Born Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) has become something of a metonym for Urdu poetry, especially among Indian readers. But the truth is that Ghalib’s work in Persian far exceeded his works in Urdu both in quantity and – in the eyes of their creator at any rate – in quality. At Maaz Bin Bilal temple lamp is the very first Persian to English translation (previously there were only “bridge translations”, where the translator worked from an existing Urdu translation) of one of the most famous Persian works by Ghalib, Chiragh-e-Dairwhere the poet channels his deep affection for the city of Benares (now Varanasi).
When translating very old books (even those that are not as iconic as Chiragh-e-Dair), the very act of translation often ends up becoming a kind of historiography. Bilal is, however, acutely aware of this additional historiographical function: temple lamp is a translation but it is also a critical text on the reading of Chiragh-e-Dair in a specific context (pluralistic and cosmopolitan, the kind of readership beyond borders that Ghalib always sought). In these aspects, it looks like Me, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Dedthe book where Ranjit Hoskote translated the eponymous 14th-century mystical poet and wrote an excellent critical essay preceding the verses themselves.
For example, here is verse 86, as rendered by Bin Bilal. “When your madness reaches / the perfect frenzy, / Kashan de Kashi / is only a halfway trip.”
Temple Lamp— Verses on Benares: Mirza Ghalib, translated by Maaz Bin Bilal, Penguin Random House India, 200 pages, ₹399.
The footnotes that accompany this translation explain two crucial points: First, the “divine madness” that Ghalib alludes to in this verse was probably inspired by the Sufis. Second, that Kashan is an Iranian city whose inhabitants were called “Kashi”, thus confirming Ghalib’s devilishly clever convergence of two great cities through what Bilal calls “Persian cosmopolitanism”. In the 80-page Introduction to Verses, Bilal, whose excellent biography of Ghalib, A The desert at my doorstepwas released by Penguin in 2020, develops this theme.
Verses 46 and 47 provide another elegant expression of this sentiment:This colony is the seat/ of the faithful idol worshipers,/ from beginning to end/ it is the pilgrimage of the mystics./ The (supreme) place of worship of the conch blowers,/ surely, (Banaras) is the Kaaba / from Hindustan.”
In the introduction, Bilal quotes the reading of this last line by Khushwant Singh; according to Singh, Ghalib uses “Kaa’ba-e-Hindustan” (Mecca of India) and not the expected “Kaa’ba-e-Hinood” (Mecca of Hindus).
For Ghalib, Benares represented sanctuary in more than one sense of the word: physical (he was often ill in the period preceding his stay), financial (he had just fled Delhi’s loan sharks) and, of course, spiritual. His rhapsodic descriptions of the lakes and gardens of Benares (mentioned in the introduction) will make even the most cynical reader smile.
temple lampHis translation choices are thoughtful and elegant and his scholarship is impeccable: it’s a must-read for Ghalib aficionados and those looking to broaden their horizons.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.
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