Suffering and self-promotion: the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, taken in 1868.

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, from 1868.

Mirza Ghalib was a 19th century poet who lived in India during the last years of the Mughal dynasty. He is best known today for his 234 ghazals in Urdu (a language similar to Hindi).

Ghazals originated in seventh-century Arabia. Originally, they celebrated wine, women and music, or anguish over lost love. By the eleventh century, however, the theme of lost love had acquired philosophical overtones. In Ghalib’s ghazals, separation and suffering are indistinguishable from life, and the beloved is often a metaphor for God.

Ghalib himself understood suffering all too well. He was born Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan to an aristocratic family descended from Seljuk Turks. His father died when he was a child. At the age of 13, he wed an 11-year old in an arranged marriage.

Although he and his wife had seven children, none of them survived infancy. His only brother went mad and his father-in-law suffered an early death. In one of his poems, Ghalib wrote:

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?

Much of Ghalib’s poetry is devoted to suffering. It is beautiful, mystical and notoriously difficult to translate into English.

Preserving rhyme and meter without losing meaning is a hopeless task in any language.* Translators of Ghalib’s ghazals usually forgo them.

Additionally, the ghazals contain references that would have been easily understood in Ghalib’s time and culture, but are less obvious to us. They contain wordplay and puns which defy translation. To understand this, let’s take a look at English wordplay — the “country matters” dialogue from Shakepeare’s Hamlet.

After offering to lay his head on Ophelia’s lap, Hamlet asks her if she thinks he is referring to “country matters.” In performance, the first syllable would have been heavily emphasized (try it out loud). Elizabethans would have understood that Hamlet is referring to sex. Try translating that into another language without losing the double entendre. Now try doing it in iambic pentameter.

Urdu ghazals present similar problems. In form, they consist of a number of two-line verses (usually, but not always, seven or nine) . Since the lines don’t always rhyme, they are not, strictly speaking, couplets. They may or may not relate to each other. The last verse often includes the poet’s pen name, e.g., Ghalib (from the Urdu for “dominant”).

Even the simplest of Ghalib’s ghazals carries undertones that can be hard to express in translation. Take one of his more straightforward sets, which has been translated variously as:

If the eye doesn’t see the whole Tigris in one drop of its water,

Then it’s a child eye merely, and not the inner eye.1


If one cannot see the river in a drop, or the whole in a part

It would make for a game of boys, not a discerning eye.2


If the Tigris does not show in a drop—the total in a factor–

All this was child’s play, nothing to do with being visionary.3


Whoever can’t see the whole in every part plays at blind man’s buff;

A wise man tastes the entire Tigris in every sip.4

But if Ghalib could be both profound and romantic, he could also be humorous, self-critical and self-aggrandizing – all in the space of two lines:

 Such mysticism, Ghalib! And such explanations!

People might have mistaken you for a sage, if you weren’t  such a drunk.

Perhaps Ghalib’s world view is best summed up in anecdote from October 1857, just three weeks after the British entered Delhi to put down the Sepoy Mutiny (also known as the Indian rebellion of 1857 against British rule).

Ghalib — wearing a Turkic style headdress — was brought before a British colonel for questioning.  In broken Urdu, the colonel said: “Well? You Muslim?”

“Half,” Ghalib answered.

“What does that mean?” the colonel asked.

Ghalib replied,”I drink wine, but I don’t eat pork.”

*In 1987, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas R. Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach) asked numerous friends to try translating a 28-line poem by the French Renaissance poet Clément Marot. The 88 widely varying attempts by Hofstadter and his friends became a 600-age musing on the art of translation, Le Ton beau de Marot, the title itself a clever pun. As written, the phrase means “the sweet tone of Marot.” When spoken, however, it sounds like “le tombeau de Marot,” or “the tomb of Marot.”

1 Translation by Sasha Newborn.

2 Translation (and excellent commentary) by blogger Deewaan, who notes that the Tigris river can be used metaphorically to mean any river.

3 Translated by Andrew McCord.

4 Uncredited translation which can be found here.




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