It is futile to sum up a poet who summed up the world on a daily basis. However, on Ghalib’s 217th birth anniversary today (December 27) I think if there is a single verse that captures the quintessence of his epic poetic conceit, it is this:
Bazzicha-e-atfal hai duniya mere agey
Hota hai shab-o-roze tamasha mere agey
The world is like a children’s playground before me
Where the spectacle unfolds day and night
There may have been better poets than Ghalib in the world of Urdu poetry—as he himself grudgingly acknowledged once—he stood out over the rest for his sheer range of reflections. Speaking of grudgingly acknowledging that there were others better than him, here is what he wrote about that:
Hai aur bhi duniya mein sukhanvar bahut achhchhe
Kehte hain ke Ghalib ka andaz-e-bayan aur
There are better poets in the world
It is said that Ghalib’s manner of expressing it is unique
All poets are conceited because poetry is the ultimate art of shrouding conceit behind a sheer veil. That conceit is mostly subtle but often brazen like in the verse above where Ghalib himself says of himself, “Kehte hain ke Ghalib ka andaz-e-bayan aur” (It is said that Ghalib’s manner of expressing it is unique).”
The poet is always the first and oftentimes the only audience he or she really cares about. Any applause from others that might follow matters only in so much as it reinforces the poet’s own sanguine view of self.
I have written about poetry in general a couple of times before. Here is what I said in April this year:
Poetry is an unnecessary talent. Having written it since 13, I think I have earned the right to say this. That said, not all talents should be judged for their worldly utility. The real worth of poetry lies in its inspirational quotient.
I have not done a scientific study to say this but I am fairly certain that great poetry has inspired people to do great things. The poet is necessarily is an inspirer or an illuminator. Poetry is a catalyst. If a single poetic line inspires people with genuine utility-oriented talents to do great things that help humanity at large, then poetry serves its purpose as does the poet. However, it is not the poet’s business to do things. Poets lead a life of conceit where doing worldly/mundane/utilitarian things is anathema.
That view applies to Ghalib perfectly. Born Mirza Asadullah Khan on December 27, 1797, Ghalib, which means Dominant, remains the benchmark of Urdu poetry in the subcontinent that followed his era. I have read Ghalib sporadically because more often than not I run into incomprehension over his Persian expressions and words. Urdu, of course, is very much a product of India but it is often an amalgamation many of whose elements come from Persian. My understanding of Ghalib is arrived at by using a combination of poetic inference and poetic intuition. As a poet of erratic merit myself I at least have the intuitive grasp of what he might have meant, although I have always held out against second-guessing a poet.
Ghalib must easily be the most quoted poet in South Asia. At a time when what it means to be a Muslim or for that matter what it means to have any religious label is gripped by violent ferment it might be useful to read what Ghalib had said of himself as a Muslim. The story goes that after the great 1857 rebellion against the British rule in India Ghalib’s pension was discontinued for being a Muslim rebel. He responded the way only he could have, saying, “Ek din sharab nahi pee ho to kafir, Ek dafah namaz padhi ho to gunehgar” (If there was ever a day when I did not drink wine, I am an infidel. If I have prayed even once, then I am a sinner).” It is hard to infer precisely what Ghalib meant because that is perhaps how he intended it to be. Here is a poet par excellence and brilliant contrarian playing with you. You can make what you want of that response. Ghalib’s works are characterized by such paradoxical verses.
Ghalib has reached that exalted status where there are times when any literary wisdom is attributed to him whether or not he actually said it. That is what I mean by him becoming the ultimate benchmark for Urdu poetry. It is also a tribute to his greatness as a poet that a lot of what he has said has become clichés. For instance, take this famous one: “Ishq ne Ghalib nikamma kar diya, varna hum bhi kya aadmi they kam ke’ (Love rendered me ineffectual, Otherwise, I too was once a man of consequence).
Interestingly, Ghalib, who had such high self-regard, on hearing a single verse by his illustrious contemporary Momin Khan Momin, that he liked it so much that he said he would have happily traded his entire anthology for it. Momin’s verse was:
Tum mere paas hotey ho goyaa
Jab koi dusra nahi hota
When you are with me so to speak
None else is there
I come back to my original position about poetry and poets. The poet is necessarily is an inspirer or an illuminator. Poetry is a catalyst. If a single poetic line inspires people with genuine utility-oriented talents to do great things that help humanity at large, then poetry serves its purpose as does the poet. By that measure, Ghalib’s contribution to society is unrivaled.