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My journey with Ghalib’s divans

Updated July 17, 2016

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A page from the manuscript of the 1816 divan. — Photo by the writer
A page from the manuscript of the 1816 divan. — Photo by the writer

When I began my work on Ghalib’s ‘rejected’ verses some three years ago, I had no idea that I would end up pursuing the colourful trail of Ghalib’s published and unpublished divans and rediscovering manuscripts that had ‘disappeared’.

Ghalib’s 1821 divan was extremely important for me because it contained the majority of the verses that Ghalib discarded when he published his first Urdu divan in 1841. The popularity of Ghalib’s published divan (it went through five editions in his lifetime) must have made people quickly forget that there was nearly as much of Ghalib’s poetry outside of the divan. These were the verses that were contained in the beautiful, hand-crafted divans that were prepared before 1841. Many of the verses that Ghalib excluded from his published divan were obscure, laden with far-fetched metaphors and unfamiliar Persianisms. A good number of them were tiresome in their obscurity; they were laboured and lumpy as well. But there were others that were brilliant, profound and well constructed (marbut). This left me wondering why Ghalib had excluded them. Ghalib’s shagird and biographer, the noted litterateur Altaf Hussain Hali did refer to the excluded verses in his Yadgar-e Ghalib (1897) and remarked how difficult it must have been for Ghalib to make the selections and leave out nearly half his compositions. We would have been deprived of these compositions altogether if the early divans had not been preserved.

Because libraries in Delhi had been pillaged and burnt in the aftermath of 1857, some of these divans surfaced in places quite far from Delhi, such as Bhopal. The discovery of the 1821 divan happened in 1917, nearly 50 years after Ghalib’s death. There was a debate whether the “rejected” verses should even be published and brought back into circulation.

I remember the early days into the project when I was befuddled by the multiplicity of names given to a divan’s manuscript and its published version. What should have been called the 1821 divan was referred to by different names. The two that stuck with it are Nuskha-e Bhopal and Nuskha-e Hamidiyyah. The divan was found in Bhopal in the Hamidiyyah Library of the Nawab of Bhopal, so the two names assigned to the manuscript make some sense. But when the manuscript was first published in 1921, its editor, Mufti Anwarul Haq, called it Divan-e Jadid. He did so because the published version incorporated the verses from Ghalib’s current divan (presumably he used the 1862 version) with the 1821 divan. However, the names Nuskha-e Bhopal and Nuskha-e Hamidiyyah remained stuck in the minds of readers and no one referred to the published version as the Divan-e Jadid. Meanwhile, the actual manuscript disappeared from the library around 1946. In 1969, Hameed Ahmad Khan of Punjab University published what he called the Divan-e Ghalib, Nuskha-e Hamidiyyah, which was a reconstruction of the 1821 divan from Mufti Anwarul Haq’s edition, his own notes of the 1821 manuscript, and, the text of another manuscript, generally known as the Nuskha-e Sherani, or the 1826 divan. Hafiz Mahmud Sherani introduced the 1826 divan in the 1940s as a part of his private collection. Punjab University acquired it after his death. This important divan was published in facsimile in 1969.

In 1969, a third manuscript, the 1816 divan, was also found in Bhopal. It is so far the earliest among Ghalib’s divans and most unique because it is in Ghalib’s own hand. The fascinating account of its finding has been narrated by the Ghalib expert Malik Ram in his essay, Divan-e Urdu ki Kahani (Zikr-e Ghalib, p 140-44), and is worth retelling here in my own words for brevity’s sake.


Farooqi recalls holding a mystery manuscript at the Ghalib Institute in New Delhi which appeared to be the 1816 divan


Taufiq Ahmad Shahid Chishti an antique books dealer in Amroha, collected manuscripts by touring the cities searching for valuable texts. In April, 1969, when he was in Bhopal he met with Shafiqul Hasan a rare bookseller. Hasan showed him what he called a rare gem; a divan of Ghalib, which he claimed was in the poet’s own hand. His asking price was Rs25. After some intense bargaining Taufiq Ahmad bought the divan for a mere Rs11.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor in the department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib.
Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor in the department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib.

He brought it to Delhi and placed an advertisement in the newspaper Al Jamiat, offering the rare manuscript for Rs6,000. People thought it was a joke and he received no offers. But Taufiq Ahmad was not going to give up easily. He showed the manuscript to the Ghalib scholar Nisar Ahmad Faruqi who confirmed that it was indeed authentic and probably in Ghalib’s own hand. Malik Ram heard about it and also affirmed that it was authentic. He offered Rs10,000 for it. By then Taufiq Ahmad had learnt that the British Library had acquired two original letters of Ghalib for a very large sum of money. So he decided to sell the manuscript for a higher price. It is not clear who finally bought the manuscript. In the meantime, Nisar Ahmad Faruqi had also copied the manuscript and sent it for publication to Muhammad Tufail, editor of the Urdu journal Nuqush, published from Lahore. Meanwhile Akbar Ali Khan Arshizadah of Rampur also got hold of the manuscript in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and hurriedly published it. It seems that someone got a court injunction against its publication by Arshizadah and it was suppressed.

How this manuscript got into the hands of the Bhopal bookseller is another interesting story. It was originally in the possession of Yaar Muhammad Khan Shaukat Bhopali, who was a shagird of Ghalib. Its last owner was Mujahid Muhammad Khan. A house servant at the latter’s house sold it along with other discarded papers and books to a scrap dealer (kabadi) Haidar Sher Khan who sold it for two and a half rupees to the rare bookseller Shafiqul Hasan.

The divan consists of 126 pages; the first page is blank, the second is inscribed:

Ya Ali al Murtuza Ilaihi wa ala Aulad as Salawat wa salam
Ya Hasan Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim Ya Husain
Abul Ma’ani Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil Razi allah anhu

It begins with the ghazal, naqsh faryadi. The last ghazal in the divan concludes with the following verse:

sh’er ki fikr ko asad, chahiye hai dil-o dimagh
uzr ke ye fasurdah dil, bedil-o be dimagh hai

Asad, you need both heart and mind to compose poetry
Alas! This sad one has no heart, nor mind

The last page of the divan has the following colophon: Completed on Tuesday afternoon, the 14th of Rajab, in the Hijri calendar; the year is not mentioned. A calculation shows that the divan was completed on June 11, 1816. All the ghazals in the divan bear the takhallus, Asad. There are some 25 ghazals here that are not found in any other divan. The 1816 divan too, has many different names.

As mentioned earlier, the 1816 divan was published twice in 1969. The first was a special issue, on Ghalib, of the Journal Nuqush from Lahore; the second was a special edition from Rampur by Akbar Ali Khan Arshizadah titled, Divan-e Ghalib ba Khatt-e Ghalib. Both editions were facsimiles; they were extravagantly assembled, with scholarly introductions. The Nuqush edition had interpretive paintings with calligraphy by Sadequain of selected verses. More important was the nasta’liq rendering of Ghalib’s shikastah style on the facing page so that everyone could read the text easily. The Indian edition had reproductions of Ghalib’s seal as a watermark for the pages of the volume. The parallel publications opened questions of ownership of the manuscript. There was also debate whether the manuscript was indeed in Ghalib’s hand. The noted scholar Kamal Ahmad Siddiqi went to the extent of declaring that the manuscript was a fake. He wrote a thick volume arguing his point of view. Meanwhile the manuscript itself disappeared, leaving the controversies unresolved.

Whenever I gave talks or published excerpts from my commentary on Ghalib’s ‘rejected’ verses, I mentioned my frustration at not having the actual 1821 divan for consultation. I wondered where it was and if it was destroyed in the mayhem of 1947. One day, early in 2015, I received an email from a person who had read my articles. He said he had seen a copy of the 1821 divan and was going to buy it if it was authentic. He wanted me to look at it. I found this hard to believe, but wrote back that if he were willing to bring it to my house in Charlottesville I would love to see it. The few scanned images that he sent me of the ghazal section looked very authentic because they agreed with the descriptions given by Maulana Arshi and other scholars who had seen the manuscript before it went missing. I received the manuscript in Charlottesville in May 2015. It felt strange to hold a piece of history in my hands and turn its pages. Clearly it had had an intriguing past, because there were many notations and additions in the margins in different handwritings, including Ghalib’s. On the additional pages in the front, someone with poor handwriting had copied Ghalib’s letter in Persian written in the sanat-e ta’til to Maulvi Fazl-e Haq Khairabadi. In the back too, some eight ghazals in the radif of “ye” had been copied. The divan has now been scanned at high resolution and published (January 2016). I have written the introduction explaining its importance in establishing Ghalib’s textual history.

These last six months I have been in New Delhi, India, on a fellowship, pursuing my project on Ghalib. I was delighted to find Ghalib’s first published divan, the historic 1841 publication, in the manuscript section at the Jamia Millia Islamia Library. The section in-charge, a very helpful young man, looked askance when I told him it was a printed book not a manuscript. The contrast between the manuscripts of Ghalib’s divan that I had seen, and the little inconspicuous book was stunning. The printed book seemed so ordinary now but must have been a valued possession in those days. Each copy was personally signed and verified by the publisher.

My next discovery was the 1847 edition of the Divan-e Ghalib, that is a part of the Kalidas Gupta Collection at the Ghalib Institute, New Delhi. Its yellowed pages are brittle but intact. Ghalib made some changes in this edition; an important one is the addition of the last ghazal.

The ghazals in Ghalib’s divans, like all traditional divans, are organised alphabetically by the radif. But careful thought has been given to the ordering of ghazals within the broad radif category, especially in the choice of the first and last ghazal of a divan. The arrangement of the genres reflects current trends in the literary milieu. Traditionally, qasidahs were placed first; ghazals, qitas, masnavis etc. came later.

In Ghalib’s modern divans, the ghazal comes first. In 1841, Ghalib chose to end with the 17 verse masterpiece:

Muddat hui hai yar ko mehman kiye hue
Josh-e qadah se bazm chiraghan kiye hue

Much time has passed since we made the beloved our guest,
[and] we lit the gathering with the effervescence of the flagon

In 1847 Ghalib chose to close with a 14 verse ghazal, the last verse of which is appropriate as a wrapping up of the divan’s ghazal section:

Ada-e khas se Ghalib hua hai nuktah sara
Sala-e ‘am hai yaran-e nuktah dan e liye

In a special style Ghalib delivers subtle points
This is an open invitation for friends who relish delicate points

The Ghalib Institute collection has another extremely important divan, the 1863 publication. This divan is quite different from the two early ones. It is a large, handsome volume on quality paper. The arrangement of the text, the original calligraphy is pleasing in the style of manuscripts. I could see that in the space of 20 odd years the success of Ghalib’s divan had encouraged publishers to bring out better editions. This is the last edition to be published in Ghalib’s lifetime.

As I poured over the different editions, sweat pouring down my face in Delhi’s humid June heat, the Institute’s Director, Dr Raza Haider dropped by for a chat. He casually mentioned a “mystery” manuscript that the Institute had received last year in the mail. It had to do with Ghalib, he said, because the contents were undoubtedly Ghalib’s ghazals. I asked if I could see it, hoping that it might be Ghalib’s bayaz, or some hitherto unknown codex. The packet he brought out contained unbound, loose sheets of handmade paper inscribed in Ghalib’s unmistakable hand. I thought it looked very familiar. In fact it appeared to be the 1816 divan that had gone missing in 1969. The published facsimile was in the library so we pulled it out and compared the two. The manuscript bears the Amroha book dealer, Taufiq Ahmad’s stamp on several pages. There is no doubt in my mind that it is the 1816 divan.

The 1816 divan is 200 years old. Its reappearance in 2016 some 200 years after Ghalib penned it, is a fortuitous coincidence. We need to celebrate the return of this treasure to the Ghalib Institute by the anonymous donor. But I am indeed very fortunate to have held both the 1816 and the 1821 original divans in my hands. I will leave it to you to decide why the rediscovery of these lost masterpieces had to happen through my initiative in working on Ghalib’s ‘rejected’ verses.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 17th, 2016