By Kanav Gupta:
As early as 1812, a 16-year-old man moves from Agra – permanently – to Delhi, and takes up a rented accommodation in Gali Qasim Jan in what is now called Old Delhi. This man is an aspiring poet (perhaps every poet is always ‘aspiring’, and every ‘aspiring poet’, always already a poet). Within four years of his arrival, this poet finishes his first collection of poems, and adopts a pen name, the mere utterance of which for his lovers some two hundred years later, would make them shut their eyes involuntarily, as if they were remembering one of their own – ‘Ghalib’, the victorious one.
Delhi was the centre of culture and power. For a budding poet-intellectual (these modern distinctions are, well, rather new in the history of humankind), Delhi was the place to be. From here, a man of the arts could see socio-economic ascent and even make a name for himself in the world of letters, through the chief patron of the arts of the time – the Mughal court. What’s in a name and yet, there are few names which become the person, which signify the individual so perfectly that it is impossible to disarticulate the name from them in a Saussurean/Derridian/whatever way. Ghalib was a better poet than whoever was the best at that time (and for times to come), by a mile. His funambulism with tradition irked the purists but his daredevil invention dazzled them, almost confused them, still confuses them. To this day, Ghalib remains true to his name.
बसकि हूँ ग़ालिब असीरी में भी आतिश ज़ेर-ए पा
मू-ए आतिश-दीदा है हलक़ा मिरी ज़ंजीर का
Even under arrest, I, Ghalib, am fire-under-feet
Each link of my chain is hair that has seen fire
And yet the purpose of this piece is to not eulogise but to reflect on Ghalib’s life with his own black humour, and see him in a new, unfamiliar light: that he was Delhi’s first ad-hoc!
The distance between Gali Qasim Jan and the Lal Qila was as far as any distance within the walled city. This distance proved also to be figurative in Ghalib’s life. The decadent lamp of the Mughal empire, Zafar, had employed an ustad to teach him the art of writing poetry. Unlike our modern ministers who write poetry as well (no comments on that), Zafar proved to be a fine poet of the Urdu ghazal tradition. The ‘permanent teacher’ at Zafar’s court was a man called Ibrahim Zauq, a figure who, while they were trying to apotheosise Ghalib on film and TV, got perhaps unfairly demonised in the popular imagination as an arrogant but dumb poet. Nevertheless, the evidence of Zauq’s poetry is surely available and it is certain that the man was a much lesser poet than our protagonist.
Ghalib’s success in the court mushairas is met with much praise, but never a steady and certain pension until late into his life, by which time he had seen and suffered both the tragedy of death and the ignominy of debt. Even when he receives Zafar’s pension, Ghalib displays sharp awareness of the power dynamics of patronage that often bend the artist’s pen. However, Ghalib’s arching irony almost never fails him. The following she’r should echo with many ad-hocs today:
ग़ालिब वज़ीफ़ा-ख़्वार हो दो शाह को दुआ
वो दिन गए कि कहते थे नौकर नहीं हूँ मैं
Ghalib you’re a pension-eater, bless the king!
Those days have gone when you’d say ‘I am not a servant’
The suppressed but chastising mock-lament of the she’r is lost on no one. The travails of patronage in a feudal political economy do hinder the pen and lead on to inventions of metaphor and irony. If this she’r echoes with some ad-hocs today, it points to a rather rotten state of affairs: after all, we are not a feudal state today – whatever happened to of the-for the-by the? Yes, no point being idealistic. Everything in token democracies happens in the fashion of a feudal order. After all, it is still the legatees of that old world which the largest section of this country calls ‘culture’ today. This definition of culture as everything decadent that comes from the past is nothing but a tangential negotiation with power. In colleges today, parallel gift economies operate, thrive and are subtly encouraged. Another poet comes to mind, as he fashions and spells ad-hoc ideals out:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Anyway, back to Ghalib. Where Ghalib does not go masochistically ironical, he goes pretentiously deferential. However, ours is not the age of irony, otherwise, we would see how the following she’r offers the philosophy of power which drives the engines today:
ग़ालिब भी गरन हो तो कुछ ऐसा ज़रर नहीं
दुनिया हो या रब और मिरा बादशाह हो
It would not be such a loss, Ghalib’s not existing
May the world be, Oh Lord, and my King
In the mid-nineteenth century, there were two centres of power: the British resident and the Mughal emperor (Zafar ascends the throne in 1837). Let us push the rhetorical envelope and look at the two centres in today’s context as the administrative authority and the Department. I leave it for you to decide which is which! From 1825 to about 1831, Ghalib travels one town after the other – as far as Calcutta to get his pension released from the company, a case which after several recommendations, pleas and negotiations is summarily dismissed in 1831. By this year, Ghalib has been sued for debt, arrested, insulted, fined: this, this greatest of our poets. Later, he is even imprisoned for gambling.
Both the aforementioned centres of power which come to clash brutally in 1857, act as patrons to Ghalib. Being the ad-hoc poet at the Qila, he is never entrusted responsibility of the ustad to Zafar (until 1854 when Zauq dies!). He is instead commissioned to produce a history of the Timurid dynasty in return for an annual pension and some honorary titles. A few years later, Ghalib translates a Persian masnavi, again at Zafar’s behest (Translations, of course, are a big thing now, AECC-GEC walas!). The solution to gham-e-rozgar comes at the sacrifice of gham-e-ishq. Must it continue to be the same way to this day? Must one choose between these, only one?
Throughout this phase, Ghalib sees regular deaths of loved ones including his brother and minor sons. Later, he also gets a small pension from Wajid Ali Shah, the nawab of (another university, ouch!) – Awadh in 1855. Slightly later, Ghalib also writes a qasidah to queen Victoria (1856), a decision which today is perhaps difficult to condone, but possible to understand – all the advocates and votaries of ‘how great some of the fancy private univs are’ will surely understand and defend Ghalib?
ज़िंदगी अपनी जब इस शकल से गुज़्री ग़ालिब
हम भी क्या याद करेंगे कि ख़ुदा रखते थे
When our life became this wretched shape, Ghalib
Would we even remember that we kept a God
After the brutal destruction of Delhi, a broken Ghalib derives some meagre protection from Patiala and pension from Rampur besides some support from Sayyid Ahmad Khan. His formal honours of the Delhi court are restored sometime in the early 1860s but the destruction of Delhi (Univ?) has already broken his spirits. His health begins to deteriorate when he leaves Delhi for Rampur for the coronation ceremony of the new Nawab in 1865. After this, and before he dies a sad, lonely death in 1869, his unfulfilled life goes through some more turmoil: a defamation suit against a venomous polemicist, loss of sight and hearing, and coma. It takes about 90 more years for his present tomb to be built at Nizamuddin.
मारा ज़माने ने असदुल्लाह ख़ाँ तुम्हें
वो वलवले कहाँ वो जवानी किधर गई
The world killed you, dear Asadullah Khan
Where did those laments, that youth, alas, go?
Apart from the perennial uncertainty as the intellectual/poet/teacher at the court, and with his pension with the British, the other incident that brings Ghalib inseparably close to the title of the ‘first ad-hoc of Delhi‘ involves the present day Zakir Hussain college! Yes, that close! Zakir Hussain College (est. 1692) was then called Dilli College, and stands as a veritable symbol of transition of the history of letters into a salaried modernity. In contrast to the world of pensions and patrons, Dilli College offered professor’s jobs based on interviews.
As early as 1840, upon a recommendation for his name to the professorship, Ghalib was summoned to the college. But our Mirza sahib refused to take any humiliating interviews for a professorship of Persian, a language in which he had published two diwans and a book of grammar! He deemed it way below his stature that someone could interview him! Well, Ghalib had some audacity! But he did suffer for it. Ghalib’s poetry, especially after 1858, is replete with the trope of the shehr e aashob (the lament of the city, or the city of lamenters). While one could end suitably piquantly with some couplets from there, it might be better to keep the strain of the audacious going. Here is a useful reminder from our patron ad-hoc!
हुआ जब ग़म से यूँ बे-हिस तो ग़म क्या सर के कटने का
न होता गर जुदा तन से तो ज़ानू पर धरा होता
When it is numb to sadness, then what pain in severing the head?
If it weren’t severed from the body, it would be kept on the knee – (in supplication/in grief?)
And of course, there are channels of hope:
रात दिन गर्दिश में हैं सात आस्माँ
हो रहेगा कुछ न कुछ घबराएँ क्या
Night and day seven heavens revolve in the skies
Something will turn up for sure, what’s to fear
And surely, for any who might not know who or what is Ghalib, I say #knowyourGhalib!
पूछते हैं वो कि ग़ालिब कौन है
कोई बतलाओ कि हम बतलाएं क्या
They ask who, after all, is Ghalib
Someone go tell them, what can I say