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Three Ghazals


Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

Translated and with commentary by S. Anand


One couplet, three poets

What is the best two-liner that you know?
The one Anand is making you read now

And now a hearty annotation for these two lines.

Seems some of Mirza Ghalib’s admirers have, a few times, committed the sacrilege of inserting their own couplets into his ‘holy’ Dīvān, his collected poems, exactingly overseen by the master. Such exercises in fakery sometimes find modest success—they are often committed to public memory and have elicited commentaries despite the bluff being called. Even the grand effort to establish them for the fakes they are may be regarded as acknowledgments of their worth. Let us bear in mind that Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ dropped his early signature, ‘Asad’, when another contemporary poet was found using the same taḵẖalluṣ (signature). He then adopted ‘Ghalib’, which essentially means someone who overwhelms you, and, among other things, victorious, triumphant and predominant, someone who surpasses all or is unsurpassed. The singular hand-crafted edition of verses that Ghalib brought himself to share with the world is a prized object of art, more majestic than any Koh-i-noor, for it is unpossessable—a selection he fastidiously edited and pruned and published four revisions of in his lifetime (1797–1869, almost all of it spent in Delhi), barely altering the core, with the final edition published in 1862 containing 234 ghazals, which the Urdu/Rekhta scholar Frances Pritchett has counted to tell us comprise 1,459 two-line verses, or shers. It is also known that nearly as much or more of Ghalib’s poetry is outside of the Dīvān; many aficionados often search for gems from as far back as the 1821 or 1816 editions.

Despite such a (self)conscious effort at creating a truly majestic singularity in language, talented mavens who remain anonymous have been at work and have imagined a few successful breaches that scholars and Ghalib fans zealously fended; they pull out their investigative lenses and declare why and how a fake is a fake however in step with the original it tries or aspires to be. This is the converse of plagiarism; trying to be faithful to a fault can be the worst form of infidelity—the making of a fake that aspires to pass for the original while seeking to distort the sacred distance and difference between the original and (it)self. And in this case, scholars like Pritchett are indeed right in arguing that even Ghalib was indignant about shameless interlopers and thieves who could not write their own poems. She says forcefully of one such “apocryphal verse”—“no matter how many singers sing it or reciters recite it, it is just NOT by Ghalib”. Witness how and why Pritchett sifts the chaff from the pearly grains here.

Here’s an apocryphal couplet—Such perfidy! Such heresy!—that has merited both passion and outrage:

ḳhudā ke vāst̤e pardah nah kaʿbah se uṭhā vāʿiz̤
kahīñ aisā nah ho yāñ bhī vuhī kāfir ṣanam nikle

For God’s sake priest, do not lift the curtain from God’s abode
What if, even from here, the same infidel lover walks out

It is a grand imitation, with characteristic turn of phrase. It is hard to tell because Ghalib, too, often flirts with the idea of blurring the imagined distance between man and God, and regards himself something of a god when it comes to making words and making a world of words. And thus the rather cheeky (and intractable) opening couplet of his Dīvān, where, in the guise of praising the Creator—as convention demands—Ghalib praises himself, setting the bar for correlation between word and meaning, between intention and decision, rather high:

naqsh faryādī hai kis kī shoḳhī-e taḥrīr kā
kāġhażī hai pairahan har paikar-e taṣvīr kā

The plaintiff is a picture, a torch lit in the day: whose mischief is meaning?
Every image is a supplicant here, wearing a garment of paper

With Ghalib—embodying the modernist desire to underscore and flaunt the inimitable, absolute and singular aspects of genius, like with the felt-need to establish fake Rembrandts—at one end of this spectrum of originality (with the caveat that what claims to be original always derives sustenance from an origin), at the other, antipodal yet harmonizing end stands Kabir, a shimmering but definitive figure from fifteenth–sixteenth century Benares, who transcends both time and place and invites talented fellow-hearts from anywhere and everywhere to jam with him and with ‘his’ words, encouraging us to keep faith in the singularly beauteous light that shines within each of us, thus forming a community of poetry, weaving a warm blanket of words which everyone can sleep and dream under, a utopia we inhabit in the realm of thought, a utopia that eludes both formal realization and materialization. Kabīr—whose signature means humongous, great, grand, illustrious, synonymous with akbar—wove such a fabric, and held it up against the splendorous light of the sun (even as he sang of a no-place where there would be neither the sun nor his own poems, much before we were told that even the sun is not eternal but merely appears so), and summarily declared that no one could weave like him:

The cloth Kabir bears has no wear and tear
He holds the warp of love with the weft of care

And yet Kabir also says—via Mahesha Ram, the Kabir-panthi contemporary Dalit singer from Khatanga village near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan—that words aren’t what we must stake pride upon; for words can visit upon anyone and everyone:

It is not just Kabir who can see all this
There’s love in every heart, a poem in everyone
Mahesha Ram sings it, Anand’s words dance to it
Love is in every heart, a poem in everyone

This school of making poetry believes that poetry makes us; that words find refuge in us; that we can each arrive at the boundless no-place of awareness in poetry.

Some five years ago, I started my affair with poetry as an apprentice of Kabir, listening to the many ways in which he was and is sung, and by singing him in my own way. Upon reading some of my renditions in English, based on the Kabir sung by artists such as Prahlad Tipaniya (a Dalit from Luniakhedi in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh who now performs across the world), the late Kumar Gandharva (a Brahmin from North Karnataka who discovered a certain Kabir while recovering from a phase of aphasia in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh) or Fariduddin Ayaz, Abu Mohammed and party (Pasmanda Muslims who trace their musical lineage to Delhi’s Qawwal Bachchon ka Gharana and now make a living as qawwals in Karachi, Paksitan), a friend had once asked me whether I was aware that none of these ‘versions’ would likely correspond with the lyrics with what was printed in the posthumously published modern editions—the Bijak, Parachai, Granthavali and such overseen mostly by Brahmin scholars (which is like Tupac being introduced posthumously by white men over and over). Because I am aware, I have never looked these up, listening only to the songs. Such exercises at fixing Kabir also demonstrate modernism’s urgent and compulsive need, however anachronistic, to celebrate individual genius and its refusal to see great poetry as anything but an expression of an absolutely unique mind. After all, ‘the author is a modern figure, and the culmination of modernism is in the death of the author’. Kabir, whoever he was and whose composite dates vary across three hundred years, felt no Ghalib-like existential need for originality—the need for a definitive Dīvān—or should we say, he had no need for such a need. He did not belong to such a time or class. I was relieved that Tipaniya, Ayaz or Mahesha Ram in their performances pay no heed to these efforts at standardization. In fact, scholars in their wisdom regard only six of the hundred poems that Rabindranath Tagore published famously in 1915 as authentic, an authenticity that is inherently inauthentic. So I’m just as happy to be jamming with other artists who have jammed with Kabir—each quietly certain that the original is but a distinctive and distingushed version. While at it, let us dwell upon the etymology of the word version:

Noun. 1580s, “a translation”, from Middle French version, Medieval Latin versionem (nominative versio) “a turning, a translation”, from past participle stem of Latin vertere “to turn, change, alter, translate”. Also with a Middle English sense of “destruction”; the meaning “particular form of a description” is first attested 1788.

Nevertheless Kabir (more persona than person), like Ghalib, is totally aware of his genius, and often praises himself. But Kabir is also someone who has the humility to recognize that every human has the need to aspire for equality in the realm of thought; there’s also vanity here; perhaps even a fallacy; though not the same vanity or fallacy we find in Ghalib, who said of himself, not unlike Kabir:

haiñ aur bhī dunyā meñ suḳhan-var bahut achchhe
kahte haiñ kih ġhālib kā hai andāz-e bayāñ aur

There surely are more eloquent poets in this world—goes without saying
But what I hear is this—Ghalib has a style that’s utmost and endearing

And so it goes that apocryphal Ghalibs are far easier to detect and frown upon, whereas the inauthentic Kabirs merely seem to enrich the genius of Kabir, making singularity a shared field of experience. When asked for a single verse for which he would trade his whole Dīvān, Ghalib is said to have cited this couplet (5.1):

dil mirā soz-e nihāñ se be-muḥābā jal gayā
ātish-e ḳhāmosh ke mānind goyā jal gayā

My heart, a hidden flame, burned unequivocally
Like burning coal that speaks, so to speak, silently

Standing somewhere between Ghalib and Kabir, between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, nestling in a shifting light with intimations of darkness, I think I’m at the threshold of an answer to the speculative question: Did Ghalib ever read or hear Kabir? If he didn’t, here I am, reading Kabir into Ghalib.



This thought serves a purpose

ḥusn-e mah garchih bah hangām-e kamāl achchhā hai
us se merā mah-e ḳhvurshīd-jamāl achchhā hai

The moon, in its frenzied fullness, is a beautiful thing
But my moon, with the swagger of the sun, is more ravishing

bosah dete nahīñ aur dil pah hai har laḥz̤ah nigāh
jī meñ kahte haiñ kih muft āʾe to māl achchhā hai

Wouldn’t give me one kiss, but every moment eyes my heart
And in her heart, she says, if it’s for free, must be a good thing

aur bāzār se le āʾe agar ṭūṭ gayā
sāġhar-e jam se mirā jām-e safāl achchhā hai

I could buy another from the bazar if this breaks
My cup of clay is better than a goblet that’s world-reflecting

be-t̤alab deñ to mazah us meñ sivā miltā hai
vuh gadā jis ko nah ho ḳhū-e savāl achchhā hai

When given unbidden, the pleasure is so much more
He’s the most fortunate, the alms-seeker not used to asking

un ke dekhe se jo ā jātī hai raunaq muñh par
vuh samajhte haiñ kih bīmār kā ḥāl achchhā hai

Such radiance floods my face in her presence
She thinks the one claiming to be sick is prospering

dekhiye pāte haiñ ʿushshāq butoñ se kyā faiẓ
ik barahman ne kahā hai kih yih sāl achchhā hai

Let us see what bounteous grace lovers find in idols
A brahman has foretold this year to be of a good tiding

ham-suḳhan teshe ne farhād ko shīrīñ se kiyā
jis t̤araḥ kā kih kisī meñ ho kamāl achchhā hai

The lover cleaves a mountain to talk to his love
Whatever one’s talent, it’s good to be outstanding

qat̤rah daryā meñ jo mil jāʾe to daryā ho jāʾe
kām achchhā hai vuh jis kā kih ma-āl achchhā hai

Should a drop make it to the sea, it comes to be the sea
A deed, if it returns the tree to the seed, is a good thing

ḳhiẓr sult̤āñ ko rakhe ḳhāliq-e akbar sar-sabz
shāh ke bāġh meñ yih tāzah nihāl achchhā hai

May the lord keep the saint who shows the way evergreen
In the lord’s garden, a sight to be seen is the new sapling

ham ko maʿlūm hai jannat kī ḥaqīqat lekin
dil ke ḳhvush rakhne ko ġhālib yih ḳhayāl achchhā hai

I know the truth about paradise, nevertheless, says Ghalib
The thought of it serves a purpose, it keeps this heart going

Even those that appear to be lesser efforts of the master, such as this one listed as 174 in the Dīvān, have some sparkling couplets that are recited often and become part of the language’s commons, its memory. Take couplet five that says what’s so often said with rare grace, un ke dekhe se… or, the following sixth that plays on the idea of an idol-worshipping brahman predicting a good year. The poet-lover-apostate, when it comes to love, will take his chances and even believe a brahman idolater. Love here appears less desperate for the touch of the beloved than it is for the touch of words made about the prospect of touch. This is poetry caught in its own game. It lacks for nothing even if it’s a puzzle undone by its own ingenuity.

It is the seventh couplet that requires a reader to have some idea of the much-travelled Khosrow–Shirin–Farhad story that originates as a historical-epic poem around the twelfth century in Persia as told by the poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), the same that penned the Layla–Majnun tale. This story-as-poem-as-song, Ḵosrow o Širin (comprising some 6,150 verses spread across a hundred chapters written over sixteen lunar years), travels and changes as the breeze takes it across land and water, hills and rivers, deserts and mountains and seas, to tongues that have kissed many mouths and poets whoring with words, a story that has both borne and yielded many imitations and retellings (including four films from Bombay and one from Pakistan, and an inspired tribute in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red), a story that after it enters South Asia is retold in 1298 by the great Amir Khusrao Dehalvi (of Delhi, Ghalib’s city and now mine), as Širin o Ḵosrow, and again in sixteenth century Punjab, where it becomes the Shirin–Farhad story, Shirin being a princess from Armenia (or Amasya depending on who’s telling it and where), who yearns for Khosrow, the lover-prince of her dreams who comes looking for Shirin all the way from Iran.


Their paths cross but they don’t know this—Khosrow sees Shirin bathing in a river, and we (who have books and internet at touch, and the pleasures these give though they don’t always bring erudition) see this now through the delicate and dreamy depictions of eros in Iranian miniature paintings of the sixteenth century downloaded as low-res JPGs (from Wikipedia), depictions far removed from the originals, renditions of a life that can no longer be lived, and art that is banned in Iran at the time I write this. Wiki tells us what the word on the street is as we speak:

In 2011, the Iranian government’s censors refused a publishing house permission to reprint the centuries-old classic poem that had been a much-loved component of Persian literature for 831 years. While the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance offered no immediate official explanation for refusing to permit the firm to publish their eighth edition of the classic, the Islamic government’s concerns reportedly centered on the “indecent” act of the heroine, Shirin, in embracing her husband.

In the early seventeenth century, such Persian (and Uzbeki) painters (dancers and musicians as well) came to the subcontinent at the behest of Mughal and Rajput kings and made paintings and murals that influenced local miniature styles, not to speak of the language, Rekhta/Urdu, that was forged about the same time and owes an unrepayable debt to its Farsi ‘mother’ tongue (while counting fathers of many tongues), and Ghalib wrote a good deal of poetry in classical Farsi to impress himself and the Iranian literati.

To return to the other story, when Khosrow espies the half-naked Shirin, her clothes hanging on trees, her back to him, her face radiant as she turns around to look at who it is that’s looking at her, she gives his thirsting eyes a glance, but Khosrow leaves without drinking from it, without knowing he’s looking at the one he has come looking for all the way, and since Shirin sees him disguised in a peasant’s clothes she doesn’t know it’s him either. And so the tall tale winds and unwinds like a river babbling across hills and plains till it meets a salty end at the mouth of a sea. A major tributary in this river is the story of the sculptor Farhad, in some versions just a mason, in some a muralist who decorates mansions including the one built by Shirin’s sister Mehmene Banu, the ruler of Amasya, and in yet some, the artisan who works for a fee, falls in love with princess Shirin and seeks to wed her. Khosrow says he will give up his love, Shirin, if Farhad can carve steps on an impossibly steep mountain (in a version, he’s asked to cleave a rocky mountain and make milk flow through it for Shirin to bathe in, and in another he’s tasked with bringing water to the town by digging a tunnel through an impenetrable mountain and so on). The talented Farhad begins his task in earnest by sculpting Shirin onto the rocks, and Shirin can’t help but bear witness to such art that love spurs Farhad toward, and she perhaps makes small talk with him, and thus becomes, as Ghalib says, his ham-suḳhan, literally speech-sharer. Suḳhan is both speech and poetry, poetic speech.

Shirin, before seeing this and knowing of Farhad’s love, falls in love with Khosrow by looking at his image, a picture drawn and delivered to her by Shapur, a painter and friend of Khosrow, and Khosrow falls in love with Shirin amazed by the words of the selfsame Shapur, who, as it happens, is something of a poet too. Suddenly, all love is about art. The loves and lives of Farhad, Khosrow, Shapur and Shirin are all threaded to art by beauty. There’s much ugliness too: fate, palace intrigue, lies, malice and death, all abiding in art. When he has almost accomplished the task, word is sent to Farhad that Shirin is dead. Hearing this, he either jumps off the mountain and dies, or as another telling would have it, he throws his crowbar in the air, and it strikes his head falling down, and he dies (as a Tamil speaker, I’d say if this had been a blockbuster starring the thespian Sivaji Ganesan, Farhad, Tamilized to Farhadan, would have sung a sad and beautiful song in the burnished playback voice of T.M. Soundarajan and died mid-song). With a lie, Farhad is laid low. Hearing this, Shirin rushes to see him and gives up her life too. There’s a memorial for Shirin and Farhad carved atop a rocky hill in Amasya, northern Turkey. In some longer stories, Khosrow and Shirin meet and finally live together as king and queen of Persia after many misunderstandings and tribulations including infidelity, drunkenness and other banalities.

So much background for a benign couplet. I’d considered rendering the couplet with a little explanation tucked in, like this:

The axe-wielding lover cleaves a mountain to talk to the princess he loves
Whatever one’s talent, it’s good to excel at it, if only to die upon a lie

But poetry must not explain. It must leave you baffled. Ghalib leaves even the native Urdu reader baffled. Often, we are left wondering what we have not understood even after knowing all the history and background; that is why we return to this difficult poet again and again. In translation, it is this sense of bafflement that has to prevail.


What is implied by invoking these well-known mythopoeic characters by Ghalib has to be rendered in English without their cultural weight pulling the lines down. That I yet attempt it is a bit like Farhad’s labour, labour that is its own fruit, and hence this note to self, and as much to the one reading it. Ghalib, who often invokes the Farhad–Shirin story in his ghazals, offers a more mordant take on Farhad in a couplet in another ghazal (nālah juz ḥusn-e t̤alab ay sitam-ījād nahīñ, numbered 101.2 in the Dīvān):

ʿishq-o-mazdūrī-e ʿishrat-gah-e ḳhusrau kyā ḳhūb
ham ko taslīm niko-nāmī-e farhād nahīñ

The labour of love that raised the palace of Khusrow—praise be
But love’s not about hard work, there’s no merit in Farhad’s glory

When words are placed in an ever-shifting field of allusions, best not be blinded by the pursuit of meaning.

Before I let you go, the fourth couplet demands reiteration:

be-t̤alab deñ to mazah us meñ sivā miltā hai
vuh gadā jis ko nah ho ḳhū-e savāl achchhā hai

When given unbidden, the pleasure is so much more
He’s the most fortunate, the alms-seeker not used to asking

In Ghalib’s case, this is as much about the pleasures that love begets as it is about the pleasure his poems give him (and us), poems that come after much bidding (like Farhad’s cleaving a mountain) and are yet made to appear unbidden. In the second line, the lover-poet is also the Sufi alms-seeker who receives what he needs without having to ask, in exchange for the beautiful words he strings to song. The blessed lover is someone who’s happy with himself as long as he can write or sing or make art, or whatever it takes to fill this hole inside him that can never be filled. Ghalib’s poems are about love without a body, and likely in no need of one. What he achieves with words he does with his beautiful mind. His art—in this case the fabrication of a singular body of poems that embodies all the pasts that are to happen and all the futures we would have lived through—becomes his raison d’être.

In the inimitable, elusive grace of the miscegenated bastard that Urdu bears as a modern language (much like English in many ways is), it is possible to completely disguise the lover and beloved with the use of gender-free (rather than gender-neutral) pronouns and nouns, actions and emotions, so that the lover and beloved stand freed of the burdens of body, sexual preference and identity—not the binaries of he–she but they—and the fifth couplet, to which we return, is a rather fine specimen of such enduring universality:

un ke dekhe se jo ā jātī hai raunaq muñh par
vuh samajhte haiñ kih bīmār kā ḥāl achchhā hai

Such radiance floods my face in her presence
She thinks the one claiming to be sick is prospering

Given the ghazal convention, we are given to think that Ghalib implies but uses neither her in the first line nor she in the second (and the couplet would work just as well with him and he). Un ke and vuh are gender-free in ways that English offers no scope for unless we do what’s being called our ‘negative duty’ and move toward their/they. (This happens with all of Ghalib, and like Frances Pritchett says: ‘you can’t even figure out how to assign the beloved a gender’.) It is worth mulling over this scenario and see if we are actually ready for the demands politics makes on language without short-changing grace:

Such radiance floods my face in their presence
They think the one claiming to be sick is prospering

In the middle of this, it occurred to me that Ghalib’s poem-making can be explained in one line, a reductive line that once thought cannot be unthought even if such a thought may not always find the right words: Ghalib likely didn’t get laid much. Here’s one— the third couplet in ghazal 55 that is part of this exercise—among many couplets where he appears to say that he has a head for the abstract pleasure of words (‘embellishing the mirror of waiting’) more than the heart for the real of the body, for union with the beloved:

viṣāl jalvah tamāshā hai par dimāġh kahāñ
kih dīje āʾinah-e intiz̤ār ko pardāz

Sex sure is a heady thing always, but who has the head
to keep embellishing the mirror of waiting, making it immense

When I presented this risqué idea to the scholar-connoisseur Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, he said Ghalib, married at age thirteen, may not have loved his wife Umrao Begum much (nor she him)—I was recently let in on a ‘famous’ joke, that when a Ghalib expert was asked what Ghalib’s wife’s name was, he replied, ‘Ghaliban, ghaliban’—but surely, Ghalib could and would have slept with erudite poetry-spouting courtesans, or ‘nautch girls’ as the British called them. In a few ghazals and letters, Ghalib, ever-conscious of his ‘high’ Turkish pedigree, recalls being in love with a ‘lowly’ Domni courtesan (a derogatory term for a woman of untouchable caste). What he sure did was sleep with words. Around the age of sixty (he lived to seventy-two), when words stopped stopping by his door, and as the material comforts (wine, modest wealth) that made words possible came to be strained after the fall, in 1857, of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (himself a reputed poet whose patronage the penultimate couplet passingly acknowledges), all Ghalib could do was read his old compositions and lament their demise from his present.

Ghalib’s poetry is the finding of words for love but not finding love.

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“Ghalib’s poetry is the finding of words for love but not finding love.”


The mouth of the wound must be opened

जब तक दहान-ए ज़ख़्म न पैदा करे कोई
मुशकिल कि तुझ से राह-ए सुख़न वा करे कोई
jab tak dahān-e zaḳhm nah paidā kare koʾī
mushkil kih tujh se rāh-e suḳhan vā kare koʾī

First, the mouth of the wound must be fashioned by someone
With you the road to poetry would not otherwise open

आलम ग़ुबार-ए वहशत-ए मज्नूँ है सर-ब-सर
कब तक ख़याल-ए तुर्रा-ए लैला करे कोई
ʿālam ġhubār-e vaḥshat-e majnūñ hai sar-ba-sar
kab tak ḳhayāl-e t̤urrah-e lailâ kare koʾī

The world, end to end, is the dust of Majnun’s wildering frenzy
Must we still be thinking of the curls on Laila’s crest so often?

अफ़सुर्दगी नहीं तरब-इंशा-ए इलतिफ़ात
हाँ दर्द बन के दिल में मगर जा करे कोई
afsurdagī nahīñ t̤arab-inshā-e iltifāt
hāñ dard ban ke dil meñ magar jā kare koʾī

Melancholy makes no room for a joy-inducing apostrophe
Yet, spreading pain, find a place in the heart of someone

रोने से ऐ नदीम मलामत न कर मुझे
आख़िर कभी तो उक़दा-ए दिल वा करे कोई
rone se ay nadīm malāmat nah kar mujhe
āḳhir kabhī to ʿuqdah-e dil vā kare koʾī

Friend, do not berate me for crying my heart out
Someone must open the knot of the heart, all said and done

चाक-ए जिगर से जब रह-ए पुरसिश न वा हुई
क्या फ़ाइदा कि जेब को रुस्वा करे कोई
chāk-e jigar se jab rah-e pursish nah vā huʾī
kyā fāʾidah kih jeb ko rusvā kare koʾī

When my guts bled out, not one word walked down the road of speech
What’s the point now in displaying a torn collar to such a someone

लख़्त-ए जिगर से है रग-ए हर ख़ार शाख़-ए गुल
ता चंद बाग़-बानी-ए सहरा करे कोई
laḳht-e jigar se hai rag-e har ḳhār shāḳh-e gul
tā chand bāġh-bānī-e ṣaḥrā kare koʾī

The vein of every thorn is a twig of blossoms in the pupil of my eye
How much longer do I play gardener in this wilderness for anyone

On the vein of every thorn, my shredded liver bears the radiance of a rose
How much longer do I play gardener in this wasteland for anyone

ना-कामी-ए निगाह है बरक़-ए नज़ारा-सोज़
तू वो नहीं कि तुझ को तमाशा करे कोई
nā-kāmī-e nigāh hai barq-e naz̤ārah-soz
tū vuh nahīñ kih tujh ko tamāshā kare koʾī

The blindness of sight is the spectacle of lightning
You’re not the one to be made a spectacle of by anyone

हर संग‐ओ‐ख़िश्त है सदफ़-ए गौहर-ए शिकस्त
नुक़्साँ नहीं जुनूँ से जो सौदा करे कोई
har sang-o-ḳhisht hai ṣadaf-e gauhar-e shikast
nuqsāñ nahīñ junūñ se jo saudā kare koʾī

Each stone that’s pelted is a shell that yields the pearl of defeat
An exchange that yields such madness spells no loss to anyone

सर-बर हुई न वादा-ए सबर-आज़मा से उमर
फ़ुरसत कहाँ कि तेरी तमन्ना करे कोई
sar-bar huʾī nah vaʿdah-e ṣabr-āzmā se ʿumr
furṣat kahāñ kih terī tamannā kare koʾī

Your vow was such a test of patience that even life gave up
The leisure to desire you then is out of question

है वहशत-ए तबीअत-ए ईजाद यास-ख़ेज़
ये दर्द वो नहीं कि न पैदा करे कोई
hai vaḥshat-e t̤abīʿat-e ījād yās-ḳhez
yih dard vuh nahīñ kih nah paidā kare koʾī

The profligate solitude of the creative mind only births despair
This is not a pain though that cannot be turned into one

बे-कारी-ए जुनूँ को है सर पीटने का शग़ल
जब हाथ टूट जाएं तो फिर क्या करे कोई
be-kārī-e junūñ ko hai sar pīṭne kā shaġhl
jab hāth ṭūṭ jāʾeñ to phir kyā kare koʾī

For madness, living on welfare, head-beating is a calling
What is one to do when one’s arms have been broken?

हुस्न-ए फ़ुरोग़-ए शम-ए सुख़न दूर है असद
पहले दिल-ए गुदाख़्ता पैदा करे कोई
ḥusn-e furoġh-e shamʿ-e suḳhan dūr hai asad
pahle dil-e gudāḳhtah paidā kare koʾī

The candle of poetic beauty waxing is still a way off, Asad
First, the melting of the heart must be caused by someone

For good reason, ghazal 214 is regarded as one of Ghalib’s finest by anyone who is anyone—the very embodiment of the ghazal form. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, among the greatest Urdu scholar-critics ever, devotes an entire essay (“Ghalib ki ek ghazal ka tajrubah” 1967, The experience of a ghazal by Ghalib) to it, which Frances Pritchett ever-so-helpfully makes available in translation in “A Desertful of Roses”, her online concordance of Ghalib’s Dīvān. The four couplets that follow are unpublished verses from the two original ghazals that became ‘214’ as reconstituted by the poet. Ghalib chose to leave these out of his final Urdu Dīvān of 1862. However, scholars and connoisseurs, who study all that spilled out of his pen, regard them as worthy of our awe, admiration and deliberation. Sometimes they also wonder how or why Ghalib retains certain couplets they regard as poorer than those he discards. Much hairsplitting ensues and it helps that I have a close-shaven head.

What is often iterated needs reiteration when faced with what did not make it to a ghazal as magnificent as this: Ghalib’s discards are often easily better than the finest verses some of the best Urdu poets—or poets in general—have had to offer. This ghazal, dated to 1817–1821 by Kalidas Gupta Raza, bears his early signature ‘Asad’. Given that he was writing such poems even before he had turned twenty-four, Mirza Asadullah Khan chose Ghalib for his taḵẖalluṣ, and he likely meant to asseverate every aspect of this word, for he was not one to let meaning triumph. To him, a poem must always triumph over meaning.

g̠ālib (act. part. of غلب ‘to overcome,’ &c.), part. adj. Overcoming, overpowering, victorious, triumphant, prevailing, predominant, prevalent; superior, surpassing, excelling;—most probable, most likely;—s.m. The most, the most or greater part, the generality:—g̠ālib ānā, or g̠ālib rahnā, or g̠ālib honā (-par), To prevail (against), to overcome, vanquish, subdue, defeat, beat, foil; to surmount, master; to prove or be superior (to), to surpass, excel; to win, gain:—g̠ālib karnā, v.t. To make or render (one) victorious, &c. (over, -par), to give (one) the mastery (over), to allow (one) to prevail (over or against):—g̠ālib hai, It is most probable. (Platts 1884)

Now to the four that Ghalib cast away:

वहशत कहाँ कि बे-ख़इंशा करे कोई
हस्ती को लफ़्ज़-ए मानींक़ा करे कोई
vaḥshat kahāñ kih be-ḳhvudī inshā kare koʾī
hastī ko lafz̤-e maʿnī-e ʿanqā kare koʾī

Where’s such madness that senselessness can be set to verse by someone
Assign the meaning of the bird of not-there-ness to existence, someone

जो कुछ है महव-ए शोख़ी-ए अबरू-ए यार है
आंखों को रख के ताक़ पे देखा करे कोई
jo kuchh hai maḥv-e shoḳhī-e abrū-e yār hai
āñkhoñ ko rakh ke t̤āq pah dekhā kare koʾī

Whatever exists is rapt in the mischief of the beloved’s eyebrow
Mounting these eyes on the brow’s niche, keep gazing, someone

अर्ज़-ए सिरिश्क पर है फ़ज़ा-ए ज़माना तंग
सहरा कहाँ कि दावत-ए दरया करे कोई
ʿarẓ-e sirishk par hai faẓā-e zamānah tang
ṣaḥrā kahāñ kih daʿvat-e daryā kare koʾī

The breadth of tears is such that the expanse of the world is narrow
We may invite the sea in if a desert could be arranged by someone

वो शोख़ अपने हुस्न पे मग़रूर है असद
दिखला के उस को आइना तोड़ा करे कोई
vuh shoḳh apne ḥusn pah maġhrūr hai asad
dikhlā ke us ko āʾinah toṛā kare koʾī

The beloved takes such pride, Asad, in her beauty
Having shown her the mirror, do break it someone

vaḥshat-e-dīvān mein gumshuda Anand
āʾinah-e-maʿnī- mein aks-e-ḵẖayāl dekhā kare koʾī

In the wilderness of Ghalib’s finest, Anand is lost at best
In the mirror of meaning observe the reflection of thought, someone

parallax background

“...He was not one to let meaning triumph. To him, a poem must always triumph over meaning.”


When the gaze trades in reflections

ḥarīf-e mat̤lab-e mushkil nahīñ fusūn-e niyāz
duʿā qabūl ho yā rab kih ʿumr-e ḳhiẓr darāz

It is not as if simple begging can measure up to the spell of desire
If only plain prayers work, may the evergreen prophet live longer

nah ho bah harzah bayābāñ-navard-e vahm-e vujūd
hanūz tere taṣavvur meñ hai nasheb-o-farāz

Do not be a fool and wander the desert after the mirage of existence
Even now your imagination is trapped in the binary of high and low

viṣāl jalvah tamāshā hai par dimāġh kahāñ
kih dīje āʾinah-e intiz̤ār ko pardāz

Sex sure is a heady thing always, but who has the head
to keep embellishing the mirror of waiting, making it immense

har ek żarrah-e ʿāshiq hai āftāb-parast
gaʾī nah ḳhāk huʾe par havā-e jalvah-e nāz

Each grain of sand is a worshipper of the sun
Even reduced to dust, the desire to flaunt pride remains

The couplet echoes back to another, 15.12:

kuchh nah kī apnī junūn-e nā-rasā ne varnah yāñ
żarrah żarrah rū-kash-e ḳhvurshīd-e ʿālam-tāb thā

It did nothing, our ungraspable madness, for here
Each grain, belying itself, rivals the world-warming sun

nah pūchh vusʿat-e mai-ḳhānah-e junūñ ġhālib
jahāñ yih kāsah-e gardūñ hai ek ḳhāk-andāz

Do not ask, Ghalib, of the capacity of the tavern of madness
Where the bowl they call sky makes for an excellent dustbin

(Four couplets from the ghazal that did not make it to Ghalib’s final edition)

fareb-e ṣaʿnat-e ījād kā tamāshā dekh
nigāh ʿaks-farosh-o-ḳhayāl āʾinah-sāz

Consider the treachery of the skill of invention
The gaze trades in reflections, the thought fashions mirrors

zi baskih jalvah-e ṣayyād ḥairat-ārā hai
uṛī hai ṣafḥah-e ḳhāt̤ir se ṣūrat-e parvāz

Such is the glory of the hunter’s face, wreathed with wonder
The possibility of flight has flown from the page of my mind

hujūm-e fikr se dil miṡl-e mauj larzāñ hai
kih shīshah nāzuk-o-ṣahbā hai āb-gīnah-gudāz

Mobbed by thoughts, the wave of the heart trembles
For the glass is so delicate, the touch of wine may shatter it

asad se tark-e vafā kā gumāñ vuh maʿnī hai
kih kheñchiye par-e t̤āʾir se ṣūrat-e parvāz

To even doubt that Asad would renounce fidelity is the same
as pulling out of the wing of a bird the very idea of flight

The word–meaning correlation is so tested in Ghalib’s more abstract ghazals that sheer incomprehension—and bafflement—may be the reason why they have not been rendered by singers. You are anyway meant to be left wondering what Ghalib is at. Obtuse ghazals like these are neither sung nor commonly recited—important modes of transmission in a culture where literature has a wider oral circulation than the printed word. Oftentimes, even in ghazals made popular in song, such as the deceptively simple Dil-e nā-dāñ tujhe huʾā kyā hai (listed as 152), the tougher philosophical couplets are skipped. Translators, too, choose which couplets within a ghazal they may render, giving up on some as untranslatable, though another avowed position on which there’s much consensus is that all of Ghalib is untranslatable, thus ensuring that he remains obscure. His genius his undoing—or ours? I am the half-wit—a nikamma—who thinks otherwise. I render every couplet, for I am after what I am. Though Dīvān-e-Ghalib is a virtual gallery accessible to everyone, few would have their wits about themselves—along with the time, patience and love—to even begin to consider what confronts them. Having exhausted some months ago all the Ghalib ghazals that have been sung—music was my crutch when I began this journey and I was soon to realise that not more than forty-odd ghazals have been sung so far as availability on the internet goes—I looked for ghazals that had been at least recited., a website developed over four years ago, archives not just the many sung versions of one ghazal, they also host studio-recorded readings. Zia Mohiyeddin and Nomaan Shauque, erudite men with excellent diction, bring alive the music of the language, the drama, the play of breath (sometimes with lousy synthesiser-driven mp3 music thoughtlessly thrown in). Soon came the joyous realization that made me restless—that there’s no one way of reading a Ghalib ghazal, just as there’s no one way of singing him. It is just that meaning shifts depending on where you catch your breath, where you stop. Where you turn, where you trip, where you fall. You turn the words in your mouth and in your head, in sleep and in wakefulness, when you look out the window, or look into the mirror that’s only the memory of one. I try to find the words of equivalence for a language of such distinguished and distinctive equivocation; I look for words that turn back at the listener to say, No I didn’t mean that at all, as happens with all of us every day, just that we may not stop and pay attention, and when we happen to listen, we do not have the words. Ghalib writes in a language that is born to serve beauty, arriving in a highly evolved script, beguiling in Ghalib’s hand (that you’ll see anon with the opening verse of the Dīvān, Naqsh faryādī hai kis kī shoḳhī-e taḥrīr kā), and beauty, like love, always defies comprehension. Beauty and love derive no meaning from our awareness of them—but we do. I may not know how to read Ghalib off a page in his tongue but am lucky to be kissed by him nevertheless.

I am a tertiary reader, at best. A post-internet criminal interloper. My stabs at Ghalib are from an intimate yet immeasurable distance—stabs by a rank outsider now inside, an enthusiast, from the Greek enthousiasmos ‘divine inspiration’, from en ‘in’ + theos ‘god’ (with a heretic’s perverse thrill over this etymology). And, with a wink, Ghalib helps me speak the truth about the lie of meaning.


I read him in the Nagari and diacritical Roman scripts on Frances Pritchett’s museum–cum–dargah for the great poet, a virtual monument where all are welcome—it’s from here that I copy-paste the diacritical Roman text (and of late the Nagari script as well in which Sanskritic languages are written) so that that the few friends I share my drafts with are able to read them. I know enough Hindustani to get by. I grew up on Urdu–Hindi films, speaking Dakkhani and the hierarchy-free Telangana variety Telugu in Hyderabad in public, and a clumsy diasporic brahmin register of Tamil at a close-minded and parsimonious middle-class home that had no books, half-knowing each language and honing the only one in which you read me now. My first encounter with Mirza Ghalib was with the 1954 biopic of the same name directed by Shorab Modi, with the great Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto scripting it. A wooden Bharat Bhushan plays the poet with dull melancholy, and singer-actor Suraiyya plays the sad begum. I saw this on Doordarshan, the only tv channel then, state-run. But what got me hooked was the tele-series on the life, work and times of the poet broadcast over seventeen weekly episodes in 1988, again on Doordarshan, written and directed by Gulzar, and starring Naseeruddin Shah. I was 15. I soon learnt to hum many of the ghazals sung by Jagjit Singh and his wife Chitra Singh. I recorded most of them on a 90-min TDK cassette tape as it played on tv and heard them over and over. I realize now that the duo made all the ghazals sound quite the same, and that there was a whole world of music around these ghazals yet to be discovered. Back then I felt a wonderful fantasy world opening to me, the world of a poet who did nothing but poetry, and expected to be both praised and paid for it. It seemed like a dream. I understood little or nothing. But the words, charged with music, made a home inside me for years. Without finding meaning. Neither I nor Ghalib minded though. Would we not make love to someone whose language we didn’t grow up speaking? Arriving at Ghalib’s door after stints with sixteenth-century Kabir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–84), with the half-familiar but spoken tongues of many favours of Hindi, Telugu and Tamil jostling in my head, languages in which I emotionally and culturally experience the world and my place in it, over the last two years I have realized how Ghalib causes certain things to keep happening to and with words, each time differently, and why he so often pays an unabashed tribute to himself—like he says in a line above, Even reduced to dust, the desire to flaunt pride remains, not that we can say with any certainty that it is self-referential, for we can say nothing with certainty, though this much is certain, Each grain, belying itself, rivals the world-warming sun. Ghalib, like poets of the subcontinent across premodern languages and bastard modern upstarts like Urdu, often wrote his own blurbs, leaving behind a wide choice of what could go on his headstone. He knew he’d always be remembered for his poetry, and he said so in as many words in the signature line of the much-remembered three-couplet ghazal (listed as 32), Nah thā kuchh to ḳhudā thā—words that indeed adorn the headstone recently erected at his restored mausoleum in Delhi’s Nizamuddin, grave-site to some famous dead poets and mystics of Delhi.

huʾī muddat kih ġhālib mar gayā par yād ātā hai
vuh har ik bāt par kahnā kih yūñ hotā to kyā hotā

It’s been a while since Ghalib died, but you remember still
The way he said, at every turn, had it been that how this would be

We will never really know. And we cannot be damned enough for trying.


This calligrahic artwork is by the renowned classical singer of the dhrupad genre Ustad Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar. What it shares with Ghalib is the penchant for ambiguity and the endless possibilities of meaning. Using the nastaliq Arabic script, there’s a butterfly with its stylised spine forming the alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. When viewed sideways, the image presents the word Allah; held upside down, it reveals the Hindu/Buddhist chant ‘Om’, as well as a person sitting in padmasana, the lotus position, the spine (kundalini) rising. It is all things in one, yet one thing in all.

I read most (not all) of the commentary curated by FWP who tells us at the outset, ‘His poetry has attracted over the past century a very large—and not always very helpful—body of commentary.’ The links within links in Pritchett’s labyrinthine garden of forking paths, the online Platt’s dictionary, that compiles songs and voice files, various abandoned and active blogs that sigh over and are overawed by this apostatical genius, men and women who have, like me, stopped by—I have come to make the time for all this. It has become such a need that each once fulfilled it turns into an aspect of its own ruin, as Ghalib would say. I come face to face with a language so self-consciously cosmopolitan and classical with a cross-cultural bastard aesthetic, expressed with a singular sensibility that has synthesized so much that went before it, and stands as a challenge to anything the human mind can come up with in the future—I witness Ghalib claim the aristocracy of language.

I have entered a field where words have the ability to fold unto themselves when approached by meaning, even if offered in love. Never the wiser, let me yet consider here the meaning of translation, if it must have one, by reflecting on my choice of the simple generic ‘prophet’ for a specific prophet with a specific function rooted to a specific style of thinking through metaphors in the opening couplet of this ghazal, 68 in the Dīvān, that has triggered this excursus—ḳhiẓr in the second half of the second line, ʿumr-e ḳhiẓr darāz. Pritchett helpfully tells us just what we need to know via an expert she cites with such regularity that he feels like an old friend now, Bekhudi Mohani (1883–1940). She picks from his 1924 commentary the bit we must know:

Hazrat Khizr is a prophet, who always shows the way to lost ones. He has drunk the Water of Life, and will remain alive until Doomsday. Whichever road he passes over, fresh green grass begins to wave on it.

Khizr is not quite a prophet nor a saint; he’s the teacher of prophets, says another wise friend. By now, I have met Khwaja Khizr many times in Ghalib and elsewhere, in poetry and in fable, even in the story of Bonbibi from the mangroves-rimmed islands of Sundarbans. Khizr is immortal and wears green (because of some etymological accidents, I’m told). He rides on fish-back. I shall offer two other instances of how I handle this Bearded Knower of Directions, the Verdant One who’ll tell you where you must head if you are lucky to run into him and just ask, like I do often, for even faithless translators are but wayfarers who come to have chance encounters with Khizr (for that’s Khizr’s fortune).

ḳhiẓr sult̤āñ ko rakhe ḳhāliq-e akbar sar-sabz
shāh ke bāġh meñ yih tāzah nihāl achchhā hai

May the lord keep the immortal teacher who shows the way evergreen
In the lord’s garden, a sight to be seen is the new sapling


That’s the ninth and penultimate couplet in ghazal 174 (ḥusn-e mah garchih bah hangām-e kamāl achchhā hai) where we come to terms with the much travelled Khosrow–Shirin–Farhad story. There we consider the relationship of context and meaning and how with Ghalib mere knowledge of context, being immersed in the literary culture of the language, does not mean you will not have trouble parsing the poetry. Khizr, again, in the sixth and penultimate couplet of the much-sung taskīñ ko ham nah roʾeñ, 159 in the Dīvān:

lāzim nahīñ kih ḳhiẓr kī ham pai-ravī kareñ
jānā kih ik buzurg hameñ ham-safar mile

It is not as if every lost lover seeks the Teacher who knows the way
Even if we met him perchance, we’d think he’s some old fellow

Sufis belive that we all meet Khizr, also spelt Khidr, at least once in a lifetime. When we shake hands with an old bearded man, if the metacarpal of his thumb is missing he’s the one. Each once, the translation has to stand on its own and in the least aspire for the singularity of the original. Offering four versions of one couplet is to be unkind to the reader and to Ghalib (though I succumb on occasion).

The coming together of words for Ghalib is both a celebration of language as much as it is a negation of the certainty of meaning. This is where a thief like me, with no passport or visa, no papers or credentials whatsoever, sneaks past the borders of language into a place he should not be—the migrant whom no wall, real or imagined, can stop—only so he may cut language up in a way that meaning bleeds to a death that never comes.