On Intimations of Ghalib: Translations from the Urdu | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 08, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 08, 2019

On Intimations of Ghalib: Translations from the Urdu

M. Shahid Alam. ISBN: 978-1949039191. Orison Books, 2018

Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (1797 – 1869), popularly known by his takhallus (pen name) Ghalib (conqueror), makes it difficult for writers to sum him up easily or definitively. He himself would probably have taken great and impish delight in that knowledge. In one of his ghazals he suggests (Shahid Alam’s translation):

“Cold, sly, insouciant? Many 

Gardens burn inside me…

He is gone, Asadullah Khan-

Sinner, lover, Ah what a man.”

Some basic facts may be relevant in understanding Ghalib. He was of Central Asian ancestry, and belonged to a family with a long tradition of military service to various authorities (the Nizam’s army, the French, the Marathas, the Mughals). His father was killed in a military engagement when Ghalib was only five and his uncle who was bringing him up in another skirmish four years later.  He lived with his mother’s family in Agra in reasonable comfort and a lively cultural environment with his grandfather himself a poet of some diligence and distinction, also with teachers like the learned Shaikh Muazzam, and the Parsi scholar and poet, Hurmuzd who were both keen and skilled students/practitioners of Persian language and literature. When he was thirteen, he was married to an unassuming and devoted woman who came from a family of fairly comfortable means and aristocratic bearings, and moved to Delhi. He spent the rest of his life in this city, except for a couple of years in Kolkata in 1828 to pursue a government pension to which he felt entitled (he did not get it).

That brief biographical paragraph was intended to highlight several features of Ghalib’s early life which may have influenced, or have been reflected in, his life and literature. First, family tragedies he had encountered as a child gave him good reason to shy away from a life of military service to any authority, and made him skeptical about soldierly bravado and glory. The viciousness of the military campaigns during the War of Independence in 1857, practiced both by the British (particularly in Delhi) and, perhaps in lesser measure, by “native patriots” elsewhere, left Ghalib horrified and grief-stricken (as described in his Dastanbu, his memoirs of the period).

Second, the fact that both his father and uncle had died when he was merely a boy meant that he grew up in an environment without the anchor, support and discipline that a male guardian or a father figure could have provided. This may partly explain his intellectual restlessness and angst as he was growing up, and perhaps, provided him with a sense of free-spirited autonomy that he relished, both in his life style and in his craft.

Third, his early education and his grandfather’s literary leanings created the enabling conditions that nurtured his poetry. He was obviously a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age and had completed most of his Urdu divan by his early twenties. But more importantly, his appreciation of and his induction into the Persian literary tradition became possible because of his early tutors. Since the language of the Court was Persian, and it enjoyed a higher status among the Delhi literati he began writing mostly in Persian and returned to Urdu only fitfully and casually in his later life. This is a bit ironic because his considerable and growing literary presence today is largely, if not exclusively based on his Urdu writings, and his reception as a poet in Persia, though respectful, has probably been mild.

Fourth, Delhi itself became part of his identity and contributed to his flamboyance. The charms, seductions and opportunities presented by the city, both in terms of the gathering of poets and musicians who flocked there (the Emperor himself a poet of some sensitivity and substance was an ardent patron of the arts), and the “salon culture” that flourished during the period gave him occasion to pursue the indulgences that friends, female companionship and (French) wine provided.

But time and place cannot explain some of the paradoxes and contradictions that defined him. On the one hand he was a proud man.  Once he refused the offer to teach in the Delhi College simply because he felt that the relevant official had not shown him due deference. But, he could also go to great and awkward lengths, e.g., appealing to noblemen, petitioning the government (including Queen Victoria), filing legal briefs, and so on to pursue entitlements and claims in his relentless search for material comfort (which always seemed to elude him).

He could be very gracious in his praise of others and in his demonstrations of personal generosity. But, he could also be harsh,and ridicule rivals such as the “court poet” Zauq and even at times, the Emperor himself (though he could be quite fawning in his efforts to access the Emperor’s favors). He could be a dutiful husband. But his family life was not particularly joyful, he had seven children all of whom died in infancy and his wife remained at best a shadowy figure in his life or poetry. He could remain a practicing Muslim (quite emphatically maintained in his correspondence). But his faith was probably complicated by his wry, often irreverent, sense of humor, his eager embrace of non-Muslim friends and admirers, and his “need” to find solace in wine and other sensual pleasures to “forget himself” or “take away his sorrow.”

The complexity of his life was reproduced in his literary oeuvre as well. Moreover, his verbal fluidity, intellectual audacity, and density of sentiment and expression- all present daunting difficulties for translators. As Alam points out in his brief, but informed and thoughtful, introduction in his new book, ghazals generally do not travel well across linguistic and civilizational divides, Ghalib even less so.

First, there is the suggestiveness and the abstractions inherent in Persian and Urdu, both languages rich in texture and allusion, internal rhythms, and subtle and shifting meanings of words. Second, ghazals represent a literature of utterance meant to be recited in an interactive public performance where resonance and cadence, tonality and imagery, rhetorical tension and auditory imagination (as Eliot would put it) take precedence over logic, realism, or thematic unity.  Third, the formal conventions of the “ghazal” could be quite rigorous and stylized, difficult to replicate.

However, Alam rises to the challenge with heroic determination. Ever since Aijaz Ahmad’s bold exercise in getting several Pulitzer Prize winning Western poets to “transcreate” the meaning of some ghazals of Ghalib in 1971 followed by the efforts of Robert Bly and Sunil Datta in 1999, and several individual and disparate efforts by others, and given the increasing popularity of ghazals and Ghalib over time (even in the West), a new translation was long over-due. Alam deserves our gratitude for filling that need.

With his fidelity to the original form of the ghazal (including his use of the matla, maqtaand radeef, i.e., patterns of rhyme and refrain that ghazals demand), his alertness to contemporary linguistic norms and habits, and his own finely honed aesthetic sensibility and grasp of cultural nuance, Alam captures Ghalib’s wit and lyricism with impressive confidence, integrity and resourcefulness. This is all the more extraordinary because Alam is an economist by profession, an activist for Palestinian causes by moral compulsion, and a poet only later.  Perhaps the success of this project might inspire him to spend more time where his heart truly belongs.

My own Urdu is inadequate to be able to judge the quality of his translations, or compare them with others, but I can always attest to the beauty of what he presents. Here is an example.


He blanched, nearly died, at love’s first swagger.

If love takes your head, surrender it, be free.


In silent arteries, time irrigates your flesh.

In this death-crafted life, we crave to be free.


Catch this fever once, it becomes your life.

The heart grows in pain till death sets you free.


My friends never found a cure for my rage.

Lashed to the cross, I walk the desert free.


In death Ghalib lay uncoffined, unwashed.


May God bless the man. He dared to be free.


Ahrar Ahmad is the Director-General  of  Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation.

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