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Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography

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Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in Agra in the closing years of the eighteenth century. A precocious child, he began composing verses at an early age and gained recognition while he was still very young. He wrote in both Urdu and Persian and was also a great prose stylist. He was a careful, even strict, editor of his work who took to publishing long before his peers. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in Agra in the closing years of the eighteenth century. A precocious child, he began composing verses at an early age and gained recognition while he was still very young. He wrote in both Urdu and Persian and was also a great prose stylist. He was a careful, even strict, editor of his work who took to publishing long before his peers. His predilection for writing difficult, obscure poetry peppered with complex metaphors produced a unique commentarial tradition that did not extend beyond his work. Commentaries on his current Urdu divan have produced a field of critical writing that eventually lead to the crafting of a critical lens with which to view the classical ghazal. The nineteenth century was the height of European colonialism. British colonialism in India produced definitive changes in the ways literature was produced, circulated and consumed. Ghalib responded to the cultural challenge with a far-sightedness that was commendable. His imagination sought engagement with a wider community of readers. His deliberate switch to composing in Persian shows that he wanted his works to reach beyond political boundaries and linguistic barriers. Ghalib's poetic trajectory begins from Urdu, then moves to composing almost entirely in Persian and finally swings back to Urdu. It is nearly as complex as his poetry. However, his poetic output in Persian is far more than what he wrote in Urdu. More important is that he gave precedence to Persian over Urdu. Ghalib's voice presents us with a double bind, a linguistic paradox. Exploring his life, works and philosophy, this authoritative critical biography of Ghalib opens a window to many shades of India and the subcontinent's cultural and literary tradition.


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Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in Agra in the closing years of the eighteenth century. A precocious child, he began composing verses at an early age and gained recognition while he was still very young. He wrote in both Urdu and Persian and was also a great prose stylist. He was a careful, even strict, editor of his work who took to publishing long before his peers. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in Agra in the closing years of the eighteenth century. A precocious child, he began composing verses at an early age and gained recognition while he was still very young. He wrote in both Urdu and Persian and was also a great prose stylist. He was a careful, even strict, editor of his work who took to publishing long before his peers. His predilection for writing difficult, obscure poetry peppered with complex metaphors produced a unique commentarial tradition that did not extend beyond his work. Commentaries on his current Urdu divan have produced a field of critical writing that eventually lead to the crafting of a critical lens with which to view the classical ghazal. The nineteenth century was the height of European colonialism. British colonialism in India produced definitive changes in the ways literature was produced, circulated and consumed. Ghalib responded to the cultural challenge with a far-sightedness that was commendable. His imagination sought engagement with a wider community of readers. His deliberate switch to composing in Persian shows that he wanted his works to reach beyond political boundaries and linguistic barriers. Ghalib's poetic trajectory begins from Urdu, then moves to composing almost entirely in Persian and finally swings back to Urdu. It is nearly as complex as his poetry. However, his poetic output in Persian is far more than what he wrote in Urdu. More important is that he gave precedence to Persian over Urdu. Ghalib's voice presents us with a double bind, a linguistic paradox. Exploring his life, works and philosophy, this authoritative critical biography of Ghalib opens a window to many shades of India and the subcontinent's cultural and literary tradition.

42 review for Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Pritam Chattopadhyay

    Title: Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography Author: Mehr Afshan Farooqi Publisher: Allen Lane (18 January 2021) Language: English File size: 5324 KB Print length: 382 pages Price: 360/- Ghalib’s poetry can be contrasted to a well-known bowl of the renowned king Jamshed that reflected a whole universe when gazed at absorbedly. His couplets hide an astounding world of layer upon layer of complex meaning. The biggest question about Ghalib’s poetry, as also his life, is to discover th Title: Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep: A Critical Biography Author: Mehr Afshan Farooqi Publisher: Allen Lane (18 January 2021) Language: English File size: 5324 KB Print length: 382 pages Price: 360/- Ghalib’s poetry can be contrasted to a well-known bowl of the renowned king Jamshed that reflected a whole universe when gazed at absorbedly. His couplets hide an astounding world of layer upon layer of complex meaning. The biggest question about Ghalib’s poetry, as also his life, is to discover the inexplicable element that flares up like a flame and continues to lighten up vistas of meaning so that a commonplace reader is left breathless. The reader wants to assimilate the meaning while experiencing a creative occurrence that is hard to decipher in words. What is the secret of this poetic artistry and beautification that seems to be so flawless? What is the truth and inquisitive power in this poetry that strengthens our confidence in human ingenuity and inventiveness? It gives us the power to disengage ourselves from day-to-day mundane routines and heightens our awareness of life’s beauty and its myriad pleasures. The author of this book is tremendously close to truth when he says: ‘Ghalib’s voice presents us with a double bind, a linguistic paradox. He felt his control of Persian to be as ‘native’ as his control of Urdu. His literary imagination is ineffable because it has many dimensions; some are extreme, some edifyingly trivial. I am mapping Ghalib’s textual history in order to get a better understanding of the ever-fraught, complicated relationship between circumstance and choice—can biographical history help us interpret his decision to lean more towards Persian when Urdu was in its golden age?’ Perhaps Ghalib was thinking in Persian and writing in Urdu. Was he seeking to experiment with a new style, or did he find Urdu inadequate when it came to expressing his thoughts? In Urdu, Ghalib often leaves the meaning of the verse suspended. He suggests a meaning but leaves the reader striving in order to arrive at his meaning. If you are a lay bystander, peeping into Ghalib’s life for the first time, this book is meant for you. The author divides the book into the following nine chapters: 1.The Kite Rises into the Air 2.The Divan of 1821 and the Divan of 3.Ghalib’s Earliest Divan: The Divan of 4.Contrary Winds: The Journey to Calcutta (1826–29) 5.The Two-Coloured Rose: Gul-e Ra’na (1828) 6.The Culture of Book Publishing and the Divan of 7.Prefacing the Poetry: Ghalib’s Self-Presentation 8.Transregional Sensibilities: The Case of Ghalib’s Persian 9.Return to Urdu Chapter 1 begins with an assessment of Ghalib’s early life. There is divergence in the dates ascribed by Ghalib. He was orphaned at the age of five; he lost his paternal uncle, Nasrullah Beg Khan, who was his guardian, at the age of nine. A stipend or pension was determined for the dependents of Nasrullah Beg Khan by British governor Lord Lake on the basis of a commendation from Navab Ahmad Bakhsh Khan. Ghalib felt that the pension was unlawfully proportioned between the dependents, but he did not challenge the allocation at the time, apparently because he was too young. It seems undue to contend that Ghalib consciously deducted some years from his actual birthdate in order to fortify and validate his litigating it when he was worldly-wise. Chapters 2 and 3 narrate the setting tales of the discovery of several important manuscript divans (nuskhah) of Ghalib’s Urdu verses. It seems hard to believe that the Urdu literary world may have been wholly destitute of Mirza Ghalib’s early poetry and/or unselected verses, and perhaps even forgotten about it, had some unusual manuscripts not surfaced almost half a century after the poet’s death. The earliest one dates to 1816 and is principally believed to be in Ghalib’s own handwriting. The importance of these divans is not only that they contain the verses that Ghalib did not select when he published the Urdu divan in 1841, they also reveal, in many cases, Ghalib’s choices and emendations to verses from time to time. Chapter 4 details the ordeals of Ghalib’s journey to Calcutta (now Kolkata), the seat of the English government. On the way, he made several important stops, but the city of Banaras (now Varanasi) on the River Ganga truly captivated him. He composed a glittering masnavi in Persian, Chiragh-e Dair (Lamp of the Temple), in which he spoke of the exquisite delights of Banaras. When one considers the challenges of a nearly 3000-kilometre journey that was interrupted by long episodes of illness (five months spent recovering in Lucknow, six in Banda and one in Banaras), we have to admire Ghalib’s tenacity of purpose. It seems like a marvel that he even reached his destination. Ghalib, meanwhile, kept pouring his heart out in letters. He wrote Persian in a convoluted but poignant style, creating a fantastic archive of the sojourn in his ornate yet elegant prose. Chapter 5 tracks Ghalib’s transition from Urdu to Persian. He made a selection of his Urdu and Persian verses for Maulvi Sirajuddin Ahmad, the editor of the weekly Ainah-e Sikandar. The manuscript, titled Gul-e Ra’na (The Two-Coloured Rose, 1828), was never published in his life span, and doubtless wasn’t meant for publication either. Although numerous copies were made, they were buried in private collections, the owners perhaps not conscious of their significance. The first of these was recovered in 1951. Chapter 6 scrutinizes the raison d'être for the reputation of the Urdu divan and compares the Urdu with the Persian divan. The two divans have forewords, but the Persian divan’s dibachah is a classic in its own right. It has never been translated, not even into Urdu. Chapter 7 analyses Ghalib’s forewords and afterwords (khatimahs) with a view to understanding these somewhat neglected but critical genres of Indian Persian literature. When we look at Ghalib’s dibachahs, we encounter a rhetorical mode of discourse that uses tropes to organize modes of perception. Chapter 8 presents a reassessment of Ghalib’s passionate engagement with Persian by re-examining his sense of belonging to a larger literary world. His attraction with the Dasatir, the Arabic–Persian linguistic rivalries and restyling of the Persian language are wrapped up in his claim of literary lineage with what he thought was pristine Persian. The last two chapters of this book are an attempt to understand Ghalib’s literary methods, the reach of his thoughts and his engagement with literatures beyond political and geographic boundaries. Ghalib follows the tradition of intertextual dialogue (javab-goi) with his precursors in Persian. The author has painstakingly scrutinized Ghalib’s creative engagement with the poets of the classical past and those that are described to stylistically represent tazah-goi. Tazah-goi in itself means newness or freshness, perhaps as much as every innovative creative urge could be. The component of Indianness that purportedly made the poetry ambiguous seems to have had more to do with temporality than geography. Iranian émigrés at the Mughal court were bound to have a subjective engagement with the cultural aesthetics that coloured their metaphorical use of language. In the end, Ghalib received perpetual fame in the modern language: Urdu. The book wraps up with Ghalib’s return to writing in this language. His last years were bittersweet. Bedridden with many ailments, he continued to respond to his large body of admirers, dictating letters and receiving visitors. He was unconscious in the last couple of days before he passed away in 1869. His death was commemorated in an amazing outpouring of poetry and chronograms. Sometimes there is an obvious meaning in Ghalib’s poetry that veils a deeper one. Ghalib explores unfamiliar emotional states or reveals new responses to familiar emotional states. In fact, Ghalib often laments at the inadequacy of language to express his thoughts, or that language is an inadequate medium of expression: Hujum-e fikr se dil misl-e mauj larze hai, Kih shishah nazuk-o sahba-e abginah gudaz [My heart trembles like a wave with the surges of thought, The wine glass is delicate and the wine fiery hot] A read of a lifetime this book. Took me a long time to complete – almost 11 days!! It was not the length, 350 odd pages, which held me back. It was the re-reading and brooding and hallucinating between lines. The experience was divine.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Raza

    "Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep" begins with a 14 page timeline of the great bard's life. If I may say so, that itself is worth the price of admission. Fortunately, there is more to come. Much more. While the book is not a straight-up biography of Ghalib, by the time one finishes this magisterial work, his life has been fleshed out in granular detail. I especially enjoyed the discussion of Ghalib's various Divans, including his rejected (mustarad) verses. Ghalib was fluent in two languages (F "Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep" begins with a 14 page timeline of the great bard's life. If I may say so, that itself is worth the price of admission. Fortunately, there is more to come. Much more. While the book is not a straight-up biography of Ghalib, by the time one finishes this magisterial work, his life has been fleshed out in granular detail. I especially enjoyed the discussion of Ghalib's various Divans, including his rejected (mustarad) verses. Ghalib was fluent in two languages (Farsi and Urdu), and in Mehr Afshan Farooqi, we are lucky to have a biographer who is fluent in Ghalib! Many books have been written on this great poet, and many more will be written (one hopes). But in that multitude, this book will always have an important place.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kunal

    Found the title a bit misleading. Though very well researched, the book talks more about the discover of Ghalib's works (particularly Diwans) than the life he lived. Actual events of Ghalib's life hardly comprise about 1/3rd of the book. Also, at times in the book, one gets mere english translation of a ghazal (Hindustani version isn't given alongside), rendering it tasteless. Found the title a bit misleading. Though very well researched, the book talks more about the discover of Ghalib's works (particularly Diwans) than the life he lived. Actual events of Ghalib's life hardly comprise about 1/3rd of the book. Also, at times in the book, one gets mere english translation of a ghazal (Hindustani version isn't given alongside), rendering it tasteless.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Umar Shaikh

    A great biography of a great poet. A little tough at times for a non-expert but a pleasing read nonetheless.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mohit Goel

  6. 4 out of 5

    Deepak Yadav

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sujay

  8. 5 out of 5

    ashwin

  9. 4 out of 5

    Usman Baig

  10. 4 out of 5

    Shreya

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rohini Musa

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ashrutha

  13. 5 out of 5

    Vivek Tejuja

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mehdi Faizy

  15. 5 out of 5

    Abhimanyu

  16. 4 out of 5

    curleduptoes

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dev Bahra

  18. 5 out of 5

    Anser Abbas

  19. 4 out of 5

    libraryfacts

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nirmal Ghimire

  21. 4 out of 5

    Saga

  22. 4 out of 5

    Biboss Maharjan

  23. 4 out of 5

    Naseem Ambar Haidry

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tarun

  25. 4 out of 5

    Prasanna Iyer

  26. 4 out of 5

    Abhishek Paliwal

  27. 5 out of 5

    Arvindkumar Pandoria

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tushant Mittal

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alishaan Asaria

  30. 4 out of 5

    KAUSIK REDDY

  31. 5 out of 5

    Tanvi Agrawal

  32. 4 out of 5

    Khushali Joshi

  33. 4 out of 5

    Rishabh Narayan

  34. 5 out of 5

    Virinchi

  35. 4 out of 5

    Black Horse

  36. 4 out of 5

    Maham Kamal

  37. 4 out of 5

    Deepti Kumar

  38. 4 out of 5

    Tushar Sharma

  39. 5 out of 5

    Zainab

  40. 4 out of 5

    Neha Jain

  41. 5 out of 5

    Ahsan

  42. 5 out of 5

    Kavya

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