27th December 1797: Mirza Ghalib, Indian poet, was born

We smashed the wine cup and the flask What is it now to us? If all the rain that falls from heaven Should turn to rose-red wine?

-- Mirza Ghalib, after the British re-took Delhi in 1857, destroying the city in the process

One of India’s greatest Urdu and Persian poets, Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, better known as Mirza Ghalib, was born on December 27, 1797, in Agra. Part of Ghalib’s family traced their roots to Aibak Turks who had moved to Samarkand(in present-day Uzbekistan). His father Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan, who was married to Izzat-ut-Nisa Begum, was employed by rulers of Lucknow and Hyderabad. After Baig Khan’s death in a battle in 1803, Ghalib’s uncle looked after him.  

Following his marriage to Umrao Begum when he was 13 years of age, Ghalib moved toDelhi, which would remain his home for the rest of his life.

Ghalib started writing poetry before he turned a teenager. Besides Urdu and Persian, he was fluent in Turkish and Arabic. “It’s strange that Ghalib initially thought that deep emotions could not be expressed in Urdu and preferred to pen them in Persian instead,” the writer and journalist Khushwant Singh wrote in Outlook magazine in 2003. “Fortunately, he changed his mind in time and left a veritable treasure-house of gems.”

Besides poetry, Ghalib wrote regular letters which serve as important historical documents of his times and reveal his sense of humour and mischief. In a letter to Munshi Hargopal Tufta, Ghalib wrote: “To be brief, your humble servant has seen three ‘new nawabs’. One was Khatri Todar Mal, who was worth a lakh of rupees. He blew everything in six or seven years. He left the city and has not been heard of since then. Another was a young Punjabi lad, Saadat by name. He squandered Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 in no time and became a pauper. The third was one Khan Mohammed, the son of Saadulla Khan. He lived in style for some time, but now roams the streets of Delhi penniless.”

In a letter to Munshi Nabi Baksh Haqeer, he wrote: “Before I describe what really happened here at the time of Eid, first you tell me about the incidents [in Aligarh]. People are talking about it everywhere. It was said there was rioting in Aligarh, and a score of people were killed in the fighting between Hindus and Muslims. I know that a similar report would circulate about Delhi. But, sir, no swords were drawn, nor was there any killing.”

Ghalib was fond of his wine and once jailed for gambling. When someone praised the poetry of Sheikh Sahbai, Ghalib responded: “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”. Singh writes, “Ghalib was a non-conformist and a bon viveur. Though he revered Allah and the Prophet, he never said his five daily prayers, never fasted during Ramzan, nor went on pilgrimage to Mecca. He patronised houses of pleasure, consorted with courtesans and was inordinately fond of liquor.”

Ghalib was sharply critical of the orthodox ulema and exposed their hypocrisy: 

The tavern door and the preacher,

Are truly poles apart.

All I know is I saw him enter,

As I left to depart.

His great rival in the court of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was the poet Zauq. The two were a study in contrasts. While Zauq wrote simple verses, Ghalib’s poetry was known for its complexity. Zauq was from a humble background and led a simple life, while Ghalib was “very proud of his reputation as a rake”, according to historian William Dalrymple. Ghalib’s finances were invariably in a bad shape and he “suffered from the potentially combustible combination of expensive tastes, a keen sense of his own worth and insufficient financial resources to support either”, Dalrymple writes in his book The Last Mughal.

Ghalib felt acutely the devastation Delhi suffered in 1857. In a letter to a friend in 1861 he wrote: “The city has become a desert…by God,Delhi is no more a city, but a camp… Four things kept Delhi alive — the fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-sellers. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes there used to be a city of this name in the land of Hindustan.”

Ghalib died on February 15, 1869. The great poet had once tried to forecast the year of his death “but went woefully wrong in his guess”, Singh wrote. “He [Ghalib] was closer to the truth when he wrote: ‘Life gallops on at a reckless pace,/I know not where it will stop,/The reins are not in my hands,/ My feet not in the stirrups.’”


Also on this day:

1965 — Salman Khan, Bollywood actor, was born

1955 — Dawood Ibrahim, head of organised crime syndicate, was born  

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