One of India’s greatest poets also happens to be the last great poet of the Mughal Empire. Ghalib Mirza, who had seen the Empire through to its final days, was a poet in the court of Bahadur Shah II – the last Mughal emperor.
It was Bahadur’s patronage that gave Ghalib his daily bread. But Ghalib knew that Empires do not last forever. He had seen the rise of the British, and their steam-powered ships that seemed magical in the Mughal era. He knew that poets need patrons – and so, in 1856 after the death of the last Crown Prince of Bahadur Shah II, Ghalib wrote a letter to the Begum of London, Queen Victoria.
He began with praise, but he soon moved onto business. The truly great rulers of history, as he informed Queen Victoria, ‘rewarded their poets and well-wishers by filling their mouths with pearls, weighing them in gold, and granting them villages and recompense.” It was the Queen’s duty, as he wrote, to bestow upon him the title of Mihr-Khwan, a robe of honour and a royal pension.
In January 1857, he received a letter from London confirming that the title would be his soon. But four months later, the Revolt of 1857 broke out. Ghalib’s shot at British favour was crushed.
Ghalib may go down as one of the cheekiest poets ever produced in India. For, he had an acerbic wit and was unafraid of letting other’s know his opinion. Of religion, he dabbled – flirting with Sufism during his days in the court. But he opposed dogma and laughed at those who took it too seriously.
The object of my worship lies beyond perception’s reach;
For men who see, the Ka’aba is a compass, nothing more.
In many of his verses, the character of ‘Sheikh’ represents a combination of orthodoxy and hypocrisy.
The Sheikh hovers by the tavern door,
but believe me, Ghalib,
I am sure I saw him slip in
As I departed
That Ghalib got away with his wit in the Mughal era testifies to different times. Then, poets were taken more seriously. Bahadur Shah II was himself a poet, trained by his own poet laureate, Zauq. Ghalib always grudged Zauq – both for his poetry and his lack of social standing. A slanging match ensued between the two after Ghalib sublimely slighted Zauq in one of his poems. The emperor did not appreciate this and asked him to apologize. But even in apology, Ghalib wrote with barbs attached, making subtle jabs at Zauq’s social status through contrast with Ghalib’s own.
The thought of a row with the king’s mentor
This arrogance, this audacity, this strength I have not
It didn’t help him later when Zauq passed away. Ghalib was not taken in as the official Poet Laureate and after the Revolt, Ghalib found himself without a patron.
He was a free-spirit; a trait that allows his poetry to survive well even today. He gambled and drank merrily. When he was arrested during the revolt (he had links with prominent rebels), he was placed before a British officer and asked if he was Muslim.
Mirza said, ‘Half’. The Colonel said, ‘What does that mean?’ Mirza said, ‘I drink wine; I don’t eat pork’. Having heard this, the Colonel began to laugh. Indeed, for Ghalib, heaven would not be heaven if it lacked the vices of Earth.
In paradise, it is true that I shall drink at dawn the pure wine mentioned in the Qur’an, but where in paradise are the long walks with intoxicated friends in the night, or the drunken crowds shouting merrily? Where shall I find there the intoxication of Monsoon clouds? Where there is no autumn, how can spring exist? If the beautiful hours are always there, where will be the sadness of separation and the joy of union? Where shall we find there a girl who flees away when we would kiss her?
For Ghalib, the drinking and gambling was intrinsic to poetry. When the poet Sheikh Sahbai was praised in his presence, Ghalib retorted:
How can Sahbai be a poet? He has never tasted wine, nor has he ever gambled; he has not been beaten with slippers by lovers, nor has he ever seen the inside of a jail.
For all his merrymaking, Ghalib’s life was punctuated by tragedy. He lost every single one of his seven children in their infancy. His health was often poor and his body not always under his control. During Ramzan, he would fast intermittently – punctuated with puffs of hookah and a few sips of water. But he would always be the first to mock himself:
I have learnt to enjoy even my griefs and insults. I imagine myself as a different entity, separate from myself. When a fresh misfortune befalls me, I say, well-served. Ghalib receives another slap in his face. How proud he was. How he used to brag that he was a great poet and a Persian scholar, without a peer far and near. Well, deal with the money-lenders now.
During the sacking of Delhi, he was holed up in his homemade safe by the presence of Mughal nobility in the area. But he was still subject to terrible deprivations.
For posterity, he maintained literary accounts of the revolt. One, the Dast-Ambooh, was for British eyes – and praised British rule and innovation. The other, maintained in his letters, is the most graphic account of British atrocities during the retaking of Delhi.
He had always railed against superstition and maintained that the British best represented a way of life that focused on rationality. When the then-historian Syed Ahmed Khan asked Ghalib to write a foreword for his edition of the Ain-i-Akbari (a historical gazette of the rule of Emperor Akbar), Ghalib responded with a stinging letter. In it, he condemned the Mughal adulation of the past while the future, of steam-powered boats and electric lights, was being invented by the British.
He was indeed, lost between worlds. His favourite language was Persian, but he is most remembered in Urdu. Many of his verses testify to a deep soul, who questioned his position, his love and his place in the world. His verses suggest that he often laughed at life, as this anecdote reveals:
Once in the winter, a parrot’s cage was before him. Because of the cold, the parrot sat with his head tucked under his wing. Seeing this, Mirza said, ‘Friend Parrot! You have neither wife nor children—why should you sit there with your head bowed, in such a careworn state?’
Ghalib wrote his own epitaph, preserving his wit and memory every bit as well as his own poems.
It’s been a long time since Ghalib died, but he is still remembered
For always saying what if this or that had happened
Ghalib Mirza’ is a well-known poet in both India and Pakistan today. His Urdu poetry has transcended the border divide, making him a shared South Asian heritage. A Ghalib verse will always be welcome in a gathering in either of these nations.
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