Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

The prominent Indian poet of his time writing in Persian, equally renowned for poems, letters, and prose pieces in Urdu

By: Bashir Sakhawarz


He is the most famous poet of India and in some ways more celebrated than Tagor, especially among the Urdu speakers and musicians who compose on his ghazals.

Mirza Asadullah Ghalib is equivalent of Shakespeare in Indian subcontinent and yet not known in Persian speaking countries such as Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Most of his life he lived dealing with financial problems and debts. These financial problems put him at the wrong side of justice and he served imprisonment at least twice. His poetry and writing however continued even in those hard times and reached many people in all Indian subcontinents.

Ghalib was borne at the wrong time because it was the period that the British were heavily involved in shaping the Indian literature replacing Persian language with English language as the official language of India. This policy affected Ghalib negatively especially that he continued to write in Farsi and wanted to be reckoned as the best Farsi poet of his time. His love of Farsi is known from his works. He created much more Farsi works than Urdu.


Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan -- known to posterity as Ghalib, a `nom de plume' he adopted in the tradition of all classical Urdu poets, was born in the city of Agra of parents with Turkish aristocratic ancestry. Both his father and uncle died while he was still young, and he spent a good part of his early boyhood with his mother's family. This, of course, began a psychology of ambivalence for him. On the one hand, he grew up relatively free of any oppressive dominance by adult, male-dominant figures. This, probably accounts for at least some of the independent spirit he showed from very early childhood. On the other hand, this placed him in the humiliating situation of being socially and economically dependent on maternal grandparents, giving him, one can surmise, a sense that whatever worldly goods he received were a matter of charity and not legitimately his. His preoccupation in later life with finding secure, legitimate, and comfortable means of livelihood can be perhaps at least partially understood in terms of this early uncertainly.

The question of Ghalib's early education has often confused Urdu scholars. Although any record of his formal education that might exist is extremely scanty, it is also true that Ghalib's circle of friends in Delhi included some of the most eminent minds of his time. There is, finally, irrevocably, the evidence of his writings, in verse as well as in prose, which are distinguished not only by creative excellence but also by the great knowledge of philosophy, ethics, theology, classical literature, grammar, and history.

In or around 1810, two events of great importance occurred in Ghalib's life: he was married into a well-to-do, educated family of nobles, and he left for Delhi. One must remember that Ghalib was only thirteen at the time. It is impossible to say when Ghalib started writing poetry. Perhaps it was as early as his seventh or eight years. On the other hand, there is evidence that most of what we know as his complete works were substantially completed by 1816, when he was 19 years old, and six years after he first came to Delhi. We are obviously dealing with a man whose maturation was both early and rapid. We can safely conjecture that the migration from Agra, which had once been a capital but was now one of the many important but declining cities, to Delhi, its grandeur kept intact by the existence of the mongul court, was an important event in the life of this thirteen year old, newly married poet who desperately needed material security, who was beginning to take his career in letters seriously, and who was soon to be recognized as a genius, if not by the court, at least some of his most important contemporaries. As for the marriage, in the predominantly male-oriented society of Muslim India no one could expect Ghalib to take that event terribly seriously, and he didn't. The period did, however mark the beginnings of concern with material advancement that was to obsess him for the rest of his life.

He wrote first in a style at once detached, obscure, and pedantic, but soon thereafter he adopted the fastidious, personal, complexly moral idiom which we now know as his mature style. It is astonishing that he should have gone from sheer precocity to the extremes of verbal ingenuity and obscurity, to a style which, next to Meer's, is the most important and comprehensive styles of the ghazal in the Urdu language before he was even twenty. His interest began to shift decisively away from Urdu poetry to Persian during the 1820's, and he soon abandoned writing in Urdu almost altogether.

Ghazal (one)

My pain would reckon no potion,
I didn't heal, I wasn't worse.

Why do you gather around you my rivals?
Why turn my complaint into public show?

Where can I go to meet my fate?
When you refuse to draw your sword?

Was it the world of God or Nimrod?
Unrequited my worship lay.

Ghazal (two)

I again recall those tearful eyes,
My complaining heart is brimming again.

Hardly had the doom receded,
When the thought of parting rose again.

How naïve is my heart
I gain crave that tantalizing face.

This life, somehow, would have passed
But why do I seek your favored path again?


(1)Bashir Sakhawarz is the author of many articles on Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. He recently delivered a talk on the life and works of Ghalib organized by the London based Iranian society called "Society of promoting Persian language" and "Afghan society of Culture and Art" to celebrate the achievement of Mirza Assadullah Khan Ghalib as great Persian poet who lived in India. . Bashir is from Afghanistan currently living in the U.K.. His talk was well received and generated a lively discussion at the end.