Saturday, February 14, 2004

Ghalib knew his worth
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghIF you want to know what the greatest figure in Urdu literature Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) looked like and how he lived in the Delhi of his times, you will not find it in his poetry which is often difficult to comprehend. You will, however, find it in the letters he wrote to his friends and admirers. An inveterate letter-writer, he wrote four to five letters a day and even posted them himself. Most of his correspondents were aspiring poets who sent him their compositions to correct; he did so with great care. In his replies, he invariably put in a couplet or two of his own and gave a detailed account of how he was fairing.

Mirza Ghalib
Mirza Ghalib

Dr K.C. Kanda, who has several books on Urdu poetry to his credit, has 68 letters by the poet in his latest publication Mirza Ghalib: Selected Lyrics and Letters (Sterling). The letters cover a period extending from a few years before the outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 to a couple of years before his death in 1869. A large number of these letters are addressed to his Hindu disciple and friend Hargopal Tufta. Others are to his patrons, including the nawabs of Rampur and Loharo.

Asadullah Khan was a handsome man — tall, light-skinned and with an imperious martial bearing. His forefathers, Seljuk Turks were professional soldiers. Asad was a man of peace and even as a boy liked to study Arabic, Persian and Urdu. He was convinced that he was not going to be a soldier but a poet. He took on the pseudonym Ghalib. He was married off in his teens. His wife bore him seven sons and daughters, all of whom died in their infancy. He moved to Delhi to gain access to Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar, a poet of substance, and the nobility who patronised poets. His wife proved to be a poor companion. For companionship and pleasure, Ghalib sought the company of dancing girls and prostitutes. He never earned enough to maintain his household in comfort and was always in debt to moneylenders.

Ghalib had no sympathy with the mutineers and stopped calling on King Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had become a puppet in their hands. During the months the fighting lasted, he did not go out of his house. Evidently, families of Muslim Hakims, who also lived in Ballimaran, also did not support the mutineers. Consequently, when the British and their Indian allies re-occupied Delhi, they drove out Muslims who they suspected supported the mutineers out of the city but allowed Ballimaran Muslims to stay on. Raja Mohinder Singh of Patiala put his troops at both ends of the bazaar to ensure their safety.

Ghalib mentions his daily routine in many letters. He was not an early riser because his nights were disturbed by malfunctioning of his bladder; he had to get up to urinate every hour. He had a frugal breakfast of peeled almonds and syrups, mutton broth at midday; and four kabaabs and an ounce of wine mixed with rose water made up his dinner. During the mango season, he consumed up to 12 mangoes at one sitting every afternoon. His bowels were often out of order and boils would erupt all over his body. He was full of remorse: "I am old, idiotic, sinful, sensual, profligate and withal, a man lost to shame," He describes himself sattra-bahattra. Before he was 70, he started losing his memory, vision and hearing.

Ghalib did not take religious injunctions too seriously. He had his own version of Roza (fasting) during Ramazan. He writes: "I observe fasts, but keep my fasts well-humoured with occasional sips of water, and a few puffs of huqqa. Now and then I eat a few morsels of bread also. People here have a strange sense of things and a strange disposition. I am just whiling away the fast, but they accuse me of non-observance of this holy ritual. They should understand that skipping the fasts in one thing, and whiling them away is quite another."

He never spared himself from self-criticism. He writes: "I have learnt to enjoy even my griefs and insults. I imagine myself as a different entity, separate from myself. When a fresh misfortune befalls me, I say, ‘Well-served. Ghalib receives another slap in his face. How proud he was. How he used to brag that he was a great poet and a Persian scholar, without a peer far and near. Well, deal with the money-lenders now.’

‘But how can this shameless fellow speak? He borrowed money left and right — wine from the cellar, flowers from the florist, clothes from the draper, mangoes from the fruit-seller, and money from the creditors. He should have realised that he had no means to repay the debts’."

He had occasional outbrusts of temper. When his publisher inserted some other poets’ lines in his collection, he exploded: "I do not know the b.....d who has inserted in to my diwan the verses that you have sent me. May this scoundrel, his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather, right back to his seven adulterous generations, be damned."

Ghalib also knew his worth. When somebody asked him for his postal address, he cut him down to size: "Asadullah Ghalib, Delhi, will be enough." So it was. And is today. Delhi is known as the city where Ghalib lived and died.

Where is Gulla?

Kashmiri Muslims love the name Ghulam Mohammed. At least one in every 10 persons — from the one-time Chief Minister Bakshmi Ghulam Mohammed to the humble boatman who plies a shikara — answers to it. So every other boy goes by its shortened version Gulla till he becomes an adult, grows a moustache and takes a wife. Gulla then becomes Ghulam Mohammed.

Padma Sachdeva, celebrated Dogri poetess and writer of short stories (She won the Sahitya Akademi Award for literature in 1991 and is a Padma Shri, has used the name to tell the tragedy that has befallen the valley of the Jhelum. The title of her new collection of short stories is Where has my Gulla Gone? (Ocean Books). It is also the title of the first story and sets the tone of the others: the Kashmir that was in the good old days when there was peace and plenty and the turbulent, blood-soaked Kashmir of today. In the opening story there are two Gullas, a mature adult and a boy of five. The author meets them in the hospital where she is convalescing. The elder one adopts here as Moji (mother). Once he naively asks her if Hindus really call cow their mother. Equally naively she replies that they do because like a mother, a cow gives us milk to drink. (It doesn’t occur to her that so do buffaloes, yaks, camels, goats and sheep). The younger Mulla gets attached to her because she gives him a packet of biscuits every day. Everyone loves everyone. And suddenly Lotus flowers that grow in the Dal lake turn blood-red because humans have taken to the AK-47 to spill each other’s blood. It is a highly emotive story (as are the others), overloaded with soppy sentimentalism. Padma does not believe in understatement, malice, satire or irony, which are essential ingredients of modern short stories. She is a poetess oozing with the milk and honey of human goodness. More poorer to her poetic pen; she should stick to imposing verse.

Dying for love

Banto who was at her Mayka (mother’s house) for a couple of days, phones her husband: Darling, in the last 15 days that I have been away from you, I have reduced by half. when are you coming to fetch me ?"

He replied: "In a month or so."

(Contributed by Shashank Shekhar, Mumbai)