Mudlark Flash No. 109 (2017)

Ash’aar: Selected Verses from Ghalib
Translated by M. Shahid Alam

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.


Ghalib Urdu original
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.


Ghalib Urdu original
Temple and Kaaba rise
From detritus of desire.
Dreams checked grow wise
In sorrow and surmise.


Ghalib Urdu original
No sniper takes aim;
No trapper lays his bait.
I have never felt so safe,
Nested inside a cage.


Ghalib Urdu original
The rain-bearing clouds
Can scarce put me at ease; for
Lightning rides in tow, its
Eye fixed on my fields.


Ghalib Urdu original
Solitary man creates
A maelstrom of ideas. I
Never wanted company
Even inside a cell.


Ghalib Urdu original
Often, the hardest things
Start out looking easy; thus,
Man keeps falling short
Of his humanity.


Ghalib Urdu original
A simple shroud conceals
My blemishes, my shame;
No artifice but this
Could hide my infamy.


Ghalib Urdu original
Glancing back, I see
Myself, this bird inside a cage,
Gathering leaves, twigs,
Dreaming of a nest.


Ghalib Urdu original
Life discovers splendor
In love’s ruinous fire.
Absent this arsonist
Our explorations cease.


Ghalib Urdu original
Where will love’s ardor
Make its next stand?
This world is a relic
Of his last disclosure.


Ghalib Urdu original
Cities thrive, men improvise
When daring men die off.
The wine cups overflow
When the tavern is empty.


Ghalib Urdu original
As courage soars, your
Prospects rise accordingly.
The drop in your eye
Is the pearl not to be.


Ghalib Urdu original
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.


Ghalib Urdu original
Undaunted, we disclose
Love’s poetics of madness.
Pens smashed, we compose
With bloodied fingers.


Ghalib Urdu original
Sorrows do not lodge
In the hearts of free men.
They burnish bleak nights
With bolts of lightning.


Ghalib Urdu original
They who shrink from love’s
Contest serve empires of lust.
Men who shrink back in fear
Serve tyrannies tomorrow.


Ghalib Urdu original
One life, a thousand wishes;
For each we die slowly.
Many cups fill to the brim,
Many more lie empty.


Ghalib Urdu original
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.

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