Why Mirza Ghalib can’t be considered as a great Persian poet

The very title may sound sacrilegious to the admirers of Asadullah Khan Ghalib but mind you, this not-so-complimentary observation is regarding his Persian poetry and not about his Urdu verses, which are the finest specimens of not only Urdu poetry but also of world literature.

Though Ghalib was born (December 27, 1797) into a Persian-speaking household, his Persian was subcontinental Persian from the syntax and semantic perspective and was quite different from the Central Asian Persian of the native speakers. His ancestors belonged to the Chughtai tribe of Central Asia, who preferred to settle in India because of Mughal patronage.

Ghalib would often boast and claim that his language of thinking was Persian: Choon zabaan-e-khyalaat meen ashra Farsi. But analytical study of Ghalib’s Persian poetry reveals that it was Delhi-Urdu Ghalib was at home with and not Iranian Persian as he would constantly brag about.

On the sub-continent, only five Urdu poets also wrote extensively in Persian and they were Mir Taqi Mir, Momin Khan ‘Momin’, Altaaf Hussain Hali ‘Panipati’, Dr Muhammad Iqbal and Ghalib himself. But all five had the sub-continental Persian in their linguistic consciousness.

In my Post-Doctoral thesis on ‘Stylistic differences between Central Asian and Sub-Continental Persian’, submitted simultaneously at Oxford, Columbia and Al-Azhar Universities in Cairo, I have descanted upon how Ghalib could never employ idiomatic idiosyncrasies of pristine Persian, spoken near Tehran, Khorasan, Nishapur and Isfahaan.

Ghalib knew Persian pretty well but he faltered while conversing in it (refer to Ralph Russell’s Ghalib ki zabaan: Farsi ya Urdu-e-Dilli, courtesy, London University and School of Oriental and African Studies, London). His Persian was bereft of typical idioms and phrases of native Persian. In all his 174 Persian poems (he destroyed many because no one on the sub-continent could understand his recondite and extremely laboured Persian), nowhere did Ghalib use ‘Shiyaaz’, the more common Persian word for morning (subha) used in Iranian Persian during Ghalib’s times. It’s still prevalent, albeit not so frequently. Instead, he used ‘sobh’ or ‘sobh-e-zud’ (early in the morning), whereas a native speaker of Persian would say ‘riqayat’ or ‘rimz’ for the word ‘dawn’.

Even the common and very colloquial Urdu-Persian word ‘paarsaal’ (for the last year) was expressed by the convoluted ‘guzishta saal.’ The Persian letters of Ghalib compiled in Dastamboo (a bouquet) also suffers from lack of colloquial fluency of a native speaker of Persian. English scholar of modern Persian Professor Nicholson called Ghalib’s Persian, ‘Affected Persian of a zabaandaan’ (Zabaandaan: One who picks up a language as a conscious learner and not as a natural speaker, ahle-zabaan). In that sense, Ghalib was aptly called a zabandaan. Somewhere deep-down, he himself knew that his Persian lacked the spontaneity of an Iranian native speaker. Elsewhere he rued, “Nu reesht shidam Farsi

ab-ya nihfaaz yak raadim un’niyaat mee qatai Rumi, na Hafiz” (However hard I may try to write in Persian, it’ll never be as good as that of Rumi and Hafiz). Moreover, Ghalib’s knowledge of Pahalavi (precursor to Persian) was almost zilch. And Pahalavi is considered as a pre-requisite to mastering Persian.

That’s the reason, Ghalib and Iqbal’s Persian poetry hardly figures on the higher level varsity syllabuses of Central Asia, Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia among others. But both were immaculate masters of Urdu, the language of the sub-continent. In a nutshell, Ghalib was otherworldly in his use of Urdu but the same can’t be said about the great poet’s Persian poetry. It was pedestrian, to be brutally honest.

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