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Review: Thinking with Ghalib: Poetry for a New Generation by Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole

‘Chaltaa hun thodi duur har ik tez-rau ke saath/pehchaantaa nahin hun abhi raahbar ko main’ or ‘I walk a certain distance with each fast walker/I don’t recognize the guide yet’ — Mirza Ghalib. Anjum Altaf and Amir Basole Thinking with Ghalib uses this verse from Ghalib to assess the political leaders of the subcontinent and their short-lived but passionate supporters among the populace. The verse also gives us a glimpse of the ambition of this genre-defying book. It is both a self-help manual, a volume of literary criticism, a book on epistemology, an attempt to create an indigenous South Asian theory or a socio-political philosophy, a book to promote critical thinking and, dare I say, critical writing.

Altaf and Basole take care of these many tasks. The first is to introduce Ghalib to a readership that may have left Urdu behind unlike his parents’ or grandparents’ generation. To do this, they forego the full ghazal poem, but focus on 30 sher or couplets (couplets), one in each chapter. They invite their reader to read one chapter a day in order to chew on the scope of each verse. For, after all, as they quote Pritchet, each verse of Ghalib can be a “meaning machine”, and they give nine different interpretations for the sher: ‘Na tha kuchh to Khuda tha kuchh na hota to Khuda hota/duboya mujh ko hone ne nah hota main to kya hota’ or ‘When there was nothing, then God existed;/ if nothing existed, then God would exist/’Being’ drowned me; if I didn’t exist, then what would I be?’.

₹395; Roli Books

Each verse is further used to ask critical questions about certain fundamental aspects of life: the acquisition of knowledge, the nature or ontology of being as well as knowledge, political conditions, aspirations and leadership of South Asia, thinking beyond the narrow confines of religion and moving towards a humanistic worldview. The use of Ghalib for these purposes becomes a key marker of the development of an indigenous criticality as opposed to the usual idea of ​​modernity as a Western product of the Enlightenment, even though Ghalib himself was shaped in part by the British influence. Yet the openness with which Ghalib approaches his subjects, and with which he leaves his reader, is without dogma. The authors of this volume state, “Ghalib asks us to think without trying to convince and provides a source of learning indigenous to South Asia and its own civilizational genius.”

Co-author Anjum Altaf (Courtesy of Roli Books)

For example, the actual religion of a devotee does not matter to Ghalib: ‘Nahiin kuchh subbha-o-zunnar ke phanday mein giiraaii/vafaadaarii mein shayKh-o-barhaman ki aazmaa’ish hai’ or ‘There is no holding power in the snare of prayer beads and holy thread/ In fidelity is the test of Shaykh and Brahmin.’ It is fidelity to one’s faith, whatever it is, that matters.

Ghalib’s powerful intentional ambiguities in his verses are exploited to the fullest by Altaf and Basole: ‘raat din gardish mein hain saat aasmaan/ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayen kya’ or “Night and day the seven heavens turn / Something or other will eventually happen – why should we be disturbed?” This sher is read both as a sign of fatalism and submission to God’s will, but also as a positive belief in change as the only constant, with a glimmer of hope on the horizon. This also extends to South Asian politics.

Anjum Altaf is Pakistani and Amit Basole is Indian. Their rapprochement for this book around the greatest South Asian poet of the 19th century is perhaps in itself a positive sign. We South Asians face similar problems – of corruption, sectarianism, communalism, poverty of material and thought – and this book, which began in 2008 as a a collaboration on two blogs run by the authors, signals a common path forward.

Co-author Amit Basole (Courtesy of Roli Books)

The book tends to get slightly repetitive in its strategy and import at the end, and could have used better, preferably poetic, translations of Ghalib’s verses, though it does well to give the original in three scripts. While serious readers of Ghalib may wish to read more scholarly works on the poet and his poetry, the purpose of this book is to introduce new readers to Ghalib and simultaneously engage them in using poetry to think critically. and responsible. I missed an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of the verses, but the book accomplishes its self-admitted purposes well enough. For those looking to enter the world of Urdu poetry or Ghalib in particular, without learning Urdu, this is the perfect volume to start with, and in the process to start reflecting on our own circumstances.

Maaz Bin Bilal’s translation of Mirza Ghalib’s Chiragh-e-Dair is forthcoming from Penguin. He teaches at Jindal Global University.


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