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Comrade Ghalib: A Great Progressive Poet

Ghalib is arguably the greatest Urdu poet of all times. Raza Naeem in this essay discusses the progressive themes that we find in Ghalib’s poetry and prose.

One thing is common among all the good and great writers: a deep sympathy with man; an ability to view and understand the various aspects of his character and the complex situations of his psychology; and a desire to see life as elegant, pure and pretty, fruit-laden and blooming. Humans do work of various kinds to maintain their personal and social life and for the satisfaction of their desires and instincts; and establish mutual bonds and relationships. They make things, provisions and tools, different laws for their use, ownership and distribution, and principles and codes of conduct. The character of social structure is indeed fixed by these principles and codes of conduct. What is the respective place of an artist, a musician, a painter, a sculptor, a poet in this structure? Plato had indeed removed the poet from his ideal republic, because for Plato the poet did no ‘useful’ work and the basis of his poetry was exaggeration and lies. But Greece or any other nation of the word did not accept Plato’s contention and the artist and poet was counted among the most important members of society; and we saw that even when the development of science and technology and the development of mechanical industry on a large scale forced the human race to establish the social system of socialism on an obvious and inevitable basis and one-third of human population lived under this system, or was busy in its shaping; then especially the writers, artists and poets in socialist countries achieved high status and general popularity. Artists never achieved such great popularity in any other period of human history before this or any other shape of human society.

This is because humans want to purify their spirit and self by removing impurities and meaningless troubles in addition to satisfying their material wants. They want that their mutual bonds be established on the bases of cooperation, love and respect for humanity; their life be meaningful and new prospects of construction are created for them; and they create rare measures of beauty and balance close together; and conquer new fields of civility and dignity. Artists and poets firstly make our life musical and lyrical; they create conditions of joy and ecstasy. Secondly, they illuminate our minds with such everlasting light, which indicates us in advancing towards the highest destinations of humanity.

Ghalib, who passed away 150 years ago last week on February 15, is among the few greatest artists whose popularity is continuously increasing with the passage of time. It is a sad reality that Ghalib did not achieve the exalted position and status in his life which he deserved. The fame of his verses had spread even in the period of his youth in the Urdu circles of Agra, Delhi, indeed all the cities of northern India; but Ghalib’s poetry, both in terms of its shape and meaning, was different from the prevalent and favoured style of his own time. His verse had a novel meaning, and the beauty of his verse was a novel beauty. To understand, like and enjoy it, there was a need to bring the mind and feeling to a new level and that needed time.

Ghalib’s own private life is a long tale of misfortune and want and impoverishment, and on the other hand too, of the extremely tortuous feeling that the real appreciation of his worth was not being accorded to him as per his real and actual status.

During Ghalib’s time, the society of northern India was in the throes of great anguish and pain, chaos and unrest, and weakness. In these circumstances, most of the poetry had become either full of seasonal and shallow pleasure, or the conditions of utmost hopelessness and defeat. Ghalib’s own private life is a long tale of misfortune and want and impoverishment, and on the other hand too, of the extremely tortuous feeling that the real appreciation of his worth was not being accorded to him as per his real and actual status. But Ghalib’s greatness lies in the fact that like many other poets of his era, he never adopted the philosophy of life of make and break and the degradation of the soul by allowing himself to be overcome by these circumstances, and becoming their victim. Very amazingly, he extracted extremely revolutionary and dynamic results from the philosophy of vahdat-ul-vujood (unity in diversity) Even while viewing good and evil, joy and sorrow, motion and rest, opposites together in confrontation, he understood life and all its manifestations as a unity and in this chaos of life, Man in his view appears as the ablest and most remarkable existence.

He said,

‘Do look upon the pomp of life
This commotion is all thanks to us
From this dusty curtain whose name is Man
An apocalypse-like event is glittering’

That is why Ghalib loved this Man; because his heart was permanently agitated with enthusiasm, wish and desire, passion and hope. And whenever he got trapped in the maelstrom of grief and sorrow, failure and misfortune, even at that time he would say:

‘What was left in the home for your sorrow to destroy it
That longing for construction we once had, is there indeed’

This same constructive longing, the desire for adorning and making life, the permanent restlessness of life, and the same continuous anguish of the spirit, is for Ghalib the most precious capital of Man. A heart which does not possess this restlessness and impatience, and the spirit having no passion for transforming life is, according to Ghalib, mean, deficient and abhorrent.

‘Ghalib, beware the hard, cold hearts of prosperous and satisfied people
The hearts and lives which possess anguish and impatience (they are worthy of respect)
How much kindness and favours do these hearts and lives possess’

In another verse, he expresses the same subject:

‘If I envy someone at all, that is the person
Who travels alone, hungry and thirsty
In the rocky valleys of mountains
Not on the satiated hearts of the haram (
sacred territory of Mecca)
Who satisfy themselves with their Aab-e-Zamzam’
(water from Hagar’s well in Mecca)

Ghalib’s disposition was replete with satire and comedy. He also had the ability to laugh at his deprivations. If he hated anything, it was shallowness, superficiality and puerility; he liked innovation, originality, singularity, elegance and purity. To combat the hardships and misfortunes of life in manly fashion was the greatest sign of humanity in his opinion. If he was vexed by something, it was at the uniformity, lifelessness and waning away of emotions. In a letter, he has written in a comical style:

‘When I imagine Paradise and think that if forgiveness is in order and I am rewarded with a palace, as well as a houri, eternal abode and to spend my life with this same lucky woman, my heart is agitated at the thought; and the heart comes to the mouth, he-he that houri will grow weary, why wouldn’t the disposition worry, the same emerald palace, and the same branch of Tooba…’ (a tree of Paradise)

Ghalib would have seen the life of the nobles and their habits, meaning a state of insensitivity, a lack of humanity, intelligence and knowledge, and self-interested pleasure-seeking free of elegance and purity; so he must have felt strong alienation and hatred from all these matters. He was always in search of the true jewel:

‘Seek that joy from the Heavens which was available to Jamshid
Do not desire his splendour (since it is of no worth)
If your cup has grape wine, that is the real thing
Which is admirable, not that wine cup
Even it be made of ruby.’

At one place, in a letter, Ghalib has presented his concept of “pleasure” in very clear and plain words:

‘Listen sahib, whatever taste a person has for whichever hobby and he spends his life frankly in it, that is (to be) called pleasure.’

Frank, according to one’s inclination, the freedom to do his work as he desires, this is not only the true definition of pleasure, but also of individual freedom. But class society gives so few an opportunity for this…had the idea of the creation of such a society, socialist society, been presented before Ghalib, where every individual and human will get his opportunity, he would definitely have favoured and supported it with great enthusiasm. Ghalib was an individual of a feudal society and himself belonged to the elite class. That is why the full, dynamic and evolutionary life which he loved was merely like a golden dream for most of the sensitive humans in that society. Ghalib had repeatedly desired that:

‘Come let us change the way of life ordained by the Heavens’

His wish indeed was that the gems of asceticism and freedom, and sacrifice and favour, which have been entrusted to Man, he should also be given the full opportunity to employ them; and he said with great longing:

‘If not in the whole world so be it, at least in the city where I live, no one starving or naked should be visible indeed. Punished by God, rejected by mankind, weak, sick, (a) fakir, imprisoned by adversity, irrespective of myself and my matters of speech and skill, one who cannot see anyone begging, while begging myself from door to door, that person is myself.’

Ghalib wrote this painful letter approximately 150 years from today. But how much the world has changed now. The kalam of Ghalib is our most precious spiritual gift, and Ghalib is our most beloved poet. His skill secure, his fame ever-increasing, and his heart’s desire that “no one starving or naked should be visible” in the world, which became a reality from a dream, when less than fifty years after he passed away, the first socialist revolution occurred in Russia in 1917. The “warmth of the goblet” gives way to an illumination in the assembly of Man!

Note: All translations from the Farsi and Urdu are the writer’s own.


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