Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in Agra in the closing years of the 18th 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 commentary tradition that did not extend beyond his work.
Commentaries on his current Urdu ‘divan’ collection of poetry) 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 19th 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, “Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep” (Penguin) by Mehr Afshan Farooqi, an authoritative critical biography of the poet, opens a window to many shades of India and the subcontinent’s cultural and literary tradition.
Mehr Afshan Farooqi grew up in Allahabad. A multiple gold medallist from Allahabad University, Farooqi is currently associate professor of Urdu and South Asian Literature at the University of Virginia. Her research publications address complex issues of Urdu literary culture particularly in the context of modernity. She is interested in bilingualism and how it impacts creativity.
A well-known translator, anthologist and columnist, she is the editor of the pioneering two-volume work “The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature”. More recently, she has published the acclaimed monograph “The Postcolonial Mind: Urdu Culture, Islam and Modernity in Muhammad Hasan Askari”.