| Master of musings
The Oxford India Ghalib: Life, letters and Ghazals Edited by Ralph Russell, Oxford, Rs 695
Ralph Russel’s book on the greatest poet of Urdu, being the work of a foreign scholar on an indigenous poet, runs the risk of not being well-received by sceptics. But Russell is not new to Urdu literature, nor is this book his first. Translation of poetry is a difficult task and attempting to translate Ghalib’s poetry into another language is like weaving a rope of sand. The amount of writings on Ghalib and his poetry is enough for a new scholar to feel lost in their maze. But Russell’s intention is clear. His target is not merely the section of readers who are completely new to Ghalib’s poetry, but also those who know something about him.
Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born at Agra in 1797. Later, he moved to Delhi and witnessed not only the last days of the Mughal empire but also the revolt of 1857. Besides being a great poet — writing in Urdu and Persian — he was also a fine prose writer. Although both his Persian verses and Urdu ones were equally dear to him, it is the latterwhich has stood the test of time.
If the Iranians did not accept his Persian poetry, his Urdu poetry too came in for some criticism because some of his contemporaries failed to understand the difficult ideas and diction. Surprisingly, his prose is marked by simplicity of diction and clarity of thought. Ghalib is also known for his wit and humour. If his poetry had been translated well, they could be studied in comparison with the works of his English and continental contemporaries, and make for a rewarding research.
It is perhaps a good thing that European critics have started turning to vernacular writers and poets from Asia and Africa and to find out more about their literature and culture. Their renewed interest in Ghalib is good news for lovers of Urdu poetry.
Russell has divided his book into two parts. The first deals with the poet’s life and Delhi as it was in Ghalib’s time, and also with his prose. Russel makes it interesting for his readers by telling Ghalib’s story in the bard’s own language. Even the newly-initiated into the world of Ghalib’s writing can understand instantly that this poet is a class apart from the rest.
Ghalib’s asset is the unique way in which he translates philosophical thoughts as well as mundane reality into electrifying ideas. His humour does not desert him even for a moment.
The second part of the book contains Ghalib’s Persian and Urdu poetry, as well as his unforgettable ghazals. Those uninitiated in the tradition of ghazals will nonetheless find this section immensely enjoyable. Russell has added an introduction and an index explaining certain difficult phases of Ghalib’s life and poetry.
The second chapter of the book, by Percival Spear, deals with 19th century Delhi. Though short, the essay is informative and of immense academic value. Two chapters each are devoted to Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian verses. Two more are spent in explaining Ghalib’s art for the benefit of the lay reader. The final chapter deals with Russell’s problems in translating the poems.
Russell appears to be in his elements as far as the historical aspect of Ghalib’s poetry is concerned. But while writing about tradition, Russell finds himself in a tight spot. Words like khizir and certain vital images proved difficult to translate and explain. When dealing with the difficult theme of love, Russell is obviously at some unease because he brings in the reference of Mansur al Hallaj and the question of homosexuality, quite superfluous to the discussion. When Ghalib or his contemporaries were using these images, their personal experiences had little or no bearings on their choice, just as Marlowe, Shakespeare, Shelley and Keats used Greek mythology.
The repeated references to Delhi and traditions of poetry could have been avoided, but do not seem terribly out of place. The most riveting section perhaps is the one dealing with the letters of the poet, entertaining and informative at the same time. The book is valuable because it brings together hundreds of Urdu and Persian ghazals by Ghalib. The bard’s Urdu ghazals have been much-translated, but it is his Persian poetry that is the real gain from this work. Russell has attempted to translate more than three hundred Persian ghazals; his notes to the poems are extremely helpful.
The selection of Urdu ghazals which number around two hundred has been done keeping the interests of the readers in mind. Even if some of the Urdu renderings are not of the best calibre, they manage to convey the flavour of some of the best poetry written in Urdu. The book makes for pleasant reading and should be on the shelves of anyone who wants to know more about Ghalib, his poetry and his times.