An ode to Ghalib on his birth anniversary

The beauty of Ghalib’s poetry is that it is often universal in time and place

WrittenBy:Justice Markandey Katju
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Yesterday, December 27, was the birth anniversary of Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), universally regarded as the greatest figure in Urdu poetry, and, in my opinion, one of the greatest poets ever. I wish to mention something about Ghalib’s poetry and Urdu, as the new Indian generation seems to me unfamiliar with it.


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When I had appealed some years back to extend the Bharat Ratna to Ghalib, many people called me mad for asking the award to be given to a person long deceased. They said that in that case the award should also be given to Gautam Buddha and Emperor Ashoka.

But Ghalib is modern, not ancient or medieval, and the Bharat Ratna has been given posthumously to many persons such as Dr BR Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, and recently Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya.

Thus, in a sher (couplet), Ghalib writes:

Imaan mujhe rokey hai, jo kheeche hai mujhe kufr

  Kaaba merey peechey hai, kaleesa merey aage

[Faith is stopping me, while heresy is pulling me forward

Kaaba is behind me, the church is in front]

What does this couplet mean?

Urdu poets often write their verses not in a direct way but in a roundabout way, conveying their meaning indirectly by hints, allusions and indications. So, many things they write should not be taken literally but figuratively.

Ghalib was of the view that the language of poetry should not be the same as the spoken language of the common man, and he had a horror for the commonplace in poetic expression. So we often have to apply our head to understand him.

In the above sher, the words kufr (heresy), kaaba (the holiest Muslim shrine, in Mecca) and kaleesa (church are not to be understood literally).

In the sher, the word kufr really stands for rationalism, kaaba denotes backwardness, while kaleesa stands for modernisation (since the British, who went to churches were modern while Indians were feudal). Hence, Ghalib was opposed to feudalism and wanted India to modernise.

Consider another sher by Ghalib:

Rau mein hai rakhsh-e-umr kahaan dekhiye thame

Nai haath baag par hai, na paa hai rakaab mein

This couplet quintessentially reflects the historical situation in India today.

Rau means speed, rakhsh means horse, umr means time (it also means life, but here it means time or era), baag means reins (of a horse), and rakaab means stirrup.

Hence, the sher means: “The horse of the times is on the gallop, let us see where it stops. The rider has neither the reins in his hands, nor his feet in the stirrup.”

Ghalib was probably writing of the happenings at the time of the Great Mutiny of 1857, when events took place at a galloping pace. But the beauty of Ghalib’s poetry (as also of much of Urdu poetry) is that it is often universal in time and place.

Today in India, the pace of history has speeded up. Events are taking place much more rapidly than earlier, and one wonders where all this will end.

Ghalib was prophetic and a harbinger of the coming times. Thus, he writes:

“Hai maujazan ek kulzum-e-khoon kaash yahi ho

Aata hai abhi dekhiye kyaa kyaa mere aage”

[Before me is a turbulent sea of blood

But wait and see what is coming ahead]

In other words, worse times beckon India.

This transitional period in our history through which India is passing, from a feudal agricultural to a modern industrial society, is going to be a terrible period, just like the transitional period in European history, when Europe was transitioning from a feudal to a modern society, from the 16th to 19th centuries. That transition was accompanied by tremendous turbulence, turmoil, wars, revolutions, social churning and chaos, intellectual ferment, etc. It was only after going through that fire that modern society emerged in Europe.  India is presently going through that fire, a very painful and agonising period in our history, which, as Ghalib predicted, is going to intensify in the days to come.

Sometimes the reader can even give to an Urdu sher a meaning, which the poet never intended. To give an example, Ghalib writes:

“Pinha tha daam-e-sakht qareeb aashiyan ke

Udhne na paaye the ki giraftaar hum hue”

The word pinha means hidden or concealed, the word daam means net, the word sakht means hard, the word qareeb means near, and the word aashiyan means nest. So the sher literally means that near the nest of a bird there was a hard net (placed by a hunter), and the young chick was caught in it even before it could take its first flight.

I used the above sher in a judgment I gave in the Supreme Court, Buddhadev Karmaskar vs. State of West Bengal, but I gave it a meaning, which could never have been contemplated by Ghalib.

The case related to sex workers in India. There are millions of sex workers in India, and these girls become prostitutes not because they enjoy the profession but due to abject poverty. These poor girls, who should have had a life of happiness, are instead driven into this terrible profession due to abject poverty. So I compared them to the young chick referred to by Ghalib in his sher, which is caught in the hunter’s net even before it could make its first flight. Surely Ghalib could never have imagined that his sher could be given such a meaning.

In what many regard as the best judgment I delivered in my judicial career, Aruna Shanbaug versus Union of India, 2011, which related to euthanasia, I began my judgment with a sher from Ghalib:

“Marte hain  arzu mein marne ki, maut aati hai par nahin aati”

Great injustice has been done in our country to Urdu, whose finest exponent is Ghalib. Before 1947, Urdu was the common language of all educated Indians, whether Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs in large parts of India, and its poetry was of the highest order. But after 1947 it was branded by certain vested interests as a foreign language and a language of Muslims alone, it was a tragic development and a great blow to Indian culture.

I have been trying to restore the grandeur of Urdu. In this connection, see my article “What is Urdu” on my blog. It was part of a speech I delivered in Jamia Millia University; the video can also be seen on YouTube. See also my blog “The Power of Urdu poetry”.

I will conclude by quoting some verses of the great Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi recited by him at Ghalib’s death centenary function in Agra in 1969:

“Jin shehron mein goonji thi Ghalib ki nava barson

Un shehron men ab Urdu benaam-o-nishan thehri

Azadi-e-kaamil ka ailan hua jis din

Maa’toob zubaan thehri, ghaddar zubaan thehri”

Jis ahad-e-siyasat ne yeh zinda zubaan kuchli

Us ahad-e-siyasat ko mehroomon ka gham kyun hai ?

Ghalib jise kehte hain Urdu hi ka shayer tha

Urdu par sitam dhaa kar, Ghalib par karam kyun hai ? “


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