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Review: Ghalib: A Desert at My Door by Mehr Afshan Farooqi


If someone said: why Rekhtah [Urdu] envy of Persian? Read Ghalib’s line just once: “Like that!

Look at my Persian to see different colorsPass my collection in Urdu because it does not have my color.

416pp, ₹ 799; penguin

These two insured verses are from Mirza Ghalib and translated by Mehr Afshan Farooqi. It should also be noted, as it may not be obvious to everyone, that the first is from Urdu and the second is from Persian. Yes, Ghalib wrote in both languages ​​and, in fact, his output in Persian was more than double that in Urdu – facts that are not widely known despite his continued popularity in South Asia and around the world. And as seen in the verses above, Ghalib prioritized Persian or Urdu at different points in his writing career.

Mehr Afhsan Farooqi’s book, Ghalib: a desert at my doorstep, critically focusing on Ghalib’s Persian and Urdu poetry and prose, becomes the definitive literary biography of the greatest poet of the 19th century. In contrast, most reviews in Urdu or English have largely focused on Ghalib’s Urdu work; less others writing in Persian, Urdu or English have analyzed its Persian artwork. Farooqi not only writes about the biographical or anecdotal while dotting Ghalib’s exalted verses, as earlier English biographies like that of Pawan Verma did. Instead, she takes a close look at the history of her handwritten and printed editions of Ghalib’s work, their editing and selection by the poet, the different prefaces written to the different editions by the author and / or his friends, as well as their reception.

Written in the increasingly popular genre of non-fiction by academics aimed at a non-academic audience, the book is painstakingly researched and heavily annotated. While embarking on the course of literary studies of in-depth study and archival and textual research of various editions of Ghalib’s works and secondary writings, the book also acquires the hues of a mystery library, by studying the various motivations behind the choices. of Ghalib, as well as the appearance and disappearance of his various manuscripts diwans (collections) and anthologies.

This is done in a rather self-reflective manner and Farooqi tries to highlight his own position in the investigation. She dedicates the book “To Fran Pritchett, Ghalib’s first female commentator. With love and admiration ”, and follows this long tradition of commentators on the greatest Urdu poet, being the next major female voice in the tradition, Natalia Prigarina being another female author who has written a biography on Ghalib (in Russian). But Farooqi’s work should not be appreciated by being put in parentheses among the only feminine writings. She makes interesting and new claims and refutes other canonical opinions, such as those about Ghalib removing his “difficult” verses from his first phase for his published Urdu. diwans, the first of which was not published until 1841, although Ghalib may have had his first collection ready in 1816. She also examines Ghalib’s reasons for focusing on Persian in his mature phase, such as participating in a larger Persosphere stretching from Turkey to Bengal. Why urdu diwan so tightly edited while Persian diwan is double the size? Why is Persian poetry easier to read than highly complex Urdu poetry? These are some of the other key questions that Farooqi seeks to answer.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Richard Cohen)
Mehr Afshan Farooqi (Richard Cohen)

While placing himself in this long tradition of scholarship Ghalib de Hali, Tabatabai, Malik Ram, Vazir-ul-Hasan-Abidi, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (his father) to name but a few, Farooqi creates a historiography of Ghalib’s interpretive story. And in doing so, she clarifies the timeline of both Ghalib’s review and compositions, which other English biographies have failed to do. She also claims that Ghalib’s travels in 1826-7, the long journey to Calcutta, with its various stops along the way, are the reason for his mature understanding of the Persosphere and the value of printed cultures. These, she says, become the reason for her enduring success.

However, at times, Farooqi’s steadfast self-awareness, which goes hand in hand with the desire to present Ghalib in all its bilingual splendor to an audience of English readers, as well as perhaps fit into this long Halibian tradition, becomes a bit of an obstacle. to the reader. The narrative voice is that of an “I” throughout the book, which interferes a little too often and moves away from the treated subject which is Ghalib. Such a tradition is valued in certain critical academic traditions where the function of the author must be articulated consciously, but it could have been reduced to a minimum. The book also becomes slightly repetitive in its statements where “As I mentioned above…” becomes a constant refrain. Would it matter too much if the “I” gave way here in this book on Ghalib?

Despite these little quibbles, this book is the best addition to Ghalib scholarship and English biographical writing in recent decades. It combines the best of Western academic standards of intensive and in-depth reading and citation with the author’s native understanding of the Urdu and Persian traditions, particularly instilled by his father, who was a dean of the field. The wilderness of Ghalib has been tamed for us and brought to our doorstep by Mehr Afshan Farooqi with great insight and praise in the traditions of Urdu, Persian and English, and we have to remove our topis, karakuls and hats to this Ghalibian expert.

Maaz Bin Bilal is a poet, translator and cultural critic. He teaches literary studies at Jindal Global University.