FEBRUARY 15 marks Ghalib’s death anniversary. To pay homage to the great bard, discussing Yadgar-i-Ghalib, the first book ever written on Ghalib’s life and works, might be interesting, especially from a different point of view.
Yadgar-i-Ghalib is a historic work, no doubt. Altaf Husain Hali, the author — a poet, critic and Ghalib’s disciple — deserves all the kudos for the pioneering work as it is not only the first book ever written on Ghalib, but it is also one of a few early biographies written in Urdu. If we ignore some early semi-biographical works in Urdu, Yadgar-i-Ghalib is chronologically second only to Hayat-i-Sa’adi (1886), the first biography ever written in Urdu, and the author was none other than Altaf Husain Hali. But Yadgar-i-Ghalib has certain shortcomings that critics have ignored, save for a few like Dr Waheed Qureshi who has objectively analysed the work in his book Nazre-i-Ghalib.
Yadgar-i-Ghalib, first published in 1897, was a smashing success. Often fame and popularity become a measure to determine the merits and demerits of a literary work: the more famous and popular it is, the greater it must be. As Waheed Qureshi has remarked, when a book becomes too famous it often gets a status of almost divine and saying a word against it perturbs the fans. But, putting aside the common perception, Yadgar-i-Ghalib is not as great a work as critics would have us believe, even by the standard of research and biography-writing set by some writers, including Hali himself.
The problem with biography is that the biographer is often accused of hero worship, as Hali was accused of praising Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to the skies in his biography of Sir Syed, titled Hayat-i-Javed (1901). On the other hand, some biographers are accused of disparaging the personality of their subject, though their intention may only be to bring the facts on record. Secondly, the facts brought to light may be authentic and verifiable but the question is: does a biographer have a right to fully expose the personality of a subject with all human weaknesses under the spotlight, no matter how authentic and accurate the account is?
Yadgar-i-Ghalib has four issues: it glorifies Ghalib instead of objectively evaluating his personality and works; it utterly lacks in research and Hali could not take full advantage of the sources he had at his disposal; the structure of the book is disproportionate; and, lastly, it seems that Hali is trying to write a rejoinder to Muhammad Husain Azad’s Aab-i-Hayat. Let us have a quick look at these points:
The intention of the Hali is to “lift the heavy curtains fallen on Ghalib’s poetry, his ingenuity and subtlety” and “introduce him to public as poet and highlight the high value of his poetry”, as he writes in his preface (page 5, 1897 edition, reproduced by Idara-i-Yadgar-i-Ghalib). But this is in contrast with the principles Hali had described in his intro to Hayat-e-Sa’adi. Hali, while admiring European biographers, had written that they promoted the art of biography on the basis of “research” and “revealing vices and virtues by deducing conclusions logically from the events”. But in Yadgar-i-Ghalib, Hali ignored most of Ghalib’s weaknesses and even tried to hide the facts. For instance, Ghalib was arrested in 1847 for running a gambling den at his residence, but Hali has sugar-coated the incident to prove Ghalib was innocent.
Hali has claimed to have consulted Ghalib’s close friend and relatives, researched many works and recollected his own memories to write the book. But, as put by Dr Qureshi, many aspects of Ghalib’s life were left out and there are many errors when it comes to some historical events and dates. These errors seem more serious considering that Hali was a contemporary of Ghalib’s. Dr Abdul Latif, too, has pointed out many factual errors in Hali’s work.
A striking feature of the book is Hali’s retorts to Azad, albeit without any hint. Azad in Aab-i-Hayat has subtly and in a tongue-in-cheek style tried to demolish Ghalib by writing sentences that lampoon Ghalib in a purported praise. Azad’s purpose was to enhance the stature of his mentor Ustaad Ibrahim Zauq, who was usually not preferred over Ghalib despite some merits. Hali has refuted many of Azad’s claims, but on the other hand Hali has taken some events from Azad with minor changes and without mentioning the source.
The 438-page book is divided into two parts and the first part, describing life and works takes about 100 pages. The rest of the book, reviewing Ghalib’s works and reproducing samples, spreads over 300 pages.
So keeping in view what Ghulam Rasool Mehr, Qazi Abdul Wadood, S.M.Ikram, Abdul Latif and Waheed Qureshi have written, reader must proceed with care while reading Yadgar-i-Ghalib.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2024