Deciphering Ghalib For A New Age

Deciphering Ghalib For A New Age
Anjum Altaf is a respected Pakistani academic who has delved deep into the poetry of the 19th-century Urdu poet Asadullah Ghalib – and with his co-author Amit Basole, he has found deeper meanings of Ghalib’s verse that elude many a casual reader.

In 2019, Altaf published Transgressions, a book of poems that were inspired by certain poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. His poems added another layer of texture to Faiz’s enduring poetry.

Anjum Altaf had previously served as Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore University of Management and Sciences (LUMS), and later as vice president and provost at Habib University, Karachi. His co-author Amit Basole is also an economist and holds associate professorship at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India.
Title: Thinking With Ghalib: Poetry for a new Generation
Authors: Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole
Publishers: Folio Books, Lahore 2021
Pages: 108
Price: Rs. 500
E-Books: The Little Book Company, Rs.200

In Thinking With Ghalib, the authors explore selected ashaar or couplets of Ghalib’s multi-dimensional poetry in easy-to-understand interpretations. The authors’ approach to Ghalib is innovative and thought-provoking. They do not tread the beaten old path of Ghalibiat - but like Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear before them, they look at Ghalib with fresh eyes and an open mind.

There are hundreds and possibly thousands of books written about Ghalib’s Urdu poetry. It is amazing that his small Urdu Diwan (as opposed to his voluminous Persian poetry) has so captured the imagination for the past 150 years. Whereas many of Ghalib’s contemporaries have, in time, faded from the spotlight, he remains vibrant and relevant.

Dr, Anjum Altaf

Among the English books on Ghalib’s poetry, one can count Sufia Sadullah’s Hundred Poems of Ghalib (1965), Daud Kamal’s Reverbrations (1970), Saraswati Saran’s Mirza Ghalib: The Poet of Poets (1976) and Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear’s Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance (2009). While Daud Kamal and Sufia Sadullah translated/transliterated certain couplets of Ghalib, Thinking With Ghalib and Epistemologies of Elegance explore Ghalib in a more substantive way.

Dr. Amit Basole

In Ghalib’s time, and for almost one hundred years, ghazal was the most popular poetry form that was prevalent and dominant. Unlike the format of nazm where there is continuity of thought and theme throughout a poem, in ghazal each couplet tells a complete story or a thought. It is Ghalib’s genius that he packs so many ideas, metaphors and idioms in two lines of a couplet. Some of Ghalib’s couplets are simple and straightforward, while others require deep contemplation.

Here are two easy-to-understand couplets.

Consider, first, the following:

Asad Khushi se mere haath pau(N) phool gai
Kaha jo usne zara mere pau(N) daab to de

Asad, I was ecstatic beyond words
When my beloved asked me to press her feet

Or this:

Sohbat mei(N) gher ki naa parhi ho kahiN yeh khoo
Dainney lagga hai bosse bagher iltija kiay

It must be a habit she acquired in the company of strangers
For she has started offering kisses without being asked

But there are hundreds of couplets in Ghalib’s Diwan that are nuanced, complex and lend themselves to varying interpretations. Even during Ghalib’s life, people had remarked that his poetry was hard to understand and that it was nothing but play on words and phrases. He addressed those objections in some of his letters - particularly in those that he wrote to Khwaja Ghulam Ghaus Bekhaber and Nawab Mustapha Khan Shaifta (Ood Hindi, 1968, letters 119, 120 and 121).
It is amazing that his small Urdu Diwan (as opposed to his voluminous Persian poetry) has so captured the imagination for the past 150 years.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the celebrated Urdu poet, in his foreword to Daud Kamal’s Ghalib: Reverbrations, wrote:
“One may or may not subscribe to the view that Ghazal poetry is wholly untranslatable but there is no denying that in the peculiar idiom evolved by Ghazal writers over many centuries, words, terms, and phrases, rarely mean what they appear to mean, and it is difficult to locate in another language (except in cognate languages like Urdu and Persian) satisfactory equivalents which embrace the entire associative content of the original expressions. As a result, in most scholarly translations of Urdu or Persian verse, it is generally, “the meaning—” skeleton outline of a poet’s thoughts or feeling – which is, or is intended to be, portrayed and the intangibles which give body to his experience and its expressions are generally lost.”

In the light of above observations, let us look at Thinking With Ghalib.

The authors choose 30 couplets from Diwan-e-Ghalib and discuss those couplets in thirty short chapters. They give each chapter a title that reflects the theme of the couplet. In their interpretations, the authors try to stand with Ghalib to understand the poet’s thought process rather than stand apart at a distance in a detached scholarly posture.

Here are a few couplets that the authors discuss in the book.

On being trapped:

Bazicihae atfaal hai dunya mere aage
Hota hai shabb-o-roz tamasha mere aage

The world is a game of children before me
Night-and-day a spectacle occurs before me

This two-line couplet can open up the world of ideas and poetry from diverse sources. The authors convincingly bring Shakespeare to bear on the meaning of this couplet:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in the petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fool
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s bur a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 22-31)

On the “Other”:

MeiN ne MujnuN pah laRakpan meN Asad
Sang uThaya tha kih sar yaad aaya

Against MajnuN, in my boyhood/childishness, Asad
I had picked up a stone when I remembered (my) head

“Here the virtue of humanity is tested by its interaction with the other which immediately makes the verse capable of yielding a very contemporary message resonant with our times,” write the authors.

On governance:

Saltanat dast ba dast aaii hai
Jaam-e-mai Khaatam-e-Jamshed NahiiN

Kingship has come down from hand to hand
A glass of wine is not the seal of Jamshed

According to the authors, Ghalib tosses three balls - kingship, a glass of wine and the seal of Jamshed. These, when seen through the lens of a declining Mughal Empire during Ghalib’s days, make it clear that while in those days ‘all sorts of fools and knaves’ laid claim to the throne of Delhi, the scholars and Sufis (the metaphor of the glass of wine and the seal of Jamshed) retained their scholarly eminence and mass respect.

On identity:

Nah tha kuchh to Khuda tha, Kuchh na hota to Khuda hota
Duboya mujh ko hone ne na meiN hota to kia hota

When there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing
Existed then God would exist
“Being” drowned me; If I did not exist, then what would I be?

"Who am I?" is the philosophical question that has baffled mankind all through history. In this multidimensional verse, Ghalib leaves the door open for multiple interpretations that appear to be contradictory to each other.

The authors quote Francis Pritchett’s comments about this particular verse, “Is this not a two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations? That’s why I consider it a ‘meaning machine’ or ‘meaning generator’-because of its radical undecidability.”

The first line, according to the authors, lends itself to three different interpretations and the second line to at least six interpretations. Thus, the authors conclude that the verse can be interpreted in many ways. But they qualify their inability to offer just one interpretation in the following words:
“This is a characteristic of literature – there are no correct interpretations. Great literature gets reinterpreted over time and yields entirely new meanings. At any given time, readers can have differing interpretations that they can discuss with each other and enjoy rather than be frustrated by the multiplicity of meanings and quarrel over finding a single meaning.” And they conclude the discussion of this verse by applying the thrust of this verse to contemporary issues in a society:
“The lesson for us is that when people differ on issues that are important to society, there are ways to consider, debate, and test the various answers. It is not helpful to start with the belief that there is only one right answer to every question, that the answer is already available in some authoritative source, that ‘our’ answer is the one that is right, and that everyone else holding a different answer needs to be eliminated, by force, if necessary.”

The late Dr. Mazhar Ali Khan (Dean of Humanities and professor and chair of the English Department at Peshawar University) seems to agree with the authors when he wrote in his introduction of above-mentioned book of Daud Kamal:
“The enigmatic and metaphysical style of which the Ghalib’s Diwan is a masterpiece, will always have ample room for conjecture, even though its chief characteristics are deciphered.”

In the short story The Empty House, Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. Watson:
“Ah! My dear Watson. There we come into those realms of conjecture, where the most logical mind may be at fault. Each may form his own hypothesis upon the present evidence and yours is likely to be correct as mine."

In so many ways, that quote describes certain verses of Ghalib.

Thinking with Ghalib is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to the genre of English Ghalibiat.


Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: