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Ghalib and the revolution of 1857

February 05, 2008

(Ghalib's death anniversary falls on February 15)

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, one of our greatest poets, was in Delhi when the uprising of 1857 was at its peak. He observed the revolutionary changes taking place during his lifetime. And his travel to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1830, the then capital of the British India, had broadened his mental horizon. But no change or revolution, no matter how great, could reflect in his poetry.

There are barely a few of Ghalib's couplets that can truly be attributed to any political or social upheaval. A few of his ghazals and couplets are sometimes unscrupulously reproduced and quoted as portrayal of the political revolution that saw Indians losing the war of freedom and Mughals their throne. But the fact is that his poetry has got nothing to do with the events of 1857 as he had composed such ghazals and couplets much before the rebellion.

But Ghalib's Urdu letters reward anyone who is lucky and wise enough to read them. Many of them give an account of the events of 1857 and, besides carrying some biographical details about Ghalib, make a good reading, too.

He began writing letters in Urdu in or around 1847. He quit the old-fashioned way of writing letters that essentially meant long salutations and tortuous language and instead went for a very lively and frank style. The language of his letters is simple yet literary and sounds like the conversation of a person of highly developed tastes and knowledge. His ability to smile at his sorrows and brighten up at the gloomiest moments has made these letters a good example of decent humour.

Ghalib talked of the 1857 revolution in many of his letters which portrayed the pain and sorrows that he had felt. However, he was careful enough not to say anything that could offend the British. His attitude towards the 'rebellious' Indians was not sympathetic at all and at least on one occasion he denounced the Indians that killed the persons of British origin during the revolution. Ghalib had many friends among British officers. He had been trying all along to earn more favours particularly an award and pension from the British.

In fact there had been bad blood between Ghalib and his literary opponents much earlier. The literary circle that celebrated his imprisonment in 1847 for running a gambling den at his place was among the front-runners in the revolution of 1857. Renowned among them were Ustad Ibrahim Zauq and Maulvi Muhammad Baqar (who was later hanged by the British), editor of Delhi's paper, Urdu Akhbar, and father of Muhammad Hussain Azad.

Zauq, Muhammad Hussain Azad's teacher and mentor, was his foremost literary opponent and he could become the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar's Ustad (one who 'advises' the king on his poetry) only after Zauq's death.

The literary group that opposed Ghalib was pinning their hopes on the 'mutiny' of 1857, expecting the defeat of the British and full restoration of Mughal monarchy. On the other hand, Ghalib had sensed a defeat of the revolutionary forces at the hands of the British as the rebellion was neither well-organised nor powerful enough to counter the military might of the foreigners.

Among his Urdu letters written during the war of independence, many were addressed to the ruler of Rampur, a friend and benefactor of Ghalib. As the letters contained some political advice and spoke on the aftermath of the revolution, apparently not too sympathetic or reverent towards the revolt and the Mughals, Ghalib had requested that the letters be destroyed once read.

This was the time when he wrote Dastamboo as a personal diary or journal in Persian. It records the events from May 11, 1857 to July 31, 1858. The book not only carries chapters from Ghalib's personal life but it also speaks of the situation of Delhi and the British troops.

Ghalib tried to make his readers believe that the book offered the true picture and nothing had been added or omitted though he feared for his life when anyone found near or dear to the Mughal king was being prosecuted. He remained attached to the Red Fort as Bahadur Shah Zafar's mentor and his loyalty to the British could have been questioned. In fact Ghalib wrote Dastamboo to show his loyalty to the British and, as we know, truth is the first casualty of war.

Dastamboo was published in November 1858 from Agra when the sword of the Press Act had fallen on the Indian press and the printing permission given for many newspapers had been cancelled. Dr Moin-ur-Rehman has very rightly pointed out in his book Ghalib Aur Inqelab-i-Satawan that while the printing presses were being forced to close down by the British for publishing 'rebellious material' and newspapers were forced to cease publication, how could any book be published that was not in favour of the British.

When Ghalib asked in a letter written on August 1, 1858, his friend Mirza Tufta to see if Dastamboo could be published in Agra, he was surprised and asked how in those circumstances (when the press act had been enforced) any press would be willing to print a book that could invite the anger of the government. Ghalib replied “I will present a copy of the book to Nawab Governor-General Bahadur (Lord Canning) and another through him to Malika-i-Muazzama Inglistaan (the Queen of England). Now you should understand what will be the style of writing and how any press could dislike its printing.”

In a letter addressed to Mir Mehdi Majrooh in October 1858, Ghalib wrote “The owner of the press had shown, with the help from Munshi Hargopal Tufta, the manuscript of the book to the authorities in Agra for the permission to print. The authorities gladly permitted.”

The British authorities must have been glad to see it in print form as the book covered up the truth and the writer conveniently forgot what happened in the aftermath of the failed 'mutiny' and how the British ran amok with a desire for revenge.

It is beyond any shade of doubt that Ghalib had written Dastamboo to save his skin and to show his loyalty.