant preoccupation with God and His creation, oscillating between joyful ecstasy and hopeless despair. Biblical and Koranic figures appear frequently in his writings and in typical mystical love poetry tradition, his themes cover every minute nuance of the lover's aching heart: the agonies of unity and separation from the Beloved, the futility of human glory and the hopeless predicament of a loving soul trapped within the limitations of a human body.

Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869), alias Mirza Nawshah, is the best known and the most widely read Indo-Persian poet of his time. His many well-known ghazals have been sung and recorded by numerous performers in India as well as in Pakistan. Since Urdu poetry relies heavily on oral tradition and rhythmic recitation, catch-phrases from various Urdu poets have made their way into everyday Urdu speech in a way which is unparalleled in any other language. This is particularly true with regard to Ghalib's poetry where his use of the Urdu language, drawing heavily on its classical Persian parent tradition, is almost unmatched by any other Urdu poet.

Ghalib's attitude of philosophical doubt, rooted in his own experience, was mistaken by superficial readers for atheism. In so far as God is about love, it could be argued that Ghalib was closer to the truth in terms of the real nature of the relationship between the Creator and the created. Ghalib states this boldly in terms of a philosophical truth.

Had nothing been, then the following would have been the case;

1. It would not have mattered, as there would have been no distinction between being and non-being. It is only the act of creation that has brought about the duality of Creator and created.

2. The Creator would still have been.

3. The created would have existed within the Creator, man would have lived in God.

4. Man would have been God.

In the time before twilight and darkness
Before anything my Beloved existed
And if nothing ever came into being
In the eternal arena of creation and non-creation
The Source would have been there alone
As for me, pay me no mind
I deserve no mention in the divine scheme
Thus who am I to lay any claim
For even as I am part of this creation
I am already drowned in the ocean of Love

(Translated by Abid Mohiuddin, Based on a couplet by Ghalib)

He then goes a step further and states that the Creator is helpless and unable to interfere in the affairs of the world, or indeed His own laws:

Life's leisure is a mirror
Of the hundred, hues of self adoration
And night and day, the great dismay
Of the onlooker of this scene

Ghalib was born in Agra into a family descended from Aibak Turks who moved to Samarkand after the downfall of the Seljuk kings. Ghalib's grandfather left his home in Central Asia to seek fortune in India during the reign of Shah Alam (1759-1806). He was employed in the army as a high ranking officer, and his sons followed suit. Ghalib's own father died in action while the poet was still only nine years old. He was raised first by his Uncle, then by his mother's family. In accordance with upper class Muslim tradition, he had an arranged marriage at the age of 13, but none of his seven children survived beyond infancy.

After his marriage he settled in Delhi. In one of his letters he describes his marriage as the second imprisonment after the initial confinement that was life itself. The idea that life is one continuous painful struggle which can end only when life itself ends, is a recurring theme in his poetry. One of his couplets puts it in a nutshell:

The prison of life and the bondage of grief
are one and the same
Before the onset of death,
how can man expect to be free of grief?

Ghalib began composing poetry at the age of ten. Among his teachers Ghalib mentions 'Abdul-Samad, a Zo-roastrian convert to Islam, who had formerly been known as Hormuz. As 'Abdul-Samad's pupil Ghalib perfected his Persian and acquired a taste for Persian literature. After 1821, the year during which Ghalib compiled his first Urdu diwan (collection of verses), he devoted most of his time to composing only in Persian.

Ghalib lived through the twilight of Moghul rule in India. Most of his adult life was plagued with grief: the death of his children, one by one, alongside endless, futile appeals to the British authorities to get his full share of his ancestral property. Part of his family pension was restored towards the end of his life when he became completely deaf. He died in 1869 aged seventy-two. Ghalib was buried in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi, also home to the shrines of the Sufi Master Nizamuddin 'Awliya and his favorite disciple, the multifaceted poet-musician Amir Khusraw Dihiawi.

Ghalib had had three titles of distinction bestowed on him: Najmuddawia ('Star of the Realm'), Dahirul-Mulk ('Honor of the Country') and Nizam Jang ('Hero of War'), but none of these accolades were any compensation for the fact that his poetic genius and greatness had never been truly appreciated in his lifetime. During his time, Delhi held more than its fair share of distinguished poets, and among his contemporaries was Ibrahim Dhawq, tutor to the last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862).

While Persian remained the official language of Moghul India, the Urdu language had acquired an immense popularity for its poetry. Since Urdu was a relatively young language, the poets had to synthesize various and diverse linguistic elements in order to express certain poetic concepts. Because of this it became necessary to study under a linguistic expert, usually a poet, in order to perfect one's art of writing poetry. Poets were generally held in high esteem and eagerly sought after and patronized by princes and noblemen alike.

Poetry contests were known in ancient Greece and Rome, and even in pre-Islamic Arabia. But there is no fixture comparable to the Urdu musha'ira ('gathering of poets') of the kind that developed in Delhi during the early eighteenth century. The most honored poet of the day would be invited to preside over the gathering, and a candle would be placed before him. He would then invite the various attending poets to read out their poems and the candle would, in turn, be passed to each performing poet.

Many interesting anecdotes have been narrated and written about the colorful Musha'ira-s at the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar. These reports usually tell of the witty verbal exchanges, couched in pure poetical forms between the wayward Ghalib and the more restrained Dhawq. Accusations were frequently hurled at Ghalib, especially for his 'over-Persianized' Urdu and for the obscurity of some of his imagery. At one such gathering someone from the Dhawq camp is supposed to have charged:

We understand Mir, and we know the work of Sawda
But. what be [Ghalib] says, only he or God. understands!

And building on the theme of Ghalib's vagueness, another poet adds:

What of it, if only you alone
can understand your own poetry?
The relish is when one person says it,
and. another understands it!
Ghalib would rise against the insults with typical verses like this one;
0 God, they never have, and never will
understand what I have to say
Give them a different heart
if you can't give me a different tongue.

In 1850 Ghalib succeeded in securing the royal assignment to write a history of the Moghul dynasty. He wrote the first volume in chaste Persian under the title of Mihr-i Nim Ruz which was published during his life time. On Dhawq's death, Ghalib was appointed poetic mentor to Zafar. Soon after that the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence) broke out in 1857, and the years that followed showed deep scars on Ghalib's mind and career, glimpses of which can be had from his private diaries, Dastanbu' which was published after his death.

Ghalib knew that his mastery over the Urdu language was unequaled, and he could also hold his own with the greatest representatives of the Persian poetry. Ghalib was in fact so sure of himself and of his own poetic genius that this single fact may have contributed to the general hostility of his contemporaries, as well as those in positions of power. His best known self-congratulatory couplet goes straight to the point:

There are many other good. poets in this world,
And they say that only Ghalib says it differently!

He lived in an age characterized by change. The old order was crumbling, while the new British Raj had yet to establish a stronghold. The entire Indian culture was undergoing a change, with traditional concepts of society and morality being challenged by the new order. The Persian language, which until then was the official language of Muslim India, was gradually being pushed into the background in favor of English. Men of learning, among them Ghalib himself, found themselves intellectually incapacitated as the definition of education had changed from being literate in Persian and Sanskrit, to mastering the language of the new invaders. The Muslim nobility resented this steady growth of British power, while the Hindus, by and large, welcomed the introduction of English education. For the Hindus it simply meant relinquishing the Persian language of their Muslim rulers in favor of the language of modernity, progress and development.

The Emperor Zafar, himself a poet of some standing, remained a helpless onlooker to the tragic aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which resulted in the India Act of 1858, transferring power from the British East India Company to the British Crown. While the grandeur of the Moghul Court gradually began to decay, the powerless Zafar, who remained but a figurehead of past glory, devoted his time to silent prayers and writing poetry, until eventually he was banished to Burma where he languished in a Rangoon jail.

Apart from the infant deaths of his children and his never-ending financial struggles, Ghalib's life was characterized by notoriety. He was known for gambling, drinking and being in debt. The first edition of Ghalib's Urdu diwan was published in 1841, the same year that he was arrested and fined for gambling. He was arrested on the same charge in 1847, and again, in that same year, the second edition of his diwan was published. Since he had never been seen praying or fasting, his critics were quick to write him off as an atheistic drunk, who indulged himself in the idle pursuit of composing love poetry. Mainstream Islam in 19th-century India had not recognized love as one of the components of the faith. Religion was about God, and God was only to be feared and worshipped in a strictly prescribed way. Within this context, some of Ghalib's verse hovered on the blasphemous:

I know the truth about the promise of heaven
Still, it's a nice thought to keep the heart amused.
In Ghalib's poetry, love can only ever be true if it is unconditional. If you lose your heart to someone, then it is also necessary to lose your voice, so that you lose the ability to complain about nonreciprocal love:

All my lamentations had sprung
From the depths of my aching heart
But since I had given it away
As an offering to my Beloved.
Thus the very source of my pleadings
Had been removed from my chest
So what could he the purpose
Of the tongue remaining between my cheeks
Since I will be unable to express
Let my passion be silenced within me

     (Translated by Abid Mohiuddin, Based on a couplet by Ghalib)

Love is also about having faith in the Beloved irrespective of "whether he himself is faithful:

In this state of complete isolation
While away from home, in enforced seclusion
There is no need to stir up my senses
For 1 can only bear my Beloved's whispering
And anxiously await my love's good tiding
I trust we will soon be overcoming
Any hardship, even a stroke of lightning
Could not erase the place of our nesting
This love was an unconditional longing
That could not simply be ruined by anything

     (Translated by Abid Mohiuddin, Based on a couplet by Ghalib)

For Ghalib, in a typical Sufi fashion, love creates a condition in which life and death become indistinguishable: When you live for love you die, and only when you die, you really live:

Love knows no difference between life and death
I live only when I see that infidel for whom I'm dying.
The theme of an uncaring and seemingly indifferent Beloved is further refined in stressing the oneness of the Divinity itself:

All my life I searched for you everywhere And my hopes bad been shattered, time and again After many disappointments my heart was wounded Now I have finally traveled to your house And pinned all my hopes of finding you there But as those who were once dejected in their love Act differently to those who had been fulfilled I am in fear of yet another scene of despair Hence I am trembling to see your black veil lifted

     (Translated by Abid Mohiuddin, Based on a couplet by Ghalib)

The death of the ego is the single-most important prerequisite for Ghalib's prescribed brand of love:

May this life turn to dust, if I can't be a stone
That lies constantly at your threshold

Ghalib was fully aware of his nonacceptance among those who had appointed themselves as the custodians of Indian Islam. Self-consciously, and often wittily, he picks up and echoes their views by reaffirming his own notoriety;

These leanings towards mysticism,
this eloquent oratory 0 Ghalib,
You could have been a saint,
if only you weren't such a drunkard.

Ghalib's poetry is the product of a civilization standing consciously on the brink of change. He delights in the enigmatic and the obscure where everything is subjected to wit and passion:

With such joy
I walk before my executioner
That from my shadow
The bead is two steps ahead of the feet

The joy of facing the executioner is one of GhalUVs favorite mystical themes:

Don't ask those who are ecstatic with joy
How they feel when they see their place of execution
For it is the festival of their expectations
That the sword should emerge naked.

Ghalib lived through an age characterized by the ending of an old order and the emergence of a new one. Symbolically he became a bridge between the two. As a person he remained woefully misunderstood, but as a poet he proved he was ahead of his time. His poetic sentiments have stood the test of time insofar as the human condition remains ridden"with uncertainty about the future, yet hazy about the past. And in Ghalib's own words, "who lives long enough to tell the tale?"

A compelling style of poetry
Was all I had in life
It was appreciated by none,
So I just wrote my verse and put it away.
If that is how my life is spent
Then, 0'Ghalib how will I say —
Or even remember, that I, too,
Had once possessed God.


All, A. 1973. The Golden Tradition: An Anthology cvf'Urcht Poetily, New York & London: Columbia University Press.

Ghalib, Asadullah Khan. 1989. Diwan-i Ghalib, reprint from original Diwan manuscript. Lahore: Ferozsons Limited. Matthews, J., Shackle, C. Wl. An Anthology of Classical Urdu. Love Lyrics: Text Translations. London: Oxford University Press.

Mohiuddin, A. The Oce'w (tnci The Tear Drop. Unpublished manuscript. Russell. It and Islam, K. 1969. Ghalib: Vol I Life and Letters. London.

Schimmcl A. 1979. A Dance of Sparks: Imagery of Fire in Ghalib's Poetry. Iondon The Hague: East-West Publications in conjunction with the Ghalib Academy, New Delhi.


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