OVER A COFFEE: Ghalib: the poet of rationalist humanism —Dr Haider Shah
Ghalib chided Sir Syed to stop relishing the past and instead divert his attention to the British institutions. It was perhaps this jolt coming from an intellectually honest giant that forced Sir Syed to undergo a metamorphosis
Iqbal and Ghalib are often cited as the poets who ushered modernity in classical Urdu poetry. Personally I am a big fan of Iqbal as a poet but am of the view that he is overrated as a thinker. An author of Greek philosophy comments that the problem with writers like Homer is that you can find anything you want in their writings, whether you support democracy or autocracy. Iqbal is over-promoted as he is an essential element of our carefully carved national mythology.
On the other hand, Ghalib has never been taught as a thinker in our school or college syllabus. One or two ghazals (love poems) or a couple of his letters — that is all our students get about Ghalib. This is a great disservice on the part of our syllabus designers. Ghalib has remained extremely underutilised as a rationalist thinker in a society where rational thinking is one of the rarest commodities. “Supply creates its own demand,” the famous Say’s Law, though undermined in mainstream economics, reigns supreme in general social life. By supplying irrational and hatred-prone ideas in our schools, we have been creating greater demand for consumption of such discourse at the societal level. Our journey from idealism to pragmatism and abstraction to the real world would have been possible if we had been teaching Ghalib as a thinker and reformist.
Four broad themes characterise Ghalib’s life. First, he can be declared a ‘secular sufi’ (mystic), a trait that we find in Faiz Ahmed Faiz as well. Ghalib begins his deewan (collected poetry) with the metaphor of a picture and says that the grief of separation from the Creator is transferred to paper by every writer and artist. Ghalib’s belief of wahdat-ul-wajood (unity of being) is best captured in his verse in which he poses an intelligent question in a very rational way: “Na tha kuch toh khuda tha, na hota kuch toh khuda hota, daboya mujh ko honay ne, na hota mai toh kya hota” (When there was nothing, there was God; had there been nothing, God would still have been, My ‘being’ is my undoing, If I were not, what I would have been) — the obvious logical answer is God. Second, he had a big ego and self-esteem. He himself declares in a verse that even in matters of worship I value honour so much that once I marched back from the Ka’aba when I found the door of the Ka’aba shut, i.e. God had not welcomed me like a good host. All men of letters tend to be egocentric. But in Ghalib’s case the interaction of ego with the third feature of his life, financial management, created problems of all sorts for Ghalib. In the traditional 19th century Indian society, there were very few sources of livelihood for men of Ghalib’s stature. The secular and brutal laws of economics do not discriminate between luminaries and the ordinary. If outgoings are not matched by incomings, life is difficult. Ghalib experienced a tormented life as he came across countless personal tragedies, e.g. the mortality of his sons, the burden of looking after his brother’s family and then the deaths of his friends during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
It is the fourth characteristic of Ghalib’s life that is less known but is the most important for us. Ghalib, despite his education in traditional Muslim disciplines, was able to break himself free from the constraints of communal belief systems. It is this freedom that enabled him to rethink many topics of classical Urdu poetry and present them in new meanings. For instance, in a verse Ghalib refers to the much maligned ‘raqeeb’ (the rival suitor) as a human being and hence absolved if he as a messenger got himself embroiled in love with Ghalib’s beloved. So overwhelming is the influence of Ghalib on Faiz Ahmed Faiz that the latter also picked up the same theme in a poem titled ‘Raqeeb’. Faiz not only named his first work ‘Naqsh-e-Faryaadi’ after the opening words of Ghalib’s Deewan but also borrowed the name for his collected works ‘Nuskha Hae Wafa’ (accounts of love) from one of Ghalib’s verses. But it is not just the humanist poets and writers of modern times that draw inspiration from Ghalib. He was a major influence in shaping the reformist ideology of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Altaf Hussain Hali as well. Reportedly, Ghalib was asked by Sir Syed to write a taqriz (a laudatory foreword) for his well-researched book Aaeen-e-Akbari. Ghalib, against all expectations, instead wrote a Persian poem in which he took Sir Syed to task for worshipping dead people and their obsolete institutions. Ghalib chided Sir Syed to stop relishing the past and instead divert his attention to the British institutions. It was perhaps this jolt coming from an intellectually honest giant that forced Sir Syed to undergo a metamorphosis from a conservative Muslim to a rationalist reformer.
Ghalib has another important relevance for Pakistan, as his financial management was not much different from Pakistan’s macroeconomic management. He had no sources of income and in the absence of honorariums from the wealthy, relied heavily on petty debts. There is one stark difference though. Ghalib did not harbour any illusions about the sustainability of his financial management as he frankly says: “Qarz ki peetay thay meih, aur samajhtay thay ke haan…rang laawegi hamari faqa masti eik din” (We would drink with borrowed money and solemnly knew that our lavishness in adversity would be our undoing one day). Ghalib had no difficulty in admitting it but could do little in freeing himself from financial woes as not many possibilities were available for an aging poet in that era. Pakistan, on the other hand, is fortunate that it can easily come out of its economic straits if it sets its priorities right. All it needs to do is to divert lavish spending on defence to the social sectors and pursue trade-friendly policies in the region. For that it requires the humbling realisation that being a spendthrift on non-productive sectors is not sustainable. Ghalib can, therefore, rationalise our public policy making as well, in addition to educating us in humanism.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org