Daud Rahbar (Tr.), Urdu Letters of Mirza Asadu'llah Khan Ghalib. Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1987. xlv, 628 p.
Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) is perhaps the best known and most admired poet of Urdu in South Asian, for his popularity is by no means limited to Urdu speakers. With the passage of time his fame has only spread wider and translations of his Urdu poetry and of his letters in Urdu have appeared in many languages. The present book is the second such collection in English, the first being Ghalib: Life and Letters, translated and edited by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam (London: George Alien & Unwin, 1969).
Ghalib, like all his peers, used Persian for most kinds of writings in prose, limiting Urdu to poetry. He himself once confessed that he turned to writing letters in Urdu only because it demanded less time and attention. But his many addressees (personal friends, 'disciples' in poetry, old and young) soon recognized the unconventional charm of his letters: chatty, direct, often very colloquial, full of witticisms and anecdotes, they were unlike anything previously seen in Urdu or even in Persian. As Ghalib later put it, he had turned 'correspondence' into 'dialogue'. Ghalib was a prolific correspondent and used his letters to fill his solitude; he was also besieged by admirers and literary disciples who sought his comments and emendations on their own poetry as well as other favors. At least two collections of his Urdu letters were published in his life and many more have appeared since then.
Professor Rahbar's book was originally planned, in 1967, as a complete translation of one of the more recent collections. He toiled for many years but unfortunately no publisher could be found for the full text. The present selection, therefore, is roughly half in size. The 170 letters in translation come preceded by a useful introduction that gives details of Ghalib's life and are followed by copious notes on persons, places, titles, unusual words, and stylistic/rhetorical details included in the translations.
The task that Professor Rahbar set for himself as a translator was not an easy one. He desired not only accuracy in his versions but also some flavor of the Urdu original in the guise of rhymes, puns, and colloquialisms. At the same time, as an annotator, he needed expertise in a wide range of subjects, for Ghalib wrote on issues dealing with Lexicography, Grammar, Rhetorics, Persian and Urdu Poetry and Sufism as well as on any number of more mundane matters. Rahbar has, on the whole, succeeded in both tasks. As an annotator, perhaps in excess. Many more letters could have been included by judiciously pruning, even deleting, many of the notes.
Russell and Islam, in constructing a narrative of Ghalib's life and times mostly in his own words, extensively excerpted his Urdu letters in a chronological order. Professor Rahbar, on the other hand, has kept together the letters to individual addressees, thus allowing us a stronger sense of Ghalib's relations with that person.
Annual of Urdu Studies, #7 ^^