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 oeuvre in Persian far outstripped his Urdu works in both quantity and—in their creator’s eyes anyway—in quality. Maaz Bin Bilal’s Temple Lamp is the first-ever Persian-to-English translation (there have only been “bridge translations” previously, where the translator worked off an existing Urdu translation) of one of Ghalib’s most famous Persian works, Chiragh-e-Dair, where the poet channels his profound affection for the city of Banaras (now Varanasi).
When you are translating very old books (even ones not nearly as iconic as Chiragh-e-Dair), the very act of translation often ends up becoming a historiography of sorts. Bilal, however, is extremely conscious of this additional historiographic function: Temple Lamp is a translation but it’s also a critical text about reading Chiragh-e-Dair in a specific context (pluralistic and cosmopolitan, the kind of readership beyond borders Ghalib always craved). In these aspects, it resembles I, Lalla: The Poems Of Lal Ded, the book where Ranjit Hoskote translated the eponymous 14th century mystic-poet and wrote an excellent critical essay preceding the verses themselves.
For instance, here’s the 86th verse, as rendered by Bin Bilal. “When your madness reaches/ the perfect frenzy,/ Kashan from Kashi/is just a half-step journey.”
The footnotes that accompany this translation explain two crucial points: One, that the “divine madness” alluded to by Ghalib in this verse has probably been inspired by the Sufis. Two, that Kashan is an Iranian city whose residents were called “Kashi”, thus confirming Ghalib’s fiendishly clever convergence of two great cities through what Bilal calls “Persianate cosmopolitanism”. In the 80-page introduction to the verses (one that cites sources as diverse as the historian Manan Ahmed, the poet Adrienne Rich, as well as fellow Ghalib scholars like Mehr Afshan Farooqi whose excellent Ghalib biography A Wilderness at my Doorstep had previously been published by Penguin in 2020) Bilal had expanded upon this theme.
The 46th and 47th verses provide another elegant expression of this sentiment: “This settlement is the seat/ of the idol-worshipping faithful,/ from beginning to end/ it is the pilgrimage of mystics./ The (supreme) place of worship for the conch-blowers,/ surely, (Banaras) is the Kaaba/ of Hindustan.”
In the Introduction, Bilal cites Khushwant Singh’s reading of that last line; according to Singh, Ghalib uses “Kaa’ba-e-Hindustan” (the Mecca of India) and not the expected ‘Kaa’ba-e-Hinood’ (the Mecca of Hindus).
For Ghalib, Banaras represented sanctuary in more than one sense of the word—physical (he was frequently ill in the time leading up to his stay), financial (he had just fled moneylenders in Delhi) and, of course, spiritual. His rhapsodic descriptions of the lakes and gardens of Banaras (mentioned in the Introduction) will make even the most cynical reader smile.
Temple Lamp’s translation choices are thoughtful and elegant and its scholarship is immaculate: This is a must-read for both Ghalib aficionados and those seeking to expand their horizons.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.
Edit: An earlier version of this piece attributed A Wilderness At My Doorstep to Maaz Bin Bilal. The book was written by Mehr Afshan Farooqi.