Book Review

Thinking with Ghalib

Poetry for New Generation by Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole - This is an unusual book — the focus is not on what Ghalib means but on what Ghalib makes us think of contemporary issues.

These selections, explanations and reflections will bring Indians and Pakistanis closer to Ghalib’s genius and to one another.

Thinking with Ghalib is a new book published and released by Folio Books Lahore during the current month of July. The book contains poetry for new generation by noted poets and scholars – Anjum Altaf of Pakistan and Amit Basole of India.

This is an unusual book — the focus is not on what Ghalib means but on what Ghalib makes us think of contemporary issues. It puts Ghalib to work and brings Ghalib to life. It is an invitation to think with Ghalib about all the big issues — faith and religion, us and them, the nature of divinity, being and nothingness, the importance of thinking for oneself, what it means to believe, and what it takes to be human. It is a roller-coaster ride with one of the most creative minds of all time.

The book has been reviewed by a number of men of letters hailing from Pakistan, India and Pakistan. Here are the views of some of the acclaimed writers:

“To think with Ghalib is to think with a fifteen-hundred-year-old sub-continental tradition of dissent that passes through Lal Ded, Kabir, Nanak and Ravidas before it reaches him. The only reason his name sounds odd in their saintly company is that, outside invisible lovers of poetry, he did not leave behind a panth. One can only be grateful to Altaf and Basole for giving us a book that is almost an act of inspiration: 30 couplets in English, Urdu, Nagari, and a transliteration of the original in Roman. Then comes the prose reflection on the couplet: lucid and explorative, it leaves us surprised at how we could have lost the questioning path that was there for the following. A panth of non-believers and doubters, then, something the sub-continent needs more than ever.”

– Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, poet, translator and literary critic

“Thinking with Ghalib is an invitation to South Asian readers to delve into, engage with, and enjoy the unique imagination of the founder of Urdu poetic discourse, shaping the creative orientations of generations through the printed media and expanding schools. By focusing on couplets, Altaf and Basole ask the reader to join them in a quest to experience tradition and modernity as a continuous public debate through one of the enduring forms of artistic expression in our cultures – A brilliant contribution to understanding the past in the present.”

– Ashraf Ghani, co-author, Afghanistan: A Lexicon

“With unusual clarity and a genuine sense of wonder, Altaf and Basole deliver a careful dialogue in thinking through Ghalib’s euphorically elevating verses as he romps through temple, tower and palace, manipulating complex realities in staggering two-line zingers – A must-read for people of all ages and all nationalities.”

– Azra Raza, co-author, A Tribute to Ghalib: Twenty-One Ghazals Reinterpreted

“Mirza Ghalib’s very survival as an inevitable and constant reference point for great poetry, and oftentimes for life’s travails, is a testimony to both the immediacy of his relevance and his transcendence of time. What makes him the extraordinary poet is his extreme sensitivity to the richness of his cultural heritage as well as its attributes of imprisonment. Ghalib imbibes the richness and yet rebels against it. Questioning from within is the single most striking characteristic of his poetry in tune with questioning that has sustained human civilization’s quintessential spirit through the ages: from Socrates to the Charvakas, from Mansoor al-Hallaj and Kabir to Descartes. This amazing experiment in unearthing the layers of meaning(s) in Ghalib’s couplets from their innermost depths sets a superb example of seeking out the soul of poetry. In any case, dissent resides at the very heart of ghazal, the poetry of love, as its raison d’ȇtre. Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole, both Professors of Economics, engaging in this literary endeavor also questions the neat disciplinary divides that academics are so enamored of.”

– Harbans Mukhia, former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Trustee, Ghalib Institute, New Delhi

“Here is a unique attempt — often brilliant, wise, provocative and always bravely original — to help young people, especially from South Asia, to discover (or rediscover) the poetry of Ghalib, and in it find both questions and possible pathways to answers to some of the most urgent and perplexing riddles of our times.”

– Harsh Mander, author and Director of Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi

“This is a truly invaluable collection of specific Ghalib couplets, reprinted in the Roman, Arabic and Devnagari scripts and accompanied by an informed interpretation in English by Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole. The two authors succeed in highlighting the timelessness of Ghalib’s work and skilfully place his ideas and the profound questions about our world — and indeed human nature itself — within a modern context. The importance of this book lies in the fact that it is aimed at a young audience in the sub-continent and the diaspora. The discussion on each and every couplet succeeds in simplifying, yet highlighting, the complexities and nuances of Ghalib’s words. In the process, the book draws attention to subtleties of the Urdu language itself — and is likely to encourage young readers to reach out for more … I wish my daughters had had a book like this to introduce them to Ghalib when they were at school!”

– Muneeza Shamsie, writer and critic

“These selections, explanations and reflections will bring Indians and Pakistanis closer to Ghalib’s genius and, inshallah, to one another.”

– Rajmohan Gandhi, historian and author of Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten

“This remarkable book offers yet another way to enjoy Ghalib, through an in-depth, contextual and nuanced exposition of thirty of his couplets. Two centuries after his time, the great bard comes back to life in the skilled analysis of Altaf and Basole, giving new meaning to the line hui muddat ke Ghalib mar gaya, par yaad aata hai.”

– Raza Mir, author of Ghalib: A Thousand Desires

“This collection of Ghalib’s couplets was thoughtfully designed to be accessible to language learners at all levels. The writing style is light, even as it engages readers in an essential exploration of what Ghalib’s poetry means now. Each interpretation is deeply grounded in an understanding of Ghalib and his intellectual and social milieu, as well as a profound sensitivity to the poetry itself. In addition to a greater understanding of each couplet, readers will acquire the habits that will help them appreciate the world of Urdu poetry on their own. I only wish there had been a resource like this when I was learning Urdu.”

– Roanne L. Kantor, Assistant Professor of English, Stanford University

“Thinking with Ghalib is a welcome addition to the large archive on Ghalib for three reasons: first, because it makes this nineteenth century poet relevant to the twenty-first century readers in South Asia and the world; secondly, because it is a product of the collaboration of two prominent Pakistani and Indian intellectuals at a distressful juncture of our history which is a good omen for peaceful coexistence through shared intellectual and aesthetic continuities; and, thirdly, because it is in three scripts—the Perso-Arabic script of Urdu, the Devanagari script of Hindi and other Indian languages and the Roman script used for English and other Western languages which makes Ghalib available not only to South Asians but a very large part of the world. This book, I hope, will be the pioneer in the fashion for rewriting our classics so that they appeal to the present generation.”

– Tariq Rahman, Dean, School of Education, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore; author of Language and Politics in Pakistan

“As a Ghalib-lover I often read him and apart from the ecstasy I receive from some of his couplets, what strikes me poignantly is his humanism. Like Shakespeare, Ghalib is always in sympathy with human nature in all its shapes and degrees, elevations and depressions. This is the main premise of Thinking with Ghalib, a meticulously researched book by Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole.

“That Ghalib for all times is an acknowledged fact. Altaf and Basole explain why it is so. More: they explore the layered meanings of Ghalib’s couplets and relate them to the critical political, psychological and economic issues of our times. Students of literature would benefit hugely from this book which ought to be a part of the syllabi of our universities.”

– Zia Mohyeddin, President of NAPA and author of A Carrot is a Carrot, The God of My Idolatry, and Theatrics






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