I’ve been working on Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib for nearly a decade. My original idea was to work on the ghazals that Ghalib excluded from his ‘published’ Divan. These so-called rejected (mustarad) verses account for more than half of Ghalib’s Urdu poetry. Although they’ve been published, they did not attract Ghalib’s readers and there is not much scholarly work on this corpus. In fact, when the Divan of 1821, which has most of the rejected verses, was discovered in Bhopal in 1918, there was debate on publishing it at all. But it did get published in 1921 and is included in all complete editions of Ghalib’s Urdu poetry.

After going through the mustarad kalaam several times, I concluded that Ghalib was a good editor who mostly weeded out inelegant verses, or those with repetitive themes (such as ainah [mirror] and hairat [wonder]). Still, a good number of the excluded verses are brilliant and worthy of attention. I selected some 40 ghazals for translation and commentary. It is important to note that I selected entire ghazals and did not pull out verses, for I strongly believe that not only do ghazals have an innate unity created by the refrain and rhyme scheme (radif and qafiya), but the poet arranges the verses in a certain order to create an evocative mood, or kaifiyat, in the poem.

In the process of sifting through Ghalib’s mustarad ghazals, I began to think deeply about the process, the dynamics of selection. I was drawn into examining Ghalib’s publication trajectory, his textual history as it were, and, along with it, the reception of his poetry.

It became evident that I needed to write a separate book on Ghalib’s editorial choices, the impact of publishing on his work and, above all, his asymmetrical relationship with his Persian and Urdu divans. Why did he not edit his Persian divan as severely as his Urdu one? This question bothered me a lot. It took several years of reading his Persian dibachahs [forewards], letters and pamphlets and studying the relationship of the author with his milieu before I could even begin to fathom the enigmatic path of Ghalib’s convoluted poetic journey.

Ghalib began his poetic career with Urdu, albeit an Urdu heavily speckled with Persian vocabulary and unusual idioms. Instead of following the great Mir Taqi Mir, who had established a distinct style in Urdu, Ghalib looked up to Mirza Bedil and other poets of the Indo-Persian (sabk-i-hindi) group. In the early phase of his career, Ghalib gave precedence to far-fetched ideas and startling metaphors over ravaani [flow] in his compositions.

As a young practitioner without an ustaad to rein in his predilection for ambiguity, he revelled in his opaque, cerebral style. Then came the 20 years when he composed almost entirely in Persian. In Persian, Ghalib looked up to the classical tradition of the language, but his thought and imagination were influenced by his sensibilities that were Indo-Persian. Ghalib’s poetic sojourn in Persian may have helped in ironing out his awkward wordsmithing in Urdu, or sated his penchant for Persianisms.

Ghalib returned to Urdu upon his association with the royal court in 1850. He was appointed to write a history of the Mughals, albeit in Persian. Eventually, he was appointed as Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ustaad after Zauq’s demise.

A mature Ghalib returned to composing in Urdu, not just poetry, but also the most delightful prose — his letters to friends constitute some of the finest examples of the craft of epistolary writing. It is hard to imagine how slender Ghalib’s Urdu corpus would have been had his letters not been preserved and published.

Maulana Hali’s pathbreaking biography, Yaadgaar-i-Ghalib [Memorial to Ghalib], has played a vital role in immortalising Ghalib. Following the scintillating, anecdotal style set by Muhammad Husain Azad’s Aab-i-Hayat [Water of Life], Hali presents Ghalib as a witty, generous and sociable person, with many friends and disciples. As a much younger contemporary who revered the poet, Hali is never critical of Ghalib. But Hali is perplexed by Ghalib’s passion for Persian and his claim to be as fluent in the language as its native speakers.

Hali handles the question of Ghalib’s Persian tutor, Abdus Samad, cautiously. He doesn’t dismiss nor allege that Ghalib made this person up to strengthen his claim of native fluency. Hali also presents a judicious selection of Ghalib’s Persian poetry, because he felt it would be undermined by a posterity not learned enough (in Persian) to appreciate it.

Nonetheless, Ghalib’s Persian poetry did get pushed aside in the Subcontinent and in the Persianate world. Unlike Amir Khusrau, Mirza Bedil or even Faizi, Ghalib’s Persian ghazals did not find a captive audience. Interestingly, this is not the case with his Persian masnavis [long narrative poems], which have been translated into Urdu, praised and discussed. Chiragh-i-Dair [The Temple’s Lamp] and Abr-i-Gohar Bar [Pearl-bearing Clouds] are regarded among the best poems in that language.

In my forthcoming book, Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep, A Critical Biography, I’ve tried to comprehend and explain the intricacies of Ghalib’s relationship with the two languages: Urdu and Persian. We must remember that Urdu is a younger, modern language with a comparatively short literary tradition. Persian has a deep literary history and a classical tradition. But other important factors are at play here. There are many shades of Persian; Indo-Persian being one of them.

With the Mughal rulers’ patronage of Persian, many more dictionaries and works in Persian were produced in Mughal India than in Iran. Among Irani émigrés were those who were leading a reclamation of ‘pure’ Persian, that is, a Persian purged of Arabic words. Ghalib was fascinated with the idea of a pure Persian. But he was no linguist, nor was he trained in lexicography. His quibbles with Indo-Persian usages and derogatory comments on ‘Indian Persian’ did not sit well with scholars and some of his contemporaries.

To complicate this tangle with languages in the 19th century, the rise of nationalism pushed the idea of language being associated with nation. No longer were registers of the same language looked upon as equals. Indo-Persian fell into a language without a state. Ghalib’s language, despite all his claims of native felicity with Persian, was not accepted as Irani enough. Thus, Ghalib couldn’t win a place among the greats of Persian, but he won everlasting fame in Urdu. He shines bright in Urdu, unsurpassed, the bulbul singing from the warmth of joy of 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, October 18th, 2020