It has been more than 200 years since the birth of the great poet Ghalib but his poems continue to have a remarkable relevance to our time. His works, when recited with élan, still leave people spellbound. Born as Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, Takhallus Ghalib Ghalib (meaning, not surprisingly, ‘the most excellent’), as he chose to call himself, was born in Agra into a family descended from Aibak Turks who, after the downfall of the Seljuk kings, had moved from Samarkand (in Uzbekistan) to India. Since his father had died when he was quite young, Ghalib was raised by his Uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan.
Although it cannot be said for certain, it is widely believed that Ghalib had started composing poetry quite early in life, perhaps by the age of 11. Though it was Urdu that was his first language he also knew Persian and Arabic, and most of his works were, in fact, in Persian. Today he is more famous for his Urdu ghazals through which he sought to express philosophy and the travails and mysteries of life. Later he also wrote on several other subjects such as the decline of the Mughals and the Great Rebellion of 1857.
At the age of 13, he was married to Umrao Begum after which he moved to Delhi. In his earlier letters he described his marriage as the “second imprisonment” after the initial confinement that was life itself. Ironically, this came from a man fondly remembered for his love sonnets!
Some of his most famous shayaris (verses) include:
“Ishq ne ‘Ghalib’ nikamma kar diya,
warna ham bhee aadmee the kaam ke.”
(O Ghalib, love has rendered me utterly useless…
Else, I was once, a man of worth).
Another one (happens to be one of my personal favourites) goes like this:
“Sarey raah jo unsay nazar mili,
To Naksh dil kay ubhar gaye.
Hum nazar mila kar jhijag gaye,
Woh Nazar jhuka kar chale gaye.”
After the decline of Mughal Empire and rise of British Raj, despite his many attempts, Ghalib could never get his full pension restored, and hence, was forced to live like a pauper. Nonetheless, Ghalib had a zest for the finer things in life. And no, we are not talking about women or wine, but mangoes! You read that right. Here goes the anecdote:
One day, as Ghalib was feasting on mangoes, a nobleman with his donkey came to meet him. The donkey walked towards the mango skin lying on the ground, smelt it and just walked away. The nobleman taunted, ‘Gadhe bhi aam nahin khaate (Even donkeys don’t eat mangoes).’ Ghalib retorted, ‘Gadhe hi aam nahin khaate! (Only donkeys don’t eat mangoes).
Although he went on to become a member of the declining Mughal nobility, fame came to him only posthumously. He had himself remarked during his lifetime that although his age had ignored his greatness, it would be recognized by later generations. And thus,
“Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle,
Bohat niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle.”
(Thousands of desires, each worth dying for…
many of them I have realized…yet I yearn for more…)
(With research and contributions from Sanchita Srivastava, history student at DU and avid writer)