Updated May 17, 2020


In this grim atmosphere of a worldwide pandemic and the numbing effect of lockdowns, reading Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s early ghazals is uplifting. Ghalib’s younger self is rakish and charming and one ghazal, written before 1816, has, broadly speaking, a romantic mood produced by whimsical rhyming words such as “khwaab”, “betaab” and “mahtaab”, reinforced by the wistful refrain “ho gayi.”

The first three verses are dramatic in the way eyelashes, missi-adorned lips [missi was a dark, powdery concoction made with copper sulphate, used on teeth, gums and lips], radiant faces framed with glossy tresses evoke a surge of emotions. The last two are stunning in the intensity of pain that love can bring. Ghalib could make verse abstruse by peppering it with difficult, unusual vocabulary and unfamiliar idioms. At the same time, he could produce a profound verse using simple words. An interesting feature of this ghazal is that he uses ‘Ghalib’, not ‘Asad’, as the takhallus [pen name]. It is also among the so-called ‘rejected’ verses.

Be khud ze bas keh khaatir-i-beytaab ho gayi
Mizhgan-i-baaz maandah, rag-i-khwaab ho gayi

My restless heart became so detached, that,

The eyelashes of my unclosed eyes became the sleep producing nerve

This verse is delightful, even exotic, because of unusual word-phrases such as rag-i-khwaab and mizhgan-i-baz mandah. In fact, the second line is quite stunning in the effect it produces: the lashes of the unclosed eyes (mizhgan-i-baz mandah) have become the sleep nerve! Apparently, there are nerves in the neck below the jaw that are sleep-related. It was believed that when the sleep-nerve is pressed, unconsciousness results. Perhaps Ghalib is playing on the poetic assumption that the sleep nerve is as delicate as an eyelash. The paradox is stunningly visual and enjoyable. One can imagine a restless lover in an induced stupor, with eyes open blankly as though in deep sleep.

Mere liye tau tegh-i-seh taab ho gayi

The flutter of a smile on lips stained with missi

Cut through me like a sword made of blued steel

The beloved’s smile is like a dagger in the lover’s heart. Her lips are enhanced with missi, so her smile is literally comparable to a blue-black sword. Comparing the half-smile to a mauj [wave] is uncommon, but charmingly appropriate here as the poet is talking about a fleeting smile, the mauj-i-tabassum [a wave of a smile]. Comparing lips smeared with missi to a sword made of blue steel has a uniquely Ghalibian complexity. When swords wave, they produce a lightning effect, cutting through whatever is in their path. Similarly, the beloved’s smile cuts through the lover’s heart.

Rukhsaar-i-yaar ki jo khuli jalwah gustari
Zulf-i-siyaah bhi shab-i-mahtaab ho gayi

When the radiance of the beloved’s face was diffused

Even her dark tresses became bright like a moonlit night

This verse is on a well-known theme: the radiance of the beloved’s face. Jalwah gustari presumably refers to the face becoming visible after parting the curtain of zulf [hair]. The beloved’s face is moonlike, her tresses dark like night, but the glow of the face makes the dark tresses look bright like a moonlit night. There is also a subtle nuance in the choice of the verb “khulna” which has several meanings: to reveal, unlock, come into view, loosen, diffuse, lift and so on.

Beydaad-i-intizar ki taaqat na la saki
Ay jaan-i-bar lab amdah, beytaab ho gayi

It couldn’t withstand the tyrannical pain of waiting

Life’s last breath, drawn to the lips, you lost strength to stay

The first thing to note is that ay is not vocative, but exclamatory, showing a sense of imminent ending, even tenderness, towards embracing death. No one is being invoked here. The beauty of the verse is breathtaking. It lies not so much in the theme of endless waiting, but in the new slant to the theme: life has become hard to bear because of the tyranny of waiting. Life’s breath is drawn out to the lips, as if there is nothing now to live for. And the breath of life refuses to linger on the lips because the body is so weak that it cannot stay. It is as though the tyranny of waiting made the breath restless.

Ghalib ze bas ke sookh gaye chashm men sirishk
Aansoo ki boond gauhar-i-nayaab ho gayi

Ghalib, tears dried up within the eye, at last,

A tear drop became a rare pearl

Although the verse is not as complex as some others on the theme of tears, it is nevertheless a good example of maani afrini [expansion of meaning]. It presents a new facet of the metaphor of ‘tear drop’ and ‘pearl’. There was a time when the lovers’ tears flowed freely like rivers and oceans, but those days are long gone. Tears have dried up. A tear has become a rarity. The beauty of the simile lies in the fact that tears are often compared to pearls and the eye to an ocean, or even an oyster that contains a pearl. Since tears have dried up, any tear that remains has become a precious pearl. The word nayaab in the context of the tear-pearl is very suitable. The idea of tears drying versus flowing can be interpreted to mean emotions being spent, or frozen, or even a state of unresponsiveness that is worse than tears.

Ghalib selected the last two verses for his first collection, 1828’s Gul-i-Raana. It is quite obvious the he picked the two verses that are absolutely stunning and connect to well-known themes of pain in love. But the verses he left out have their own piquant charm. I personally like the suggestive flair of the verse that compares missi-stained lips with a blue-black sword. As I mentioned earlier, the mood of the ghazal is romantic, but shortened to a mere two verses one is left with only a sense of loss.

But I would like to leave you thinking of the beautiful images in this ghazal: shab-i-mahtaab, mauj-i-tabassum, lab-i-aludah-i-missi, tegh-i-seh taab, and of course the restless heart — khaatir-i-beytaab.

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, May 17th, 2020