Mirza Ghalib — the Man


When we think of Ghalib, invariably the picture that comes to mind is that of a frail old man, with drooping shoulders, wearing a gown, a white beard, a somber expression, and a tall cap. This is because we grew up seeing this portrait of Ghalib in our schoolbooks and elsewhere.

In real life, however, Ghalib seems to have been a very different person — lively, witty, and with a taste for good things in life. And, I am not sure if he always wore that tall cap. That is what his letters reveal.

Browsing through Ralph Russel’s book, “Life, Letters, and Ghazals of Ghalib”, I stumbled on an interesting letter Ghalib wrote to one Jawahir Singh, a son of an old friend. The letter reveals an interesting aspect of Ghalib’s personality. He writes:

“You will remember that I had a cap made of kidskin [karakul]. Well, it is moth-eaten now, and I am without a hat. I want a silk turban, the kind they make in Peshawar and Multan, and which distinguished men in those places wear. But it must not be of bright color or a youthful style, and it must not have a red border. At the same time, it should be something distinctive and elegant, and finely finished. I don’t want one with silver or gold thread in it. The silks in the material must include the colors black, green, blue, and yellow. You can probably get something like this quite easily in those parts. See if you can find one, get it for me, and send me by post.”

Note Ghalib’s interest and concern about his appearance. He wants a turban that is not flamboyant but distinctive and elegant, and appropriate for his age (he was 51 then). The letter also shows Ghalib’s eye for detail, the way he minutely describes the material, and his preferred colors.

Even though Ghalib was always short of money, and often in debt, he did not want the turban for free; he didn’t want to be seen as a “muft khor” or a freeloader, as he explains in the same letter:

“And tell me how much it costs. I shan’t accept it until you have told me what it costs. It’s not a gift. A gift, a present, is something you send without being asked. You can’t give a man something that he has asked for as a present. I don’t mean that I won’t accept a present from you. Not at all, I only mean that I am buying the turban, and I will only accept as a gift something that I haven’t asked for. Anyway, please send the turban without delay, and don’t hesitate to tell me what it costs.”

We don’t know if Ghalib ever received or wore the turban, but had he done so he would have cut a fine figure in a Peshawari turban.

Some of Ghalib’s letters, both in Persian and Urdu, reveal an obsession with his appearance, almost bordering on narcissism. Consider the following letter he wrote to a friend, Hatim Ali Beg, when the latter had sent his (Hatim Ali’s) portrait to Ghalib. This was sometime in March or April 1858, when Ghalib was 61.

“Your auspicious portrait has gladdened my sight. I must have said sometime in the company of friends, ‘I should like to see Mirza Hatim Ali. I hear he’s a man of very striking appearance.’ And, my friend, I had heard this from Mughal Jan [a courtesan]. I used to know her extremely well and often used to spend hours together with her. She also showed me the verse you wrote in praise of her beauty.

“Anyway, when I saw your portrait and saw how tall you were, I didn’t feel jealous because I, too, am noticeably tall. And I didn’t feel jealous of your wheaten complexion, because mine, when I was in the days of living, used to be even fairer, and people of discrimination used to praise it. Now when I remember what my complexion once was, the memory is simple torture to me.

“The thing that did make me jealous, however, — and to no small degree — was that you are clean-shaven. I remembered the pleasant days of my youth, and I cannot tell you what I felt.

“When white hair began to appear in my beard and mustache, and on the third day they began to look as though ants had laid their white eggs in them — and, worse than that, I broke my two front teeth — there was nothing for it but to let my beard grow long.”

We discover in this letter that it was not just the white in his black stubble that made him grow a longer beard, but also the loss of his two front teeth. He wanted to mask the effect of the missing teeth. (No wonder he is not smiling in his picture.) Also, note the typical “men’s talk” about Mughal Jan, the courtesan.

Ghalib’s love for wine is well known, and there are many stories about it. A delightful story in Ralph Russel’s book, which he quotes from Altaf Hussain Hali’s Yadgaar e Ghalib, reveals not only Ghalib’s fondness for wine but also the impish side of his personality :

Once while returning from Rampur to Delhi, Ghalib stopped over at Muradabad and stayed at an inn. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who lived in Muradabad at the time, when he came to know about it, at once went to the inn and brought Ghalib and his companions — luggage and all — to his house. When Ghalib arrived at Sir Sayed’s house and got out of the palanquin (palki, a common means used by nobles to move around town those days), he had a bottle of wine in his hand. He took it into the house and put it down at a place where anyone who passed by could see it. Sir Sayed later picked up the bottle and put it safely in a storeroom. When Ghalib noticed the bottle missing he got very upset. Sir Sayed assured him, “Don’t worry, I have put it in a safe place”. But Ghalib insisted, “show me where, my friend?” Sir Syed took him to the storeroom and produced the bottle. Ghalib took the bottle from him and held it up to look at it, and then said with a mischievous smile, “there is some missing, my friend. Tell me truly, who’s had it? Perhaps that’s why you took it away to the storeroom.” Mockingly, Ghalib continued accusing Sir Syed saying: “Hafiz was right when he said:

واعظان کین جلوہ بر محراب و منبر میکنند

چون بخلوت میروند آن کارِ دیگر میکنند

“These preachers show their majesty in mosque and pulpit

But once at home, it is for other things they do.”

Sir Sayed simply laughed.

On another occasion, Ghalib wrote to a friend, in Persian, sometime in 1861 — three year after the turmoil and terror of 1857:

“These days Maulana Ghalib — God’s mercy be upon him — is in clover (meaning very happy). A volume of the Dastaan-i-Amir Hamza has come — about 600 pages of it — and a volume of the same size of Bostan-i-Khayal. And there are seventeen bottles of good wine in the pantry. So I read all day and drink all night.

“The man who wins such bliss can only wonder

What more had Jamshed? What more Alexander?”

Note Ghalib’s impish humor in this message, calling himself a Maulana and counting the plentiful supply of wine and good books as God’s blessing.

Once, when a man in Ghalib’s presence strongly condemned wine drinking and said that the prayers of the winebibber are never answered. “My friend,” said Ghalib, “if a man has wine, what else does he need to pray for?”

A wine company now markets a wine named Mirza Ghalib. It’s meant to go well with spicy food. I’m not sure though if it would meet Ghalib’s taste.

Ghalib was a non-conformist in religious matters. Altaf Hussain Hali says in his biography of Ghalib:

“From all the duties of worship and the enjoined practices of Islam he took only two — a belief that God is one and is immanent in all things, and a love for the Prophet and his family. And this alone he considered sufficient for salvation.”

Ghalib did not pray or fast, openly drank wine, and gambled. (He even had to go to jail for gambling, the most humiliating experience of his life.) His non-conformity in religious matters is evident in his conversation and poetry.

Once at the end of Ramazan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Mughal emperor at the time, asked him: “Mirza, how many days’ fast did you keep?” Ghalib replied: “My Lord and Guide, ایک نہیں رکھا, or I failed to keep one,” and left it to the king to decide whether this meant he had failed to keep only one or failed to keep a single one.

On another occasion when Ghalib heard that the King was thinking of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), he wrote:

غالب ، گر اس سفر میں مجھے ساتھ لے چلیں

حج کا ثواب نذر کروں گا حضور کی

Ghalib, gar is safar main mujhay saath lay chalain

Haj ka sawaab nazr karoon ga hazoor ki

If he will take me with him on the Pilgrimage

His Majesty may have my share of heavenly reward

In other words, he was more interested in travel itself than earning the heavenly reward. As it turned out, the king was overtaken by the momentous events of 1857 and couldn’t make it to Mecca. And we lost an opportunity to hear from Ghalib‘s mouth his experiences of the pilgrimage.

Ghalib’s Urdu poetry makes generous use of Persian idiom and vocabulary, which makes it difficult for the present-day reader to understand it. Even his contemporaries, who were familiar with the Persian language, had difficulty understanding his poetry and even joked about it.

Once at a poetry meeting, Hakim Agha Jan Aish, a well-known Delhi wit, took a jab at Ghalib‘s poetry with the following lines:

کلام میر سمجھے، اور زبان میرزا سمجھے

مگر ان کا کہا یہ آپ سمجھیں یا خدا سمجھے

Kalam-i-Mir samjhay aur zabaan-i-Meerza samjhay

Magar in-ka kaha yeh aap samjhaiN ya Khuda samjhay

“We understand the verse of Mir, we understand what Mirza [Sauda] wrote; But Ghalib‘s verse! — Only he himself or God can understand!”

Ghalib‘s response was:

نہ ستائش کی تمنا، نہ صلے کی پرواہ

گر نہیں ہیں میرے اشعار میں معنی ، نہ سہی

Na sataayish ki tamanna, na silay ki parwaah

Gar nahiN haiN meray asha’aar maiN ma’ny na sahi

I do not long for people’s praise; I seek no one’s reward

And if they say my verse has no meaning, be it so.

Note: All quotes and translations are from Ralph Russel and Khurshidul Islam’s book, Life, Letters, and Ghazals of Ghalib.
A slightly different version of this essay appeared on All Things Pakistan (ATP).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store