It isn’t often that you come across someone so adept with the poetry of Ghalib, a poet whose verses resonate with past, present and future generations. When our anonymous interviewee decided to speak about Ghalib who he is so well versed with, it made for an interesting conversation full of shayaris.
Anonymous man, 37, Investment Banker, Kolkata
Interviewed by Soumita Basu
Why did you decide to give an interview about Ghalib?
For starters, it’s his 220th birthday. So, a great day to talk about the man! I feel, he has influenced generations of Indians. Even today, when a guy tends to get poetic after a break-up, his friends will often say, “Arey Ghalib kyun ban raha hai saale!.” (Why are you being so poetic, you fool!)
(Laughs) It’s a name that’s very close to our hearts, right?
Yes, you will find that he is one of the few who has stretched the realms of poetry, whether it’s Urdu, Hindustani, Persian, or Turkish. He could write in many languages. Mind you, Ghalib lived in an era where the Mughal dynasty was dying and the British Empire was taking over India. It was a period when cultures were overlapping and suddenly there was this man who changed the game of love poetry into the poetry of love. He was not that well-known when he was alive, but today he is an inspiration for many poets and writers across the country. You tend to find a lot of people borrowing from Ghalib – the words might be different, the phrases more polished, but the soul is all his.
How has Ghalib influenced you?
Ghalib makes you understand that words can be used by anybody. You may not be born as a poet but you can definitely inculcate some elements of poetry in you. I find that reading Ghalib, reciting Ghalib and trying to understand Ghalib, historically, culturally and politically changes a lot in everyone’s lives, including mine.
Tell me a bit about how it’s changed your life.
Let me recite some of his words –
“Haathon ke lakiron pe mat ja, ae Ghalib,
Lakeer unke bhi hote hain jinke haath nahi.”
(Don’t go by what’s written on one’s palms Ghalib,
Luck is bestowed upon even on those who don’t have hands.)
That is indeed quite beautiful!
Yes, the words are so simple. Luck and destiny are even bestowed on those who don’t have hands! Ghalib is powerful with even a limited number of words.
When can you relate to him the most?
Well, we all have heartbreaks. We all go through some emotional uproars and feel quite low later. What happens then? You draw towards people who can relate to you. At such times, Ghalib is easy to relate to.
When did you experience your first heartbreak?
I was 14 years old probably.
Was that the first time you experienced this connection with Ghalib?
No. I was first introduced to Ghalib by my father who found his ghazals to be a stressbuster. Growing up, we were told not to approach my father when he got back from work for the first 30 minutes, because during that half an hour he would be lost in Ghalib’s ghazals, forgetting his worries, after which he was a different man.
That must be a beautiful memory of your childhood!
Yes. I remember he would sit on his chair, fix himself a drink during those 30 minutes, and then come talk to us about our day. At that moment he would change from a disciplinarian to a friend. He would go to his study, listen to Ghalib with a glass of single malt whiskey and then we would look at him with a different perception. I’d ask him what he was listening to, and he’d say, “This man might not mean much to you at this age but as you grow up, you’ll understand his appeal.”
Let me quote Ghalib,
“Mohobbat mein nahi hai farak jeene aur marne ka,
Usi ko dekhkar jeete hai, jis kafir pe dum nikle”
(In love there is no difference between life and death
I live to see her, the one who I die for.)
Here, a person experiences two emotions simultaneously. One, where he’s attached to that person with an umbilical cord. Jeene aur marne ki kasam kha lete hai (you promise to live and die by each other’s side), but at the same time there is so much anger inside him that you call him or her a ‘kafir’ (non-believer).
When did you first start to truly understand Ghalib?
I was 16 years old probably, when I studied a bit of Urdu. The reason why a lot of people relate to him is because of his intensity. Let me quote Firaq, who sees a girl wearing a frock look at him suspiciously,
“Ae Firaqwali, main teri frock mein nahi, main toh uski firaq mein hoon jo teri firaq mein hai.”
Although it’s intense, there is a comic element to it.
When did poetry begin to heal you?
I think when I was exposed to more cross-cultural writing. I started reading work by people who wrote in English, Hindi and Urdu. I realised then that most people wrote the same material but just in different styles. There can be a similarity between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’ and Ghalib. There can be a strong connection between Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and Ghalib. I have never been a literature student, rather a man who crunches numbers. But when you read, you find similarities between the words and the events of your own life. You could find meaning in what Ghalib says while travelling in a bus.
Tell me some random moments in your life where you felt, “Oh, I see what Ghalib was talking about.”
In my first year of graduation, I started liking this girl in the English Literature class. I didn’t know what to say to her because I was not proficient in her subject. So I went up to her and asked her if she’d like to explore Delhi with me because we were both from outside Delhi. She agreed, and I couldn’t think of a better place than Ghalib ki haveli.
That’s interesting. How did this date go? The haveli must be dilapidated, right?
It’s not dilapidated anymore. We went to the haveli and then we ate at an Irani restaurant close to it that serves really good chicken korma with rotis and Irani chai. So anyway, at Ghalib ki haveli I kept on reciting whatever came to my mind. Four years down the line she told me that she didn’t understand most of what I had said but that she found the effort very sweet. We then went on for another four years.
Is he one of the first poets to come to your mind whenever you are in some situation?
No, I wouldn’t say that because my initial introduction to literature has been in Hindi because NCERT textbooks do not teach you Ghalib. If you ask me what lines I have in mind, I would quote Ramdhari Singh Dinkar or Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. Ghalib entered my life very late, thanks to my father.
Do you write poetry yourself?
I am a big fan of poetry. Poetry is a shock; it’s more effective than prose. It is very difficult to write though. I mostly write prose. I am a short story writer, sometimes I write travelogues.
What is the one philosophy of Ghalib that has influenced your everyday life?
You cannot be free of grief. I mean, we talk a lot about being positive and motivated, but look at all the sorrows we have in life. Somebody has financial problems, or health problems, or relationship issues. Ghalib is realistic. At the same time, he is less of an entertainer. He comes across as a serious philosopher.
Can you tell me an incident in your life where you acted or reacted differently because of Ghalib’s influence?
Many a times, when you’re angry, you want to slap or abuse someone, but then you think the lines of Ghalib will be a better response than doing that.
The last question is not exactly unrelated to this topic but we ask this everyone we interview – What does love mean to you?
“Kitna khauf hota hai shyam ke andhere mein,
Pooch un parindon se jinke ghar nahi”
(When you talk about love, ask those who have not been able to experience it.)
Ghalib also says, “Ye ishq ka dariya hai, doobke paar jaana hai.”
But do you think the people who have not experienced it will be able to talk about it?
There is hardly anyone in the world who has not felt love. You receive that emotion from your parents, elders, friends, siblings, beloved, spouse, offspring, and grandchildren. This could happen to anyone, you could be very thirsty and a stranger comes out of nowhere and offers you a glass of water. What is a glass of water? There is an element of love in it.