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There are oceans of writing in Urdu and Persian that haven’t been translated into other languages. A slew of Indo-Persian became ‘homeless’ because of national and territorial boundaries. Modern historians, viewing Persian as a language of the medieval Mughal court, find it unnecessary to explore Persian literary texts. Iranian literati mostly view Persian texts produced outside Iran as unworthy of attention.

Mirza Ghalib’s Persian prose output has suffered because it doesn’t fit in the 20th century historio-cultural milieu of the subcontinent or Iran. But the story of a writer who was not ethnically Persian, yet won recognition across literary, historical and geographical borders, merits deeper attention. Translation now is perhaps the only way to bring Ghalib’s ideas to a bigger audience.

I have been working on Ghalib’s Urdu poetry for many years, focusing on verses he didn’t select for his authorised Divan. I searched for answers as to why he cut his Urdu Divan drastically, but not his Persian, I felt the need to read the Dibachahs (Forewords) and Khatimahs (Afterwords) of the Divans.

Ghalib’s Foreword to his Urdu Divan is in Persian. It also has a critical introduction (taqriz) by Nawab Ziyauddin Khan. This is not surprising, because Persian was considered appropriate for formal, literary puposes. Interestingly, though, within a decade of Ghalib’s death, editions of the Urdu Divan mixed up the Foreword with the taqriz and eventually dropped them altogether. The fact that the Urdu Divan was a ‘selection’ was forgotten.

The idea to prepare a selection of his Urdu poetry might have germinated in Ghalib’s mind in Calcutta when he put together a Persian and Urdu selection for Maulvi Sirajuddin Ahmad (Gul-i-Raana, 1829). It has a thoughtful Foreword and Afterword written in Persian. Here Ghalib examines the complex issue of writing in two languages and for two audiences. Maulvi Sirajuddin did not publish Gul-i-Raana. A manuscript of it was first discovered in the 1950s; there are now five published editions in Urdu. None give a translation of Ghalib’s Foreword and Afterword. Although Ghalib’s Persian prose style conforms to the ornate, metaphor-laden rhetoric of early 19th century Indo-Persian, he burnishes his prose with lyrical elegance. Reading the text was a challege; translation was more daunting, but equally rewarding.

I found a charming passage in which Ghalib describes an enchanting vision that struck me as his version of the Muse: “The night when the writing of this pearly document reached its height, after much pushing and pulling, my wayward thought became satisfied. The pen left my hand as the lament left my heart. My head found my pillow just as a scar finds a place in the heart. Sleep surged, drowsiness took me away. Suddenly, before my sight, which was waiting to arise and travel in the early morning, lightning struck the curtain of imagination. A shining visage came to view as the dust cloud lifted from my consciousness. Her eyes were dark without collyrium like the enchantresses of the wilderness, her face was rosy like the village belles, but without any make-up. Her neck and ears were not adorned with jewels. Her lips were smiling, her eyes shining. She was tall like ambition. Her tresses were as ruffled as my days and nights. Her forehead blossomed as beautiful as a wild rose. Her walk was as carefree as the spring’s flood. Her long hair floated down to her feet in intoxicated coquetry. She removed the veil from her face. Biting her lip like lovers do, she approached me. Addressing me with killing charm, she crushed my heart with her smile.”

The ‘muse’ reprimands Ghalib for not taking advantage of the treasures she’s bestowing: “I swear by God, you have not collected enough wealth from me that you can shine the inky words of prose and lay the foundation of a new prose style! At this time, the conclusion of this collection, how will you adorn this Afterword? With what drawings and decorative borders will you embellish this Afterword?”

Ghalib placates the muse by writing two pages in the sanat-i-taatil, a difficult, fancy style of producing text in characters that are without dots.

None of Gul-i-Raana’s five editions offer a translation of the Persian; their own introductions to the text are in Urdu. I asked a few Ghalib scholars why Urdu translations of Ghalib’s prefaces were not given. They answered that the prose was artificial and purposeless; it tells us nothing about the poetry itself. I think they found the task of translation formidable.

The convention of invoking or addressing the muse is not practiced in Urdu. Invocations preceding long poems such as masnavis and qasidahs are generally to God and the Prophet, or Hazrat Ali. Ghalib could have possibly been stimulated by the Indic tradition of invoking Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. There is a robust tradition of Saraswati vandana in Sanskrit literature. Devis are invoked to bless creativity. We know that Ghalib in his poetry explores many Vedic ideas, such as the illusionary nature of the universe and the endlessness of imagination. The beloved muse in the love lyric has a lengthy tradition, from Sappho through to William Shakespeare and John Donne. The conventional muse as the addressee in the love lyric plays a crucial role in bringing a poem into being. Ghalib was open to engaging with Western ideas, too, but it doesn’t seem likely that he was familiar with the Muses of the Greek tradition or their adaptation in English lyric poetry. The relationship between a poet and muse is one of a divine, feminine power that is not simply a catalyst. In the courtly tradition, the divine and erotic aspects of the female muse are collapsed together; the muse becomes an unattainable mistress whom the poet worships (Virgin Mary). In the 19th century the muse becomes a more secular, but no less sublime, form of Mother Nature (William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads).

Nonetheless, Ghalib does play with the idea of an unapparent force (sada-i-ghaib) and even an ecstatic, elevated state of mind induced by intoxication that is prompted by unseen divine beings. In an extraordinary, masterful Persian qita, Ghalib refers to the “cup-bearer of the gathering of awareness” who spikes his wine cup with a consciousness which, upon drinking, enables him to speak-write with an added perception.

The muse’s visitation of Ghalib is the space where literary crossovers produce a path to a realm left unexplored because of presumptions of meaninglessness and untranslatability. Translation is the means to open the unexplored vistas of Ghalib’s imagination.

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, January 6th, 2019