There is a tendency to write books featuring famous literary characters for children.
In Urdu, among books of this ilk we have Bachchon ke Ghalib (Ghalib for children) or Bachchon ke Iqbal (Iqbal for children) or one of the other renowned modern figures whose lives and works are rendered in simple anecdotal prose and paraphrased for young readers. Although this is a ‘minor’ genre of writing, the genre of ‘children’s’ instructive biographies follows the trend of 19th century colonial education which believed in teaching young people by example. rather than through the application.
Altaf Husain Hali, another favorite subject of the “children’s” book series, and one of the first authors of modern critical prose in Urdu, associated with the Aligarh movement for the education of the elite among the Muslims of the India, invented the genre of the biography of exemplary individuals, although written for adult readers and not for children. One of the subjects of Hali’s biographies was Mirza Ghalib.
Today, the poet’s name represents the last breath of classical Urdu and Persian poetry in the subcontinent, or in a somewhat contradictory way, the birth of modern consciousness in Urdu literature. Whatever Ghalib we subscribe to, the name of the poet alone conveys the figure of a venerable, imitable and exemplary teacher and guide for readers and connoisseurs of Urdu poetry the world over.
As the genre of children’s biographies suggests, there can be many Ghalibs or Halis or Iqbals. But those for children are written by adults who seek to teach them through the exemplary lives and works of the great writer. Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole recently published an anthology Thinking with Ghalib: poetry for a new generation (Lahore, Folio Books and forthcoming from Roli Books, India), which attempts to reshape the exemplary book genre for the 21st century. The “new generation” of their title refers to “young South Asians” whose “multicultural and multireligious civilization” is under attack, say the editors. They chose Ghalib to reverse this trend because he represents this civilization and its pluralistic values.
Emphasis in Thinking with Ghalib is on the verse of Ghalib that his life.
The book consists of 30 couplets chosen from the poet’s Urdu couch, thus choosing not to engage with entire ghazals. Thus, this is a selection from a selection of ghazals that Ghalib himself made from many of his Urdu ghazals that we know today as his couch. Each verse is treated as a chapter-like entry, consisting of the original text, rendered in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman script, and a working literal translation into English. This is followed by the editors’ commentary on the selected verse.
The authors proceed in each chapter, titled after the theme of the lesson they want readers to draw, discussing the meaning of the verse after which they choose a contemporary topical theme that advances over the meaning of the poem. Themes include dogmatism, rationalism, tolerance, self-awareness, self-criticism, belief, doubt, and free thought. Comments often stray to references to current politics in India and Pakistan, and the world in general, especially various instances of political violence and social intolerance.
These digressions seem to say something about the poetic lines which are their point of departure. But poetry is not enough to reflect on the complexities of geopolitics. Not even Ghalib’s poetry. And yet to think “with” Ghalib is the bet of the editors. Unlike their 19th and 20th century predecessors, Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole invite us to leave the poet and his verses, for a time, and to consider the world in which we read poetry like that of Ghalib. The effect can be both shocking and suggestive. As would be evident by now, the book is not written for the purist.
In one respect, however, the selections of Altaf and Basole and their commentaries on Ghalib are unable to overcome a problem faced by all biographers and anthologists of classical Urdu poetry in modern times. This is the “problem” of love, that is, the centrality of erotic ghazal in Urdu literature as such. This is what makes it difficult to treat Ghalib as a unique poet who wrote after all in a completely conventional language of Urdu and Persian Ghazal, spoken largely in the voice of the lover addressing the world to the subject. of his passion for someone in this world.
Invariably, in their commentary, the authors begin to discuss the outermost erotic significance of Ghalib’s selected couplet. But soon they must abandon it either by forcing an analogy (the beloved as State; the lover as citizen), or by resorting to the secular interpretation of erotic love as truly mystical or universal. Love and politics remain irreconcilable.
At least since Hali’s time, Urdu critics have strived to give social content to the Urdu ghazal love poetry format. For a book that calls on young South Asians to reclaim the lost ground of their civilization, could it be that this lost ground really is the inability to read and write love poetry with little or no connection? with the outside world? Isn’t it easier to talk to young people about politics and morality than about something seemingly anti-political and emotional like love? What would a book of âSouth Asian Youth Love Poetryâ look like today?
This could be an answer to the question the authors end the book with: “Is there anything else we can learn from Ghalib that would help us through these times of division?”
Shad Naved teaches comparative literature at Ambedkar University in New Delhi.