Image credit: Eylul Doganay, "Room Full of You"

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The pleading image

The image pleads to whose wanton design

Every figure is embodied in paper

Alone, here in stone-silence, living

Is to cut a gorge across a mountain every day


But even in captivity I trace the arc of my limits

Fire under feet, fetters of blazing eyelashes…

Oh! But to have a will that does not answer

               to want

The will that exists, not in metal, but outside

                                        the sword


So cast your nets of meaning far and wide:

My verse obtains from conditions unknown to you

The peacock’s suffering plays a colorful trick

                                        on the eyes

The nightmare of non-being

Is just lurid protest at never waking up

                                        to its reality



I lived longing for the one who never arrived

I lived longing for the one who never arrived

If I’d lived longer, it would be in longing

                           For the one who never arrived


Living by your promise I learned it was a lie

Joy would have killed me if I believed

                           In the one who never arrived


Your arrow was half-drawn, your aim unerring

I live with the wound opened

                           By the one who never arrived


Those who were my friends now give me advice

No one consoles me, hears my cries

                           At the one who never arrived?


On mystical questions, Ghalib, you have no match

We would call you a saint but you drink

                            To the one who never arrived



At Last

My every breath is a wish

Every wish my last

After losing every wish, I breathe –

                              At last!


Assassin—have no fear

You will bear no stain:

Blood, through my eyes, has sieved

                              At last


What do Adam’s tears at exile

Compare to mine? I’ve no

Hope of returning when I leave

                              At last


Your snakelike locks maintain

Your reign of terror. Someday

They’ll be undone and we’ll believe

                              At last


They have thrust in the knife

Out of mercy for me

How long now before it is retrieved

                              At last? 


At daybreak I’m off, pen

Behind ear, to find

Any excuse to write them a missive

                              At last


In love, living and dying

Are one and the same: I live

To see the one who’ll deceive

                              At last



The lawful don’t stray near

The tavern but I’m aware:

Unbeknownst, our paths crossed that eve

                              At last



The messiah’s breath keeps

The cradle rocking


Resurrection is a dream

In the ruby-eyes of broken idols


Nothingness lies beyond

The desert of wants, Ghalib


The wild-horse gallops



Soaking the saddle-place

With sweat

Original ↓

نقش فریادی ہے کس کی شوخیٔ تحریر کا

کاغذی ہے پیرہن ہر پیکر تصویر کا

کاو کاو سخت جانی ہائے تنہائی نہ پوچھ

صبح کرنا شام کا لانا ہے جوئے شیر کا

جذبۂ بے اختیار شوق دیکھا چاہیے

سینۂ شمشیر سے باہر ہے دم شمشیر کا

آگہی دام شنیدن جس قدر چاہے بچھائے

مدعا عنقا ہے اپنے عالم تقریر کا

بسکہ ہوں غالبؔ اسیری میں بھی آتش زیر پا

موئے آتش دیدہ ہے حلقہ مری زنجیر کا

شوخیٔ نیرنگ صید وحشت طاؤس ہے

دام سبزہ میں ہے پرواز چمن تسخیر کا

وحشت خواب عدم شور تماشا ہے اسدؔ

جو مزہ جوہر نہیں آئینۂ تعبیر کا



یہ نہ تھی ہماری قسمت کہ وصال یار ہوتا

اگر اور جیتے رہتے یہی انتظار ہوتا

ترے وعدے پر جیے ہم تو یہ جان جھوٹ جانا

کہ خوشی سے مر نہ جاتے اگر اعتبار ہوتا

کوئی میرے دل سے پوچھے ترے تیر نیم کش کو

یہ خلش کہاں سے ہوتی جو جگر کے پار ہوتا

یہ کہاں کی دوستی ہے کہ بنے ہیں دوست ناصح

کوئی چارہ ساز ہوتا کوئی غم گسار ہوتا

یہ مسائل تصوف یہ ترا بیان غالبؔ

تجھے ہم ولی سمجھتے جو نہ بادہ خوار ہوتا



ہزاروں خواہشیں ایسی کہ ہر خواہش پہ دم نکلے

بہت نکلے مرے ارمان لیکن پھر بھی کم نکلے

ڈرے کیوں میرا قاتل کیا رہے گا اس کی گردن پر

وہ خوں جو چشم تر سے عمر بھر یوں دم بدم نکلے

نکلنا خلد سے آدم کا سنتے آئے ہیں لیکن

بہت بے آبرو ہو کر ترے کوچے سے ہم نکلے

بھرم کھل جائے ظالم تیرے قامت کی درازی کا

اگر اس طرۂ پر پیچ و خم کا پیچ و خم نکلے

مگر لکھوائے کوئی اس کو خط تو ہم سے لکھوائے

ہوئی صبح اور گھر سے کان پر رکھ کر قلم نکلے

ہوئی اس دور میں منسوب مجھ سے بادہ آشامی

پھر آیا وہ زمانہ جو جہاں میں جام جم نکلے

ہوئی جن سے توقع خستگی کی داد پانے کی

وہ ہم سے بھی زیادہ خستۂ تیغ ستم نکلے

محبت میں نہیں ہے فرق جینے اور مرنے کا

اسی کو دیکھ کر جیتے ہیں جس کافر پہ دم نکلے

کہاں مے خانہ کا دروازہ غالبؔ اور کہاں واعظ

پر اتنا جانتے ہیں کل وہ جاتا تھا کہ ہم نکلے



لب عیسیٰ کی جنبش کرتی ہے گہوارہ جنبانی

قیامت کشتۂ لعل بتاں کا خواب سنگیں ہے

بیابان فنا ہے بعد صحراۓ طلب غالبؔ

پسینہ توسن ہمت تو سیل خانۂ زیں ہے

Translator's Note

Translating Ghalib is an impossibly challenging undertaking; the dearth of English translations of one of South Asia’s most renowned bards, and one of Urdu’s greatest poet loudly attests to this assessment. It has taken me seventeen years, since my early twenties when I started delving in earnest into Ghalib’s monumental body of work, far afield of his popular ghazals picturized in Bollywood movies, to attempt a translation.

There are many features of Ghalib’s verse that confound translationFor one, Ghalib’s diction is entirely original (to call it arcane simply because it’s “strange” would imply prior usage), developed out of melding Farsi and Hindustani words. Second, Ghalib tends to suppress grammar, or eliminates it altogether when he can, so that it’s often difficult to distinguish between subjects and objects, causes and effects, thus rending linearity and muddling relations. But most of all, it is the endless dialectical inversions, masterfully placed in the ghazal form, that create an explosion of meaning. How do you translate an explosion?

All translators make choices, but a translator working on Ghalib is forced to choose from vast sets of possible meanings. The only way to do this is to lose compulsion for certainty, or even approximation (fitting for a poet whose verse militates against certainty). Given the abundance of meaning and the mechanical complexities, one might give up and say that exegesis—not translation—is the proper mode of engaging with Ghalib’s work. And indeed there’s no shortage of learned commentaries on Ghalib, scholarly articles in Urdu, English and other languages, that one could look towards for understanding Ghalib. That is: if understanding is the goal.

For Ghalib, understanding, apprehension, meaning are lesser aspects of experience, lampooned in the ghazal naqsh faryādī (“The pleading image”) as follows:

āgahī dām-e shanīdan jis qadar chāhe bichhāʾe (1)
muddaʿā ʿanqā hai apne ʿālam-e taqrīr kā          (2)

A semantic breakdown of the verse taken from eminent Urdu scholar and Ghalib expert Professor Frances Pritchet’s website “A Desertful of Roses” further shows the devices I mention above at play. 

1a) let intelligence spread the net of hearing to whatever extent it might wish
1b) no matter to what extent intelligence might spread the net of hearing

2a) the intention/meaning of my world of speech is the Anqa [n. a phoenix, adj. rare]
2b) my world of speech has no intention/meaning at all
2c) 'intention/meaning' is the Anqa of its own world of speech
2d) the Anqa is the intention/meaning of its own world of speech

Ghalib’s work refuses interpretation and welcomes creation, and this observation has guided my translation. It’s far from possible in any translation of Ghalib’s verse to capture the many fields and possibilities of meaning within but I’ve tried my best to reproduce a few of his devices—such as mirroring, self-referencing, irony, and the uncanny—to lay a basic foundation for English readers to enter his world. I have also attempted as much as possible to hew close to the rules of ghazal, the form used in the originals.

Umair Kazi


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