Reading Kishwar Naheed’s Dialogue Between Ghalib And Gandhi, On Ghalib’s 152nd Death Anniversary

Mirza Ghalib, who passed away 152 years ago today, is not just a personage in the history of Urdu literature but an era. The Ghalib stage in the 19th century arguably represented an apotheosis of sorts for Urdu sukhan, or the poetic aesthetic: Asadullah Ghalib (known lovingly among Urduwalas as chacha Ghalib, and to Hyderabadis simply as chicha) took the poets of his era, who were still recycling Mir Taqi Mir’s tropes, to school with his incredible riffs on philosophy, love and politics, making it clear who the real inheritor of Mir’s mantle was. Despite his poverty, cantankerous nature and needless obsession with Persian (which led him to devalue his own Urdu poetry and waste time on inferior Farsi efforts), he was recognized as a genius in his own time (at least by the cognoscenti), and in the 150 years since his death, he has acquired the status of a colossus in the poetic landscape of Urdu. The Deevan-e-Ghalib may be the most highly printed book in the history of Urdu literature, and Ghalib’s verse may be the most translated.

Yet Ghalib has also been invoked and appropriated by some leading progressive writers for his thoughts on the leading social, political and cultural issues of the day. For example, Sahir Ludhianvi – who will be celebrating his birth centenary next month – wrote in his poem “Jashn-e-Ghalib” (Ghalib Jubilee) on Ghalib’s centenary celebrations in February 1969:

Gandhi ho ke Ghalib ho, insaaf ki nazron mein

Hum donon ke qatil hain, donon ke pujari hain

(Be it Ghalib or Gandhi, in the eyes of justice

We are the murderers of both, the worshippers of both)

Sahir goes on to lament the way Urdu was treated by the Indian nation-state as it became alien overnight.

Then, just a year later in February 1970 on the occasion of the worst 1969 Gujarat sectarian riots and the end of the Gandhi shataabdi and the Ghalib Sadi, Sahir would write in his poem Gandhi Ho ya Ghalib Ho (Be it Gandhi or Be it Ghalib):

Gandhi ho, ya Ghalib ho

Donon ka kya kaam yahan

Ab ke baras bhi qatl hui

Aik ki shiksha,aik ki zubaan

Khatm hua donon ka jashn

Aao, inhen ab kar den dafan

(Be it Gandhi, or be it Ghalib

What function both serve here

This year too, was murdered

The teaching of one, the language of the other

This is the end of their festival

Come, let us arrange for their burial)

In our own time, the great feminist poet Kishwar Naheed has recently invoked Ghalib in her poem “Ghalib aur Mahatma Gandhi ka Mukaalma” (Dialogue of Ghalib and Mahatma Gandhi) in her latest poetic collection Darya Ki Tishnagi (The Thirst of the River, Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2020). She addresses Ghalib to comment on the heroic women of the Shaheen Bagh protests, comparing them to Amrao Begum, Ghalib’s wife, before returning to Ghalib again in the concluding verses to lament the fate of Urdu in Modi’s India and the increasing climate of hatred which has become the hallmark of the new dispensation:

Ae nosha-e-sukhan saaz

Teri Urdu ko tamasha bana diya gaya hai

Tum ne apne zamane ka ghadar dekha tha

Is zamane ke ghadar mein

Gairva rang chhaaya hua hai

Ab dozakh ki aag

Nafraten ban kar, shehr shehr dahak rahi hai

Dilli ki galiyon mein Amir Khusrau

Bain karta hua phir raha hai.

The full English translation of Naheed’s poem follows:

(O uncrowned king of the ghazal!

Your Delhi has been burnt

How should I charm you

I am amazed should I cry my heart out

Or beat my vitals

Today in Shaheen Bagh

A thousand ‘Amrao Begums’ are sitting

Do not console them by saying

That you call out ‘Oh flower’ as lament

I scream ‘Ah heart’ in torment.


There somewhere in that very hell

Mahatma Gandhi too would be present

When even one Muslim would be killed

He would keep a fast unto death

Today the Mahatma is helpless

Looking at the cut and torn corpses

The burnt houses

He would have said something to you

People are asking from the Mahatma this question

Were we not born here

We are people very much afflicted with destitution

In that the day we got our sustenance

That day the house stove lit up perchance

O ruined Jamuna

Your throat too is drying up

O my Amrita!

How much you cried upon the partition

Now the women of the Shaheen Bagh insurrection

Are listening to the lamentation

Upon the stairs of the Jamia Mosque

And the walls of the Red Fort

O happy poet

Your Urdu has been made into an exhibition

You had seen your own period’s sedition

In our own time’s sedition

Spread is the colour of saffron

Now the fire of damnation

Is burning from city to city, becoming an abomination

Amir Khusrau, in the streets of Delhi wandering

Is engaged in wailing.)

The writer, is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator based in Lahore. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at: