Ghalib’s letters: an important historical and biographical source

FEBRUARY 15 marks the death anniversary of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, one of Urdu’s most celebrated and accomplished poets. But Ghalib’s great legacy includes his Urdu letters, too. His letters are yet another reflection of his genius and wit.

There are many aspects of Ghalib’s Urdu letters that scholars have been deliberating on. Before Ghalib, in the subcontinent letters were normally written in Persian. Letters occasionally written in Urdu were laden with highly ornamental language and long and tortuous salutations and formalities. Rajab Ali Baig Suroor is the first person to have written letters in Urdu and the collection of his Urdu letters was published under title ‘Insha-i-Suroor’. But Ghalib entirely changed the way letters were written. Aside from being in Urdu, Ghalib’s letters are spontaneous, candid and in a language that is chaste and literary. He bade farewell to the formal style of letter-writing that was in vogue in those days and began writing letters in quite an informal way.

When we read his letters today, they sound contemporary as far as the style is concerned and it feels as if a close friend is talking in a casual manner.

Ghalib himself claimed that he had turned ‘murasla’ (letter-writing) into ‘mukalma’ (dialogue). It was a departure from formal, classical style of Urdu prose that favoured more formal and ornamental expressions.

In fact, Ghalib’s letters are specimens of exquisite Urdu prose. Ghalib’s earliest Urdu letter discovered so far is dated 1847 and is addressed to Mirza Tafta. At that time poetry was a more favoured form of expression in Urdu and modern Urdu prose was beginning to take shape. Ghalib’s letters with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s essays are the most important landmarks in the history of modern Urdu prose.

Ghalib’s bubbling wit and a keen sense of humour made these letters good examples of humour in prose, too. Ghalib’s humour is quite different from his predecessors’. He knows how to laugh at himself. Also, some of his letters carry important information about his own life and works. Letters that debate literary issues are quite large in number. Many of them discuss Urdu orthography and lexicography or give critical opinion about some Persian or Urdu literary works.

The revolution of 1857 that ended the Mughal rule over India broke out right before Ghalib’s eyes.

He was in Delhi, the nerve centre of the revolution. Some of his letters are an invaluable source of contemporary historical events, especially the 1857 war of freedom and its aftermath. Some letters reflect his anguish over the demolition of some of Delhi’s buildings at the hands of the triumphant British troops. In one of his letters addressed to Mir Mehdi Majrooh he announces the death of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar with these words: “On Friday, November 7, this year, Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Bahadur Shah’s soul was freed from the British prison as well as from the bodily prison”.

The two collections of Ghalib’s letters are named ‘O’od-i-Hindi’ and ‘Urdu-i-Mu’alla’. The former was published about four months before Ghalib’s death in February 1869. The latter appeared just 19 days after Ghalib’s death. But Ghalib had written a large number of letters and these two collections did not include all his letters. Since discovery of Ghalib’s unpublished letters continued long after his death, it was felt that his letters must be compiled anew. Munshi Mahesh Prasad was the first who decided that Ghalib’s each and every letter, published or unpublished, was to be collected and published.

He worked very hard to compile the letters on the principles of textual criticism as the text of many letters published lacked authenticity and many errors had crept in.

The first volume of Ghalib’s letters compiled by Munshi Mahesh Prasad appeared in 1941 and he was working on the second volume when bells tolled for him. After him, Ghulam Rasool Mehr compiled Ghalib’s letters and published them in two volumes in 1951 from Lahore.

But, according to Dr Khaleeq Anjum, this edition too had many inaccuracies. Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi also edited and published some letters and titled them ‘Makateeb-i-Ghalib’.

There were some other scholars as well who compiled Ghalib’s different Urdu letters but there was not one edited collection that could be described as ‘authentic and free from discrepancies’. Finally, Khlaeeq Anjum decided to take this monumental task in his hands and began compiling each and every letter of Ghalib keeping in view the principles of textual criticism and taking utmost care. After working on the project for 17 years, he compiled the entire body of Ghalib’s discovered Urdu letters in four volumes and named them ‘Ghalib ke khutoot’. Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu Hind published this definitive text from Delhi and Pakistan’s Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu reproduced them.

The fifth volume presents all the letters of the four volumes in chronological order since the four volumes present the letters according to the addressees. The preface to these volumes penned by Khaleeq Anjum is yet another remarkable work. He has taken all the aspects into account and the preface is a scholarly book unto itself.

A critic has said that if you want to learn how to write good Urdu prose, devote your nights to the study of Ghalib’s letters. What better way can there be to pay homage to Ghalib on his death anniversary?

    drraufparekh@yahoo.com



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