Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest Urdu poets, still has fans and followers a century and a half after his death. That in itself is proof that the man was a legend whose works live on.
This poet of the masses was also known as Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, Mirza Ghalib, Dabir-ul-Mulk and Najm-ud-Daula.
1. Mirza Ghalib’s grandfather, Mirza Qoqan Baig Khan, was a Turk who had immigrated from Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Ghalib’s father, Mirza Abdullah Baig Khan, worked for the Nawab of Lucknow and later for the Nizam of Hyderabad. Ghalib lost his father when he was just five years old. He was raised by his uncle Mirza Nasrullah Baig Khan.
2. At the tender age of 13 Ghalib got married to Umrao Begum, who was the daughter of Nawab Ilahi Bakhsh.
In a letter, Ghalib described his marriage as the second imprisonment, after life itself. He puts it perfectly in this couplet:
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?
3. Ghalib had 7 children; sadly, none survived more than 15 months.
He has expressed this grief in many of his works. He later adopted his wife’s nephew, Arif, who too succumbed to tuberculosis at 35.
4. He was awarded the title Dabir-ul-Mulk by Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II in 1850, along with the title of Najm-ud-daulah.
These titles were symbolic of his incorporation in Delhi nobility.
5. It was Bahadur Shah Zafar II who awarded him the title of Mirza Nosha, hence the addition of the word ‘Mirza’ to his name.
An avid poet himself, Bahadur Shah appointed Ghalib as his tutor for poetry in 1854 and later for his eldest son, Prince Fakhr-ud Din Mirza, too. And when Ghalib had time from these royal requests, he was also required to do the job of the royal historian for the Mughal court.
6. Ghalib got more fame after death, though in his lifetime, the man never worked for a living; he had enough patrons and friends.
He once even mentioned that his greatness will be recognized when he is dead.
7. Once the Mughal Empire crumbled, Ghalib’s pension was stopped and never got restored.
8. This genius wrote his first poem at the age of 11.
His mother tongue was Urdu, but he was very proficient in Turkish and Persian too. He was educated in Arabic and Persian.
9. During his teenage years, Ghalib learned Persian, philosophy, Arabic and was also educated in logic.
10. It was Ghalib who revamped the concept of ghazals and switched them from an expression of anguish in love to philosophies of life and other such subjects.
His contribution to Urdu poetry and literature is of paramount importance.
11. Ghalib wrote poems about love where the gender of the beloved is unspecified, like weaving the idea of a lover, instead of an actual lover.
If you want to read the English translation of Ghalib’s ghazals, grab a copy of the book by Sarfaraz K. Niazi, called Love Sonnets of Ghalib.
12. Ghalib was a superbly gifted letter writer.
The words in his letters seem to talk to the reader. He once wrote:
Sau kos se ba-zaban e-qalam baatein kiya karo aur hijr mein visaal ke maze liya karo!
13. His idea behind writing can be explained in his own words.
Main koshish karta hoon keh koi aisi baat likhoon jo parhay khush ho jaye.
Meaning: I want to write lines that make whoever reads them, happy.
If you want to read the translation of his letters, grab a copy by Ralph Russell, called The Oxford Ghalib.
14. The name Ghalib means superior, excellent and one who conquers all. And it was chosen by Ghalib himself.
His original pen name was Asad which he used often throughout his career.
15. It was Ghalib’s castigating poem on Ai’n-e-Akbari that worked as a reality check for Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.
It forced him to drop any interest in history and become a social reformer. What Ghalib wrote was an absolute masterpiece.
16. Ghalib’s birthplace in Agra has been converted into Indrabhan Girls’ Inter College.
The room in which he was born is still preserved.
17. His relationship with his wife has always been a mystery and conflicting, but it is said that she was a pious and God-fearing woman.
Ghalib, on the other hand, was very proud to be called a rake.
18. Ghalib can be aptly described as a liberal mystic.
In many of his writings, he encourages the reader to look beyond the laws of religion and search for the real essence and mysticism. And he describes his Sufi views best in these lines,
The object of my worship lies beyond perception’s reach;
For men who see, the Ka’aba is a compass, nothing more.
19. Although he wrote extensively on religion, he was always a little skeptical of the interpretation of Islamic scripture.
These lines sum up his opinions, in which he talks of the Muslim Sheikhs of the Ulema:
The Sheikh hovers by the tavern door,
but believe me, Ghalib,
I am sure I saw him slip in
As I departed.
20. Ghalib was a Muslim but he never fasted during Ramzaan.
When asked about his identity, he once said:
I am half Muslim because I drink wine, but I don’t eat pork.
This was during the first mutiny in 1857 when the police took him for questioning in front of Colonel Burn.
21. Despite having made various jibes at Zauq, Ghalib always respected the tutor of Bahadur Shah Zafar II.
Both Ghalib and Zauq were great admirers of Meer Taqi Meer, one of the most respected Urdu poets of the 18th century.
22. All one needed to do to infuriate Ghalib was associate his name with a poem written by somebody else.
23. There is an interesting story about Ghalib and mangoes.
He was once eating mangoes and when a noble man’s donkey refused to eat the skin on the ground. The noble man tried to be sarcastic by saying,
‘Gadhe bhi aam nahin khaate.’ (Even donkeys don’t eat mangoes).
To which Ghalib retorted, ‘Gadhe hi aam nahin khaate!’ (Only donkeys don’t eat mangoes).
24. Munshi Hargopal Tufta was Ghalib’s favorite pupil.
25. Before the Revolt of1 857, Ghalib was working in the Red Fort as an editor for the Emperor’s verses.
His job profile included reaching the fort by nine, coming home for lunch and going back to the fort. In the evening, he was required to fly kites with the Emperor.
26. Being in the Emperor’s company did not guarantee a lavish lifestyle, Ghalib at one time had a debt of Rs. 40,000.
He never owned a home and never bought a book. His creative genius survived on borrowed books.
27. Despite these hardships, Ghalib drank French wine every single day, and he loved to eat bhuna gosht and sohan halwa.
28. In 1847, Ghalib was sentenced to jail for gambling.
He was punished with a fine of 200 rupees and hard labor.
29. The poem Chirag-i-Dair was inspired by his stopover in Kashi.
He was on his way to Calcutta to plead his pension case, which he eventually lost.
Why has not doomsday come?
Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?
Who holds the reins of the final catastrophe?
The hoary old man of lucent ken
Pointed towards Kashi and gently smiled.
‘The Architect,’ he said, ‘is fond of this edifice
Because of which there is colour in life; He
Would not like it to perish and fall.
30. By the time Ghalib reached the age of 70, his memory was gone, his hearing was gone and his hands trembled, but he was still mentally alert.
31. His home in Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk has been converted into ‘Ghalib Memorial.’