I was maybe nine when introduced to Ghalib. Father presented me some verses that I noted in my squiggly handwriting. Correcting me as I read them aloud, he asked me to memorise them, casually adding that the ghazal was from Ghalib’s mustarad kalam [poetry he excluded from his Divan]. Father also told me it was a hamd [in praise of Allah].
I liked this bit of extra information and never forgot what mustarad meant. I enjoyed the rhythms of poetry, taking pride in my natural ability to read Urdu poems metrically. As a child, I relished poetry without understanding any of it, feeling important as I smoothly glided over the Persian-peppered verses of Ghalib’s mustarad ghazal:
Gadaa-i-taaqat-i-taqreer hai zaban tujh se
Ke khamoshi ko hai pairaya-i-bayan tujh se
[The tongue begs You for strength to speak;
Because silence is as eloquent as speech for You]
In April 1968, Father initiated the monthly feature, ‘Tafheem-i-Ghalib’ [Interpreting Ghalib], for his journal Shabkhoon [Night Ambush], and wrote it for 20 years. In 1989, at a request from the Ghalib Institute, Father’s exegesis of 138 verses was published as a 375-page book.
For a hundred years, Ghalib’s poetry had stimulated multiple interpretations of abstruse individual verses. In the 1880s, Hilm Dihlavi published a book of detailed commentaries on 54 verses from the Urdu Divan. There are maybe close to a hundred or more such commentaries. Once, in ignorance, I asked Father how his tafheem differed. Father replied that he had selected well-known verses whose nuance previous commentators had missed.
Sometimes commentators declared a verse muhmal [meaningless] because they misunderstood certain unusual words and usages of Ghalib. Father said a weakness in the early commentators’ approach was that they shied from consulting dictionaries; his tafheem showed the way — not only for reading Ghalib, but for the classical ghazal as a whole.
I’d never thought of writing a tafheem of Ghalib. No one ever asked me to, either. Then I found myself toying with the idea of commenting on the mustarad kalam. Ghalib’s so-called ‘rejected’ verses are laden with heavy, far-fetched metaphors and unfamiliar vocabulary. I was unaware this mustarad corpus was more substantial than Ghalib’s mutadavil [the authorised, current Divan]! Gyan Chand Jain’s invaluable Tafseer-i-Ghalib is the only complete exegesis of the ‘rejected’ verses, but he is terse, dispassionate and almost never appreciative of even the most extraordinary verses.
I selected 40 ghazals and set to work. It wasn’t easy. I hadn’t anticipated opening a Pandora’s box of unanswered questions. My work on Ghalib brought me closer to Father. He encouraged me, showered appreciation and helped whenever I got stumped. He instilled confidence. He glowed with pride when I dared to disagree with him.
In a thought-provoking essay, which is, in a way, the prelude to his authoritative work on Mir Taqi Mir, Father assesses the poetic qualities inherent in Mir and Ghalib — not exactly peers, but not that far apart, either. Yet their language of poetry is different. Ghalib devised a literary language suited to his abstract thought. It was a language within a language.
The temperament of his imagination differed from Mir’s, so did his favourite themes. Both were masters of verbal affinities within a sher, delicate thought (nazuk khayaali) and layered meanings. Mir’s poetry has more emotional affect; Ghalib’s has wit of a cerebral kind. He deliberately complicates a theme to make it harder to reach the meaning. His mind absorbs and reflects the challenges of his times much more than Mir’s does.
From Tafheem-i-Ghalib (1968–88) to Sher-i-Shor Angez [Stormy Verse] (1990–93) is an illustrious path of excavation, recovery, redefinition and restatement of the poetics of the pre-modern Urdu ghazal, and, incidentally, of Persian too. Father’s commentary on Mir (Sher-i-Shor Angez) spans four volumes. The first and third have chapters brimming with illuminating discussion on Indo-Muslim poetics and teach the methodology of fashioning a critical lens to assess the ghazal.
Questions have been raised about the validity of his methods of interpretation. Many modern critics believe one should never ignore authorial intention, and that it would be unfair to try to go beyond it. Others don’t enjoy the hair-splitting, meaning-teasing exercise that showcases the finesse with which the poet crafts a verse. Father’s response to these criticisms was that literature is made up of different genres. One understands it better if one knows the rules of the genre being critiqued — those rules that were current in the culture which produced it.
Father also dealt with the almost universal view that Urdu poetry is just a shadow of its Persian ancestor. The first to emphasise that it is not the outer, formal characteristics that define a literature, but its inner structures, its cultural assumptions, its worldview, he showed that Persian poetry in the so-called ‘Indian style’ doesn’t appeal to the native Persian speakers because they don’t enjoy its cultural and literary milieu. Thus, one must first know how the classical poets perceived literature before determining its relevance in our time. There’s a historical progression of readers and one has to find one’s own position in this sequence.
Sher-i-Shor Angez’s introductory chapters chart the critical apparatus for the classical ghazal with inimitable thoroughness and originality of insight. The traditional generic terminology in Urdu literary thought assumed much, but never elaborated the ideas underlying such simple, and apparently kernel-less, terms as fasahat or balaghat [eloquence].
It was the duty of the modern critic to study them, find their meaning, study their evolution, and illustrate them through live examples from pre-modern poetry. This duty was performed by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. He collated, explicated and elaborated a masterful set of rules to appraise the classical ghazal.
Continuing with my own journey with Ghalib’s Divans, I want to revisit the question of why Ghalib’s work produced so many commentaries and why scholars weren’t motivated to look at his mustarad kalam in the same reverential, but commentarial spirit. My aim is to expand and go forward in new and interesting ways, using the critical tools created and theoretical insights expounded by Father.
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 24th, 2021