Last Monday was Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s 152nd death anniversary. While Urdu poetry will forever bask in the glow of this giant, enriched and guided by his literary and philosophical adventures, it seems that this glow has acquired yet a new intensity. How does one describe him?

It is hard to settle on a single metaphor that is appropriate. Like the cuts of a diamond, each facet transmitting light, sparkling in a complex optical magic of its own, we see Ghalib’s effulgence in his multifarious creative chambers. What of rhythm? What of imagery? What of verbal balance, meaning clusters, craft and what of his “pretty wrongs”? Each of these facets is a source of sparkles that dance before the eye of the beholder.

Seeking a metaphor to describe Ghalib, we must recognise that he himself is its superb craftsman. In fact, he develops a whole robust genre of a metaphorical sport, wooed by a technique of South Asian Persian and Urdu poetry called sabk-i-Hindi [Indian formation].

What he does is fascinating: turning concrete reality into metaphor, and then, deeming metaphor as concrete reality, drawing further metaphors out of it. So reality engenders metaphor and metaphor-as-reality engenders new metaphors. This honeycomb is one of Ghalib’s highly skilful sports, and he plays it in the fullness of aesthetic and intellectual control.

He is such a champion of this sport that, under his shadow, Faiz Ahmed Faiz beseechingly wished for all reality to turn into a metaphorical illusion: “Har haqeeqat majaaz ho jaey” [would that every reality becomes a metaphor!].

Seeking a metaphor to describe Ghalib, we must recognise that he himself is its superb craftsman

Then, there is an intriguing twist in the technique of this sport. Ghalib often carries out a pleasing entanglement of reality and metaphor; in other words, entangling a concrete material object in a non-material or imaginary object, an intertwining of the physical with the metaphysical. For example, in one of his ghazals that typically rises higher and higher as it moves from verse to verse, he says:

[Those glances, O Lord, why do they pierce the heart?
Glances that, because of my small fortune, became eyelashes]

What do we have here? Glances piercing the heart? Glances are not physical objects to pierce the heart. Note how the non-physical is being entangled in the physical, thereby creating a precious aesthetic spectacle. And more, since the speaker is short of fortune, glances — the non-physical, have turned into eyelashes — the physical. Note further: eyelashes are pointed and sharp, and things pointed and sharp are naturally capable of piercing into flesh. So here we have a whole manufacturing industry of complex imagery, imagery of the concrete anchored in the imaginary, and of the imaginary anchored in the concrete. We see processes that, at once, conform to the laws of nature and bypass them. But the most important thing is that, through all of this, a unique poetic aesthetic comes to pass.

At another place, Ghalib says that his passion has untied all the knots of the veil that was hiding beauty. But now only one hindrance remained — and that is his very faculty of vision; what hinders his seeing is his very glance:

This is mind-boggling irony; but more than that, it is an eminent paradox. The very medium of seeing, we are told, becomes a hindrance to seeing, a visual obstruction. And note once again the same real-virtual entanglement: what unties the knots to unveil beauty is passion, and passion is nothing physical. We find something non-physical acting directly on the physical.

Another delicate point in this glorious sport is the expression of the longing that all that separates the lover from the beloved must go, even if it is the means of perceiving the beloved. Indeed, the medium of sight, too, is a separator, for it presupposes a duality between the beholder and that which is beheld. There ought to be no “Thee and Me.”

One is reminded of a powerful verse of the Sufi martyr Mansur Hallaj, who saw his Lord not with his actual eye that needs a medium, but with his heart’s eye:

I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart,
I asked, who are you? He replied You!

The outstanding thing about Ghalib expressing this Sufi idea is his metaphorical sport, his playfulness, his poetic dynamics.

Among the later poets, this sabk-i-Hindi play of Ghalib makes a silky and compelling appearance in Faiz. Indeed, Faiz does recognise the unparalleled virtuosity of his colossal predecessor, deeply imbibing his poetics. Recall that two of Faiz’s collections, including the very first one, are named after expressions taken from Divan-i-Ghalib.

Faiz’s imagery is rich with the intertwining of the real and imaginary, of the physical and non-physical of the Ghalibian kind. He talks about the “twists and turns of evening stars from whose spiral stairs night descends step by step.” And on the “shoulders of the balcony glows the beautiful hand of the kind moonlight.”

Note the “hand of the moonlight” and the “step by step descent of the night.” But there is much more of Ghalib’s sport in Faiz: “shadows of the sound”; “mirages of the lips”; “memory placing its hand on the cheek of the heart.”

Yes, we shall forever bask in the glow of Ghalib.


The columnist is dean, School of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology and chairs the Arts and Humanities Panel of the HEC

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 21st, 2021

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