>Ghalib, it has been said, was not merely a poet, but a marker of an era. He has also been vested with the responsibility of being one of the first modern Indian poets. While he is the representative of a culture and a tradition, he is also a poet conscious of change, and the arrival of a new order of existence. For Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Urdu’s foremost critic, Ghalib ‘trod the very difficult path of a classical poet whose experience of the new order puzzled and dismayed him, but who understood better than most that if there could be new things in culture and politics, there could also be new things in poetry. Most important, he introduced the culture of the question in the ethos of Urdu ghazal.’ Ghalib’s position in poetics is because he leapt beyond the concepts and scope of set ideas; he could twist and turn thoughts, and create new meanings.
</strongHis animated imagery brought in new themes, ambiguities, paradoxes, conceits and hyperbole. Therefore, to call him forever evolving—in his own life and in the minds of those who delve deep in his writing—will not be a misprision.
What is evolution in ‘The Evolution of Ghalib’? Is it the evolution of Ghalib as a poet, as a writer, as a critic, as a person, as a believer, or the evolution of Ghalib as a summation of all the above? Hasan Abdullah’s The Evolution of Ghalib, seeks to present the intellectual evolution of Ghalib through an interpretation of his couplets. It has been written from the position that despite the availability of chronological compilation of Ghalib’s poetry, no one has taken advantage of interpreting the evolution of Ghalib, keeping in view the aspect of time. Abdullah uses Kalidas Gupta Reza’s compilations of Ghalib’s verses towards his aim to ‘help in better appreciation of his poetry’.
There are many writers and critics who have spent their life chewing and digesting Ghalib’s writings and writing on them. Since Hali’s Yaadgar-i-Ghalib, literature on Ghalib has been available on every aspect, even with commentaries on every couplet of his divan. Yet, any attempt to bring Ghalib to a wider audience is a task worthy of appreciation; especially, if it breaks the barrier of language and adds to a better understanding of Ghalib. In the pantheon of the commentarial tradition that has sprung to assist the reader the first that comes to mind is Frances W Pritchett’s easily accessible and tremendous work ‘A Desertful of Roses’. Pritchett presents explanations and commentaries on Ghalib’s verses by several critics on her website, hosted by Columbia University, as well as her own. If it were made into a book, it would perhaps run into three to four volumes. All of this material is available on the internet for any reader interested in Ghalib.
Hasan Abdullah eschews referring to any scholar or writer on Ghalib. Abdullah, the interpreter, is solely dependent on his own reading. Prodded by his teacher and friends, he correctly argues that every reader can interpret verses as per one’s own understanding. He invites the reader of his book to make an effort and interpret Ghalib’s verses on their own. The writer sees no need for references, endnotes, bibliography, index, etc. This has imparted the book rampant superficiality, gross simplifications and a shrillness of tone that hardly do justice to as important a subject as Ghalib. It makes the book seem like it has been written for a lay reader. Knowing is one thing, and evaluating is quite another. In writing a critical book on perhaps the most well-known writer of India, and veering away from acknowledging the ones who have written before, is a sad commentary on the author’s scholarship.
Ghalib’s fame is owed to his ghazals in Persian and Urdu. The Evolution of Ghalib, unfortunately, focuses only on the Urdu poems of Ghalib. Anyone claiming to analyse Ghalib’s intellectual growth cannot ignore his Persian verse or prose. In his own writings, Ghalib talks about having devoted much of his time writing in Persian. His ‘natural affinity’ towards Persian and desire to be identified more with Persian is a recurrent theme in his writings. Little scholarly attention was paid to the Persian poetry of Ghalib until about the last quarter of the twentieth century and the same treatment is meted out to him even in a book that is titled The Evolution of Ghalib.
Ghalib is famously a difficult poet. During his lifetime, Ghalib received a lot of criticism about his ghazals and much less praise than he knew he deserved. He was accused of creating fine-sounding but overwrought and even ‘meaningless’ poetry. His notoriety was not only due to his vast and difficult vocabulary, but even his simpler-seeming poems had an abundance of images, not easily comprehensible. In several letters he writes about the effort he put in writing his verses. Poetry that came easily to him, and it did, was not poetry. As the famous verse goes: jab aankh se hi na tapka to fir lahu kya hai (tc vka[k ls gh u Vidk rks fQj ygw D;k gS / when it would not drip emphatically from the eye, then what is blood?). As a poet devoted to his craft—which he would often say was almost an affliction—Ghalib’s efforts were to impart to his poetry ebullience of imagination, complexity of thoughts and profusion of meaning. Abdullah falls into the trap of mechanical application of meanings to words used by Ghalib. His repetitive interpretation of Ghalib’s poetry as a metaphor for the lack of appreciation he received makes the book jarring. As also, identifying different time periods as bloom years, exploration years, twilight years, etc., is a futile exercise when it comes with little scholarly evidence.
Ghalib’s verses are heavily punctuated in Abdullah’s selection. It consists of exclamation marks, commas, question marks and quotation marks. One cannot put the blame squarely on Abdullah for this. Kalidas Gupta Reza’s chronological collection of Ghalib’s verses also has them. So does Imtiyaz Ali Khan Arshi’s generally reliable book. It is sadly an erroneous way of reproducing Ghalib’s verses. It would have grated the Mirza no end seeing English-style punctuation on the texts of his ghazals. Abdullah, in his interpretation, uses these punctuations, which in the verses’ original form are not present, to reinterpret the meaning of the ghazals. An editorial intrusion of this kind is unpardonable and in effect robs the verses of several shades of meaning. The evaluator’s task should have been to present to the reader a new idea, a new reading of his verses rather than presenting a simplistic and even a reductive interpretation of a writer as profound as Ghalib.
Nikhil Kumar works in the corporate sector. He writes on politics, history and literature. He can be contacted on Twitter: @niksez