Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan — known to posterity as Ghalib, a `nom de plume’ he adopted in the tradition of all classical Urdu poets, was born in the city of Agra, of parents with Turkish aristocratic ancestry, probably on December 27th, 1797. As to the precise date, Imtiyaz Ali Arshi has conjectured, on the basis of Ghalib’s horoscope, that the poet might have been born a month later, in January 1798.
Both his father and uncle died while he was still young, and he spent a good part of his early boyhood with his mother’s family. This, of course, began a psychology of ambivalences for him. On the one hand, he grew up relatively free of any oppressive dominance by adult, male-dominant figures. This, it seems to me, accounts for at least some of the independent spirit he showed from very early child- hood. On the other hand, this placed him in the humiliating situation of being socially and economically dependent on maternal grandparents, giving him, one can surmise, a sense that whatever worldly goods he received were a matter of charity and not legitimately his. His pre- occupation in later life with finding secure, legitimate, and comfortable means of livelihood can be perhaps at least partially understood in terms of this early uncertainty.
The question of Ghalib’s early education has often confused Urdu scholars. Although any record of his formal education that might exist is extremely scanty, it is also true that Ghalib’s circle of friends in Delhi included some of the most eminent minds of his time. There is, finally, irrevocably, the evidence of his writings, in verse as well as in prose, which are distinguished not only by creative excellence but also by the great knowledge of philosophy, ethics, theology, classical literature, grammar, and history that they reflect.
I think it is reasonable to believe that Mulla Abdussamad Harmuzd — the man who was supposedly Ghalib’s tutor, whom Ghalib mentions at times with great affection and respect, but whose very existence he denies — was, in fact, a real person and an actual tutor of Ghalib when Ghalib was a young boy in Agra. Harmuzd was a Zoroastrian from Iran, converted to Islam, and a devoted scholar of literature, language, and religions. He lived in anonymity in Agra while tutoring Ghalib, among others.
In or around 1810, two events of great importance occurred in Ghalib’s life: he was married to a well-to-do, educated family of nobles, and he left for Delhi. One must remember that Ghalib was only thirteen at the time. It is impossible to say when Ghalib started writing poetry. Perhaps it was as early as his seventh or eight years.
On the other hand, there is evidence that most of what we know as his complete works were substantially completed by 1816, when he was 19 years old, and six years after he first came to Delhi. We are obviously dealing with a man whose maturation was both early and rapid. We can safely conjecture that the migration from Agra, which had once been a capital but was now one of the many important but declining cities, to Delhi, its grandeur kept intact by the existence of the Moghul court, was an important event in the life of this thirteen year old, newly married poet who desperately needed material security, who was beginning to take his career in letters seriously, and who was soon to be recognized as a genius, if not by the court, at least some of his most important contemporaries. As for the marriage, in the predominantly male-oriented society of Muslim India no one could expect Ghalib to take that event terribly seriously, and he didn’t. The period did, however mark the beginnings of concern with material advancement that was to obsess him for the rest of his life.
In Delhi, Ghalib lived a life of comfort, though he did not find immediate or great success. He wrote first in a style at once detached, obscure , and pedantic, but soon thereafter he adopted the fastidious, personal, complexly moral idiom which we now know as his mature style. It is astonishing that he should have gone from sheer precocity to the extremes of verbal ingenuity and obscurity, to a style which, next to Meer’s, is the most important and comprehensive styles of the ghazal in the Urdu language before he was even twenty.
The course of his life from 1821 onward is easier to trace. His interest began to shift decisively away from Urdu poetry to Persian during the 1820’s, and he soon abandoned writing in Urdu almost altogether, except whenever a new edition of his works was forthcoming and he was inclined to make changes, deletions, or additions to his already existing opus. This remained the pattern of his work until 1847, the year in which he gained direct access to the Moghul court. I think it is safe to say that throughout these years Ghalib was mainly occupied with the composition of the Persian verse, with the preparation of occasional editions of his Urdu works which remained essentially the same in content, and with various intricate and exhausting proceedings undertaken with a view to improving his financial situation, these last consisting mainly of petitions to patrons and government, including the British. Although very different in style and procedure, Ghalib’s obsession with material means, and the accompanying sense of personal insecurity which seems to threaten the very basis of selfhood, reminds one of Baudelaire. There is, through the years, the same self-absorption, the same overpowering sense of terror which comes from the necessities of one’s own creativity and intelligence, the same illusion — never really believed viscerally — that if one could be released from need one could perhaps become a better artist. There is same flood of complaints, and finally the same triumph of a self which is at once morbid, elegant, highly creative, and almost doomed to realize the terms not only of its desperation but also its distinction.
Ghalib was never really a part of the court except in its very last years, and even then with ambivalence on both sides . There was no love lost between Ghalib himself and Zauq, the king’s tutor in the writing of poetry; and if their mutual dislike was not often openly expressed, it was a matter of prudence only. There is reason to believe that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Moghul king, and himself a poet of considerable merit, did not much care for Ghalib’s style of poetry or life. There is also reason to believe that Ghalib not only regarded his own necessary subservient conduct in relation to the king as humiliating but he also considered the Moghul court as a redundant institution. Nor was he well-known for admiring the king’s verses. However, after Zauq’s death Ghalib did gain an appointment as the king’s advisor on matters of versification. He was also appointed, by royal order, to write the official history of the Moghul dynasty, a project which was to be titled “Partavistan” and to fill two volumes. The one volume “Mehr-e-NeemRoz”, which Ghalib completed is an indifferent work, and the second volume was never completed, supposedly because of the great disturbances caused by the Revolt of 1857 and the consequent termination of the Moghul rule. Possibly Ghalib’s own lack of interest in the later Moghul kings had something to do with it.
The only favorable result of his connection with the court between 1847 and 1857 was that he resumed writing in Urdu with a frequency not experienced since the early 1820’s. Many of these new poems are not panegyrics, or occasional verses to celebrate this or that. He did, however, write many ghazals which are of the same excellence and temper as his early great work. In fact, it is astonishing that a man who had more or less given up writing in Urdu thirty years before should, in a totally different time and circumstance, produce work that is, on the whole, neither worse nor better than his earlier work. One wonders just how many great poems were permanently lost to Urdu when Ghalib chose to turn to Persian instead.
In its material dimensions, Ghalib’s life never really took root and remained always curiously unfinished. In a society where almost everybody seems to have a house of his own, Ghalib never had one and always rented one or accepted the use of one from a patron. He never had books of his own, usually reading borrowed ones. He had no children; the ones he had, died in infancy, and he later adopted the two children of Arif, his wife’s nephew who died young in 1852.
Ghalib’s one wish, perhaps as strong as the wish to be a great poet, that he should have a regular, secure income, never materialized. His brother Yusuf, went mad in 1826, and died, still mad, in that year of all misfortunes, 1857. His relations with his wife were, at best, tentative, obscure and indifferent. Given the social structure of mid-nineteenth-century Muslim India, it is, of course, inconceivable that *any* marriage could have even begun to satisfy the moral and intellectual intensities that Ghalib required from his relationships; given that social order, however, he could not conceive that his marriage could serve that function. And one has to confront the fact that the child never died who, deprived of the security of having a father in a male-oriented society, had had looked for material but also moral certainties — not certitudes, but certainties, something that he can stake his life on. So, when reading his poetry it must be remembered that it is the poetry of more than usually vulnerable existence.
It is difficult to say precisely what Ghalib’s attitude was toward the British conquest of India. The evidence is not only contradictory but also incomplete. First of all, one has to realize that nationalism as we know it today was simply non-existent in nineteenth-century India. Second –one has to remember — no matter how offensive it is to some — that even prior to the British, India had a long history of invaders who created empires which were eventu- ally considered legitimate. The Moghuls themselves were such invaders. Given these two facts, it would be unreasonable to expect Ghalib to have a clear ideological response to the British invasion. There is also evidence, quite clearly deducible from his letters, that Ghalib was aware, on the one hand, of the redundancy, the intrigues, the sheer poverty of sophistication and intellectual potential, and the lack of humane responses from the Moghul court, and, on the other, of the powers of rationalism and scientific progress of the West.
Ghalib had many attitudes toward the British, most of them complicated and quite contradictory. His diary of 1857, the “Dast-Ambooh” is a pro-British document, criticizing the British here and there for excessively harsh rule but expressing, on the whole, horror at the tactics of the resistance forces. His letters, however, are some of the most graphic and vivid accounts of British violence that we possess. We also know that “Dast-Ambooh” was always meant to be a document that Ghalib would make public, not only to the Indian Press but specifically to the British authorities. And he even wanted to send a copy of it to Queen Victoria. His letters, are to the contr- ary, written to people he trusted very much, people who were his friends and would not divulge their contents to the British authorities. As Imtiyaz Ali Arshi has shown (at least to my satisfaction), whenever Ghalib feared the intimate, anti-British contents of his letters might not remain private, he requested their destruction, as he did in th case of the Nawab of Rampur. I think it is reasonable to conjecture that the diary, the “Dast-Ambooh”, is a document put together by a frightened man who was looking for avenues of safety and forging versions of his own experience in order to please his oppressors, whereas the letters, those private documents of one-to-one intimacy, are more real in the expression of what Ghalib was in fact feeling at the time. And what he was feeling, according to the letters, was horror at the wholesale violence practiced by the British.
Yet, matters are not so simple as that either. We cannot explain things away in terms of altogether honest letters and an altogether dishonest diary. Human and intellectual responses are more complex. The fact that Ghalib, like many other Indians at the time, admired British, and therefore Western, rationalism as expressed in constitutional law, city planning and more. His trip to Calcutta (1828-29) had done much to convince him of the immediate values of Western pragmatism. This immensely curious and human man from the narrow streets of a decaying Delhi, had suddenly been flung into the broad, well-planned avenues of 1828 Calcutta — from the aging Moghul capital to the new, prosperous and clean capital of the rising British power, and , given the precociousness of his mind, he had not only walked on clean streets, but had also asked the fundamental questions about the sort of mind that planned that sort of city. In short, he was impressed by much that was British.
In Calcutta he saw cleanliness, good city planning, prosperity. He was fascinated by the quality of the Western mind which was rational and could conceive of constitutional government, republicanism, skepticism. The Western mind was attractive particularly to one who, although fully imbued with his feudal and Muslim background, was also attracted by wider intelligence like the one that Western scientific thought offered: good rationalism promised to be good government. The sense that this very rationalism, the very mind that had planned the first modern city in India, was also in the service of a brutal and brutalizing mercantile ethic which was to produce not a humane society but an empire, began to come to Ghalib only when the onslaught of 1857 caught up with the Delhi of his own friends. Whatever admiration he had ever felt for the British was seriously brought into question by the events of that year, more particularly by the mercilessness of the British in their dealings with those who participated in or sympathized with the Revolt. This is no place to go into the details of the massacre; I will refer here only to the recent researches of Dr. Ashraf (Ashraf, K.M., “Ghalib & The Revolt of 1857”, in Rebellion 1857, ed., P.C. Joshi, 1957), in India, which prove that at least 27,000 persons were hanged during the summer of that one year, and Ghalib witnessed it all. It was obviously impossible for him to reconcile this conduct with whatever humanity and progressive ideals he had ever expected the British to have possessed. His letters tell of his terrible dissatisfaction of its existence. His bewilderment at the extent of the destruction caused by the very people of whose humanity he had been convinced can , however, be understood in terms of this basic ambivalence.
The years between 1857 and 1869 were neither happy nor very eventful ones for Ghalib. During the revolt itself, Ghalib remained pretty much confined to his house, undoubtedly frightened by the wholesale massacres in the city. Many of his friends were hanged, deprived of their fortunes, exiled from the city, or detained in jails. By October 1858, he had completed his diary of the Revolt, the “Dast-Ambooh”, published it, and presented copies of it to the British authorities, mainly with the purpose of proving that he had not supported the insurrections. Although his life and immediate possessions were spared, little value was attached to his writings; he was flatly that he was still suspected of having had loyalties toward the Moghul king. During the ensuing years, his main source of income continued to be the stipend he got from the Nawab of Rampur. “Ud-i-Hindi”, the first collection of his letters, was published in October 1868. Ghalib died a few months later, on February 15th, 1869.
Please also visit site created by Frances W. Pritchett of Columbia University for All about Ghalib http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ghalib/index.html