Such is the majesty of Urdu’s greatest poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) that his works continue to be interpreted in a discipline known as Ghalibiat. I was acquainted with Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib by Abdur Rehman Bijnouri through my Urdu teacher at school, perhaps the only PhD degree-holder in my school at that time. His area of study was Ghalib and he would often quote verses and then, as a competent teacher, help his students understand them. Oxford University Press has reprinted the slim volume with an erudite introduction by Syed Nomanul Haq. In fact, it was Haq who re-introduced me to the text after decades in its correct and much more readable shape.
Bijnouri (1885-1918) was a leading critic of his times. While Shibli and Hali attempted to review and understand Urdu literature in the colonial context and made attempts to imbibe influences from the English language and also introduced a ‘modern’ sensibility in Urdu writing, Bijnouri took this forward by studying European languages and literatures and placing Urdu’s creative output in that wider cross-cultural context. Bijnouri’s paean to Ghalib therefore succeeds in showing the reader how the poet was a part of the global literary movements in terms of humanism and insights into human nature.
Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib therefore comments on the various aspects of Ghalib’s poetry — its poetics, musicality, linguistic refinement and thematic complexities — with the help of European literary benchmarks. The commentary is not organised but for Urdu readers in the early 20th century India, this must have opened a new window to the world. For me, Mahasin remains a rather delectable collection of Ghalib’s best verses and for simply this reason it is a book which cannot be missed by anyone who has affinity for Ghalib’s poetic style.
Haq’s detailed and painstakingly well-researched introduction puts Mahasin in the larger perspective of Urdu literary traditions. On the issue of references that Bijnouri uses, Haq acknowledges the command over European languages that Bijnouri exerted and also makes us realise how this would be viewed by the readers. However, this is not a routine introduction for it also sets the record straight and is quite blunt at times.
Haq enables the Urdu reader to get the correct references used by Bijnouri while singing odes to Ghalib in the book. For instance, he corrects the name of a relatively unknown 16th century poet Ariosto who has been printed as ‘Aristo’ in almost all the editions published. But as an editor of this volume, Haq is not just looking at facts and minor details but takes the debate further and comments on how Urdu criticism and the poets and writers of the East have the tendency to use references from
western branches of knowledge in a selective manner: “Bijnauri saheb has worked here in the same manner as [Allama] Iqbal did in his Reconstruction [lectures] … wherever there was some light they used it to brighten their homes … the lesser and greater European figures who appealed were turned into allies and their ideas and quotes were copied, out of context sometimes, and without analysing the risks of contradictions or fallacies.” Haq ends his argument by quoting this timeless verse from Ghalib:
I go along a little way with every single swift-mover
I do not yet recognise the guide
(adapted from Frances Pritchett’s translation).
Haq takes an even more iconoclastic step and gets into the linguistics of Ghalib. He refrains from making definitive assertions but states that Ghalib would often innovate and use language in the flow of his ideas. Somewhere in the essay he laconically remarks that Bijnouri Saheb should not seen as a critic nor Iqbal as a philosopher. I am sure that this would engender a debate within the literary circles of Pakistan and India.
Haq has also corrected almost every reference and explained the background of all the notable European thinkers quoted in the book. As a result, this edition helps the readers understand the context as well as the significance of the references employed in the volume. This is a great move towards producing ‘critical editions’ of Urdu texts which are missing in the subcontinent where inaccuracies are the norm.
At the end of his introductory essay, Haq points out how the current edition is a critical version. The parameters set should be a useful guide for [re]publishing other literary works. He has set a good benchmark for other researchers and publishing houses to follow.
Mahasin will remain a vital reference for all students of literature. It indicates how Urdu critics were attempting to understand their own literary heritage in colonial India. As Haq rightly says, Bijnouri’s work is an ode “in the search of understanding Ghalib”. By taking a dispassionate and often clinical look at the traditions of literary criticism, Haq has also initiated a major debate on the current crisis of criticism in the Urdu language which we inherited from uncertain colonial times. It is hoped that this work is widely read and understood to overcome the rather peculiar tradition of either crafting paeans or personal attacks as ‘literary criticism’ in Urdu and by extension in other regional languages.
For its sheer beauty and choice of poetry, Mahasin is a treat. For those who wish to get a better context of Ghalib’s poetry it enables a global comparison and presents a delicate interpretation of several complex verses that the master poet is well known for.
The reviewer is a writer and columnist
By Abdur Rehman Bijnouri
Edited by Syed Nomanul Haq
OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi