Ghalib in Retrospect

In Delhi, today and tomorrow are being devoted to Mirza Ghalib. The Ghalib Memorial Movement is organising an event in his memory called Yadgar-e-Ghalib.

There is something about the way we remember Ghalib that irks me. Considered today to be the master of the Urdu ghazal, there is selectivity in how we remember the man. What we remember about him and how we remember it become questions of history politics.

Let me reverse a little. Known formally as Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, Ghalib came to be called so after his pen name. Ghalib wrote classical Urdu and Persian poetry during early British rule in India. He was born in Agra in the 18th century to a family descended from Aibak Turks. He married, as was the custom of the day, at 13. He fathered many children, none of which survived infancy, leaving him bitter about worldly matters and married life.

Moving to Mughal Delhi after his marriage, he was conferred several titles which incorporated him into the nobility of Delhi. He was also a courtier at the royal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II, becoming, in 1854, poet-tutor to the Emperor. Further, he was also the royal historian at the court. While the Mughal nobility was not what it used to be, it still held splendor. As a nobleman, Ghalib never worked for his living, depending instead on royal and noble patronage.

Thus his life story. But if we ask ourselves, who is the Ghalib we remember, we will perhaps come up with none of the above. We only know him as a Ghazal writer and a poet. Few will know of the many letters he wrote and exchanged. Fewer still will recognize in them a chronicle of a very turbulent time.

Not only was Ghalib then a letter writer par excellence, replacing the customary ornamental Urdu with a realist language, he was also living in changing times and writing about them. Ghalib lived to see the Mughal descendancy and the setting up of the British Empire. He wrote about the disappearance of several bazaars of Mughal Delhi that he witnessed as well as the vanishing of katras (lanes) and mohalas (localities) that were endemic to the Mughal period. His writing describes the demolition of several havelis (mansions) and generally captures the violence inherent in the period. Delhi, in his letters, is described as a “military camp”. British atrocities that unfolded during the events of 1857 – now variously called the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Indian Rebellion, or the First Indian Revolution – are captured in his letters.

We remember none of this. What we remember are his ghazals, out of context and away from history. We have reduced a great historian to bits and it is this that bothers me. Instead, if we remember Ghalib in the entirety of his persona – in all that he was, saw and wrote – would we not be better off?