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Don’t be awed by Urfi because he is from Shiraz
Don’t be captivated by Zulali because he is from Khwansar
Come into the Somnath of my imagination, so you can see
My soul-illuminating eyebrows, my sacred thread covered shoulders
—Ghalib

Although Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s Persian compositions are by far greater in volume than his Urdu verses, his greatness and popularity rest mainly on his Urdu poetry, especially in the subcontinent. This, in spite of the fact that Ghalib appears to have valued his Persian contribution more than his Urdu. This anomaly was most likely the result of Persian’s rapid decline in India in the 19th century. While both the Urdu and the Persian Divans went through multiple editions in Ghalib’s lifetime, the Urdu Divan, despite its reputedly ‘difficult’ poetry, became the chosen one for wider circulation. Ghalib’s Urdu poetry was made accessible through the numerous commentaries that were published. No one seemed to be interested in doing the same for the Persian. Thus, there were few readers for the Persian in Pakistan and India. This prejudice could have been attenuated if Persianists in Iran had welcomed Ghalib’s poetry; but Ghalib’s metaphors were culturally nuanced and not strictly suited to the Iranian taste despite his claims that he had the flair of a native Persian speaker. Ghalib spent a lot of energy in excavating pre-Islamic Persian vocabulary in order to make his language pure and pristine.

When I began my work on Ghalib’s intellectual-textual history, my focus was his Urdu Divan. In the course of my research I realised that a holistic assessment of Ghalib could not be made without taking into account the huge amount of work he had produced in Persian. Once again, Altaf Hussain Hali’s monumental Yaadgaar-i-Ghalib appeared to be among a handful of books that actually evaluated Ghalib as a Persian and Urdu poet. I have now become intensely aware of the fate that befalls texts that languish in a linguistic space that is hyphenated because of the vagaries of historical, colonial and nationalistic boundaries.

When the British replaced Persian with Urdu in 1835, Urdu was in the process of developing its literary and functional prose styles. The early tazkirahs [alphabetical biographies with samples of their work] of Urdu poets were written in Persian. Ghalib’s preface (Dibacha) to his Urdu Divan published in 1841, was in baroque Persian. Later editions of the Divan deleted the Persian preface altogether because no one seemed interested in reading it. If it had been read, an obvious — but little-known — fact would be common knowledge: this slender Divan was a selection, an intikhaab. Ghalib, over the years, reduced his Urdu verses from 4,000 to about 1800. While Ghalib’s textual history for Urdu can fortunately be mapped, the Persian Divan’s history is not mapped in the same way. Since the manuscripts of the Persian Divan have not been scrutinised by scholars, and because it is so much greater in volume, it is generally accepted that Ghalib did not severely prune his roughly 10,000 Persian compositions. A considerable number are from the brilliant masanvis that he penned. In fact, four out of the 11 masnavis that he wrote, notably Chiragh-i-Dair, Abr-i-Guhar Bar, Taqriz-i-Ain-i-Akbari and Ashtinamah are well-known. They have been translated into Urdu as well. The Taqriz is the only one available in English. It was translated by my father.

None of the six scholarly editions of Gul-i-Raana offer a translation or analysis of the thought-provoking preface that Ghalib wrote for his first selection. After reading Gul-i-Raana’s preface (with invaluable help from my father) I was compelled to deepen my inquiry into Ghalib’s complex relationship with literary composition in Urdu and Persian. The Persian Divan’s Dibacha is lengthy, running into 15 pages. It looked formidable; of course, it has not been translated. Armed with a small grant from my university’s Centre for Global Innovation and Inquiry, I am collaborating with Jane Mikkelson, a scholar of Abdul Qadir Bedil, to read Ghalib’s Dibacha. We sit at a secluded oak table in a dimly lit coffee shop/bakery, enveloped in the aromas of scones baking and cakes being iced. Fortified with coffee, scones and the internet, in figuring Ghalib we are straddling nearly 200 years of literary communication. Ghalib speaks to us, we connect with him.

Unlike writing in Urdu, Ghalib’s Persian has to contend with the tall reputation of his forbears. The Persian tradition is sparkling with Hafez, Shaikh Saadi, Urfi, Kaleem and a host of great poets. In the immediate past there is Hazin Lahiji. There is the anguish of being an Indian writing in Persian. Ghalib has distanced himself from Bedil. He despises Indian Persianists. It seems that Ghalib is both placating and challenging those who claim Persian to be their mother tongue. In the qita [quatrain] with which I begin this column, Ghalib proclaims his Indianness. He is proud to enrich Persian with the delights of his imagination. I think Ghalib is taking a distinctive position here: he is claiming stature in Persian as an equal. He wants to prove his Persian sensibilities by excavating the ‘pure’ Persian idiom. He cannot bear to be seen as an inferior, as other Indian writers were because of their overly stylised, artificial, Indianised Persian. Ghalib posts a complicated verse in the early part of the Dibacha that expresses the emotions of ‘equality in rivalry’ that I am trying to highlight: “I enjoy a companion in lamentation, so I give up my feelings of envy/ When I see the rival walk the road to the beloved./ Thorns pierce his foot. He laments in pain./ May the thorns on your road be always pricking the rival’s foot.”

It will be a while before Jane’s and my translation is ready to be shared. I leave you with a taste of Ghalib’s dazzling rhetoric: “I am scarred by the short-sighted jealous ones who cannot be thrilled by the blossoming of a fresh rose in the grass, of the lightning that sparkles in the dark night. Those who find it difficult to appreciate the movement of speaking lips uttering delicate poetry. The bud’s essence is fragrance and the breeze its diffuser. The flower blossoms and the bulbul sings. What crime has the tongue perpetrated that it cannot become a poet? The sun’s essence is to shine, the particle’s restlessness, the ocean’s flow, and the drop to be shattered. Who has told the heart that anxiety must arise from tumult?”

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 10th, 2018