Sunday, November 09, 2014

Book Review: GHALIB: The Man, The Times by Pavan K Varma

Book Details. . .

·         Title: Ghalib - The Man The Times
·         Author: Pavan K Varma
·         Genre: Non Fiction
·         Publisher: Penguin
·         Pages: 344 Pages
·         Price: INR 254
·         Rating: 3.5/5

Behind The Book. . .

A brilliant biography of one of India’s greatest poets.

Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Khan Ghalib began writing poetry in Persian at the age of nine and the pre-eminent poet of the time, Mir, predicted a great future for the precocious genius when he was shown his verse. But success and material rewards did not come to Ghalib easily, for the times were against him, and he did not suffer fools gladly even if they occupied positions of importance.

Ghalib was at the height of his powers when events took a turn for the worse. First came the decline of the Mughal court, then the rise of the British Empire and, finally, the Revolt of 1857. Though Ghalib lived through the upheavals and purges of the Revolt, in which many of his contemporaries and friends died and his beloved Delhi was irrevocably changed, he was a broken man and longed for death. When he died, on 15 February 1869, he left behind some of the most vivid accounts of the events of the period ever written. In this illuminating biography Pavan K. Varma evocatively captures the spirit of the man and the essence of the times he lived in.

Book Synopsis. . .

"haiN aur bhee duniya meiN suKHanwar bohot achche
kehte haiN ki 'GHalib' ka hai andaaz-e-bayaaN aur "

हैं और भी दुनिया में सुख़न्वर बहुत अच्छे
कहते हैं कि ग़ालिब का है अन्दाज़- बयां और

(there are many people who are very good at writing poems, but it is  generally acknowledged that Ghalib commands a unique style of delivery)

Mirza Mohammad Asadullah Khan Ghalib is one of the most prominent names in the world of urdu / Persian poetry and also beyond that. Infact, if I were to say that there exist the time when the terms as urdu poetry, ghazals, sher and shaaiyri etc were considered to be synonymous with Ghalib, it wouldn’t be an overstatement. While a lot has been said and written about the literary splendour of Ghalib, there exist a little information about the man himself and his life.

Pavan Varma’s Ghalib – The Man The Times is an biographical account of Ghalib’s memoirs during his lifetime and also the essence of the time he lived in, the way both Ghalib’s life and his Delhi evolved over the period forms the gist of the book. The book is special not only for the way it has been written but for the person about which it has been written.

Ghalib was born during the time which, on one side, witnessed the fading of the power and influence of one of the greatest regal dynasties of the world, the Mughals and, on the other side, saw the emergence of British imperialism in India which was to overtake the whole country in the coming decades. This biographical piece on Ghalib’s life and his Delhi spans over five chapters beginning with “Än Empire in Decline” which talks about the birth of Ghalib and changing politico scenario in Delhi and ending with “The Last Years” which portrays the final years of his life.

An Empire in Decline takes us back in 1797 when the legendary poet was born amidst weakening Mughal influence in the country. Infact, the empire was on its falling spree and Aurangzeb’s rein was limited to the territorial boundaries of Delhi and some square miles around it. Legally it was the Mughals who ruled the country but in actual the British were the de facto rules of the state. We get to peep into the troubled childhood of Ghalib marred by early death of his father (when he was 4) followed by the demise of his uncle who was taking care of him.

What followed was the interminable struggle on Ghalib’s part to get his dues / claim / pension from the British. He always considered it his axiomatic right to received rightful amount of pension from the British as a reward of service rendered by his ancestors. He not only craved and fought for the pension but also for the respect, honor & status which he thought he deserved.

The City of Good Living dwells into the state of cultural and political affairs of Ghalib’s Delhi. The reader is overtaken by the glimpse of beautiful acculturation of the place and its commendable composite culture of Hindu and Muslim which nurtured over generations. Despite being a muslim controlled state, the religion was never a bone of content and perfect harmony among all was what made Delhi a city of good living. The growing influence of the British in the state did had its impact on Delhi and its evolution; infact in some sense, the British also couldn’t help but bitten by the nativization of the place.

The spirit of harmony and concordance was also inculcated in Ghalib who believed in the unity of all religion and referred every man to be his brother. He was also kinda against the following of ritualistic religion and advocated the purity of thoughts.

A Turbulent Genius throws some more light into the troubled life of the genius Ghalib who (perhaps) lived with the feeling of deprivation right from his childhood years which witnessed untimely death of his father and uncle creating a void in his life, which perhaps couldn’t be filled. This might just be the reason why he started poetry at a tender age of nine. The chapter details about his nature and love of writing, his inclination towards Persia over urdu, his never dying love for wine & gambling (he was once also arrested for this which impacted him badly) and how he deliberately tried to be different from the rest of the masses.

Ghalib adopted a standard of living of a cadre which was difficult to sustain with the amount of grants or pensions he received from kings which consequently resulted in his increasing insolvency. He also had this prolific habit of writing letters which he continued till the end of his life.

The Trauma of 1857 takes the reader through the traumatic year 1857, its events and their impact on Ghalib and his Delhi. Ghalib wrote a book called Dastanbuy which was ostensibly written as the events folded in through that dreadful period. The book was pro-British and condemned the revolt while showering praise on British rule and administration. Though there exist a little assurance that this work was a genuine work and not a mere attempt by Ghalib to prove his innocence in eyes of British and earn their respect. As Ghalib himself once remarked that he written this book for three reasons – for title, for robe of honor and for pension.

The chapter also talks about the grave impact of the revolt of 1857 on the state as was visible in acute shortage of basic necessities of life and epidemic like situation prevailing around.

Last Years depicts the final years of the legend who lived for another 12 Years after 1857. The aftermath of 1857 left Ghalib as a desolated soul with consistently falling health. And finally on Feb 15th 1869, Ghalib breathed his last with following verses on his lips

My dying breath is ready to depart
And now my friends, God only God exists

What was the issue of pension case which consumed a major part of Ghalib’s life and whether he was able to earn it ever? How did the composite hindu-muslim culture of Delhi impacted by the British growing influence in the state? What was the dilemma of being Ghalib & leading his life that stayed and impacted him through-out? Why did the arrest for gambling impacted Ghalib so badly that he had the lasting impression of that event? What were the biggest losses for Ghalib in events of Year 1857 and how did it impacted him?

Grab a copy of the book to unearth the answers to above and to be a part of the legend’s life which exists in all of us in form of his eternal verses and couplets.

My Thoughts. . .

I was always an ardent fan of Ghalib’s writing which surely has the ability to take reader along with the verses in another world altogether. So there was a natural curiosity within me to know further about the man, the legend. However, to my utter dismay, I found there is very little material available on the life of Ghalib. I was taken for a surprise as the man of this stature surely does deserve much more. Then I stumbled upon this book which surely quenched my thirst to know about the legend. And what did startled me was the fact that the author also faced this strange situation of dearth of material on Ghalib which perhaps prompted him to undertake the daunting task of writing this book.

The book is a result of exceptional work by the author with extensive research of his verses, his diwaan, his letters and various discrete research materials available on the life of Ghalib. It has been meticulously written incorporating some of the rare pictures and snippets of Ghalib and his life. At various places, the stories and anecdotes behind the creation of many of his ghazals are given which really thrills the reader. People say that letters written by Ghalib forms the integral part of his life and to know him well it becomes essential to take concurrence of them. And the author has, quite skillfully, given excerpts of his letters to provide an insight to his writing abilities and also to his state of mind.

The English translation of his verses, couplets and ghazals given at relevant places spell bounds the reader and acts as the icing on the cake. However, if the respective verses in devangiri script or their English transliteration could also be provided along with the English translation, this would have turned out to be an impeccable masterpiece on the life of Mirza Ghalib. Nevertheless, this omission in no way takes away the charm and enigma of this masterpiece and this surely is a must read for all Ghalib fans for the simple reason to lift the veil of his verses and to know more about the person behind those magical couplets.

There has been couple of minor printing mistakes and inconsistency (like on Page 266 the Year 1866 was wrongly printed as 1366) which was observed in the book but these doesn't really impact the flow of the reader while reading as when the whole picture is so magnificent, minor things here and there doesn't really make a difference (besides guess its just humane to ask for something more). 

The cover page of the book is elegant with a photograph of the legendary poet with dark background giving a solemn look to the book. The printing, font and word spacing are decent enough to grant reader a comfortable read.

The Final Word. . .

This book is meant to be experienced and not just read – Pick up the book, sit back and surrender to its flow which would take you to the times of the legend and the inclusion of the verses and couplets of Ghalib at relevant places adds to its overall charm.

Highly recommended for all those who wants to have a slice of history of Ghalib’s life and his times; and for others make an exception and take a dip & you will not regret !!

Rating: 3.5/5

Five Favorite Quotes. . .

1.       Steadfast devotion is the foundation of all faith
If a Brahmin dies bury him in Kaaba

2.      In the Kaaba, I will play the conch-shell
In the temple, I have dropped the ahram

3.      If for the sins committed
I am to be punished
What about the justice for desiring
Those uncommitted

4.      Glory it is for the drop
To merge with the ocean
Pain ceases to be
Once beyond redemption

5.      A day is fixed for one’s death
Why pass then the night unslept

About the Author. . .

Pavan K. Varma, born in November 1953, is a graduate of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi where he studied History (Honours) and received the first position. Subsequently, he acquired a degree in Law. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1976. His career as a diplomat has seen him serve in several countries, including New York and Moscow. His assignments in India include that of Press Secretary to the President of India, Spokesman in the Ministry of External Affairs, Joint Secretary for Africa and Director General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi, Indian Ambassador to Bhutan.

Pavan K. Varma took voluntary retirement from the Indian Foreign Service in 2012 to enter public life and is presently the Cultural Adviser to Shri Nitish Kumar the Chief Minister of Bihar. More information about the author can be had from his website

Where to grab a copy. . .

~ Shubh Life . . . OM Sai Ram 

© 2014 Manish Purohit (Reserved)

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