A ‘House Full’ board at Nehru Centre? During all the years I have lived in London, I had never seen it before. Didn’t know they even had one; or indeed needed it, given the mostly modest turnouts. But on August 21, a Friday, it was up there in all its freshly painted glory as a crowd jostled to gain entry. Seeing the scrum you would have thought there was a Bollywood show going on inside. Instead, what was going on inside couldn’t have been less glamorous: a gathering of mostly academics talking to each other about a long dead albeit famous poet. And even the proceedings were not going well—starting with the great poet’s name being mangled.
It was the start of a three-day international seminar on Mirza Ghalib, cringingly referred to as “Galib” by the lady entrusted with the task of welcoming the guests. Which, in a gathering of Urdu purists, almost amounted to committing sacrilege (Javed Akhtar, were he there, would have hit the roof.) A rambling keynote address by David Mathews—a high-profile Urdu expert—did little to lift the spirits.
Ghalib was a generous man and would have dismissed these glitches with self-deprecating humour. And to be fair, warm-up acts are always tricky. Happily though the conference quickly settled down to the task at hand. And while in the real world outside England lost the fifth and final Test to Australia at the Oval; and India and Pakistan traded blows over “red lines”, a clutch of Ghalib scholars—from India, America, Canada, Russia, France and Britain—spent the weekend grappling with the bard’s life and work.
They acknowledged the difficulty of interpreting a poet and a person as complex as Ghalib who famously taunted his critics: “Poochte ho tum ke Ghalib kaun hai, tum hi batlao ke hum batlayen kya.” Ghalib is one of the most discussed Indian Urdu poets of his time. Yet even accomplished scholars have struggled in the face of his deeply ambiguous play on words and his philosophical musings which deceive with their apparent simplicity.
According to Munir Pervaiz Sami, a Canada-based Pakistani writer, trying to understand and explain Ghalib is a big “challenge” since he “fuses Urdu, Farsi, Hindi and other languages with such uncanny expertise and adds much complexity of meaning into his verse”.
When I heard the seminar’s title, ‘Ghalib Rediscovered’, I was intrigued. What rediscovery? Hadn’t everything that needed to be said about Ghalib already been said?
“No,” the organisers insisted. With Ghalib, it was never enough; there was always more to learn as new facets keep emerging. Dr M.Z.A. Shakeb, chairperson of the Ilmi Majlis which organised the event in collaboration with the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Bagri Foundation and Vatayan, a Hindi literary group, said that in the past decade “numerous facts” had come to light. But little attention had been paid to them; the idea was to bring out the “essence” of these findings which included his “masterpiece on Benares, Chirag-e-Dair, which is hardly known even to Ghalib connoisseurs”.
So, who was Ghalib? Shakeb wisely let the master introduce himself in his own words: “Hoga koi aisa ke jo Ghalib ko no jaane/Shair to woh accha hai par badnam bahut hai.” And I think the audience got it better than if Dr Shakeb had spent the evening deconstructing him. Deconstructing a poet is always a bad idea. It is patronising to the reader because it assumes a degree of ignorance on their part—like explaining very S-L-O-W-L-Y to a slightly dull child. It also implies that the poet’s work lacks clarity and needs to be explained to make sense.
The conference didn’t fall into that trap, instead focusing on his relations with the society he lived in; his eccentricities; correspondence; and his contemporary relevance. There were some interesting insights into his rather turbulent personal life which for all his fame was a constant struggle for sheer survival. In his case, of course, it meant more than just being able to afford a square meal. He needed other lubricants (such as good wine) to keep his creative juices flowing; and they cost money. Which led to debts, litigation and more torment. Well, creativity doesn’t come cheap.
I’m a seminar-sceptic but as an Urdu partisan (though to my shame I struggle to read or write it) I’m partial to any effort that even indirectly promotes its cause. Guess Ghalib’s coat-tails will do.
(Hasan Suroor is a London-based columnist and writer.)