Translator’s Note: Ghalib is the pen name of Mirza Asadullah Khan, a poet of nineteenth-century India, who wrote in Urdu and Persian. He is widely regarded as the greatest poet of the Urdu language.
Ash’aar is the plural of sh’er, the two-line verse units that together make a ghazal. Although the ash’aar in a ghazal have a common meter, rhyme and refrain, more often than not each sh’er is self-contained, a poem in miniature that is independent of the other ash’aar in a ghazal. Easily memorized, this miniature poem acquires a life of its own as it is recited in conversations and speeches, or quoted in letters, essays and op-eds.
More than any literary oeuvre in Urdu, Ghalib’s Urdu divan (collection of ghazals) is a treasury of memorable ash’aar that is mined by speakers of Urdu for aphorisms that encapsulate—with art, wit, humor and irony—the endlessly varied situations in life and love. It is this quality of the ghazal, as an inexhaustible repertoire of insights into life condensed into miniature ash’aar, that accounts for the vitality and popularity of the Urdu ghazal as a poetic genre. — M.S.A.
In paper garments, mimes On the cosmic stage protest, ‘Who cast us in this play? Whose mimics are we?’
In medieval China and Iran, individuals aired their grievances by appearing before officials in paper garments.
Temple and Kaaba rise From detritus of desire. Dreams checked grow wise In sorrow and surmise.
No sniper takes aim; No trapper lays his bait. I have never felt so safe, Nested inside a cage.
The rain-bearing clouds Can scarce put me at ease; for Lightning rides in tow, its Eye fixed on my fields.
Solitary man creates A maelstrom of ideas. I Never wanted company Even inside a cell.
Often, the hardest things Start out looking easy; thus, Man keeps falling short Of his humanity.
A simple shroud conceals My blemishes, my shame; No artifice but this Could hide my infamy.
Glancing back, I see Myself, this bird inside a cage, Gathering leaves, twigs, Dreaming of a nest.
Life discovers splendor In love’s ruinous fire. Absent this arsonist Our explorations cease.
Where will love’s ardor Make its next stand? This world is a relic Of his last disclosure.
Cities thrive, men improvise When daring men die off. The wine cups overflow When the tavern is empty.
As courage soars, your Prospects rise accordingly. The drop in your eye Is the pearl not to be.
We dare to live, O Khizer, Cheek by jowl with men; You chose to live for ever By taking leave of life.
According to legends, Khizer, a wandering prophet, sought immortality. He got his wish, after promising that he would eschew human contact.
Undaunted, we disclose Love’s poetics of madness. Pens smashed, we compose With bloodied fingers.
Sorrows do not lodge In the hearts of free men. They burnish bleak nights With bolts of lightning.
They who shrink from love’s Contest serve empires of lust. Men who shrink back in fear Serve tyrannies tomorrow.
One life, a thousand wishes; For each we die slowly. Many cups fill to the brim, Many more lie empty.
Not all, only a few return In lilacs and roses; how many Sages, what lovely faces, Slumber in cold ashes?
The poems of M. Shahid Alam and his translations of Ghalib have appeared in The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Chicago Review, Notre Dame Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Paintbrush, Raritan, and Salamander among other places. Alam is a Professor of Economics at Northeastern University in Boston.