The Blood of Two Languages

What recent work on Ghalib contributes to our understanding of the poet

31 October, 2022

THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY POET Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, better known by his nom de plume Ghalib, proclaimed in a couplet: “However intelligence casts its net of reason, the meaning of my poetic world will ever be elusive.” This declaration would turn out to be prophetic: over a hundred and fifty years since his death, debates around the evasive quality of his poetry are still raging, printing presses are churning out his Urdu deewan—collection of poetry—and contemporary scholars are grappling with certain aspects of his legacy and personality, making Ghalib a subject of exhaustive study.

Ghalib had a proclivity for infusing personal elements and symbols from ancient Persian folklore into his poetry, as well as writing with his trademark frankness and humour on themes such as iconoclasm, the philosophical meanings of life and death, the actuality of human existence, yearning for love and freedom, consolation and desolation. “They say that the blood of two languages is on my head,” he wrote, alluding to his capabilities in Urdu and Persian, the languages in which he wrote throughout his life. His posthumous success is largely attributed to his Urdu poetry, most of which is veiled in complex simile and metaphor. There is, therefore, a colossal quantity of scholarly and critical material in Urdu on Ghalib, so much so that additional efforts could easily be construed as repetition. The existence of considerable scholarship on him in English is a testament to his growing popularity beyond the Urdu-reading population, although the works in English, despite their reliance on original sources, are not as extensive in scope as their Urdu equivalents.

Recent writing on Ghalib—including biographies and translations—has attempted to offer fresh perspectives. One distinct strand of this work attempts to make Ghalib relevant to contemporary audiences who read in English and are not familiar with his paradoxical personality and often equally paradoxical poetry. The emergence of new translations in the past few years has also been well-received by the reading public.

Other work has looked at facets of Ghalib’s writing that have escaped adequate attention. Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s Ghalib: A Wilderness At My Doorstep—A Critical Biography, published last year, is the most compelling recent contribution, one of its points of departure being “what was left in and left out” in different editions of Ghalib’s deewan. The book delves into the poet’s linguistic and editorial choices, as well as his passionate engagement with Persian, which has been overlooked by scholars over the years. Farooqi argues that the poet’s development is best understood in relation to the different phases of his life and circumstances that shaped his experiences, offering a comprehensive “effort to understand Ghalib’s literary methods, the reach of his imagination and his engagement with literature beyond political and geographical boundaries,” as well as considering the plausible reasons for his enduring popularity compared to his contemporaries.