Mr. Ghalib

The invincible Urdu poet of the 19th century, Mirza Ghalib’s dear friend was alcohol. Once, on being asked by the military governor, Colonel Browne about his religion, he called himself a half-Muslim on the ground that he was a wine drinker, but avoided pork. A man of letters, Ghalib liberated himself from conservative and regressive dictates of religion and faith.


Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan (Urdu/Persian: مرزا اسد اللہ بیگ خان) was a classical Urdu and Persian poet from India during British colonial rule. His also known as ‘Mirza Asadullah Khan Galib’, ‘Mirza Galib’, ‘Dabir-ul-Mulk’ and ‘Najm-ud-Daula’. His pen-names was Ghaliband Asad or Asad or Galib. During his lifetime the Mughals were eclipsed and displaced by the British and finally deposed following the defeat of the Indian rebellion of 1857, events that he wrote of. Most notably, he wrote several ghazals during his life, which have since been interpreted and sung in many different ways by different people. He is considered, in South Asia, to be one of the most popular and influential poets of the Urdu language. Ghalib today remains popular not only in India and Pakistan but also amongst diaspora communities around the world.

Family and Early Life

Mirza Ghalib was born in Agra into a family descended from Aibak Turks who moved to Samarkand after the downfall of the Seljuk kings. His paternal grandfather, Mirza Qoqan Baig Khan was a Saljuq Turk who had immigrated to India from Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) during the reign of Ahmad Shah (1748–54). He worked at Lahore, Delhi and Jaipur, was awarded the subdistrict of Pahasu (Bulandshahr, UP) and finally settled in Agra, UP, India. He had 4 sons and 3 daughters. Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan and Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan were two of his sons. Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan (Ghalib’s father) got married to Izzat-ut-Nisa Begum, and then lived at the house of his father in law. He was employed first by the Nawab of Lucknow and then the Nizam of Hyderabad, Deccan. He died in a battle in 1803 in Alwar and was buried at Rajgarh (Alwar, Rajasthan). Then Ghalib was a little over 5 years of age. He was raised first by his Uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan. Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan (Ghalib’s uncle) started taking care of the three orphaned children. He was the governor of Agra under the Marathas. The British appointed him an officer of 400 cavalrymen, fixed his salary at Rs.1700.00 month, and awarded him 2 parganas in Mathura (UP, India). When he died in 1806, the British took away the parganas and fixed his pension as Rs. 10,000 per year, linked to the state of Firozepur Jhirka (Mewat, Haryana). The Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka reduced the pension to Rs. 3000 per year. Ghalib’s share was Rs. 62.50 / month. Ghalib was married at age 13 to Umrao Begum, daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh (brother of the Nawab of Ferozepur Jhirka). He soon moved to Delhi, along with his younger brother, Mirza Yousuf Khan, who had developed schizophrenia at a young age and later died in Delhi during the chaos of 1857.

In accordance with upper class Muslim tradition, he had an arranged marriage at the age of 13, but none of his seven children survived beyond infancy. After his marriage he settled in Delhi. In one of his letters he describes his marriage as the second imprisonment after the initial confinement that was life itself. The idea that life is one continuous painful struggle which can end only when life itself ends, is a recurring theme in his poetry. One of his couplets puts it in a nutshell:

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

Royal Titles

In 1850, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II revived upon Mirza Ghalib the title of “Dabeer-ul-Mulk”. The Emperor also added to it the additional title of Najm-ud-daulah.The conferment of these titles was symbolic of Mirza Ghalib’s incorporation into the nobility of Delhi. He also received the title of ‘Mirza Nosha’ by the emperor, thus adding Mirza as his first name. He was also an important courtier of the royal court of the Emperor. As the Emperor was himself a poet, Mirza Ghalib was appointed as his poet tutor in 1854. He was also appointed as tutor of Prince Fakhr-ud Din Mirza, eldest son of Bahadur Shah II,(d. 10 July 1856). He was also appointed by the Emperor as the royal historian of Mughal Court.

Being a member of declining Mughal nobility and old landed aristocracy, he never worked for a livelihood, lived on either royal patronage of Mughal Emperors, credit or the generosity of his friends. His fame came to him posthumously. He had himself remarked during his lifetime that although his age had ignored his greatness, it would be recognized by later generations. After the decline of Mughal Empire and rise of British Raj, despite his many attempts, Ghalib could never get the full pension restored.

Poetry Career

Ghalib started composing poetry at the age of 11. His first language was Urdu, but Persian and Turkish were also spoken at home. He got his education in Persian and Arabic at a young age. When Ghalib was in his early teens, a newly converted Muslim tourist from Iran (Abdus Samad, originally named Hormuzd, a Zoroastrian) came to Agra. He stayed at Ghalibs home for 2 years. He was a highly educated individual and Ghalib learned Persian, Arabic, philosophy, and logic from him.

Although Ghalib himself was far prouder of his poetic achievements in Persian, he is today more famous for his Urdu ghazals. Numerous elucidations of Ghalib’s ghazal compilations have been written by Urdu scholars. The first such elucidation or Sharh was written by Ali Haider Nazm Tabatabai of Hyderabad during the rule of the last Nizam of Hyderabad. Before Ghalib, the ghazal was primarily an expression of anguished love; but Ghalib expressed philosophy, the travails and mysteries of life and wrote ghazals on many other subjects, vastly expanding the scope of the ghazal. This work is considered his paramount contribution to Urdu poetry and literature.

In keeping with the conventions of the classical ghazal, in most of Ghalib’s verses, the identity and the gender of the beloved is indeterminate. The critic/poet/writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqui explains that the convention of having the “idea” of a lover or beloved instead of an actual lover/beloved freed the poet-protagonist-lover from the demands of realism. Love poetry in Urdu from the last quarter of the seventeenth century onwards consists mostly of “poems about love” and not “love poems” in the Western sense of the term.

The first complete English translation of Ghalib’s ghazals was written by Sarfaraz K. Niazi and published by Rupa & Co in India and Ferozsons in Pakistan. The title of this book is Love Sonnets of Ghalib and it contains complete Roman transliteration, explication and an extensive lexicon.

His Letters

Mirza Ghalib was a gifted letter writer. Not only Urdu poetry but the prose is also indebted to Mirza Ghalib. His letters gave foundation to easy and popular Urdu. Before Ghalib, letter writing in Urdu was highly ornamental. He made his letters “talk” by using words and sentences as if he were conversing with the reader. According to him Sau kos se ba-zaban-e-qalam baatein kiya karo aur hijr mein visaal ke maze liya karo (from hundred of miles talk with the tongue of the pen and enjoy the joy of meeting even when you are separated). His letters were very informal, some times he would just write the name of the person and start the letter. He himself was very humorous and also made his letter very interesting. He said Main koshish karta hoon keh koi aesi baat likhoon jo parhay khoosh ho jaaye (I want to write the lines that whoever reads those should enjoy it). When the third wife of one of his friends died, he wrote. Some scholar says that Ghalib would have the same place in Urdu literature if only on the basis of his letters. They have been translated into English by Ralph Russell, The Oxford Ghalib.

Ghalib was a chronicler of this turbulent period. One by one, Ghalib saw the bazaars – Khas Bazaar, Urdu Bazaar, Kharam-ka Bazaar, disappear, whole mohallas (localities) and katras (lanes) vanish. The havelis (mansions) of his friends were razed to the ground. Ghalib wrote that Delhi had become a desert. Water was scarce. Delhi was now “ a military camp”. It was the end of the feudal elite to which Ghalib had belonged. He wrote:

Mr. Raza as per your curious question,,this stupid blog has given an answer.


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