Review: How Reliable Is Interpretation of Poetry?

In 'The Evolution of Ghalib', the author Hasan Abdullah attempts to portray Ghalib as 'numer uno'.

As the author makes clear right in the beginning of the book, this is not a biography of the great Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan ‘Ghalib’. Instead, it’s a book that attempts to trace his “intellectual evolution by studying, interpreting and analysing his poetry. Keenly aware of the existence of a very large number of studies on Ghalib’s life and poetry, the writer offers his justification for adding yet another book to the “vast array of works” on him, saying that “I understand this is the first time such an exercise has been attempted in any language”. Only a close reading of the book can reveal the extent to which this attempt has been successful.

Hasan Abdullah, who has made this attempt, is a technocrat with degrees in engineering from Delhi College of Engineering and Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D). Perhaps this explains his occasional use of flowery language that tends to lean towards hyperbole or emotionally charged utterances. A. Naseeb Khan, who has rendered Ghalib’s Urdu poetry into English, has assisted him in the project to delineate the various stages in Ghalib’s development as a poet and an intellectual.

While any attempt to break new ground must be welcome, it still begs the question if writing an intellectual biography of a great poet like Ghalib through the interpretation and analysis of his poetry is realistically possible. One is not very clear about the basis on which a chronological order could be assigned to it and various stages of its development could be clearly delineated and outlined. The writer is well aware of the difficulties that he is likely to encounter and one is not too sure if he has been able to overcome them or meet the challenge with noteworthy success. Yet, the very fact that he undertook this exercise is in itself laudable and deserves to be taken note of.

The author makes a confession that he was attracted to study Ghalib’s poetry because of its availability in chronological order. Had it not been so, he could not have thought of undertaking the exercise to “trace the evolution of this intellectual colossus.” However, he goes about this business by establishing equivalence between the literal meaning of Ghalib’s couplets and his life, and this methodological approach smacks of what is known as “vulgar sociology”. It’s true that one can be sure of the chronological order in which Ghalib’s various Diwans and other books were published. But, how can ascribe a chronological order to the composition of hundreds of his couplets? Even within a Ghazal, the placement of couplets does not necessarily mean that they were composed in the same order. In fact, two consecutive couplets could have been composed at different times and at different places. There is no certitude about it. It also has a lot to do with the creative processes of Ghalib about which we really do not know much.

It’s gratifying that such methodological problems failed to weaken the author’s resolve and his painstaking efforts have borne fruit in the form of this book. He has divided Ghalib’s poetic career (1813-67) into four main stages – Debut (D), Exploration (E), Bloom (B) and Twilight (T). They have been further divided into sub-stages. Debut has been divided into two sub-stages – Juvenile Genius (1813-16) when Ghalib was 15-18 years old and Professional Poet (Post-1816) when he was 19. Exploration has been sub-divided into three – Upbeat Wanderer (1818-21) when the poet was 20-23 years old, Secret Seeker (post-1821) when he was 24 and Budding Philosopher when he was 25-28 years. Bloom has also been split into three sub-stages – Dialectical Thinker (Post-1826-28), Maturing Artist (1829-47) and Numero Uno (Post-1847-51). The last stage Twilight has been broken into two – Past Master (1852-57) and Dwindling Star (Post-1857-67). In the course of undertaking this tedious exercise, the author has taken into account a total of 3,223 couplets that include those too that had not been included by Ghalib in his diwans (collections). Of them, he has selected 803 couplets for the purpose of interpretation of Ghalib’s poetry and to draw up a kind of map of his evolution as a poet and an intellectual.

It is not possible in a short review to offer a detailed account of the author’s considerable effort to take his project to its logical conclusion. Like a technocrat, he has adopted a systematic – rather schematic – approach towards solving the riddle of Ghalib’s epoch-making genius. However, one is at a loss to understand why he should act as a self-confessed “partisan of Ghalib” when the great poet himself eschewed any such approach to appreciation and assessment of a poetry. In his famous couplet for which he got into trouble with the last Mughal Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar, the poet had himself announced that he was a lover of literature, not a partisan of Ghalib and was making his literary evaluation solely on the basis of literary criteria. A great poet like Ghalib does not in any case need a partisan nearly 150 years after his death. And, here, one is afraid that the author has lapsed in his critical judgment.

In an attempt to establish Ghalib as a “Numero Uno” among not only his contemporaries but among all Urdu poets, the author unnecessarily drags Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ into the discussion and asserts that “At least for the partisans of Ghalib, there is little doubt that in Urdu poetry, Ghalib is the undisputed Numero Uno and Mir comes a distant second.” One is sure that the author is aware of Mir’s reputation in the world of Urdu poetry. He is called Khuda-e-Sukhan (God of Poetry) and Ghalib is known as Shahanshah-e-Sukhan (Emperor of Poetry). There is no need to explain that no emperor can ever aspire to equal God. It will be difficult to find anybody who appreciates and loves Urdu poetry to concur with the author’s assertion that “Mir comes a distant second” after Ghalib.

The interpretation of Ghalib’s couplet regarding Mir too falls short and fails to capture the real intent of the poet. Ghalib, who was well aware of his worth as a poet and seldom recognised other poets’ contributions, paid his tribute to his senior in his own characteristic, irreverent manner:

“Rekhtey ke tumheen ustad naheen ho, Ghalib

Kahtey hain agley zamaaney mein koi Mir bhee thaa”

(You are not the only master of Urdu, Ghalib

They say in past there was a certain Mir as well)

The author interprets Ghalib’s use of the words “a certain Mir” as a confirmation of his belief that “Ghalib places Mir in his league, even if not at par with himself.”

However, the reality was quite different. Ghalib repeatedly paid tribute to Mir in his own way. One of his celebrated couplets is as follows:

“Ghalib apna to yeh aqeeda hai baqaul-e-Nasikh

Aap bebahra hai jo motqid-e-Mir nahin”

(Ghalib, it’s my belief in the words of Nasikh

He who vows not on Mir is himself an ignoramus)

Not only this, on February 15, 1867, Ghalib wrote a letter to his friend Munshi Habibullah Khan Zaka wherein he quoted a couplet of Mir to describe his own situation.

“Mashhoor hain aalam mein magar hon bhi kaheen ham

Alkissa na dar pe ho hamaare ke nahin ham”

(The whole world knows me, but my tale is done

In short, do not pursue me; I am gone)

Can anybody imagine Ghalib quoting a lesser poet to describe his own situation? He could himself have composed a couplet to express his anguish. Instead, he took refuge in Mir’s poetry because he revered Mir and held him in the highest esteem.

It is not the purpose of this writer to find fault with the book but only to draw attention to the weaknesses in the interpretative apparatus of the author. However, it is not easy to come across such labour of love, done with great dedication and sincerity, very often. This book opens up avenues of further research for future scholars and should be accorded a warm welcome.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.