This article was first published in Himal Southasian here
There are some poets who speak of revolution, some who speak of love’s misery, some who are concerned with life, and then, there is Mirza Ghalib. Ghalib, or Mirza Nausha as he was sometimes called, is for me the poet of frenzy, the poet of madness. The frenzy of ishq(love), the frenzy of being, and the frenzy of fana (self annihilation).
Before I write further, I think I should add a disclaimer that I am no expert on Ghalib (Besides God, I doubt if there ever was one!), but merely an aficionado. Hence, some of my thoughts might be written from a very personal and a subjective point of view. But then, writing objectively and dispassionately about Ghalib is itself an insult to his poetry and what it stands for.
After I had learnt Urdu, I made the Himalayan blunder of starting off with Ghalib. I say blunder, because after reading his poetry, others’ simply paled in comparison. The Ghalibean world was a veritable crucible of human emotions, and as much as I wanted to spread my net of awareness, the meaning of his poetry proved to be an elusive Anqa (a mythical phoenix-like bird) that I could never catch. There were verses which were deceptively simple, and then there were some which took months to reveal their true glory. One verse particularly stands out,
Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazameen khayaal mein,
Ghalib sareer-e-khama nawa-e-sarosh hai.
A crude translation would be:
(These themes come to mind from the world unseen,
Ghalib, the scratching of the pen is the voice of the heavenly angel)
In typical Ghalibean fashion, this verse took two torturous months to reveal itself to me.
Besides his poetry, what endeared me to Mirza was his personality. From what I infer through his letters, he comes across as a man with whom you could talk about the mysteries of the universe whilst at the same time have a conversation about the pretty girl (perhaps asaqi) you saw at a bar yesterday. Ghalib seemed to effortlessly straddle both worlds at once, and that is something which is very rare amongst poets indeed.
In matters of love, it was the vahshat (madness, frenzy) which makes Ghalib stand out. In fact, one of the most potent expressions of Ghalibean love can be found in the movie Dil Se, especially the song Satrangi Re, which reminded me of his sher on Laila-Majnoon,
Mana’-e-vahshat-e-kharaamiha-e-Laila kaun hai
Khana-e-majnoon-e-sahra gard be darwaza tha.
(Who was there to forbid the wild ‘walking’ of Laila,
There were no doors to the house of Majnoon, the desert wanderer)
This love of ‘Ghalib’ was at once personal and universal. It was ishq-e- mijaazi (mundane love) as well as ishq-e- haqiqi (true love, one for the creator). Although a man of faith, he was never a man of religion. Like countless Sufis before him, he recognized no distinctions of caste or creed. His poetry resonates with this message of universality. In one of his verses, he beautifully describes the relation of the Kaaba to its erstwhile idols.
Go vaan nahin, vaan ke nikaale hue to hain,
Kaabe se un buton ko bhi nisbat hai door ki
(Though they aren’t there, they have been expelled from there,
With the kaaba, even those idols enjoy a distant relationship.)
Today, on the 15th of February, 142 years have passed since the death of Mirza Ghalib. However, his poetry has an appeal which is probably even more potent than it was during his own time. Probably this is because his poetry is reflective of the inherent nature of man itself. There is no human emotion that is left untouched in the Ghalibean universe. Love, misery, being, non-being…Every admirer of Mirza has a reason to keep coming back to him. In his own words,
Ganjina-ey maani ka tilism usey samjho
wo lufz jo Ghalib merey ash`ar mei`n aaway
(It’s a talisman of the treasury of meanings,
That word, ghalib, which happens to occur in my verses)