When I heard about Maaz Bin Bilal’s post temple lamp on social media, I was crestfallen.
When I saw that Ranjit Hoskote had endorsed the book, I was even more crestfallen.
Just a few months ago, finalizing my book on Nehru, I decided to dedicate a paragraph of the chapter on culture to the story of Ghalib Shirag-e-Dair situate (and illustrate) the defining idea of India’s cultural history in meet. I desperately searched for a good English translation of Ghalib’s lyrics masnavi epic proportions, for my purpose.
I wasn’t happy with the translations I discovered, but eventually settled on the compact, short version of Qurratulain Haider’s poem. I would have liked a competent translator to translate this poem for us. Little did I know that my wish was being granted and perfected at this exact moment, without my knowledge. I wish Maaz or Ranjit had mentioned it to me in passing, by divine accident. I would have asked for the preliminary tests. But I was very happy to learn that, despite my missing fruit, the book is now out in the world to offer its grace and craftsmanship to readers.
To repeat: the English translation of Ghalib’s Persian work, temple lamp is a work of grace and refined craftsmanship. He speaks and breathes a deep labor of love.
The many contexts (accurately described in the introduction) that lead directly and indirectly to the encounter between Ghalib and Benares provide significant clues. Because the masnavi is mostly in lyrical mode despite its narrative potential (Ghalib never exploited the possibilities of narrative poetry, Maaz informs us), the subjective elements involved in the writing become important to consider.
The fact that Ghalib was recognized by the court as a poet by Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar much later – after a mediocre poet like Ibrahim Zauq died – had never received enough state patronage, lived the life of a tenant, of “residential dislocation”, of being forever in debt, hiding from his creditors, a man robbed of his share of inheritance by family members, and perpetually fighting for his retirement, are facts which accentuate his state of instability and exasperation before he was forced to undertake the journey from Delhi to (then) Calcutta.
A poet cheated by family and fate and with his pride unjustly humiliated by power sought spiritual and existential respite. Benares Charms turned out to be the name of this momentarily intense respite.
Ghalib was also fiercely proud of his Turkish-Indian identity and his poetic and linguistic prowess. This led him to bitter rivalries and an abiding sense of envy towards other poets, including those he despised (like his contemporary, Qatil, in Calcutta), and even those he revered (like his predecessor, Bedil). He had an unorthodox lifestyle and relished his Old Tom whiskey from the cantonment. This led him to hail the cosmopolitanism he witnessed in Calcutta. We learn that he traveled 1,500 kilometers, alternately on foot, on horseback, in an ox cart and in a boat. It was Ghalib’s long, arduous and unique pilgrimage, and he contributed to the sensitivity of the poet-traveler which he showed in verse in Shirag-e-Dair.
Before moving on to the poem, there is an interesting aspect that Maaz mentions about the legacy and reception of Ghalib which opens up an interesting debate. He writes: “Ghalib’s Persian and Urdu poetry had a remarkable impact across the world, even as he had a strained relationship with the contemporary Indo-Persian public sphere. Maaz also mentions how Ghalib, despite being part of the Indo-Persian poetic tradition, often spoke derisively of the poets of that tradition, thus partly undermining the status of the tradition to which he belonged.
This is a doubly remarkable situation.
Ghalib has been compared to European poets and philosophers (from Goethe and Rimbaud to Kant, Nietzsche and Hegel) by his commentators, thus universalizing the reading field of his work. At the same time, he moved away from the specific world of his own tradition.
Ghalib’s concerns were transformed into observations on the principles of human life and existence. Maaz informs us that an impressive litterateur, Abdul Rehman Bijnori, claimed that Ghalib’s poetic concerns with “existence, reality, nature” made it possible to read the poet alongside European modernists. As soon as we identify the “principles” of a poetic work, it opens up possibilities for intercultural readings, and is immediately universalizable. Has Ghalib’s work opened up to this possibility? Or was it the intellectual skills of a literary critic across multiple traditions of thought that generalized Ghalib’s cultural or locational ideas?
The question is not whether it is possible to read or study a poet belonging to a particular linguistic and cultural tradition in universal terms, but what are the terms of this universalizability.
Let’s focus on the poem itself. Maaz tells us of “Ghalib’s awareness of Dharmic traditions” which maintains the number of verses in the poem at 108, a number considered auspicious in various Hindu traditions across geographical regions. It is the first sign of respect for intercultural faith. Ghalib, as Maaz reminds us, is a “Hindu Muslim”, deeply invested, if I may say so, in culture more than in religion. The poet is aware of the sacredness of his task, drawing from the spiritual roots of Hindu culture in Benares. The fact that he does so in Persian forms the core of the cultural encounter, where the spirit/language of one religion meets the language/spirit of another religion.
Not only that. It is also a place. Benares, the site of this translation/conversion, is itself translated by Ghalib’s love. Every encounter inspired, attempted, land the possibility of translation, of the self-in-translation, and if I may say so: cultural conversions. To translate is to convert in the transition from one language to another. Translation is a conversion experience.
The Ghalib that we meet in temple lamp is not the Ghalib that we know from his ghazals. This is a different Ghalib, recording a hallowed moment in his secular journey undertaken to seek his pension case from the British Governor-General in colonial Calcutta. It is also a historic moment in many ways, one being a poetic testimony of love between two cultural traditions that have become part of Indian history at different times. Ghalib is of course well aware of the violence and persecution that separates the two traditions politically. Contrary (and against) the monuments of history which are signs of conquest, Ghalib erects a monument of love, of writing, temple lamp.
The translation of the masnavi is skilful and lucid. Traditionally imported words are either retained or explained below, to give the reader an idea of their translation possibilities. My most favorite translated verse is verse 93. The beauty of its movement and repetition is envy-worthy:
“His forest after forest
is filled with tulip beds,
her garden after garden
blooms with perpetual spring.
I won’t name much of the little gems and will give them here. They should be read from page to page like beads on a long string, as Ghalib intended to write them.
We stop in front of the astonishing image, “like a flute, / my bones are filled with fire”. The Benares cremation ghats enter the being of Ghalib, as the ghat and the poet burn together. In Ghalib’s imagination, the city and its inhabitants are blissfully lost in themselves, with “the Ganges like a mirror in their hands”.
Ghalib is fascinated by the beauty of the women of the city. He writes, “their youth flows faster than blood / in a lover’s vein”. The description of women is not a sensual counterweight to the sacred. The beauty of their material presence blends with the spiritual in a city that represents eternal spring.
Ghalib opposes the happiness of Benares to the moral decadence of the Mughal Empire defeated by patricide and filicide. The idea of Benares as a holy place where life is reconciled with death is symbolic of the (eternal) postponement of Doomsday. Ghalib calls the city the “Kaaba/of Hindustan”, which (as Maaz notes in the introduction) Khushwant Singh brilliantly noted is not the same as calling it “Kaa’ba-e-Hinood (the Mecca of the Hindus)”. Benares represents the sacred center of a culture rather than a religion. A culture is porous, therefore easily translatable, unlike religion.
I end with a note on friendship which has a significant presence in the masnavi. We hear Ghalib in verses 16 and 17 despair of his distant friendships, as he writes, “what burns is/the thoughtlessness of my friends”. We lose the comfort of a family, to seek the world of friends. Ghalib’s sense of abandonment is personal in an expansive way. To lose the intimacy of friends is to lose the world.
We learn from Maaz that Ghalib did not meet any literary personalities in Benares. It was probably to stay away from the heartburn and controversies he had gotten himself into during his stay in Lucknow. Ghalib did not want the sheer closeness between him and Benares to be marred by acrimony. He was better off alone, mourning the absence and the forgetting of friendships.
But great poet that he is, Ghalib will record the names of friends he loves: Fazl-e-Haq, Hisamuddin Haider Khan and Aminuddin Ahmed Khan. The presence of friendship is always the presence of proper names. These names enter the poem like the lamps of Ghalib’s memory, illuminating the darkness of his uncertain future.
Translating Shirag-e-DairMaaz reminded us of what makes us Hindus.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Nehru and the Spirit of India (Viking Penguin, 2022), The city is slowly emptying: on life and culture during confinement (Copper Coin, 2021), and In search of the nation: towards another idea of India (Talking Tiger, 2018).