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The Eccentric Life of Mirza Ghalib

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib or popularly known as Mirza Nausha was born in Agra in a very respectable family of Mughal servicemen. Mirza Ghalib claims his origin in Turkey as his grandfather came to India under the term of Emperor Shah Alam II. Unfortunately, Ghalib’s father died only when he was five years old. He along with his family was then sustained by his uncle Mirza Nasrullah, who took responsibility and sustained them but could only do that for 3 years as he also passed away later. After the death of Ghalib’s uncle, he was recognized as the legal heir for the pensions that were to be received by Nasrullah, and hence Ghalib received an annual pension of seven rupees. At the tender age of 13, Mira Ghalib got married to the daughter of Nawab Ilahi Baksh Khan. The marriage between them was finalized by their families, who believed that both parties were from respectable families.


ham ko ma.alūm hai jannat kī haqīqat lekin

dil ke ḳhush rakhne ko ‘ġhālib’ ye ḳhayāl achchhā hai


Due to the death of his father and uncle, Mirza Ghalib could never get a proper formal education, but he had god-gifted intelligence which made him a very learned man and a well-read person in the Persian language. Mirza developed a deep love for Persian literature and earned very high respect in the field. Sources tell us that once there was a vacancy in the Delhi College for a Persian teacher and Ghalib was asked to take up the job, but Ghalib believed that becoming a teacher at an institution would make him a prisoner, as he would have to adhere by the system and live a life according to the institution, hence he declined the offer. The Mughal court during the same period was the center of cultural activities and mehfils were held every night in Shahjahanabad. Mushairas used to be a pivotal part of these Mehfils and Mirza Ghalib used to be present at them. This was the time when Delhi was witnessing a literary efflorescence, and poets like Daagh Dehlvi, Mir Taqi Mir, and Momin Khan Momin were writing great poetry under Mughal patronage. It was in the Mughal court that Bahadur Shah Zafar and Ghalib developed a cordial relationship. Once Ghalib was invited to the Qila e Moalla by Emperor Zafar during Ramadan. Zafar asked Ghalib “Mirza, kitney rozey rakhe? (Mirza, how many days did you fast?)” Ghalib quipped: “Bas huzoor, ek nahin rakha. (My Lord! I didn’t fast for a day).”. Later in 1837, Zauq was chosen as the poet laureate of the Mughal Court, and this frustrated Ghalib. To hide his emotions and frustration, Ghalib wrote a Ghazal in which he imagined the winds turning against him. But after Zauq’s death in 1854, Ghalib was chosen as the Poet Laureate and he retained the position till 1857 until the British completely took over. Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar also gave the title of NajmuddaUlah Dabeer-ul-Mulk Nizam Jang to Mirza Ghalib.


hazāroñ ḳhvāhisheñ aisī ki har ḳhvāhish pe dam nikle

bahut nikle mire armān lekin phir bhī kam nikle


After the Revolt of 1857, Ghalib was devastated and went through a lot of mental trauma. During the revolt, Ghalib maintained a diary and wrote whatever was happening. In 1858, he named the diary Dastanbu which today is a very important source for historians to study the revolt. Ghalib talks about the streets of Shahjahanabad being blood-filled and the immense loss of manuscripts and the ruination of art and property. After the revolt, when the British were inquiring about the Muslims that were associated with the Mughal empire, Ghalib was brought before the presiding officers. When he was asked whether he was Muslim, he replied with “Ji, aadha Musalman hoon (I’m only a half-Muslim).” The colonel asked: “What do you mean?” Ghalib replied: “Sharaab peeta hoon, sooar ka gosht nahin khata (I consume alcohol, but don’t eat pork.). Other than writing Ghazals, Ghalib was very fond of mangoes, playing chess, and gambling. But what Ghalib loved the most was alcohol; he was fond of expensive liquor, be it champagne, whiskey, or rum. Ghalib particularly loved to drink Old Tom which was only available at the Meerut Cantonment and due to his connections with few British officers, he used to get exquisite bottles of whiskey. His household was managed by a small staff, co-headed by a manservant called Kallu, and a maid named Wafadar. When it came to his drink, Ghalib was very particular: Kallu had been trained to make it to his satisfaction. “Mixed with rosewater, the spirit would be poured into a bowl of clay called aabkhora. The aabkhora would then be covered and buried in the earth or kept afloat in a pool of water for a couple of hours before it was time for Ghalib to have the drink,” writes Saif Mahmood in Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets (2018).


vo aa.e ghar meñ hamāre ḳhudā kī qudrat hai

kabhī ham un ko kabhī apne ghar ko dekhte haiñ


In his 50 years in Delhi, Ghalib never bought a house, as he always used to rent different places. Although Ghalib used to stay in different places he never moved out of Gali Qasim Jaan and the area surrounding it. Just as Ghalib never bought a house, he also never bought books even though he was heavily invested in reading and writing. He always used to rent books from a person called Ala Mashallah who used to run a rudimentary bookstore in Shahjahanabad.


is sādgī pe kaun na mar jaa.e ai ḳhudā

laḌte haiñ aur haath meñ talvār bhī nahīñ


Ghalib today lies buried in Nizamuddin Basti in the graveyard of the Loharu family to which his wife belonged. Mazar-e-Ghalib has today become a place where admirers of Mirza Ghalib come to remember the legend. Just a few meters away is the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau and the tomb of Mughal princess Jahanara Begum. Ghalib believed Amir Khusrau to be the greatest Persian Poet to ever exist. Today, we owe what we know about Mirza Ghalib to Gulzar Sahab who directed a TV series in the ’90s about the life of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib or Mirza Nausha.


Bosa dete nahīñ aur dil pe hai har lahza nigāh Jī meñ kahte haiñ ki muft aa.e to maal achchhā hai Un ke dekhe se jo aa jaatī hai muñh par raunaq Vo samajhte haiñ ki bīmār kā haal achchhā hai

 

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