Saturday, January 26, 2013


This article was written for Swar Sutra, a Facebook group dedicated to non-film music.

चर्ख-ए-सुखन जिस से मुनव्वर है ये वो नज्म-ए-शिमाल
तालिब जो हैं उर्दू ‘अदब के उन का मुर्शिद भी वही

चर्ख-ए-सुखन = Sky/firmament of language; मुनव्वर = illuminated; नज्म-ए-शिमाल = North Star; तालिब = he who desires; मुर्शिद = Guide

He is the North Star that illuminates the language's firmament
As well as a guide to every Urdu literature student

Tomes have been written on Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, considered by many as one of the greatest Urdu poets of all time, and many more will continue to be written. His work is but a bottomless ocean that reveals new dimensions every time one takes a dip.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a biographical sketch of the poet. Enough material is available on his life (For one, the Wikipedia entry is fairly good). Through this piece I am trying, in my own limited capacity, to highlight some of the characteristics of his poetry, based of course on my rudimentary comprehension of his work. I must add that these characteristics, as I list them down, are neither exhaustive nor without counterexamples. For instance, if I cite ‘complexity of language’ as one characteristic, you can easily find many couplets contradicting that.

COMPLEXITY OF LANGUAGE – It is well-acknowledged that the language used by Ghalib in a major portion of his work is esoteric and complex. His penchant for using heavily Persianized Urdu probably emerged from his own fondness of Persian as a language. He considered his own work in Persian much superior to Urdu. As Ralph Russel puts it, “...his view, which he held almost to the end of his days, that Persian was par excellence the language of literature, and that Urdu, by contrast was an inferior medium for poetry, and no medium at all for prose”. Quite a harsh dismissal of Urdu, but in a way it explains why his usage of Persian words (even grammar) in many of his Urdu couplets far exceeds most of his predecessors and contemporaries. What we see in his Deewan (collection) is just a glimpse. In his early days he wrote in a very complex style, inspired by the style of poets like Bedil, and he himself eliminated all those complex couplets while compiling his Deewan. One can only imagine how much more complex could it get!

Let’s see this example:

शुमार-ए-सुब्ह मरग़ूब-ए-बुत-ए-मुशकिल पसन्द आया
तमाशा-ए-ब-यक-कफ़ बुरदन-ए-सद दिल पसन्द आया

शुमार = counting; सुब्ह = rosary beads; मरग़ूब = fondness; बुत = idol/lover; कफ़ बुरदन = in the palm; सद दिल = hundred hearts

I liked my difficult beloved’s fondness for rotating the rosary;
I liked watching her hold a hundred hearts in her palm

Now, what does one say of this couplet. Barring the refrain (पसन्द आया), the whole lines are constructed in Persianized Urdu. Once you decipher the language, the meaning that emerges is also very unique, something that could force you to repeat… पसन्द आया. The poet is equating the beads of rosary to the hearts of hundred lovers – a truly unique comparison. But are the hearts of lovers like the beads of the rosary, or is it vice versa? Ghalib wouldn’t tell.

COMPLEX WORD CONSTRUCTIONS – Another way in which Ghalib adds complexity to his verses is by the usage of complex compound words, many of which are his own unique creations. Izaafat (the usage of –e- between to words to add qualifiers to a word) is a word construction tool borrowed from Persian. The more izaafat one adds in a word, the more complex it becomes as it takes a while for the reader to decipher which word is qualifying the others. Ghalib has been quite adventurous with his word constructions. Not only does he coin new compound words, he also goes one step ahead and constructs extremely long, and hence complex, compound words. Take this example with four izaafat in one line, something rarely seen in the works of other poets. In fact, in the unwritten rules of poetry, more than three izaafat is even considered a poetic flaw because it invariably imprisons the reader/listened in a convoluted route to resolution.

कमाल-ए-गर्मी-ए-स`ई-ए-तलाश-ए-दीद न पूछ
ब-रंग-ए-ख़ार मेरे आइने से जौहर खेंच

स`ई = efforts; ब-रंग-ए-ख़ार = like a thorn; जौहर = polish lines, skill, talent

Ask not for the success of efforts to find an appreciating eye,
Remove the lines from my mirror, as if they were thorns

Even ignoring the seemingly unresolvable izaafat constructions in the first line, this couplet is a little difficult to resolve. In lot many of Ghalib’s verses, the mirror is typically a metallic mirror where jauhar refers to the lines that are formed while polishing a metallic mirror. So, in a way, jauhar refers to imperfections that eventually add ‘shine’ to a mirror. Another meaning of Jauhar is skill. It is extremely difficult to decipher what’s going on in this couplet and the two lines seem quite disconnected. One view, as expressed by Dr. Sarfaraz Niazi, is that Ghalib is lamenting the fact that it is difficult to find an appreciating eye for his talents, so it is better to ignore his talent (or imperfection as he cynically calls them) and remove it like one would a thorn.

UNUSUAL SIMILES AND METAPHORS: Ghalib did not think very highly of his contemporaries because of their dependence on tried and tested traditional similes and metaphors. He always came up with truly unique metaphors. Here is a classic case of juxtaposition of the traditional with the invented.

जुज़ क़ैस और कोई न आया ब-रू-ए-कार
सहरा मगर ब-तंगी-ए-चशम-ए-हसूद था

जुज़ = Except; क़ैस = real name of Majnoon, Laila’s lover; ब-रू-ए-कार = in the face of action; सहरा = desert; तंगी-ए-चशम-ए-हसूद = narrow like a jealous eye

Except for Qais, no one ever came face to face
The wilderness was perhaps like a narrow jealous eye

The legend of Laila Majnun is as traditional as can be. The depiction of Majnun as a madman wandering the desert has been used by countless poets. But Ghalib brings in his own unique flavor by giving a character to the desert. Why wasn’t anyone else so madly in love so as to wander the desert like Qais? Was it because the desert was so literally so narrow so as to provide room for just one? Or was it that the desert, like a person, wanted to associate only with the maddest of mad, that is Qais, and hence showed a jealous eye to others, almost like a warning? In true Ghalibian sense this is much more complex than it appears. But you cannot deny that equating the narrowness of the desert to a jealous eye is truly unique and unprecedented.

Citing one more example where the lover’s world appears to be very narrow or constrained, but this time it’s equated to, of all things, an ant’s egg!

क्या तंग हम सितम-ज़दगां का जहान है
जिस में कि एक बैज़ह-ए-मोर आसमान है

तंग = constrained, narrow; सितम-ज़दगां = oppressed beings; बैज़ह-ए-मोर = ant’s egg

How cramped is the world of us, the oppressed people,
Wherein the sky is merely an egg of an ant

For Ghalib, lovers are oppressed beings who are experiencing such enormous degree of oppression that their world has become extremely constrained and small. The oval sky above is nothing more than an ant’s egg. What can be smaller than an ant’s egg? Not only is this simile extremely unusual and rare, it is also, in a way, cheeky. Almost as if Ghalib is deliberately pushing the envelope to create something completely unheard of before and throwing a challenge to the readers who have mostly found pleasure in conventional imagery. Add to that usage of a word like क्या, that adds multivalence to the meaning of the couplet owing to the subtle shifts of meaning from inquisitive to rhetorical to exclamatory.

DELIGHTFUL WORDPLAY: A poet’s mastery over a language can best be judged by the extent to which they employ wordplay in their writing. And Ghalib has an abundance of wordplay in his work. The wordplay he employs includes all possible flavors ranging from clever punning, to purposeful misdirection by choosing a word with multiple meanings. From juxtaposition of words with similar sounds and/or meaning to even a play on how a word is written. Let’s take this couplet that exemplifies some very delightful punning.

तंगी-ए-दिल का गिला क्या ये वो काफ़िर दिल है
कि अगर तंग न होता तो परेशां होता

तंगी-ए-दिल = tightness/narrowness of the heart; तंग = constrained, distressed; परेशां = scattered, perturbed

Why to complain of the tightness of the heart? It is that disbeliever heart
Which, if it were not sad, would have been perturbed.

The real pleasure of this verse comes from the two meanings of तंग and परेशां. One set of meanings refers to slightly different flavors of the same emotion (i.e. distressed vs. perturbed), while the other can almost be treated as diametrically opposite (i.e. constrained vs. scattered). One cannot but salute the poet for such clever juxtaposition of two words that can be the same as well as opposites.

Now, let’s look at an example where the poet cleverly misguides the reader to think about one meaning of the word, but as the verse resolves itself, the second meaning is the intended one.

फिर देखिये अन्दाज़-ए-गुल-अफ़शानी-ए-गुफ़तार
रख दे कोई पैमाना-ए-सहबा मेरे आगे

गुल-अफ़शानी = Scattering of flowers; गुफ़तार = speech; पैमाना-ए-सहबा = goblet of wine

You will then see the style of my flowery speech
If only someone would put a goblet of wine in front of me.

When the first line is read, one is very likely to consider the word फिर to mean as ‘again’. However, when the second line is read and the meaning is clear, you know for sure that the poet has meant it to be read as ‘then’.

MEANING CREATION (मा’नी आफरीनी): Shamsur Rahman Farouqui defines ‘meaning creation’ as “a style of expression in which in a single utterance a number of kinds of meanings are manifest or hidden”. One of the ways it is done is by wordplay as discussed above. However, there are several other ways in which a meaning is enhanced several times. Using words in such a manner that the subject or the object in a couplet is deliberately left ambiguous is one way. Another is the usage of certain words that add multiple layers to the interpretation. For example, the use of the word Kya has been discussed earlier in this article. Yet another technique is to avoid punctuation of any kind within a line, thereby increasing the chances of varied pauses and emphases within a line.

Ghalib has used these techniques of meaning creation in abundance. He was a strong votary of meaning creation as an important facet of poetry. In one of his letters, he emphasizes that poetry IS meaning creation, not mere rhyming (भाई, शा’इरी मा’नी आफ़रीनी है, काफ़िया-पैमाई नहीं).

I personally find couplets that ‘generate’ more than 3-4 nuances of meaning particularly difficult to explain. After decoding a few meaning, my head literally goes for a spin and the nuances of differences between the various interpretations start to blur and focus alternately. Therefore, I will quote S. M Farouqui verbatim in trying to explain one of Ghalib’s very famous couplets.

सब कहाँ कुछ लाला-ओ-गुल में नुमायाँ हो गईं
ख़ाक में क्या सूरतें होंगी कि पिन्हाँ हो गईं

लाला-ओ-गुल = tulips & roses; नुमायाँ = manifest; ख़ाक = dust; पिन्हाँ = hidden

Not all, only a few have become evident as tulips and roses
What images may lie in the dirt that remain hidden from us?

Before getting into the meaning let me highlight two words that play a role in adding multivalence of meaning to this couplet – कहाँ and क्या. Both these words carry within themselves nuances of inquiry and exclamation. Try reading सब कहाँ twice, once with the emphasis on सब and once on कहाँ. Two meanings emerge, don’t they?

Now let’s look at the above couplet at a very macro level. What are these ‘faces’ Ghalib is talking about. Broadly it could have two readings – a more mundane one, where one is talking of dead people, people who are buried under the dust, some are remembered even after death, some are completely forgotten; and a more abstract one, where the faces refer to the various aspects of the Universe itself. The second reading therefore refers to the countless possibilities that the Universe offers, some have become evident taking on a beauteous façade, while some remain hidden.

Time to get more micro into it and explore the nuances. And here, I choose to quote Farouqui:

“Ghalib, saying क्या सूरतें, has created possibilities upon possibilities. For example, consider these:

  1. what faces will there be? (inquiry, reflection)
  2. what (wonderful) faces there will be (for which beautiful flowers are the return) (wonder)
  3. what faces there will be! (praise)
  4. what faces will there be? (which ones? of which people?) (reflection)
  5. well, what faces will there be? (of what kind will they be?) (ignorance)
  6. no telling what kind of faces there will be, for they've become hidden (thought)

… But putting the two lines together creates even richer possibilities:

  1. Where did they all become manifest? Only some faces were able to become manifest in the form of tulips and roses.
  2. Only some are tulips and roses-- among them, all faces could hardly have [कहाँ] become manifest!
  3. What faces there will be that became hidden in the dust!
  4. What faces there will be in the dust, that became hidden!”

The six variations of the second line as mentioned by Farouqui are a little difficult to comprehend in one go. The trick lies in reading the verse with different emphasis on the words to reveal the nuances of the wonderfully multivalent word “क्या”. And as I mentioned before, even then, they will alternately blur and focus making you head spin!

For another example of a head spinning couplet by Ghalib, read this post about Ghalib’s Meaning Generator.

ARROGANCE AND WIT: There is a fine dividing line between self-confidence and arrogance. It is very easy to misconstrue Ghalib’s supreme self-confidence and assessment of his own skill and mastery as arrogance. Maybe there IS some arrogance, but it rests on a solid foundation.

As I have stated before, Ghalib considered Persian as superior to Urdu as a language for poetry. He also probably thought of himself as among the best of Urdu poets. This is fairly evident in this seemingly arrogant couplet:

जो ये कहे कि रेख़ता क्यूँकि हो रश्क-ए-फ़ारसी
गुफ़्ता-ए-ग़ालिब एक बार पढ़ के उसे सुना कि यूँ

रेख़ता = Old name for Urdu; रश्क-ए-फ़ारसी = Envy of Persian; गुफ़्ता-ए-ग़ालिब =Ghalib’s speech

To those who say “how can Urdu Ghazal be envy of Persian”,
Just once recite to them the verses of Ghalib, “that’s how”

Hali has cited many anecdotes of Ghalib’s wit in his Yaadgar-e-Ghalib. Here is one excellent example of wordplay that unfortunately doesn’t work well in English, so I am retaining Ghalib’s words in Urdu:

“One time when the month of Ramzan had just passed, he went to the Fort. The King asked, 'Mirza, how many days of fasting did you keep?' He petitioned, 'My Lord and Guide, Ek Nahin Rakha” (meaning both: “I did not keep one”, as well as ‘'Not even one”).

I end this article with a classic verse by Ghalib that uses clever wordplay and a slight display of arrogance under the guise of humility.

रेख़ते के तुमहीं उस्ताद नहीं हो ग़ालिब
कहते हैं अगले ज़माने में कोई मीर भी था

I leave it to the readers to resolve this couplet for its wordplay and arrogance.

This couplet also inspired me to write one of my own as a Tribute to Ghalib using similar wordplay. This is the best way I can think of summarizing Ghalib’s poetry:

हर्ब-ए-इदराक में कुछ कम तो मुहारिब न हुए
जाँ लगा दी मगर अफ़सोस कि ग़ालिब न हुए

हर्ब-ए-इदराक = war of comprehension,   मुहारिब = warriors,  ग़ालिब = winner,  Mirza Asadullah Khan's pen name

So many fought valiantly the war of comprehension
Alas, none proved to be winners in true Ghalib fashion


I owe my exposure to Ghalib’s work to many books and articles read over the years. A lot of what I have learnt from them is certainly reflected in this article, but following are the sources I have specifically referred to for this article.

  1. Love Sonnets of Ghalib by Dr. Sarfaraz K. Niazi : All of Ghalib’s couplets translated in English are taken from this book
  2. A Desertful of Roses – The Urdu Ghazals of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib: This is a delightful online project by Dr. Frances W. Pritchett. I owe a great deal of my understanding of Ghalib to this.
  3. Ghalib – Life, Letters and Ghazals by Ralph Russel