When Words Sleep: Interpreting Mirza Ghalib’s Verse

Mirza Ghalib 1

Khamoshi mein nihaan khoon gasht’ah lakhon aarzooein hain
Chiragh-e-murdah hoon mein Be-zubaan ghor-e-gharibaan ka

Hidden in my silence are countless unfulfilled desires
I am a dead lamp of the silent graves of the unknown.

Mirza Ghalib

In the labyrinthine garden of Urdu poetry, where each verse is a path leading to unexpected vistas, one figure stands as both architect and enigma: Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. A 19th-century virtuoso, Ghalib did not merely write poetry; he constructed linguistic puzzles, each couplet a riddle box containing secrets of the human condition. His verses, like ancient ruins, are at once familiar and foreign—structures we recognize as poetry yet filled with hidden chambers that challenge our understanding.

Among these enigmatic constructions, one couplet stands as a particularly intricate puzzle: “Hidden in my silence are countless unfulfilled desires/I am a dead lamp of the silent graves of the unknown.” This couplet encapsulates the essence of Ghalib’s poetic genius: it is layered with meaning, rich in imagery, and open to multiple interpretations. To unravel its depths, we must embark on a journey through Ghalib’s life, his times, and the spiritual and philosophical dimensions that informed his work.

Ghalib’s life was a tapestry woven with threads of triumph and tragedy. Born in 1797 in Agra, he witnessed the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of British colonial power in India. This period of transition, marked by political upheaval and cultural dislocation, profoundly influenced his poetry. Ghalib’s personal life was also fraught with challenges. He experienced the deaths of his seven children in infancy, and his financial struggles were a constant source of anxiety. These experiences of loss and hardship left an indelible mark on his poetry, infusing it with a sense of melancholy and existential reflection.

In the couplet under consideration, the phrase “Hidden in my silence are countless unfulfilled desires” evokes a powerful image of suppressed longings and unrealized dreams. The word “silence” suggests a state of inarticulate suffering, a realm where desires are buried and forgotten. These desires are “unfulfilled,” implying that they are marred by pain, sacrifice, and perhaps even violence. This imagery speaks to the profound sense of yearning that pervades Ghalib’s work, a yearning that is often thwarted by life’s harsh realities.

From a Lacanian perspective, Ghalib’s unfulfilled desires can be seen as a manifestation of the lack that drives the human subject. According to Lacan, desire is always rooted in a fundamental absence, something perpetually out of reach. This absence is symbolized by the Other, an unattainable ideal that shapes our desires. In Ghalib’s poetry, the silence and unfulfilled desires reflect this endless pursuit of an elusive object that remains forever beyond grasp, creating a sense of perpetual longing.

The second line of the couplet, “I am a dead lamp of the silent graves of the unknown,” deepens the sense of desolation. The “dead lamp” symbolizes a source of light that has been extinguished, a metaphor for lost hope and diminished vitality. The “silent graves of the unknown” further evoke a sense of anonymity and obscurity. In these graves lie the remnants of forgotten lives and unacknowledged desires, buried in history’s silence. By identifying himself with this imagery, Ghalib expresses a profound sense of alienation and existential angst.

To fully appreciate the depth of this couplet, we must also consider its spiritual dimensions. Ghalib was deeply influenced by Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the inner, spiritual journey towards union with the Divine. Sufi poetry often employs the language of love and longing to describe the soul’s quest for God. In this context, Ghalib’s “unfulfilled desires” can be interpreted as the soul’s intense yearning for spiritual fulfillment. The “dead lamp” then becomes a symbol of the ego that must be extinguished for the soul to achieve union with the Divine.

This interpretation is supported by the Sufi concept of fana, or the annihilation of the self. In Sufism, the ultimate goal is to transcend the ego and merge with the Divine. This process is often described as a kind of death—the death of the false self to reveal the true, universal self. Ghalib’s placement of himself in the “graves of the unknown” can thus be read as a powerful metaphor for this ego death. He has become “unknown” not because his identity is lost in a tragic sense, but because he has merged with the infinite, transcending the confines of personal identity.

Yet, even as we explore these uplifting spiritual interpretations, we must not overlook the more somber readings of Ghalib’s verse. His 19th-century India was a land in transition, grappling with the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of British colonial power. Many intellectuals of his time felt a deep sense of cultural dislocation and political impotence. In this context, the image of “unfulfilled desires” buried in silence could reflect not just personal struggles but a broader societal condition. Perhaps Ghalib is lamenting the suppressed aspirations of a people, dreams of freedom or cultural revival that were violently quashed, leaving a generation feeling silenced and anonymized.

Moreover, on a universal human level, Ghalib’s verse speaks to the myriad ways in which our desires can be stained with unfulfillment. Some desires, when fulfilled, harm others—consider ambitions that trample on the rights of the weak, or passions that lead to betrayal. Other desires, when denied, harm ourselves—think of talents left unexplored due to fear, or loves left unpursued due to societal pressures. Still other desires, most tragically, lead to violence when they clash with opposing desires—history is replete with conflicts born from competing claims to land, power, or ideological supremacy. In all these cases, desires become “unfulfilled,” whether with others’ pain or our own, and the weight of this unfulfillment can indeed leave us feeling silent, extinguished, unknown even to ourselves.

Despite their differences, all these interpretations converge on a common point: Ghalib sees conversation as a mirror or interpreter of desires. Whatever we say, in his view, is essentially the transmission and communication of our longings, be they grand passions or minor impulses. Even a seemingly simple act, like inquiring about someone’s well-being, is driven by some form of desire—perhaps a wish for connection, a hope for reciprocation, or a need to be seen as considerate.

This insight leads to a profound conclusion: when all of a person’s desires die, whether through repression, conscious rejection, or transcendence, conversation becomes a meaningless activity. Without desires to fuel it, speech loses its purpose, just as a lamp without its flame becomes a mere object, devoid of its essential function.

Yet, we might also ask: Is this silence truly permanent? Is the lamp forever extinguished? Ghalib’s own life and work suggest otherwise. Despite periods of deep disillusionment and silence, he continued to write, to express, to illuminate. Perhaps, then, his verse also hints at the cyclical nature of desire and expression. Old desires may die, leaving us temporarily silent, but in that very silence, new desires—perhaps wiser, perhaps more universal—are being born. Like a lamp that seems extinguished but whose wick still smolders, waiting to be rekindled, our capacity for speech and self-expression never truly dies. It merely awaits the breath of a new desire to flare back to life.

In Lacanian terms, the cyclical nature of desire is akin to the perpetual pursuit of the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire. Even as old desires fade, new ones emerge, perpetuating the cycle of longing and fulfillment that defines human experience. This endless cycle underscores the inherent incompleteness and fragmentation of the self, a core tenet of Lacanian psychoanalysis.

In conclusion, Ghalib’s couplet, in its haunting beauty, invites us to reflect on the intricate dance between our desires, our expressions, and our silences. It suggests that our words are not mere combinations of sounds but are deeply rooted in our yearnings, fears, and hopes. When these inner forces are suppressed, denied, or transcended, our voices may fall silent—but that silence, as Ghalib shows, is far from empty. It is a space filled with stories, a graveyard teeming with the ghosts of our unspoken desires. Yet it is also, potentially, a womb of stillness from which new voices, new flames, new forms of expression can be born. In this way, Ghalib’s poetry reminds us that in the grand symphony of human experience, silence is not merely an absence of sound but a note of its own—complex, resonant, and infinitely meaningful.

Subzar Ahmad works as Lecturer urdu in the department of school education jammu & Kashmir.He can be contacted via email at [email protected]

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