To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Mirza Ghalib’s autobiography has been published by Book Home, Lahore, under the title Ghalib Ki Aapbiti. But how could this have happened, since Ghalib never cared to write his autobiography? The very idea of writing an autobiography was foreign to him. It so happens that we owe this valuable account to Professor Nisar Ahmad Farooqi. He noticed something precious buried in Ghalib’s letters written to friends on different dates. He started delving into the letters, and found that there lay buried a whole account of the poet’s life starting from birth and ending with agonised complaints about his old age bringing in its wake a number of diseases, and his being under the spell of his fast approaching death.
The book that has been put together was created out of titbits from letters. These scraps of information had to be picked out and compiled in a systematic format. The extracts carry many intricacies and required much input from the compiler so as to make them appear meaningful. Professor Farooqi arranged all the material sourced from letters in such a way that it would be read as Ghalib’s life story written by the poet himself.
How strange that Ghalib unwittingly left behind a store-house of writings which now appear carrying a number of meanings and serving a number of purposes. He had not planned it so. If he intended to shift from Persian to Urdu in his letter writing, the purpose was simple. As he explained himself, in his old age he did not want to undergo the labour of writing letters in Persian in accordance with the formalities of Persian letter writing. Writing letters in Urdu would be easy for him as he would address friends in an informal way, caring little for embellishment. And so he did.
Of course, on one occasion Ghalib had expressed the desire to come out of the narrow format of the ghazal and enjoy a broader space for his expression.
In his letters when he addresses friends in Urdu in an informal way, he is conscious of the fact that he discovered the broader space he was hankering for. He felt elated and wrote to a friend saying, “I have devised a mode of expression where letter writing has transformed into conversation.” He had now evolved an easy style of talking about everything under the sun, ranging from the destruction of Delhi at the hands of the British army after the occupation, to minor details such as the market prices of wheat and maize.
In between he is seen talking about this own miseries. He was, as he feels, fated to have two janams. Now he finds himself born as a lonely man in his second janam. Most of his friends and contemporaries had been hanged. The rest had been banished from the city. He was a soul trying to reconcile with newly emerged unsavoury conditions. At this point came his journey to Calcutta and return with a new vision. He also issued a warning to Sir Syed — forget about what happened in the past. A new age is in the offing. Get ready to reconcile with the new realities coming in the wake of this age.
Here I am reminded of Maulana Ghulam Rasool Mehr’s experiment in writing Ghalib’s biography. While going through Ghalib’s letters and other prose writings he found that all the content for the biography was available in his writings. So he compiled the biography with the assertion that the source of information for each event and detail of his life is Ghalib himself, in the form of his letters or his statements in other writings. The biography was first published in 1936.
Professor Farooqi took that a step forward. So now we have Ghalib’s autobiography created out of his own writings. Ghalib speaking in the first person, coming alive for us.