Reviews

‘Ghalib: A Wilderness at my Doorstep’: Fresh insight into Ghalib’s world

I had expected the new ‘critical biography’, Ghalib: A Wilderness at my Doorstep (Allen Lane) to be a biography for the ordinary Ghalib fan. I should have known better. Its author, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, is the daughter of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, whose demise last year deprived India of one of its most brilliant writer-scholars. Not surprisingly, while Ghalib contains much of interest to the serious Ghalib fan (a description that does not include all those who attribute every amorous couplet to ‘Chacha Ghalib’), it is, above all, an original work of serious scholarship.

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Calcutta years

In some areas, such as the relationship of Ghalib’s Persian and Urdu writings, the influence of his Calcutta years on Ghalib’s oeuvre, a critical chronology of the various manuscripts of his poetry, and the impact of print on his production and reception, this book is a path-breaking work of the sort that Shamsur Rahman Faruqi would have been proud of. Such elements have been carefully researched, for Mehr Farooqi shows a clear awareness of the holes that remain to be plugged in these areas.

As she sums up towards the end of the study, “I have engaged with Ghalib’s trajectory in Urdu and Persian, poetry and prose. I have used Ghalib’s sojourn to Calcutta as an important signpost in his career graph for three reasons: first, Ghalib’s exposure to and awareness of the power of print; second, his increased output in Persian; and third, his preparation of a selection of his Urdu poetry.”

This is not an easy book to read, if you are the ‘Chacha Ghalib’ kind of poetry lover. But it repays the effort. It uncovers or repositions much about Ghalib and his mysteriously appearing and disappearing manuscripts — something surely awaiting a novel by a South Asian Umberto Eco. As necessary background, it also provides a glimpse of the literary culture of the age, a time that thought of composition, literature and books quite differently from how we do today. Mehr Farooqi makes the convincing case that, in this respect, Ghalib was somewhere in between, and his awareness of the change that was coming helped him position his own work in ways that might have prevented them from being eroded by time.

Switch from Persian

One cannot help noticing that Ghalib’s career as a writer contained a switch from Persian to Urdu. After initial years of composition in Urdu, he switched to composing almost exclusively in Persian — Mehr Farooqi connects it to his Calcutta years — and then returned to Urdu. His career as an author has shown a similar kind of shift: from his own privileging of his Persian works over his Urdu compositions to the almost exclusive focus that critics have put on his Urdu poetry and letters at the expense of his Persian compositions. It strikes me that, in recent years, a comparable shift has been taking place: from major works on Ghalib in Urdu, which were rarely translated into English, to significant critical and biographical interventions in English, informed by scholarship in both Persian and Urdu. Mehr Farooqi’s Ghalib is a major landmark on this new and necessary path.

Ghalib: A Wilderness at my Doorstep; Mehr Afshan Farooqi, Allen Lane/ PRH, ₹799.

The reviewer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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