Mirza Ghalib and the Law: A Curious Romance

The grand bard’s lifelong quest as a litigant not only influenced his poetry, it even decided his fate as a defendant. His relationship with law and judiciary continues to this day in intriguing ways.

The year was perhaps 2006. A single judge of the high court had been hearing a poised and soft-spoken counsel since morning. When arguments remained inconclusive even by 1:15 pm, he posted the matter for another date (after more than a month) and rose for lunch. The counsel vehemently pleaded for a shorter date but the judge told him that his roster did not permit it.

As the judge turned away to go towards his chambers, the counsel recited the second line of a well-known Urdu couplet: Kaun jeeta hai teri zulf ke sar hote tak (Who lasts till your tresses are won over). The judge turned back and addressed the counsel, “Pehla misra parhiye (Recite the first line).” The counsel recited: Aah ko chaahiye ek umr asar hote tak (A sigh, to yield results, needs a lifetime). “List the matter in the coming week,” the judge ordered his court master and walked away.

The romance of Urdu poetry unfolds itself in strange ways and in unexpected places. This one unfolded in the Delhi high court. The judge was Tirath Singh Thakur (later Chief Justice of India), the counsel, Najmi Waziri (now Mr Justice) and the poet, on whose strength a shorter date was granted, none other than Mirza Ghalib, the grand bard of Mughal Delhi and widely considered the tallest Urdu poet of all time.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, while the Mughal Empire was in spectacular decline, Delhi had become home to some of the greatest Urdu poets. Towering high over all of them was Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, whose sudden emergence on Delhi’s impenetrable literary scene in the early 1800s left Mughal India baffled and crying for more. Ghalib wrote not only about the pleasure and pain of love and the seduction of wine but also about life and its vicissitudes.

A portrait of Ghalib by Aloke Lal.

Ghalib’s tryst with law 

But what on earth did Ghalib have to do with law? One may legitimately ask.

To answer this question, we need to take a look at Ghalib’s socio-familial circumstances. Ghalib’s father, Mirza Abdullah Beg Khan, died in 1803 when Ghalib was only five. For a few years after his father’s death, his uncle, Mirza Nasrullah Beg, who was commander of Agra Fort under the Marathas, took care of him and his siblings. In the late 18th century, he had been appointed as an officer of 400 cavalrymen in the British Armed Forces by its commander-in-chief, General Gerald Lake, at a handsome monthly salary of Rs 1,700.

When he died in 1806, his family pension was fixed at Rs 10,000 per annum, to be paid by the British East India Company. But it was linked, for some reason, to the estate of Firozepur Jhirka. In 1822, the Nawab of Loharu and Firozepur Jhirka, Ahmad Baksh Khan, whose niece Umrao would later be Ghalib’s wife, appointed his eldest son Shamsuddin as his heir apparent and estate manager, and the Begs’ family pension was reduced to Rs 3,000 per annum, out of which Ghalib’s share was Rs 62.50 per month.

Ghalib spent half his life unsuccessfully litigating for this amount. Having failed to resolve the matter through the intervention of influential friends, he decided to seek recourse to legal remedies. For years, this would remain the central concern and activity of his life.

Epic saga of the elusive pension

In 1811, Ghalib approached the British Resident at Delhi, Sir Charles Metcalfe, with a claim for his pension but could not meet him personally. He was told that only William Amherst, the governor general-in-council sitting in Calcutta (the highest officer of the British establishment in India) could help him.

Convinced of the merits of his claim, in 1826 Ghalib set out on a journey to Calcutta. He arrived in Calcutta on February 21, 1828 – after a year-and-a-half – and stayed there for another year-and-a-half.

Ghalib soon managed to secure an audience with the British chief secretary, Andrew Sterling, and his deputy, Simon Fraser. They placed his case before the governor general-in-council, who refused to hear him personally unless the matter was brought to the council through the Resident at Delhi.

By this time, Metcalfe had been replaced by Edward Colebrook as Resident, whom Ghalib knew personally. Ghalib immediately engaged the services of Delhi’s prominent lawyer, Pandit Hira Nand, to represent him before Colebrook. He sold some of his belongings and sent his case papers and Vakalatnama to Hira Nand by post. But, as luck would have it, Colebrook was transferred out of Delhi and William Fraser succeeded him as Resident, diminishing any hopes of an early resolution for Ghalib.

At one point, Ghalib also approached the Sadar Diwani Adalat in Calcutta – the chief revenue court (established by the British in 1772) – but his claim was summarily dismissed on the ground that the adalat had no jurisdiction in the matter.

When the issue remained pending, a dejected Ghalib returned to Delhi in August 1829, cursing his time in Calcutta as one of the most painful periods of his life:

Kalkatte ka jo zikr kiya tu ne hum-nasheen
Ek teer mere seene mein maara ke haai haai

When you mentioned Calcutta, my friend
You pierced my heart with an arrow, haai haai

In Delhi, the claim filed by him before the Resident was also dismissed. Some biographers claim that Ghalib made an appeal against this dismissal and sent it by post to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London but that too was summarily rejected.

The saga of the elusive pension, though, was hardly over. Shortly after the Company dismissed Ghalib’s claim, his wife’s cousin, Nawab Shamsuddin, with whose estate the pension was linked, is said to have approached him and told him that he could convince Fraser to decide the case in his favour but it would cost him money. Ghalib again borrowed money from lenders and gave it to Shamsuddin.

However, in a twist of fate, the Nawab fell afoul of the British. Around that time, Shamsuddin had married Wazir Khanum, a remarkable woman of independent spirit and enterprise, who had earlier caught Fraser’s attention. On March 22, 1835, Fraser was murdered, and Shamsuddin was charged and soon sentenced to death for conspiring to murder him. With Shamsuddin’s death, Ghalib lost all hopes of getting his pension restored.

The lure of chausar and a journey to prison

Ghalib had borrowed money from lenders for his Calcutta travel; and on his return to Delhi, continued to borrow more. He was fond not just of fine English liquor but also of playing the game of chausar, which was then considered an act of ‘gambling’ under the extant laws (later codified in the form of the Public Gambling Act of 1867).

When the friendly kotwal of Delhi was replaced by one who disliked Ghalib intensely – Faizul Hasan Khan – things became difficult at the chausar end. But Ghalib continued to play and was soon sinking in debt. Creditors began pressing for recovery.

In 1837, a creditor sued him for the recovery of Rs 5,000 and a money-decree was passed against Ghalib. It is believed that a friend paid the money on his behalf, again as a loan. In 1841, Ghalib’s house was raided and a fine of hundred rupees was imposed on him for gambling. After another gambling raid six years later, he was arrested and sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment and fined two hundred rupees.

Ghalib accused the kotwal of malafide and decided to contest the case. The sentence was confirmed and later reduced to simple imprisonment. Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar intervened and requested the British authorities to grant Ghalib reprieve but to no avail. After he had served about half his sentence, Ghalib was released on the advice of the British civil surgeon, Dr Ross who had been approached by the poet Momin Khan Momin for this personal favour.

Crafting legal metaphors  

Ghalib’s frequent brushes with the law resonate in the form of legal terminology married to verse in many of his ghazals. Diwan-e-Ghalib is replete with terms such as adaalat (court), faujdaari (criminal law), sarishtedaar (court master), gawaah (witness), talab (summon), hukm (order), muqaddama (case or lawsuit), daim al-habs (life imprisonment), giraftaari (arrest), muddai (plaintiff or petitioner), mudda’a alaih (defendant or respondent), roobakaari (hearing), etc.

Even though Ghalib uses these terms metaphorically, such use itself shows his familiarity with the legal system of his day, points out Tahir Mahmood in his essay, Legal Metaphor in Ghalib’s Urdu Poetry, in the Islamic and Comparative Law Quarterly (VIII:3, Delhi, 1988).

In a five-verse set found in one of his most beautiful ghazals, which begins with the words Phir kuchh ek dil ko beqaraari hai (Once again, the heart is somewhat restless), Ghalib tries a delightful use of legal metaphor:

Phir khula hai dar-e-adaalat-e-naaz
Garm bazaar-e-faujdaari hai

Ho raha hai jahaan mein andher
Zulf ki phir sarishte-daari hai

Phir diya paara-e-jigar ne sawaal
Ek faryaad-e aah-o-zaari hai 

Phir hue hain gawaah-e-ishq talab
Ashkbaari ka hukm jaari hai

Dil-o-mizhgaan ka jo muqaddama tha
Aaj phir us ki roobakaari hai 

The door of the court of coquetry is open again
There is a bazar-like briskness about the criminal case.

The world is covered in darkness
Her curls have been appointed the court’s record-keepers.

A piece of the heart has filed a petition
The complaint is full of sighs and moans. 

The witnesses of love have been summoned again
An order has been passed to shed tears.

That old dispute between the heart and the eyelashes
It has come for a hearing yet again.

Or take these verses where legal metaphor has been liberally employed:

Jaan dar hawa-e yak nigaah-e-garm hai Asad
Parwaana hai vakeel tere daad-khvaah ka

Your soul, Asad, beseeches one burning glance
The moth has been engaged to plead your petitioner’s case.

Dil mudda’i o deeda bana mudda’a alaih
Nazzaare ka muqaddama phir roobakaar hai

The heart is the plaintiff and eye, the defendant
The case of gazing has again been called for hearing

When poetry came to the poet’s rescue

Ghalib’s life as a litigant surely influenced his poetry. But there is also a fascinating instance where his poetry decided his fate as a defendant. It is said that once a wine merchant sued Ghalib for recovery of debt. There is some confusion as to whether this was the same claim in which a decree of Rs 5,000 was passed against him in 1837 or not. Anyhow, the matter came up before the Small Causes Court presided over by Mufti Sadruddin Aazurdah, the chief mufti of Delhi, the highest judicial position in those days that an Indian could occupy.

Mufti saheb was himself a well-known poet and an old friend of Ghalib’s. In those days, judges would not ‘recuse’ themselves for any reason. They would hear all cases before them and, as expected of judges, decide “without fear or favour”. When Ghalib appeared before the Mufti in response to court summons, the Mufti asked him if he admitted the claim. Ghalib recited his, now oft-quoted, couplet:

Qarz ki peete thay mai, lekin samajhte thay, ki haan
Rang laave gi hamaari faaqa-masti ek din

I used to drink on credit and think
Making merry in penury will do wonders someday

The mufti treated this as an oral admission, decreed the suit there and then, paid the money to the plaintiff out of his own pocket, and set Ghalib free to go home.

The poet and the judiciary: a relationship across time

Ghalib spent a lifetime in judicial corridors. However, little did he know that even after his death, his rights would have to be litigated for. In response to a PIL filed in the Delhi high court in 1996, the court ordered the restoration of Ghalib’s usurped and decrepit haveli at Gali Qasimjan in Old Delhi’s Ballimaran, where he had spent the last nine years of his life. The haveli is today a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Ghalib’s relationship with law and judiciary continues in curious ways. In 2005, hearing a PIL relating to the same haveli, the then Delhi high court chief justice, Markandey Katju, admonished the counsel for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for having come to defend Ghalib without reading his poetry!

Gali Qasimjan in Ballimaran, in Old Delhi, where Ghalib lived almost all his life. Photo: Anant Raina

And in 2011, Justice Rajiv Shakdher of the same high court, rejecting the argument of a distinguished lawyer that expenses incurred on his heart treatment were deductible while computing income tax, began his judgment (Shanti Bhushan vs CIT) with one of Ghalib’s most well-known couplets:

Dil-e-naadaan tujhe hua kya hai
Aakhir is dard ki dawa kya hai 

O naive heart, what has happened to you?
Whatever could be the cure for this pain?

In a bizarre incident in 2012, a Maharashtra police inspector filed an affidavit before the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Tribunal, claiming that one of the members of a banned organisation was inspired by Ghalib! The following sher had been found scribbled in his diary:

Mauj-e-khoon sar se guzar hi kyon na jaaye
Aastaan-e-yaar se uth jaaein kya?

Roughly translated, it would mean: “Even if a wave of blood were to pass over my head, I would not leave my beloved’s doorway”. If charged for malicious prosecution, the inspector would be well within his rights to plead the defence of insanity.

Even such comical aberrations point to one fact, namely that Ghalib’s legacy endures. After all, the poet had himself prophesied that even years after his death, people would remember him for his inquisitiveness that sought – and found – wisdom:

Hui muddat ki Ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai
Vo har ek baat par kehna ki yoon hota toh kya hota 

Ghalib has been dead for long, but we still remember
His questioning everything – ‘If it were so, how would it have been?’

Saif Mahmood is advocate, Supreme Court of India, and author of Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets (2018), published by Speaking Tiger.