A Priceless Pearl: Ghalib’s Persian Divan

While Ghalib's popularity rests mainly on his Urdu poetry, a wholistic assessment of the poet cannot be made without taking into account the huge amount of work he had produced in Persian.

Don’t be awed by Urfi because he is from Shiraz
Don’t be captivated by Zulali because he is from Khwansar
Come into the Somnath of my imagination, so you can see,
My soul-illuminating eye brows, my sacred thread covered shoulders.

∼ Ghalib

Although Ghalib’s Persian compositions are by far greater in volume than his Urdu verses, his greatness, and popularity, rests mainly on his Urdu poetry, especially in the Indian subcontinent. This, in spite of the fact that Ghalib appears to have valued his Persian contribution much more than his Urdu. This anomaly was most likely the result of the rapid decline of Persian in India in the nineteenth century. While both the Urdu and the Persian divans went through multiple editions in Ghalib’s lifetime, the Urdu divan, despite its reputedly “difficult” poetry became the chosen one for wider circulation.

Ghalib’s Urdu poetry was made accessible through the numerous commentaries that were published. No one seemed to be interested in doing the same for Persian. Thus, there were few readers for the Persian in India and Pakistan. This prejudice could have been attenuated if Persianists in Iran had welcomed Ghalib’s poetry. But Ghalib’s metaphors were culturally nuanced and not strictly suited to the Iranian taste despite his claims that he had the flair of a native speaker of Persian. Ghalib spent a lot of energy in excavating pre-Islamic Persian vocabulary in order to make his language pure and pristine.

Sheikh Ali Hazin Lahiji (1691-1766) arrived at the Mughal court in 1734. He eventually settled in Banaras and is buried there. Lahiji was appalled by Indian Persian and found it to be lacking the sweetness of natural language. He referred to Indian poets as ‘crows’ not ‘nightingales’, perhaps because their language wasn’t as smooth and melodious as a native Iranian’s.

Lahiji found the writings of eminent poets such as Bedil and Nasir Ali as meaningless, or beyond comprehension. Hazin’s literary feuds with the great lexicographer-poet Khan-e Arzu are illustrative of the debates over Indian Persian diction aimed to standardise a literary style. Arzu was in favour of innovation and evolving language in consonance with literary geography; he made a strong case for a pan-literary identity. Nonetheless, the views of Lahiji and subsequent critics pierced the confidence of Indian Persian writers. Even a poet of Ghalib’s stature had to push his claim for ‘native flair’ to the extent of proclaiming an Iranian ustad Abdus Samad, from whom he declared to have learnt current Persian usages.

When I began my work on Ghalib’s intellectual-textual history, my focus was his Urdu divans. In the course of my research, I realised that a wholistic assessment of Ghalib cannot be made without taking into account the huge amount of work he had produced in Persian. Once again, Hali’s monumental Yadgar-e Ghalib, appeared to be among a handful of books that actually evaluated Ghalib as a Persian and Urdu poet. I have now become intensely aware of the fate that befalls texts that languish in a linguistic space that is hyphenated because of the vagaries of historical, colonial, nationalistic boundaries.

When the British replaced Persian with Urdu in 1835, Urdu was in the process of developing its literary and functional prose styles. The early tazkirahs (alphabetical biographies of writers with samples of their work) of Urdu poets were written in Persian. Ghalib’s preface (Dibachah) to his Urdu divan published in 1841, was in baroque Persian. Later editions of the divan deleted the Persian preface altogether because no one seemed interested in reading it. If it had been read, an obvious, but little-known fact would be common knowledge. This slender divan was a selection, an intikhab.

Ghalib, over the years, reduced his Urdu verses from 4,000 to about 1,800. Fortunately, Ghalib’s textual history for Urdu can be mapped. But the Persian divan’s history is not mapped in the same way. Since the manuscripts of the Persian divan have not been scrutinised by scholars, and because it is so much greater in volume, it is generally accepted that Ghalib did not severely prune his Persian compositions. The Persian verses are roughly 10,000. A considerable number are from the brilliant masanvis that he penned. In fact, four out of the 11 masnavis that he wrote, notably Chiragh-e Dair, Abr-e Guhar bar, Taqriz-e Ain-e Akbari, and Ashtinamah are well-known; they have been translated into Urdu as well. The Taqriz, is the only one available in English. It was translated by my father.

None of the six scholarly editions of Gul-e ra’na, offer a translation or analysis of the thought-provoking preface that Ghalib wrote for his first selection. After reading Gul-e ra’na’s preface (with invaluable help from my father), I was compelled to deepen my inquiry into Ghalib’s complex relationship with the literary composition in Urdu and Persian. The Persian divan’s Dibachah is lengthy, running into 15 pages. It looked formidable; of course, it has not been translated. Armed with a small grant from my university’s Center for Global Innovation and Inquiry, I am collaborating with Jane Mikkelson, a scholar of Bedil, to read Ghalib’s Dibachah. We sit upstairs at a secluded oak table in the dimly-lit coffee-shop-cum-bakery enveloped with aromas of scones baking and cakes being iced. Figuring Ghalib fortified with coffee, scones and the internet, we are straddling nearly two hundred years of literary communication. Ghalib speaks to us, we connect with him.

Unlike writing in Urdu, Ghalib’s Persian has to contend with the tall reputation of his forbears. The Persian tradition is sparkling with Hafez, Sa’di, Urfi, Kaleem and a host of great poets. In the immediate past, there is Hazin. There is the anguish of being an Indian writing in Persian. Ghalib has distanced himself from Bedil. He despises Indian Persianists. It seems that Ghalib is both placating and challenging those who claim Persian to be their mother tongue. In the qita with which I begin this essay, Ghalib proclaims his Indianness. He is proud to enrich Persian with delights of his imagination. I think Ghalib is taking a distinctive position here. He is claiming stature in Persian as an equal. He wants to prove his Persian sensibilities by excavating the “pure” Persian idiom. He cannot bear to be seen as an inferior, as other Indian writers were because of their overly stylised, artificial, Indianised Persian. Ghalib posts a complicated verse in the early part of the Dibachah that expresses the emotions of ‘equality in rivalry’ that I am trying to highlight:

I enjoy a companion in lamentation, so I give up my feelings of envy
When I see the rival walk the road to the Beloved.
Thorns pierce his foot. He laments in pain.
May the thorns on your road be always pricking the rival’s foot. 

It will be a while before Jane’s and my translation is ready to be shared. I leave you with a taste of Ghalib’s dazzling rhetoric:

I am scarred by the shortsighted jealous ones who cannot be thrilled by the blossoming of a fresh rose in the grass, of the lightning that sparkles in the dark night. Those who find it difficult to appreciate the movement of speaking lips uttering delicate poetry. The bud’s essence is fragrance and the breeze its diffuser. The flower blossoms and the bulbul sings. What crime has the tongue perpetrated that it cannot become a poet? The sun’s essence is to shine, the particle’s restlessness, the ocean’s flow, and the drop to be shattered. Who has told the heart that anxiety must arise from tumult?

Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor at the Department of Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures, University of Virginia, US.