Celebrated urdu poet Mirza Ghalib is being honored with a Google doodle today.

Quaide hayaat band o gham
Asal mein dono ek hain
Maut se pehle aadmi
Gham se bisaat khaye kyun

The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same
Before death, how can a man expect to be free of grief?

Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, (1797–1869) was a prominent Urdu and Persian-language poet who lived towards the end of the Mughal reign in India. He used pen-names Ghalib (dominant) and asad (lion).

Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869)

Early Years
Ghalib was born in Agra in a family of Aibak Turks who moved to Samarkand in Uzbekistan after the downfall of the Seljuks. After immigrating to India, his grandfather Mirza Qoqan Baig Khan settled down in Agra. Ghalib’s father, Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan married Izzat-ut-Nisa Begum, a Kashmiri. He died in a battle in 1803 in Alwar, leaving 5-year old Ghalib in the custody of his Uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan.

A visiting scholar from Iran, Abdus Samad taught Ghalib Persian, Arabic, philosophy, and logic for two years. He began composing at the age of 11. Ghalib was proud of his Persian compositions, but his Urdu ghazals immortalized him. The ghazal was an expression of anguished love; but Ghalib expanded ghazals to include diverse themes of existence, suffering, religion, history and humanity. In his verses, the gender identity of the beloved is indeterminate thus freeing the poet-protagonist-lover into a metaphysical realm. His poems were revolutionary and complex, yet subtle and enigmatic catching his listeners by surprise. The meaning of his composition was buried in the smoldering coals of his personal experience. He admitted that his writing was dense and confessed: “What I truly want to say emerges in an urgent complex creativity, inseparable from existence.”

Marriage and Its Impact
At the age of thirteen, Ghalib married Umrao Begum who was a devout Muslim. After marriage, they lived in Delhi. He refers to his unhappy marriage as lifelong imprisonment. Life as one continuous painful struggle redeemed only by death is a recurring theme in his poetry.

Quaide hayaat band o gham
Asal mein dono ek hain
Maut se pehle aadmi
Gham se bisaat khaye kyun
The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same
Before death, how can a man expect to be free of grief?
His wife had several pregnancies, but none of their seven children survived beyond infancy. The pain of his wife’s grief echoes in Ghalib’s poetry. We can see him saying this to his wife after losing a child.

Jaan tum par nisaar karta hyun
mai nahi jaanta dua kya hai
I can offer you my life
I don’t know what other prayer can I make?

It is difficult to analyze Ghalib because he defies intellectual interpretation but as a novice I read him from my heart and let the magical layers of meaning unfold like a thousand-petal lotus. My father used to quote Ghalib, and this made a deep impression on me. We were at a funeral and people were weeping, when my father quoted Ghalib to say:

Ghalibe khasta ke baad
Kaun se kam band hain
Roye zaar zaar kya
Keejiye hai hai kyun
We are not crying for the departed soul but we are lamenting the loss to ourselves.

This poem struck a chord and I delved deeper into Ghalib through his ghazals sung by K.L.Sehgal, Begum Akhtar, Mehedi Hasan, and by Jagjit Singh in Gulzar’s serial Mirza Ghalib where Naseerudin Shah portrays the poet. The more I explored, the thirstier my soul became.

Like my father, Ghalib was a tall distinguished man, wore a high Turkish hat and a long Sufi jacket. His attitude towards life was to be always merry; eating and drinking on borrowed money, with a firm belief that he would be able to repay everyone once his father’s pension was approved (this never happened and he died an indebted pauper)
Ghalib challenged accepted literary, social and religious norms and covered a broad array of subjects in his poetry.

On Human Existence
Gham agar-chay jaangusil hai, par
kahan bachay ki dil hai,
Gham-e-ishq gar na hota, gham-e-
rozgaar hota!
Even if this sorrow is fatal, how can I escape, after all it is heart,
If it would not have been sorrows-of-love, it would have been sorrows-of-world!

On Love
He enjoyed his own unsavory reputation as a rake and made jokes about love.

Aashiq hoon par maashooq-farebi hai
mera kaam
majnuun ko bura kahti hai laila mere
He confesses that he is more faithful to the ladies than their own lovers, because even Laila bemoans the misdeeds of Majnu in my presence.

Mohabbat mein nahin hai farq
jeenay aur marnay ka
Usi ko dekh kar jeetay hain
jis kaafir pe dam nike
When in love, there is little difference between life and death
We live by looking at the infidel who we are willing to die for.

Kahoon kis say main ki kya hain
Shab-e-gham buri bala hai
Mujhay kya bura tha marna,
agar ek baar hota !
Whom should I tell what this is,
Night-of-sorrows is a terrible thing,
I would not have hated to die, if it was just once only!

Or a tongue-in-cheek exclamation about the unpredictability of his beloved.
Etibar-e-ishq kee khana-kharaabi dekhna
gair ne kee aah lekin vo khafaa mujh par
See how I am being punished for someone else’s misbehavior?

Or a light hearted rebuke in this one.
Is saadgi pe kaun na mar jaaye ai khuda
ladte hain aur haath mein talwaar bhi
nahin hai
How can I not succumb to the simplicity of my beloved
Who fights with me without any sword in her hand?

Or the self deprecating one, often quoted by road-side romeos:
Ishq ne ‘Ghalib’ nikamma kar diya
varna ham bhi aadmi the kaam ke
My love has made me incompetent
Otherwise I was a reputable person.
But he was often contrite at his romantic misdemeanors:
Kaaba kis munh se jaaoge ‘Ghalib’
sharm tum ko magar nahi aati.
How will you go to the place of worship ‘Ghalib’
You are not ashamed of your actions.

Ghalib did not get recognition easily; he lived on borrowed money, composing and wishing that perhaps his crazy-impoverished life will reach its glorious abode one day:
Karz kee peete the may lekin samajhte
the ki haan
rang laavegi hamaari faaka-masti ek din
Aage aati thi haal-e-dil pe hansi
Ab kisi baat par nahi aai
I laughed and joked at my state of affairs but now I can’t laugh at anything.

His writing was dense, not stylized but sparkling with thought-provoking metaphors that left the reader spinning to decipher the meaning. His verse was difficult to comprehend by contemporary poets and they often said that only Ghalib or God could comprehend it. But Ghalib was proud of his own intellectual prowess and so he antagonized many with his sharp tongue. His main rival in Zafar’s court was Zouk. In a momentous mushaira (poetry reading) in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, Ghalib’s opened his poem by his matla:

Hare ik baat pe kehte ho ki tu kya hai
This was repeated by the audience, followed by a suspenseful pause and then the second verse was delivered with word-play.
Tum he batao ke yeh andaaze guftgu kya
By now he had the attention of the other poets and he continued:
Ragon mean daudte firne ke hum nahin
Zuban se hi jo na tapkei to lahu kya hai!
I am hardly impressed by the blood rushing through the veins
I will only accept its prowess if it drips from my tongue!
After this bold unpredictable composition, Ghalib was showered with several appreciations of encore or mukarrar.

No one could compete with him in his ability to draw inspiration from commonplace happenings, giving them an exalted meaning through verse. His poems were on the lips of street singers, mendicants and courtesans. In 1854 Ghalib became a courtier, a poet tutor and historian in Zafar’s court and was bestowed with the titles of Dabir-ul-Mulk, Najm-ud-Daula.
My father Swadesh Kumar Kapur (1931-2015) was born in Lahore and studied Urdu; he taught me that culture is the construct of language and not place. Nations are not recognized by their rulers but by poets and scholars like Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Kalidasa and Ghalib. When dad read poetry to me he said

Un ke dekhe se jo aa jaati hai munh pe
vo samajhte hain ki beemar ka haal achchha hai
The glow on my face in the company of the beloved
Gives a false impression that I am on my way to recovery.

Ghalib died in Delhi on 15 February 1869. The house where he lived in Old Delhi known as the Ghalib ki Haveli has now been turned into a Ghalib Memorial, and houses a permanent exhibition.

Hazaron khvahishen aisi ki har khvahish
pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mire arman lekin phir bhi
kam nickel
I have a thousand yearnings, each one afflicts me so
Many were fulfilled for sure, not enough although.

Ghalib, who lived like a penniless rock star, gave us ghazals that have matured like premium wine, making him the most oft-quoted 21st century poet among the Hindustani diaspora around the world. I have offered a sample of this eternal ambrosia I drank with my dad as a child. I hope that perhaps someone who reads this will get to the core of Ghalib’s artistry.
This is my holiday wish.

Monita Soni is a pathologist and diagnoses cancer. Her writing style weaves eastern and western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two...