‘Why Ghalib appears so contemporary even today ?’ : Interview with Hasan Abdullah

Ghalib has fascinated generations of people and they have tried to understand/ interpret his poetry in their own way. For any such individual it is really difficult to recollect when and how Ghalib entered her/ his life and ensconced himself comfortably in one’s heart.

This wanderer still faintly remembers how many of Ghalib’s shers were part of common parlance even in an area whose lingua franca is not Hindustani. His andaaz-e-bayaan, his hazaron khwahishein, his making fun of the priest etc. could be discerned in people’s exchanges – without most of them even knowing that they were quoting the great poet.

To be very frank, to me, it is bewildering that a poet – who died over 150 years back – looks so contemporary or at times even a little ahead of our own times. Is it because, he talks about primacy of human being, at times philosophising about life,  and on occasions talking about rebelling against the existing taboos in very many ways? But then have not many other great poets have dealt with the same subjects/ topics?

A continuing anguish of Ghalib which comes up again and again is the feeling of not being understood by people. Is not this feeling ‘universal’ which recurs again and again and in different time periods and historical settings? The loneliness of an intellectual who is deeply pained and anguished by the various ills plaguing the society, including the hollowness of the established intelligentsia – that is caught in the time warp and is drowned in the glories of the past, or is engrossed in singing paeans to the new rulers –and who is trying to understand the society and its evolution holistically and find the way forward, can be easily discerned in his writings.

‘The Evolution of Ghalib’ (Rupa, October 2017, http://rupapublications.co.in/books/the-evolution-of-ghalib/), a book by Hasan Abdullah, an addition to the continually expanding corpus on Ghalib – stands apart from the books on Ghalib published hitherto, and has earned critical acclaim in a short period – as here the author tries to look at the evolution of Ghalib’s thoughts. Here is a dialogue that I, Subhash Gatade, had with the author of the book :

G. Mr Hasan, Congratulations for the wonderful book. Your bio on the flap of the book tells us that you are an engineer by training and an engineering researcher by profession; question arises as to what prompted you to take up this literary work of a different kind – a venture that has no connection with your training and occupation?

A. Thanks for your appreciation of the book Mr. Subhash. I am overwhelmed and humbled by the reception to the book.

There can be several answers to the question as to why I wrote this book? In the style of Ghalib, in the lighter vein, I would say that:

i’shq par zore naheen, hai yeh who aatish ghaalib

jo lagaaey nah lagey, aur bujhaaey nah baney

(There is no force in matters of love; Ghalib, it is a fire that, even with all-out efforts, can neither be ignited nor put off.)

In other words, it was involuntary. I was drawn towards it – irresistibly! And, I cannot really pin point the reason that why I was drawn towards it because of the complexity of the human mind and the pulls and pressures that the heart and mind of any individual are subjected to. But, perhaps,

aakhir-e kaar giraftaar-e sar-e zulf huaa

dil-e deewaanah keh waarastah-e har mazhab thaa

(Ultimately, was captured by the ‘tip of the tresses’, because the mad/ frenzied/ uncontrollable heart was disenchanted with, or wary of, every religion.)

In my reading, here, the ‘tip of the tresses’ signifies matters pertaining to this world – here and now – and are contrasted with the contemplations pertaining to imagined domains such as post-death scenarios of heaven and hell, that are subject matters of religion.

I can perhaps cite the following as the last push that made me write this book: One, because I felt that some of the articles by respected literary personalities on Ghalib and Faiz completely distorted, or even inverted, the intent of the poets, and I therefore wrote rejoinders – that were appreciated by the fellow partisans in private conversations but were greeted by deafening silence in the concerned periodicals! Two, I read the available books on Ghalib, but my thirst to understand Ghalib was not quenched. Three, one of my friends since college days, Mohammad Zubair, now Professor in Computer Science department of Old Dominion University, U.S.A., suggested that I write a book on Ghalib as we shared the thirst – and  because I had studied Urdu in school, whereas he had not! In our group, in casual conversations, we also used to discuss and debate Urdu poetry of Ghalib, especially the couplet,

nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa, kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa

duboyaa mujh ko honey ney, neh hotaa main to kyaaa hotaa

(When nothing existed, God was there; had nothing been there, God would have been; my being has been my undoing; (but) had I not been there, (then) what would have happened?)

Last, but perhaps the real clinching reason was that I felt a resonance in the ghazals of Ghalib, and wanted to share that understanding with the fellow partisans!

G. Tell us something about yourself!

A. May I take liberty to tell about my father first, as perhaps that would provide the backdrop that may help one appreciate as to why I, a rank ‘outsider’ to the literary field, flirted with Ghalib’s Urdu poetry to an extent that it resulted in the book, The Evolution of Ghalib.

G. Oh, sure!

A. My parents, who hailed from Budaun, U.P., came to Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi – a bye-product of India’s freedom struggle – in mid-1950s, i.e., before my arrival on the scene. My father taught subjects like psychology, philosophy and education to the students of Teachers’ Training College (now known as Faculty of Education), wrote articles, published a collection of his articles, delivered talks, and translated a voluminous book from English into Urdu – all, pertaining to his profession. However, alongside, he loved Urdu and breathed Urdu poetry! His personal library included poetry collection of every poet of any significance; he prepared Urdu textbooks for school classes, wrote numerous articles and reviews of Urdu poetry books.

He was actively associated with the organization of literary functions of Progressive Writers Association in Jamia; and, for decades, there used to be a weekly meeting where my father, A.W.B. Qadri and Ghulam Rabbani Taban, a ghazal poet of great repute, were invariably present, and some other friends, mainly faculty members from Jamia Millia Islamia and J.N.U interested in Urdu, joined off and on. Through their lives, my parents inculcated respect for hard work, divergence, human warmth, love and affection, and basic human values. For instance, all his life, my father was a practicing Muslim (regular in offering daily five prayers, observing fast in the month of Ramadan, gave zakawt (religious wealth tax), and performed haj), but most of his close friends were not practicing Muslims, nor he ever asked his children to do this or that!

I read most of the Urdu poetry books available in my father’s library, and many times listened to the discussions of my father and others on Urdu poetry and societal issues. I have breathed the air of Jamia of 1960s and 70s – and that is why, in addition to my parents and the readers, this book is dedicated to the Jamia of 1960s and 70s. I was schooled in Urdu medium Jamia Higher Secondary School, graduated from Delhi College of Engineering and did post-graduation from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Besides consulting, researching and publishing as a professional engineering researcher, I have published articles – on society and literature, including the poetry of Ghalib and Faiz – in Urdu and English periodicals. For last few years, occasionally, I discuss Urdu poetry of Ghalib at https:// ghalibkaarvaan.wordpress.com.

G. How would you differentiate between earlier works on Ghalib and your own work?

A. First of all, I would like to salute Kalidas Gupta Reza, who compiled the complete Urdu poetry of Ghalib in chronological order, upon which my work is based. But Kalidas Gupta Reza could not carry that work forward. In its introductory chapter, however, he exposes the imagined nature of the works of respected biographers, including Hali, a disciple of Ghalib, and concludes: ‘…until Ghalib’s complete poetry is studied in chronological order, we would often keep drawing wrong conclusions…From chronological order alone, the biographical and intellectual evolution can be correctly analyzed…’

Surprisingly, however, no litterateur tried to take advantage of Kalidas Gupta Reza’s goldmine; and, I, a rank outsider to the field of literature, did a bit of pruning (that is selected ghazal couplets), placed those in chronological order and interpreted – and the evolution of Ghalib revealed itself! I have also tried to highlight the evolution through Contours of Evolution, where on a given topic – such as poetry, earthly matters, and philosophical issues etc. – I have presented couplets from different stages.

G. What sort of problems you encountered during the preparation of the book?

A. I think that in a love affair or flirtation, problems, if any, encountered during the process, do not get registered! I am unable to recall any! Moreover, to quote Ghalib

safeenah jab keh kinaarey peh aa lagaa, ghaalib

khudaa sey kyaa sitam-o jaur-e naa-khudaa kahiyey

(When ship has reached the shore, Ghalib, why complain to God about the captain’s oppression?)

G. Why Ghalib appears so contemporary even one and a half century after his death?

A. The plausible reasons appear to be that his couplets, which are expressed in most exquisite language using devices such as wordplay, hyperbole, irony and paradox, reflect diverse situations, depict a range of human emotions and provide deep insights into human’s life and her/ his relationship with Nature. And that is why his Urdu ghazals attract a highly diverse set of people – rich and poor, literary and scientific, uneducated and erudite, layperson and polymath, lover and beloved, men and women, young and old, even the oppressor and the oppressed, those sunk into the past and reactionary, as well as those who are forward looking and progressive.

One can perhaps also say that in terms of exploitation and justice, the society has not fundamentally changed during this one and a half century; and, so, the progressive mankind finds the revolutionary Ghalib, who understood motion and continual evolution and had a holistic understanding of society, very relevant for the present times as well!

G. There is an ongoing debate which talks of Ghalib’s works in Persian that are much larger in volume than his works in Urdu, and says that he cannot be understood simply on the basis of his Urdu works?

A. Everyone is free to have an opinion, and we must respect that! I agree that the more, the better! In that respect, what I have presented in The Evolution of Ghalib is the starting point, or the first draft, so to say. Let knowledgeable people take due cognizance of more and more works, on way to all works, in Urdu and Persian, in poetry and prose, and have more realistic appraisal of Ghalib’s evolution. Even if taking cognizance of just Urdu ghazal couplets – as I have done – someone discovers a different trajectory of Ghalib’s evolution, I would wholeheartedly welcome that! However, my conjecture is that one cannot divide a person, especially one like Ghalib, who says, and I entirely agree:

saadiq hoon apney qaul men, ghaalib khudaa gawaah

kehtaa hooon sach keh jhoot kee a’adat naheen mujhey

(I am truthful in my averments, Ghalib; and God would certify that. I always speak the truth as I am not accustomed to telling lies)

If one accepts ghazal as the genre where he could pour his heart (and mind) out, that is write without any extraneous considerations, then I doubt that the chronological reading of Persian ghazals would yield a different trajectory of Ghalib’s evolution. In any case, the only point I wish to place forward for the consideration of one and all is that we need to study everyone – be that a poet, a writer, a painter, a musician, or anyone else – in evolution, because motion is an undeniable fact of life!

G. Ghalib lived in Delhi during the tumultuous period of the 1857 war when British were shaken up by rebellion in their army – variously described as ‘war of independence’ or ‘sepoy mutiny. The suppression of the rebellion was followed by massacre of large masses of people in Delhi also. Would it be possible to explain how Ghalib viewed the whole episode and how he reacted to it.

A. I would prefer not to respond to that because I am concerned with intellectual evolution of Ghalib, culled through the chronological reading of his Urdu ghazal verses. Moreover, Ghalib was an exceptionally shrewd person; and first and foremost, in those times, survival was the fundamental issue for anyone. Ghalib needed to keep the powers-that-be in good humour; and during those tumultuous times, there were several power centres! In general terms, Ghalib was unhappy, because many British officials were his friends, and the Indians, who bore the brunt of war, of course included his near and dear ones.

G. Any parting comment, you would like to make.

A. huei muddat keh ghaalib mar gayaa, par yaad aataa hai

(Ghalib died ages ago, but is nostalgically remembered)

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3 thoughts on “‘Why Ghalib appears so contemporary even today ?’ : Interview with Hasan Abdullah


    With lynchings and murders of muslims, dalits and other weaker sections, one might hum Ghalib’s words in agony :
    ” …aakhir is dard ki davaa kya hai ….?’

  2. Pingback: ‘Why Ghalib appears so contemporary even today?’ – Journey 66 | ghalibkaarvaan

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