In the course of my journey with Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s Divans, I noticed how he carefully chose verses from his ghazals when he made the selection for publication. For example, the very first and extremely powerful ghazal in his Divan, ‘Naqsh Faryadi Hai Kis Ki Shokhi-i-Tehreer Ka’ originally comprised nine verses. There were seven in the 1821 Divan (Nuskhah-i Hamidiyyah), and two more were added in 1826. But when the 1841 Urdu Divan was published, this ghazal had five verses. Indeed, the verses that Ghalib dropped were no match for the ones he retained. To clarify my point, I will present the dropped verses from this famous ghazal; they are intricate and adorned with unfamiliar phrases which makes them difficult to read:

“Shokhi-i-nairang sayd-i-vehshat-i-taoos hai

Daam sabze mein hai parvaaz-i-chaman taskheer ka”

[Vividness of illusion makes the timid peacock captive

Grass becomes the net that holds back the peacock’s flight]

In the first line, what could be “vehshat-i-taoos”? How is it related to “shokhi-i-nairang”? What is meant by “shokhi-i-nairang”? The second line makes us stumble on “parvaaz-i-chaman taskheer”. Ghalib likes to use the peacock imagery, especially in his early verses. Here he gives a unique meaning to the well-known fact that the peacock does not like to fly. In this verse, the peacock, because of his vehshat [timidity] does not go far and is deprived of the colourfulness of the garden. If the peacock were to fly (parvaaz) high over the garden, he would be free of the limits imposed by timidity and see the colourful world.

The beauty in this verse lies in the play with reversal of colours. The peacock is vividly coloured, but cannot fly and misses the colours of the garden. He becomes a captive of the net hidden in the green grass (daam sabze mein hai); that is, he likes to stay on the ground. Perhaps such a complex verse in the opening ghazal might have thrown off readers. We can tease more meanings from this verse and delight in its complexity, but I’ll move on to the next verse:

“Lazzat-i-ijaad-i-naaz afsun-i-arz-i-zauq-i-qatl

Naal aatash mein hai tegh-i-yaar se nakhcheer ka”

At first, I quite disliked this verse. How can this even be regarded as Urdu, I thought, as I stumbled while reading aloud. The string of izafats [possessives] in the first line make it sound more Persian than Urdu. In any case, this verse embodies the acme of restless anticipation expressed through the idiom ‘naal aatash mein’. This refers to a practice followed by enchanters or sorcerers of writing the name of the one who was to be tormented on a horseshoe (naal) and putting it in fire. Ghalib says that the beloved’s prolonged, flirtatious coquetry, which involves inventing new ways of teasing, exquisitely protracts the poor lover’s eagerness to die. The poor lover and victim of the beloved’s charms, who is craving for his head to be chopped (zauq-i-qatl), is burning like metal in fire.

“Khisht pusht-i-dast-i-ijz-o-qaalib aaghosh-i-vida

Pur hua hai sail se paimana kis taameer ka”

This verse is about the poignancy of emotions at the time of parting (vida) narrated through the metaphor of brick-making (khisht). Bricks are set in containers that hold them. Thus, the brick is in the embrace of its container and doesn’t want to be parted from it. The brick’s heart is filled with pain when receiving the last embrace before being placed for construction (taameer). The building’s foundation made from these bricks will be filled with water (sail).

This ghazal does not have the maqta [signature verse] Ghalib first wrote:

“Vehshat-i-khwaab-i-adam shor-i-tamasha hai Asad

Jo mizhah johar nahin ainah-i-taabeer ka”

Ghalib’s verse exemplifies a preferred theme in ghazal poetry: the mystique of the mirror. Mirrors were made of iron or steel and their surface was polished to improve their reflective capacity. The polishing created very fine lines that were known as the mirror’s jauhar. Jauhar can be described as the motes or particles of the mirror that constitute the vision inside the mirror. Eyelashes are compared to the fine lines created by polishing; thus, they can be jauhar, too. Persons who do not have the jauhar-like eyelashes cannot claim to have seen the vision (of existence or creation) in the mirror. What they see are the terrifying dreams in the state of non-existence. There is a lot to contemplate in this verse. There is an obvious play between khwaab [dream] and taabeer [interpretation]. Although this verse does resonate the ontological theme of existence and non-existence, perhaps it is too complicated to be parsed. Maybe Ghalib made the right choice by excluding this one?

The longest ghazal in Ghalib’s Divan is of 17 verses, each one as beautiful as the one preceding or following it. It was written after 1821, appearing for the first time in the 1826 Divan. When Ghalib published his Urdu Divan in 1841, he made very careful selections. This ghazal in its entirety is the last one in the ghazal section. In the course of my study of Ghalib’s manuscript Divans as well as published Divans, I noticed that the arrangement of ghazals within the broad category of radeef [refrain] was not the same except for the fact that ‘Naqsh Faryadi...’ was always the first ghazal and ‘Muddat Hui Hai Yaar Ko Mehman Kiye Huay’ was invariably the last.

Ghalib has a formidable reputation of being a cerebral poet who deliberately seeks to complicate themes with far-fetched metaphor. This is true; yet, Ghalib has given us some of the most achingly beautiful verses that capture desire in so many colours. Every verse in the following ghazal, by the young Ghalib, invokes longing for the beloved. I guess it was also his favourite because he kept it in its entirety, not pruning a single verse. I close with my favourite verse from this brilliant ghazal to illustrate Ghalib’s mastery in evoking emotion:

“Dhunde hai phir kisi ko lab-i-baam par havas

Zulf-i-siyeeh rukh pe pareshan kiye huay”

[Desire again searches for someone on the terrace lip

Dark tresses carelessly flowing over her face]

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, October 6th, 2019