Saturday, June 23, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Footloose with Ghalib
Khushwant Singh

Mirza Asadullah Khan GhalibTHERE are dozens of biographies of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib in Urdu and English. We have yet another one:this time from the pen of a Russian lady, Professor Natallia Prigarina, at the Oriental Institute of Moscow. She has already published a couple of books on Allama Iqbal and is evidently as conversant with Persian, Arabic, Urdu and English as she is with her native Russian. And she’s thorough in her research, having read all that Ghalib wrote in verse and prose, in Urdu and Persian, what his contemporaries had to say about him, and living scholars’ assessment of him as a poet and a man.

Lovers of Urdu literature are familiar with important events in Ghalib’s life. He was born in Agra on December 27, 1797. He descended from a line of soldiers of fortune of Mughal blood who regarded themselves as members of the aristocracy. He was 13 when he married Umrao Begum, aged 12, distantly connected to the ruling family of Loharu. At his wedding, his eyes fell on a dancing girl and he fell in love with her. While he gave his wife several children (all died young), he continued patronising dancing girls and prostitutes, two of whom were Mughal Jan and Chaudhwin Begum.

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It is believed that he converted to the Shia faith in order to have a Mutaa (time-bound marriage) with a courtesan. He was 19 when he migrated to Delhi. In his youth, he was evidently well-provided for by grants from his mother and his wife’s family. He lived in style with a retinue of servants, rode on a palanquin or a horse and demanded respect due to him. He was a tall, handsome man who loved women, wine and gambling. As his fame spread as a poet of unusual talent, he was much sought after by the literati as well as kothawalis. He lived beyond his means. And when his grants dried up, he was in dire straits and fell heavily in debt. He spent three months in jail on the charge of gambling. About himself he wrote:"Fame and wealth are alien to me. I am myself the worst enemy of my good name. I am friends with all kind of riff-raff and hand in glove with all sorts of rabble. My feet are used to loafing about aimlessly and my tongue has the habit of talking nonsense. I am the ally of a cruel fate in my own misfortunes and a prompter of my enemy. My rushing about has raised the dust in the mosque as well as the idol house and has made the Sufi’s cloister and the tavern fall on each other."

Ghalib loved India and its changing seasons: "But in India even in autumn there is spring! And greenery, as if in Holi, douses the city with colour. In the winter months, the north is snow-bound. And in this realm, roses blossom! To console the gardener, mourning at the departure of lilies, immediately blossom the roses of a hundred petals! Here sugarcane stands row upon row to block the way for anything withered and drooping."

It appears that Ghalib loved just about every place he visited. When almost reduced to beggary, he went to Calcutta to plead with English rulers to restore the pension due to him. It was a long, tedious journey on palanquin, horseback and boat with long stops in different cities that fell on his route. He was particularly enamoured by Benares and its beautiful women. He wrote:"What to say to Benares! Where else would you come across such a city. I happened to visit it in the evening of my youth. Had I been young at that time, I would have settled down there and would never have left it."

And again:

"Glory to the land which bestows peace upon souls;

The heart is purified here of all filth.

And no wonder — in the air of this city.

The perishable body itself is like pure air.

But what especially raises one’s spirit is the

Contemplation of feminine beauty.

Even if you have no understanding of beauty, come

And look at the local fair ones, born of peris;

Be absorbed in the contemplation of incorporeal souls.

Can clay mixed with water glitter like this?"

Ghalib had great admiration for the English race, its inventiveness, discipline and its fair, white, uninhibited women. On arrival in the capital he composed a robai in praise of Bengal:

"Every tune of life has its melody,

Every corner of the world has its own ambience.

They have as if removed fetters from my soul,

Wonderful are the water and air of Bengal.

He was ecstatic about everything he saw in Calcutta:

My friend, when you referred to Calcutta.

You shot an arrow right into my heart, alas, alas !

That rain-fed succulent greenery, oh God,

And those graceful, well-dressed fair ones, alas, alas !

"Their glances try ones patience, God save them from the evil eye !

Those fresh and sweet fruits, wah, wah !

And those pure and tasty wines, alas, alas !

Ghalib’s. last years were less stressed as he received monetary assistance from friends and the Nawab of Rampur. However, his health began to deteriorate. He had a premonition of death:

"You wrote all over the pages of life and all came to an end:

You had no equal in poetry and all came to an end;

In old age wine was your consolation, Ghalib,

But you were deprived of it also, and all came to an end.

He died on February 15, 1869. Exactly a year later to the day died his wife Umrao Begum.

Farewell? Not yet

My friends have decided it is time I left and are getting together pre-obituary tributes to pay to me. Just about everything I have written over the past half-a-century is being re-published.Roli Books has commissioned my son to collect all photographs from my school days to the present time to produce a coffee-table book to present to me before I bid them goodbye. I am most touched by their affection but I have no intention whatsoever of speeding my departure. The longer a person lives, the stronger is his desire to continue. To quote Mrs Thrale (1740-1822):

The tree of deepest root is found

little willing still to quit the ground;

It was therefore said, by ancient sages

That love of life increased with years

so much, that in our later stages,

When pains grow sharp, and sickness rages,

The greatest love of life appears.

However, since I have to go sometime or the other, nothing would please me more than to read about myself while I am around.So I make this request to my readers: if you have any photographs of yourselves with me, be kind enough to post them to me for consideration by Roli Books. I promise to return them the soonest I can. Thank you.

Gift of youth

Young Banta returned to his village after completing higher studies in the USA. He came loaded with gifts for all members of his extended family. As he proceeded to distribute them to his brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, his father kept asking "Puttar, haven’t you brought anything for your parents?"

Banta replied, "Bapu, I have. I will put it under your pillow before you go to bed. In America they call it Viagra. If you like it leave a hundred rupee note under my pillow."

The next morning Banta found Rs 300 under his pillow.

"I asked for only Rs 100 you kept Rs 300. Why?"

"Puttar, I only put Rs 100. Your mother must have added the other two hundred."

(Contributed by Bhagwant Singh, Patiala)