“One day, Mirza Rajab Ali Beg Suroor, the author of the Fasana-i-Aja’ib [Wondrous Tales], came from Lucknow and met Mirza Nausha [title of Mirza Ghalib]. During the conversation Rajab Ali asked, ‘Mirza Sahib, which book is written in a high quality language?’

“Chahar Dervish,’ he replied.

“And how about Mian Rajab Ali’s Fasana-i-Aja’ib?’ ‘God save us!’ Mirza Nausha exclaimed without a pause. ‘What joy of language could there be in that book??! Contrived rhymes and a clutter of wretched disorder!’

We don’t have a decent edition of this glowing text — and this despite the fact that we have the observation of the famous historian Shaikh Muhammad Ikram that there is hardly any Sufi biography more interesting than the Tazkira.

“Little did Mirza know at the time that the one asking the question was the very author of the Fasana, Suroor himself.

“The following day, Mirza Nausha visited us saying, ‘Let’s call on Suroor and make up for my gaffe.’ So we all went together. After exchanging pleasantries with Suroor, Mirza Nausha broached the subject of fine writing. Now, addressing me, he said, ‘Maulavi Sahib, last night I read the Fasana-i-Aja’ib intensively — how can I possibly describe its fine language! The book’s expressions are extremely elegant and eloquent. In my opinion, such superb prose has never been written before, nor do I expect this quality of writing emerging in times to come.’

“Then, the next day, he invited all of us over to his house and again profusely praised Suroor. Indeed, it was Mirza’s creed that hurting someone is a grave sin.”

This anecdote is found in the Urdu text Tazkira-i-Ghousia — a collection of delightful memoirs of a Sufi, Ghous Ali Shah Qalandar. Just a few days ago, December 7, was this Qalandar’s 219th birth anniversary. And, as we remember him, it should be remarked that this younger companion of Ghalib is truly unique in the entire history of South Asian Sufism; and not only that, he is an extraordinary figure in the literary history of Urdu too.

But here is a painful irony: while the Tazkira has seen numerous editions since its first publication in 1884, it has hardly been subjected to a serious critical study, and none of the dozen or so of its editions is indexed or even printed clearly without annoying proofing errors. No, we don’t have a decent edition of this glowing text — and this despite the fact that we have the observation of the famous historian Shaikh Muhammad Ikram that there is hardly any Sufi biography more interesting than the Tazkira. And we also have the testimony of Malik Ram, the great scholar of Ghalib, that from the standpoint of language, such sincere works have rarely been written in Urdu.

What is historically significant here, the relationship of Ghous Ali Shah to the Tazkira, is analogous to that of Socrates to Plato’s dialogues. The memoirs were compiled, and one believes recorded quite accurately, by one Maulana Gul Hasan, a direct disciple of our Qalandar protagonist. Gul Hasan’s mother tongue was not Urdu, as he himself declares in the book’s preface, and it fell upon the literary personage Maulavi Ismail Meerathi to polish and enrich Gul Hasan’s text and to give it the somewhat ornamental character that it has.

The epithet “Qalandar” has been translated as “spiritual nomad”— and this indeed happens to be a literal description of Ghous Ali, both in terms of his inner world as well as his outer practices. He was initiated in several Sufi orders at once, and in his own fellowship of disciples there were no fixed rituals, no psychological control, no secret vocabulary; his circle was more of an assembly of friends than a body of obedient audience — friends who gathered to listen to stories.

Travelling in the world of imagination and making excursions into his rich travel experiences, he would let his stories and recollections be the teacher. Ghous Ali Shah Qalandar is a supreme example of an instructor who unravelled the most abstruse of philosophical issues through anecdotes and allegories, without the use of intimidating technical jargon. We have hardly any instances of such Sufi practice in South Asia.

And in his outer life, he travelled far and wide, both within his own land and beyond. During his wanderings, this qalandar met numerous outstanding scholars and intellectuals of his milieu. And here is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Tazkira — despite its occasional fictional treatments, which can be separated out, it is an invaluable source for the reconstruction of South Asian Muslim intellectual history of the 19th century.

For example, he was a classmate of the intellectual giant, Ghalib’s editor Allama Fazl-e-Haqq Khairabadi, and the recollections of his conversations and informal meetings with this scholar throw much light on some of the latter’s personal and private psychological traits that would have otherwise remained hidden in obscurity. This humanises the figures that we tend to deify.

Returning to Ghous Ali’s wanderings in the company of Ghalib, the Sufi tells us that it had become the custom of the poet, whose non-conformism and indulgence in alcohol are known to us, to visit him every third day in a mosque, bringing with him some food. “Even though we would ask him not to go through the trouble of doing this on every visit, he is not the one to listen. And when we asked him to join us for the food he brought, he would say, ‘I am not worthy of breaking bread with you. I drink wine, and my face is tarnished with sins; I feel embarrassed!’”

Given the consistency of such accounts in the Tazkira, this story seems hardly concocted and we begin to recognise how complex Ghalib’s personality happened to be — we cannot classify him simplistically. Yes, Tazkira-i-Ghousia is a priceless historical source, a source that has hardly been tapped.

The columnist is University Adviser for Advanced Studies at the University of Lahore and chairs the Arts and Humanities Review Panel of the Pakistan Higher Education Commission

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 10, 2022

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