By Syed Nomanul Haq
Ghalib longed to build another abode on that side of the high horizon, another place, opening up another view of the world:
If only, we could make another spectacle on the heights —
O, how we long for a place on that side of the sky!
What a wish this is! And here is a poetic genius speaking — the one who would never flirt with the frivolity of small talk. In this longing of Ghalib so much meaning is generated, and this in a manner so pleasing, coming with its rhythms and dancing sound patterns, its conceptual balance and ambiguities, and its idiomatic simplicity and familiar voice. Then, the connected series of questions raised here is indeed formidable. Why this thrust of a creative jet to burn through like a wild flame to a place on the other side of the high horizon? What new spectacle can manifest itself from that place? Why is this side of the high horizon stifling?
A fundamental issue is involved in this chain of queries — the issue of the relationship between two entities typically confused by Urdu poetry’s exegetes of the day. On the one hand, a poet’s experiences of real life, in body and flesh, in the day-to-day realm of “generation and corruption,” a realm trapped in, to quote Iqbal, “near and far and now and then”. And, on the other, the alternative cosmos, the metaphorically generated “spectacle,” an abode the poet creates in a free world of imagination. What is the relationship between the two? Is poetry not just an ordered expression of what the poet goes through in his personal and social life? Is not the second of the two entities in fact an eloquent articulation of the first? And more adamantly, is the poetic world in the strict sense not identical with the real world, identical in essence but clad in a different cloak?
Indeed, Ghalib is a historical figure who lived in this actual space-time world, not on that but on this side of the high horizon. We also know that he experienced in imperial India of his times dramatic and highly complex vicissitudes of personal history, palpable history to be sure. Orphaned at the age of five, he fell into the lap of an uncle who too succumbs to death when the orphan is barely nine. Then in the very first year of his teens he is already married to Umrao Begum, the niece of Nawab Ahmad Bakhsh of Loharo — Ghalib calls this matrimonial onus “the decree of eternal incarceration… a heavy chain tied to my feet!” A host of anxieties and misfortunes now await him, all in a single fateful year: his brother goes mad, his father-in-law, a caring benefactor, dies, and creditors hound him. And the famous pension dispute raises its head, the dispute over his share in the hereditary pension that the British officials had granted to his uncle.
Just one year later, when he is a 30-year-old man, the mess of the pension case, laced now with internecine intrigues in the Nawab of Loharo’s family, takes Ghalib from Delhi to Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of the colonial East India Company. He returns after two years — frustrated, slighted, working up for himself an enduring mêlée of acrimonious notoriety. Having failed to make any real headway in sorting out his financial claims with the British officials in the capital, Ghalib managed to generate during the visit a vicious literary and linguistic scandal concerning the syntax, morphology, and usage of the Persian language — a bitter controversy that culminated 34 years later in his daring Qate‘-e-Burhan (The Cutter/Destroyer of Proof) written in refutation of a hitherto standard Persian lexicon from the time of Aurangzeb, the Burhan-e-Qate‘ (The Cutting/Definitive Proof), producing a contrary by the intriguing device of a simple word reversal in the lexicon’s title. Indeed, the matter was so sensitive for Ghalib that in the years to come he would take a critic of the Cutter to court for defamation!
But this only gives a flashing glimpse of an intricate personal history. Ghalib’s journey through time in the larger social and political world is no less turbulent, and no less eventful. In 1835, some four years following the official dismissal of his pension claim, the British Resident of Delhi, William Fraser, was murdered. At the conclusion of the ensuing investigative process, the Raj officials pronounced Nawab Shams-ud-Din to have been at the head of a shady instigation for the commission of the act. This gave yet another twist to the public and private struggles of our poet — the convicted instigator of Fraser’s murder had taken over as the heir of Nawab Ahmad Bakhsh of Loharo, turning out to be Ghalib’s unyielding adversary in the ugly pension fight. Two years later, Shams-ud-Din was publicly hanged.
One day the police raids Ghalib’s house, catching him red-handed in the middle of gambling with some of his accomplices. He is convicted and fined. But much worse: charged some years later with the crime of running a gaming house, this proud genius subsequently suffers a crushing humiliation not only of a heavier court conviction but also of imprisonment now at the ripe age of 50. And more, a family tragedy befalls him not long thereafter — his virtual son Arif dies; Arif, Umrao Begum’s nephew for whom Ghalib had developed a caring father’s affection.
But the pattern of this personal history moves like a sinusoidal wave carrying a luminous body up and down in a ruthless excursion. If the wave made Ghalib ride to an abysmal low, some peaks too awaited him in his silver and golden years, now adding another vantage from whose elevation he could see the sport of life. He gains access to the Mughal court, an access bringing not only honour but also decent financial yields. The ruler of Rampur humbles himself to become his literary pupil and grants him a stipend. He gets a reassuring reply from London in response to an appeal he had sent to Queen Victoria, beseeching Her Majesty to bestow upon him a financial grant in recognition of his standing as a poet. His pension case is reopened and he receives a grant pending a decision. Then, at long last, his pension is reissued.