Ghalib was born in December 1797 in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. His father, Mirza Abdullah Beg, died when he was five years old. After living with an uncle, who passed away when he was eight, Ghalib was raised mostly by his aunts.
There isn’t a definitive record of Ghalib’s early education, but it’s said he started writing poetry early in life, around 11. He wrote in both Persian and Urdu and was known for his spontaneity and quick-witted verses.
Married in 1810 at the age of 13 to Umrao Begum, Ghalib soon left his birth city, Agra, for New Delhi, where he lived until his death in 1869.
The rivalry between Ustad Zauq, the royal poet of Bahadur Shah Zafar, and Mirza Ghalib is legendary. Once when Ustad was passing by, Ghalib allegedly mocked him with verses: “Now that he is a king’s companion, he roams around conceitedly.” The emperor asked Ghalib to explain himself, and he immediately said it was the first line of the last couplet of his latest ghazal. Ghalib, quick on his feet, composed a whole ghazal on the spot, one of his most famous ones, and recited it to applause.
Drinking and gambling were his vices, even though gambling was considered an offence during those times. Ghalib was aware of his flaws, and incorporated these lightheartedly in his works: “These words of wisdom, your words Ghalib! / We would have thought you wise, if you weren’t a drunkard.”
Before his death, Ghalib wrote verses about how he would be remembered, which are hauntingly accurate: “It’s been a long time since Ghalib died, but he is still remembered. / For always saying what if this or that had happened.”
Ghalib died in New Delhi on February 15, 1869. His rented house in Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, has now been turned into the Ghalib Museum in which you can learn about everything from his food habits to how he dressed.
Tucked away on the eastern edge of densely populated Nizamuddin Basti, surrounded by delicate stone latticework, lies Ghalib’s tomb. Nizamuddin Basti, named after Saint Nizamuddin, is dotted with graves of many high-ranking people, as it is considered auspicious to be buried near a saint.
Beautified with marble inlays and red sandstone, the grave is a fitting resting place for one of South Asia’s most renowned poets. Ghalib’s famous verse is inscribed on a marble slab in Hindi, Urdu and English translations: “When nothing was, then God was there / Had nothing been, God would have been / My being has defeated me / Had I not been, what would have been.”
Matthew Janney contributed additional reporting to this article.