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Opinion: Mirza Ghalib through the eyes of his peer

Ghalib was born in Agra on December 1797 and was considered the last great poet of the Mughal Era. Photograph:( Others )

Virginia, United States Dec 27, 2017, 11.58 AM (IST) Mehr Farooqi

“Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, known as Mirza Naushah, titled Najmuddaulah Dabirul Mulk Asadullah Khan Bahadur Nizam Jang, with the nom de plume Ghalib for Persian, and Asad for Rekhtah, was born on the eve of 8th of Rajab 1212 Hijri (December 27, 1797) in the city of Agra.”    


Thus, begins Maulana Altaf Husain Hali’s masterpiece Yadgar-e Ghalib. Indeed, Hali’s critical, path-breaking memoir of his great ustad, reconstructs the poet’s life story in a thrilling narrative woven with anecdotes, letters, personal trivia, first-hand observations, and, more important, a penetrating analysis of Ghalib’s poetry and prose. Ghalib’s colorful personality shines in Hali’s lucid prose. It is hard to imagine how much or how little we would have known of Ghalib without Hali’s seminal work. There were Ghalib’s letters, volumes of them, a vital source of information, but the inspiration and direction that Hali’s work provided to generations of scholars is undeniable. 


 Ghalib became an orphan at the impressionable age of five when his father, Mirza Abdullah Beg Khan, was killed by a bullet in Rajgarh, where he had gone with a force from Alvar to quell a rebellion. Ghalib’s mother Izzatunnisa Begum along with his siblings, an older sister Choti Begum and younger brother Mirza Yusuf lived in the grand mansion of his maternal grandfather Khvajah Ghulam Husain Khan Kamidan in Agra. 


In his youth, Ghalib was counted among the most handsome, pleasing persons in the city. Tall, with broad shoulders, his hands and feet were noticeably strong. Even in old age, when Hali first saw him, the signs of beauty were apparent from his face and demeanor. He was married on 7th of Rajab 1225 hijri (1810 CE) to Umrao Begum, the daughter of Navab Mirza Ilahi Bakhsh Khan Maruf. Ghalib was 13 years old at the time, his bride was 11. Some years after his marriage, Ghalib moved to Delhi. It appears that he lived in Delhi for the next 50 years to the end of his life. 


 Maulvi Mohammad Muazzam, a well-known Persian scholar and teacher in Agra was Ghalib’s first tutor. The next tutor was the traveler from Iran, Mulla Abdus Samad, who arrived at Agra in 1811.  Ghalib, as per his own account, invited Mulla Abdus Samad to stay with him in order to improve his Persian. Abdus Samad spent two years with Ghalib, first at Agra, then presumably Delhi. Mirza was 14 years old at the time and had already begun writing poetry in Urdu. 


Culturally speaking, birthdays, if they were recorded at all were in the Hijri calendar.  In the course of a lifespan, there would be a difference of two-three years in calculating age, when compared with the current era. We have to keep this mind as we examine the assortment of contradictory evidence about Ghalib’s date of birth. 


Although Ghalib himself has provided much of the evidence either through his letters or in the form of biographical notes, ostensibly for tazkirahs, but the dates often do not match his reminiscences. The first instance of his birth date is recorded in the first manuscript version of the Kulliyat-e Nazm-e Farsi of 1837.  


At the conclusion of this volume, Ghalib wrote: To this day from the hijrat of our last Prophet, one thousand, two hundred, fifty and three years have passed, and that my fortune’s star through the movement of the skies messenger has reached forty-one years. Thus, in 1253 Hijri, Ghalib, as per his admission, was 41 years old.  This affirms that he was born in 1212 Hijri. 


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).

Mehr Farooqi

Mehr Farooqi is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and culture.