Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ghalib, Sufism and the attack on symbolism

Going after conventional symbols, ridiculing them, inverting them to provoke thought in the listener or reader is a favorite Sufi trick. The aim is to make us think about the arbitrary nature of the customs we consider holy. Ghalib is a master at this art, as we have had occasion to note before. Recall, mare but;xaane meiN to ka'be meiN gaaDho barhaman ko. So here is another verse in the same spirit. This one is not part of the regular divaan, so we are not providing a link to Desertful of Roses.

کعبے میں جا بجایںگے ناقوس
اب تو باندھا ہے دیر میں احرام

ka'be meN jaa bajaaeNge naaquus
ab to baaNdhaa hai dair meN ahraam

काबे में जा बजाएंगे नाकूस
अब तो बंधा है दैर में एहराम

1. (we) will go and strike a gong in the Ka'ba
2. since now we have tied the holy cloak in the church/temple

Parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea.

According to Platts dictionary:
A ناقوس nāqūs (v.n. fr. نقس 'to strike (a gong),' &c.), s.m. A kind of wooden gong; a thin oblong piece of wood, suspended by two strings and struck with a flexible rod (used by the Eastern Christians)
Steingass Persian-English dictionary adds the following: a kind of wooden gong (used by the Christians in Muhammadan countries instead of church-bells)

The main symbolism is thus in ka'ba, naaquus, dair and ehraam. By taking visibly Chirstian and Muslim symbols and mixing them up, reversing their place, Ghalibs shows powerfully how our mind grows to make certain associations which are somewhat arbitrary or conventional. A true Sufi or one who seeks the Beloved would not think twice about flouting these conventions. In fact would flout them to show others their sectarian nature. Even to a secular mind like mine the image of blowing a conch in the ka'ba or wearing a holy cloak to a temple is startling.

Prof Moazzam Siddiqi offers the following explication:
The associations between, ka'ba and iHraam and dayr and naaquus are quite obvious, and they follow an apparently logical, rather, traditional logic: The iHraam is always tied in the holy precincts of Mecca, and the only call to prayer one hears there is the azaaN. It would be an unthinkable act of defiance and blasphemy even to imagine the naaquus being blown in the Ka'ba. Not content with one act of blasphemy and defiance (breaking the norms of established religion), namely blowing the naaquus in Ka'ba, and thus defiling it (in the eyes of the upholders of the followers of exoteric [zaahirii] aspect of religion), the poet wants to repeat the same act by defiling the dayr [could be a Christian church/monastery, a Jewish synagogue or a Hindu or Buddhist temple] by donning the iHraam there. For those [someone like Rumi] who are the Sufis [ahl-e baatin or esoterists] it is inconsequential where you blow the naaquus or where you cry out the azaaN or tie the iHraam; it does not matter whether you do it in the Ka'ba or butkhaana or dayr, because the One you are looking for and want to please resides in all these houses of worship. The shocking effect is deliberately created for maximum impact, so that the poet may drive his/her point home more effectively. This kind of Ghalibian iconoclasm deliberately breaks the established norm (which we are brain washed to believe that this is the only logical/rational way of doing things, because our ancestors/the society in their infinite wisdom have done so and said so). It is this mode of thinking that Ghalib wanted to change. If he had lived in the present day Pakistan he would long be dead, killed by some salafi/jihadi/lashkari/taliban/jamaa'ati zealot. For the same reason Ghalib in one of his Farsi she'rs (which I cannot recall at this point) once said that a person who is ahl-e khirad (endowed with intelligence and reason) would not be pleased with the established ways of the faith of his ancestors and discover a new path for himself. Some people argue that this was the reason why he turned away from Sunni Islam (the religion of his ancestors) and chose to follow the Shia belief. It is interesting to note that we come across this brazen iconoclasm largely in his Urdu poetry. His Persian poetry on the other hand is not tinged with this quality. In it he comes across more as a devotee of the Prophet and his family, especially Ali...MS
Thanks to Dr. Moazzam Siddiqi for explaining the meaning and intent of the sh’er. The onus of the liberties we have taken is on us.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ghalib on Difference and Unity

After a break of a few weeks we are back our series on Ghalib. This time we take a somewhat lesser known verse from a very famous ghazal. The verse is chosen to affirm our unity in the face of differences that threaten to overwhelm us. The Ghazal (#111), sab kahaaN, kuchh laala-o-gul meiN is deservedly one of Ghalib's most quoted, most sung, most recited ones. The verse is the following:

ham muva;h;hid hai;N hamaaraa kesh hai tark-e rusuum
millate;N jab mi;T ga))ii;N ajzaa-e iimaa;N ho ga))ii;N

1) we are monists, our practice is the renunciation of customs
2) when the communities were erased, they became parts of the faith

Translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses.

To see why we prefer "monist" to "monotheist" as translation of muvahhid, see companion commentary on The South Asian Idea.

This is a complex and densely packed verse with some heavy-duty Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Heavy-duty not only in the sense of difficulty (such as the arabic plural of juz, ajzaa), but also in the sense of using words that are multivalent and heavy with philosophical and theological meaning. For me this is an example of Ghalib in his erudite and didactic mood. Of course the beauty of Ghalib is that even in such a mood he retains a measure of poetic stature which a lesser poet would find difficult to attain. One way Ghalib does this is to rely on his quintessential sense of paradox or contradiction. So as S.R. Faruqi notes, the verse claims that "In our capacity as monotheist we know that the only true religion [مذہب] is not to have a religion [مذہب]." The second way he does this, also typical of his style is to exploit the formal structure of the Ghazal itself and to hold the powerful image for the very end. A third way, again something which I have commented on a few times before, is to mix high Perso-Arabic terminology with a few Indic words well chosen to accentuate the difference in consonants. Here the hardness of "mit jaanaa" amidst the other words, works very well, particularly if you recite the verse with dramatic effect, stressing the hard "t" in "mit."

Now for the meaning: FWP notes that "The terms here are a wild conceptual jungle, and surely deliberately framed to be so. All of them are notably broad and highly flexible." As proof I give below the Platts Discitonary entries on the key words.

A مؤحد muʼaḥḥid and muwaḥḥid act. part. of أحّد and وحّد 'to make, or to call, one; to declare God to be one,
P کيش kesh, s.f.m. Faith, religion, sect;—manner, quality (often used in comp.):—kāfir-kesh, adj. Prone to infidelity; (met.) a mistress, sweetheart.
A رسوم rusūm, s.f. pl. (of rasm, q.v.), Customs, usages, &c.;
A ترك tark, s.m. Abandoning, forsaking, leaving; setting aside; abandonment, desertion; relinquishment
P ملت millat (for A. ملة, v.n. fr. ملّ 'to turn; to convert,' &c.), s.f. Religion, faith, creed;—a nation, people
A اجزا ajzā (pl. of جز juz), s.m. Parts, portions, divisions, sections; sections of the Qorʼān; feet (of a verse); constituent parts (of a thing), elements; members; ingredients (of any compound or mixture).
A ايمان īmān [inf. n. iv of امن 'To be safe or secure'], s.m. Belief (particularly in God, and in His word and apostles, &c.); faith, religion, creed; conscience; good faith, trustworthiness, integrity:

You will see that "religion, faith, creed" appears as one possible meaning of three different words in the verse, kesh, millat and imaaN. But each time something different is meant. The first line is more straighforward. Since we are monists and we believe in the oneness of God or oneness of Being, our religion is the renunciation of particular rituals (note that rasm, of which the plural is rusuum, is here translated as customs, though in the context of the verse I think rituals would be a better translation. Even today we refer to rituals as rasm-o-rivaaj, e.g. shaadi is rasm and so on). The second line offers us a vision of what would happen if rituals and customs were indeed renounced. When distinctions between communities and creeds and nations who each have a distinct identity based on their customs and rituals are erased, the different parts become part of the Whole. Since the Whole in question here is God/Being, it is One and indivisible, and hence cannot consist of parts. So there is subtle wordplay here. They are parts (ajzaa) and yet not parts (because they have been erased). This is tight way of communicated a profound truth of Sufism. That when the one is lost in the One, individual identities are lost in the Whole, and Union (wasl) is achieved.

As Kabir would say:
mera mujhe meiN kucch naiN, jo kucch hai so teraa
tera tujhko sauNp rahaa, kyaa laage hai meraa

Nothing is mine in me, everything is yours
When I entrust you yours, what is left of me?

And speaking of Kabir tark-e-rusuum was a very important theme with him as well. Rituals are constantly attacked for getting in the way of true Union with the Beloved.

malaa to kar meiN phire jeebh phire mukh maahii
manvaa to chahuuN dish phire ye to sumiran nahii

the rosary turns in the hand, the tongue roams in the mouth
the mind roams the four directions, this is not meditation

topi pahire mala pahire chhap tilak anumana
sakhi sabade gavat bhule atam khabari na jana

wearing a cap, turning the rosary, adorning marks of the faith
singing hymns, they keep no knowledge of the soul.

Kabir and Ghalib offer fascinating examples of how similar ideas can be expressed in completely different idioms of expression. South Asia is heir to all these idioms and these thoughts are not foreign to us. Rather they are in the fabric of our being. Bringing them forward, affirming them and reaffirming them is our task for the times.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Terrorism and South Asia: Join us in a new initiative

Last week and this week we suspended our usual series of blog entries on Ghalib. Like many others from South Asia, Nov. 26-28 saw me transfixed to NDTV Online watching the horrific events unfold in Bombay, a city I lived in for the first twenty years of my life, and still think of as home. Much ink has been spilled already in the mainstream and alternative media, the blogosphere and elsewhere on the attacks and the aftermath. Understandably there is much anger among the ordinary Mumbaikars.

But hearteningly the last ten days have seen, not more bloodshed and rioting, not wanton targeting of an entire community just because the killers bore certain names. Rather the last ten days have seen countless vigils, peace marches, and new initiatives within India, across India-Pakistan and in the US. Since the true victory of the extremists lies in destroying trust and mutual goodwill among people, these initiatives are vital in ensuring that no such victory ensues.

Even though angry and upset, I still eschew any language of being "tough on terrorism," or "waging a global war on terror," because I have seen all too often how ordinary people pay the price for the "toughness." The Police has its place, the security forces have their place, no doubt. But far more important, the faith, the trust of the ordinary Indian and the ordinary Pakistan, both equally victims of terrorism, has the pride of place.

Together with the virtual blog partner of mehr-e-niimroz, The South Asian Idea, we propose some steps towards establishing a way forward. This way forward relies on ordinary people in India, Pakistan, the United States, stepping forward to be counted among those who feel that the way to defeat such extremism is to kindle new friendships and renew old ones, to emphasize our commonalities instead of stressing the differences, and realizing that no borders, no number of 9/11s or 26/11s can break the centuries old bonds that tie communities toghether in South Asia.

Here is what we propose:

[From The South Asian Idea]
"To begin with, The South Asian Idea will promote three functions: First, to be an ongoing roll of all the individuals who sign up to play a proactive roll to end terrorism in the world. We will see our names spilling across pages and draw comfort from the fact that there are many of us, that our numbers are increasing, and that we are united.

Second, to be a vehicle for reaching out and joining hands. We propose to initiate this by twinning educational institutions across South Asia – school with school, college with college, university with university, one pair at a time. We will then ask each pair of institutions to facilitate the linking of individual students with each other. These unions will be the bricks of our defensive wall.

Third, to be a forum where these pairs and unions will begin to open their hearts and minds to each other, to air their best hopes and their worst fears, to talk to each other, to raise the tough issues that need to be raised, to discuss the strategies that need to be implemented, to become friends, to fall in love, to provide the mortar that would make our wall of defense impregnable.

Every individual can do but a little. Together we can do a lot. We invite you to reach out and join hands with us."

Volunteers who wish to join this effort should send an email with suggestions and a description of the skills they can contribute to or

A discussion group (South Asians for Peace) has been set up as a first step to facilitate an exchange of ideas about more specific initiatives for the future. Do join and contribute your thoughts.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ghalib on Inheritance and Worthiness

sul:tanat dast bah dast aa))ii hai
jaam-e mai ;xaatim-e jamshed nahii;N

1) the kingship has come from hand to hand
2) the glass of wine [is] not the {signet-ring / seal} of Jamshid

Translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses.

This week we depart from the ethereal realms of Paradise and reflection on the Divine. Rather we reflect with Ghalib on kingship, inheritance and worthiness.

First on the structure of the verse itself. Note that the logical connection between the two lines seems more loose than usual. But we know that a good she'r must display the quality of "rabt" or connection/relationship between its two lines. The challenge faced by the Ghazal writer is how to connect the two lines such that the relationship is clear and yet open to several interpretations. We have seen on many earlier occasions that Ghalib is the master of this art. FWP outlines several possibilities inherent in this verse.

In this verse, first we learn that kingship passes from hand to hand, or in other words, is inherited. So far so good. Merely a routine observation, though made very economically. Next we learn that a glass of wine is not the seal of Jamshed (a King of Ancient Persia). What does this mean? Firstly, note that a glass of wine is a complex metaphor in the Ghazal universe, on par with the wine tavern (mai;xaanah), the garden (gulistaaN), the Beloved (maashooq), the nightingale (bulbul) and so on. It can stand for life affirmation and rakishness (rindi) as opposed to the life-denying, asceticism of the preacher. It can also stand for the vehicle of mystical experience (wine).

Thus Ghalib may be saying that unlike kingship which we know is merely inherited (regardless of worthiness), a glass of wine, or the mytical experience only comes to those worthy of it. It is not like the seal of Jamshed which either belongs only to Jamshed himself, or perhaps is passed on as kingship is, via inheritance or via bloody conquests and wars.

One way to get this interpretation directly, and a way which also connects the seal of Jamshed to the notion of kingship, is to read ;xaatim-e-Jamshed" as the subject rather than object of the second line, which the Urdu flexible word ordering allows us to do. So the second line becomes, "the seal of Jamshid is not a wine glass," rather than "the wine glass is not the seal of Jamshed." This allows a direct reading of the entire verse as: Kingship is inherited. The Seal of Jamshed (a symbol of Kingship) is not a wine glass that will only go to those worthy of it.

Ghalib plays often with these ideas of worth and the wine goblet. Two other examples come to mind. One cited by FWP:

mujh tak kab un kii bazm me;N aataa thaa daur-e jaam
saaqii ne kuchh milaa nah diyaa ho sharaab me;N

1) when did the going-round of the cup, in that one's gathering, come as far as me?

2a) may the Cupbearer not have mixed something into the wine!
2b) might the Cupbearer not have mixed something into the wine?

And another one:

girnii thii ham pah barq-e tajallii nah :tuur par
dete hai;N baadah :zarf-e qada;h-;xvaar dekh kar

1) the lightning of glory/manifestation should have fallen on us, not on [Mount] Tur
2) they give wine [only after] having seen the capacity of the cup-drinker

In both verses, Ghalib plays with the question, "who is worthy of the wine?" or in order words "who is worthy of love/life/the mystical union/divine experience?" In the second verse the theme of merit or worthiness is more explicit. In a wine tavern, they hand out wine only according to the drinkers capacity to drink it. Similarly Ghalib boasts that the divine lightening bolt that fell on Mount Sinai (when the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses), should have fallen on him instead, because is more worthy of it! The first verse is more oblique on matters of worthiness. Ghalib asks, when was I ever worthy of the wine-glass in that company? Now that is has come to me, I suspect something is fishy.

Please do visit this verse and its commentary on The South Asian Idea for contemporary relevance and meaning.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ghalib: The Scream of Silence

kyuu;N nah chii;xuu;N kih yaad karte hai;N
mirii aavaaz gar nahii;N aatii

1) why would I not scream? for she/he/they call(s) me to mind
2) if my voice does not come

We have a classic Ghalibian mind-twister for this week. FWP has a lot of fun with the Catch-22 possibilities of this verse. Click here for her commentary.

In a nutshell, Ghalib confronts us with the following paradox: The unnamed party whose attention the poet wishes to attract only remembers the poet when he is silent. But when he is silent, no dialogue is possible. So he screams in agony but of course the screams go unheeded, because...well they only remember him when he is silent! In the traditional interpretation, the poet is the lover and the party being refered to is the beloved. But of course, as usual Ghalib exploits the ambiguities allowed by Urdu and chooses to omit the subject of the phrase "[he/she/they] remember." So the person(s) being refered to can be not only be the beloved, but perhaps the King or the powers-that-be in general, who usually ignore our protagonist's shouts and pleas. They remember him only when he falls silent. At which point, being silent, he is unable to state his case.

Coming to another recurring theme in this entries; Ghalib's use of Hindi/Urdu idioms. As FWP points out, "yaad karna" has a active meaning of calling into one's presence, not merely recalling to mind which might be expressed as "yaad aanaa." Notice the language of this verse. A very simply Hindustani vocabulary has been used to convey the witty (though not particularly profound) thought.

Politically, this is a very astute summary of the situation that the dispossessed and the marginalized find themselves in. Their screams (Ghalib uses the evocative word chii;x, چیخ which is used even today when referring to the cries of the poor) go unheeded routinely by their rulers. Silence on the other hand can prompt action. Because it can be a sign of more serious trouble brewing (either revolt or disaster).

On a lighter note, this verse also applies to baby-sitting. As anyone who has taken care of a baby knows, its when they go quiet that they are up to the most mischief!

In wittiness (of the Catch-22 paradoxical kind) this verse is equal to:

tire va((de par jiye ham to yih jaan jhuu;T jaanaa
kih ;xvushii se mar nah jaate agar i((tibaar hotaa

1) if we lived on your promise, then know this-- we knew [it to be] false
2) for would we not have died of happiness, if we had had trust/confidence [in it]?

So we are able to subsist on your promise only because we don't believe it. If we did believe in your promise (to come to us) then we would die of happiness!

As always be sure to check out the parallel commentary on this verse on The South Asian Idea.

Lokavidya and Intellectual Property Rights

I am cross-posting a old post of mine from Lokavidya Panchayat, a blog run by Vidya Ashram in Sarnath, Varanasi. This is a post I wrote recently on issues that arise when we talk about intellectual property rights for people's knowledge (lokavidya).

1. Lokavidya: Protection versus commodification
The legal system of patents, copyrights, trademarks and intellectual property rights regimes in general is key to ensuring that knowledge can be traded in the market as a commodity. Clearly defined property rights are the basis for good contracts and good contracts enforced via the legal (police, judiciary) apparatus of the State are the basis for efficient market transactions. Most conclusions in economics that glorify the virtues of allocation via free markets rely on the existence of clear, enforceable contracts. Commodifying knowledge itself (as opposed to the fruits of knowledge, or knowledge embodied in products) is difficult due to the non-rival nature of knowledge. Non-rivalry means that the use of the commodity by one person does not preclude simultaneous use by another. Thus unlike a shirt or a computer, a design, a blueprint, a way of doing things, can be used by many people at once. This non-rival nature of Knowledge has been appreciated for centuries. Knowledge has begun to be seen as a valuable asset in the past two decades with the emergence of the Knowledge Society or the Information Economy. Pressures on its commodification have therefore increased. However the very same technological forces that have placed focus on the revenue-generating potential of knowledge have also created more impediments to its commodification. I refer to Information and Communications Technologies which bring the non-rival nature of knowledge into sharp relief. The controversies surrounding pirated music, scholarly paper, books and so on in electronic form clearly demonstrate this. The non-rival nature of knowledge which makes it nearly costless to reproduce (mimic) is however a double-edged sword. Even as progressive movements such as FOSS or open-access libraries emerge to take advantage of non-rivalry with the aim of undercutting corporate profits, so also, corporate and formal sector entities are able to "lift" knowledge from the people without due compensation to them while asserting that corporate use does not preclude use of the same knowledge by society at large. Since the dominant discourse around property rights for knowledge revolves around patents, copyrights and so on, proposals are also being floated for protection of lokavidya via similar IPRs. In the general climate that views knowledge as a revenue-generating asset, "poor people's knowledge" has attracted attention from international development agencies as another possible way to challenge poverty. If only poor people could take advantage of the knowledge they possess (by participating in the world market, of course), they could begin to climb out of poverty. But this demands a legal system of protection for their knowledge.

An incremental advance over lokavidya can generate windfall profits with the help of patenting regimes. A hypothetical example will clarify. Knowledge of several medicinal herbs is part of lokavidya. This knowledge is the result of accretion over many years and is a product of the ongoing knowledge activity of many ordinary men and women. In Marxian terms much of this knowledge is produced for its use-value, not its exchange value. That is, it is produced for use, not for sale. Much of it is also in the public domain and access to it is open to all. Companies which are interested in the knowledge for its exchange-value (its profit earning potential) can take advantage of the open-access nature of the knowledge. They can make a small incremental change to it, say alter its potency, isolate the active principle, or make some other small chemical modification to render it a "new product." This can then be patented and sold for profit. Even if the presence of the new product does not preclude the use of lokavidya, the fact still remains that the knowledge activity that contributed to the lokavidya commons was not rewarded or recognized.The above scenario calls for some thinking on ways and means to protect lokavidya from such appropriation. However, lokavidya by its nature is dispersed and difficult to trace to a single source. How can it be patented or copyrighted? More fundamentally, should it be? What other ways exist besides modern IPR regimes to protect lokavidya from appropriation while using it for the benefit of its holders? Perhaps some lessons can be learned from the history of the commodification of land.

2. Some analogies between Knowledge and Land

Of course unlike knowledge, land if a rival good (its use by one person precludes its use at the same time by another). However by analogy with land, one can identify two reasons for commodifying knowledge. One, in order to buy and sell knowledge itself and two, in order to earn rent on its use. Both these ways to earn revenue from knowledge are commonplace today. Patent fees and royalties are an example of the second. They are analogous to rent on land. The commodification of land via the process of enclosures has been well-documented in Europe. Via this process that Marx referred to as "primitive accumulation," land held communally, largely through informal systems of governance, is converted into private property. Via a similar process today, the knowledge commons, of which lokavidya is a large and important part, are being enclosed for profit. The transformation of knowledge from communally held lokavidya to privately held patents and copyrights in underway and has been underway for a long time.
Enclosures destroyed self-sufficiency in land use. Does the new system of Knowledge Management destroy self-sufficiency in knowledge production and use? Restoration of self-sufficiency in land use, i.e. land reform, though it became a revolutionary call in the context of highly unequal distribution of land-ownership, really amounts just to redistribution with the existing private property regime. So also the demand for patents and copyrights for lokavidya is appearing as a progressive cry when it only entails a wider, more equitable application of the same private property regime in the Knowledge domain. The land enclosures in Europe were as much about creating property rights as about consolidating and concentrating those right in a smaller number of hands. Do lokavidya enclosures follow a similar pattern? Will a call for IPRs for lokavidya be revolutionary in the current context, or will it merely strengthen the current trend towards increasing commodification of Knowledge? This is an important question that proponents and supporters of lokavidya must answer for themselves.

Can we imagine alternatives that go beyond both: lokavidya freely available for appropriation and lokavidya protected via IPRs?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ghalib: Paradise or the Beloved's Lane?

کم نہیں جلوہ گری میں ترے کوچے سے بہشت
یہی نقشہ ہے ولے اس قدر آباد نہیں

kam nahii;N jalvah-garii me;N tire kuuche se bihisht
yihii naqshah hai vale is qadar aabaad nahii;N

1) it's not less in splendor-possession than your street, paradise--
2) there is this very same design/layout, but it's not populous/flourishing to this extent

Click here for commentary and translation on Desertful of Roses.

This week's verse is lesser known but nevertheless great follow-up on last week's verse. As we saw last week, Ghalib took a rather "instrumental" approach to the existence or non-existence of paradise. It may or may not exist (and we suspect it doesn't), but its still a good idea to keep us happy or contented.

This week's verse has Ghalib continuing his pontifications on paradise. Now he finds it lacking from another angle. It is not any less splendorous than "your street", it even has the same map/layout/plan though its not quite as populated or flourishing. Conventionally we interpret the "you" in the she'r to be the beloved, and more so in such a verse an earthly beloved (as opposed to God). So the standard interpretation goes that the poet having witnessed paradise himself, finds it quite similar to his beloved's street, but also finds that the later is much more popular and flourishing, perhaps because its easier to get there, perhaps because only boring ascetics go to paradise and hence its much less popular (see S.R.Faruqi's interpretations on this point). Lastly the commentators also note the cheekiness or mischievousness (sho;xii) in comparing paradise to the beloved's street rather than the beloved's street to paradise.

This verse brings to mind a verse from Ghalib's predecessor Mir Taqi Mir:

کس کا قبلہ کیسا کعبہ کون حرم ہے کیا احرام
کوچے کے اس کے باشندوں نے سب کو یہیں سے سلام کیا

kis kaa qiblah kaisaa ka'ba kaun haram hai kya ahraam
kuche ke uske baashindoN ne sabko yahiiN se salaam kiya

whose qiblah what ka'ba who is pure and what is impure
the denizens of his/her street greet everyone from here itself/have no need to go anywhere (on pilgrimage)

Here's a twist though on this theme. What if we interpret the "you" in the verse (staying for the moment with Ghalib's verse) not as the earthly beloved but instead as the divine beloved (or God)? Addressing divinity by the second person familiar pronoun is of course a well established convention in the ghazal (as in "jabke tujhe bin nahiiN koi maujuud, phir yeh hungamaa ai ;xudaa kyaa hai"). Then the beloved's street becomes God's neighborhood. How is that different from paradise? Perhaps this is Ghalib's point. That the conventional paradise that the religious orthodoxy speaks about is remote, unreachable except for the chosen few (chosen by the criteria of the orthodoxy itself). On the other hand, a personal God, who can be directly experienced, which is a major theme in Sufism and Bhakti poetry, is available to many more of us. His street therefore, is much more popular than the paradise of the religious establishment. The establishment in the name of bringing us closer to divinity, only separates us from it.

I admit that this interpretation doesn't sit entirely comfortably with the general tenor of the verse. So the earthly beloved may still be the better way to go here.

My interpretation may work better with Mir's verse. Rather than worrying about the Ka'ba and the qiblah and about what is pure or impure, those who live in the proximity of God (the personal, immediately accesible beloved on Kabir and Tukaram) don't need to be go anywhere to purify themselves. This theme is very popular in Sufi and Bhakti poetry, as I said before. Here is another example of it. As the famous ghazal atributed to Khusro goes (sung today as a qawwali):

har qaum raast raahay diine wa qiblah gaahay
man qiblah raast kardam bar samt kaj kulaahay
sansaar har ko poojay kul ko jagat saraahay
makkay meiN koi DhoonDhay kaashi ko koi jaaey
guyyiyaN meiN apne pii ke payyaaN paDuuN na kaahay

Every sect has a faith, a direction (Qibla) to which they turn,
I have turned my face towards the crooked cap (of Nizamudin Aulia)
The whole world worships something or the other,
Some look for God in Mecca, while some go to Kashi (Banaras),
So why can’t I, Oh wise people, fall into my beloved’s feet?

On the South Asian Idea Weblog we take this discussion into more contemporary and socio-political contexts.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ghalib on uses and misuses of Paradise

This week we take a well-known and beloved verse from the master. As always we offer three levels of commentary, language and structure, meaning, and contemporary relevance.

ہم کو معلوم ہے جنت کی حقیقت لیکن
دل کے خوش رکھنے کو غالب یہ خیال اچھا ہے

ham ko ma((luum hai jannat kii haqiiqat lekin
dil ke ;xvush rakhne ko Ghalib ye ;xayaal acchaa hai

1) we know the reality/truth of Paradise, but
2) to keep the heart happy, Ghalib, this idea/fancy is good

[Translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses]

Note as always that Ghalib chooses to open with an uncontroversial statement but the second line takes the though in a very unexpected direction. Click here for another example of this device.

He says: "We know the truth about paradise, but..." And he leaves it hanging there. So under conditions when we hear the she'r recited with the first line repeated again and again, we are left wondering where will he go with this? As FWP notes this could simple be followed by some kind of lament. "We know the truth about paradise, but we can never hope to get there" or something like that. Instead, characteristically, the uncontroversial opening is given a startling direction ("kahani meiN twist" as they say in Bollywood). Ghalib says, not that he is sorry he will never get to paradise, but instead that "to keep the heart happy, this idea is good."

The commentators all note Ghalib's cheekiness in saying this. He sounds like an atheist who recognizes the social utility of the concept of paradise (in guiding human behavior for eg). Another interpretation offered by a commentator (Bekhud Mohani) is that this is Ghalib's attack on literal interpretations of the idea of paradise.

But the commentators don't spend much time on Ghalib's choice of words here. He chooses the highly multivalent ";xayaal" to describe Paradise. Platts Dictionary lists the following meanings for this word:

خيال ḵẖayāl, Thought, opinion, surmise, suspicion, conception, idea, notion, fancy, imagination, conceit. whim, chimera; consideration; regard, deference; apprehension; care, concern;—an imaginary form, apparition, vision, spectre, phantom, shadow, delusion;

You can see that ;xayaal here can mean not only simply the idea of paradise, but the fancy, phantom, delusion of paradise, which is a far stronger take on the whole concept. Interpreting ;xayaal not simply as the neutral "idea" but as the more mischievous "fancy/delusion" also fits in with the idiom used earlier in the line, "dil ko ;xvush rakhnaa" which indicates that the heart is being kept happy with the help of a delusion in the face of a reality that will make it sad.

Thus one further interpretation of the she'r is that, deep down we know the reality of paradise (i.e. we know it does not exist), but to save us from the terror/sadness that would result from the absence of it, this fancy or delusion is good to keep us going. Of course the "we" in the verse is not specified. It could be the poet himself or it could be the populace at large who needs this idea, this imaginative fancy to keep its heart happy.

The South Asian Idea Weblog carries us into the verse's contemporary relevance.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ghalib on the object of true worship

This week's verse, all of Ghalib's commentators note, could only have occurred to Ghalib. His penchant for paradox, for surprising the reader by using common words and ideas to make uncommon points, for holding the suspense till the last possible minute, and all the while making a profound (in this case philosophical) point, all this is in evidence here. It is verses like these, that compel us to agree with Ghalib and say, "haaN Mirzaa saahab, aapkaa andaaz-e-bayaaN hai aur!"

So without further ado, the verse:

ہے پرے سرحد ادراک سے اپنا مسجود
قبلے کو اہل نظر قبلہ نما کہتے ہیں

hai pare sar;had-e idraak se apnaa masjuud
qible ko ahl-e na:zar qiblah-numaa kahte hai;N

1) beyond the limit of the senses/perception/comprehension is [their/our] own {worship/prostration}-object
2) people of vision call the Qiblah the 'Qiblah-pointer'

The literal translation is Frances Pritchett's with some additions from me. Click here for this verse's entry on Desertful of Roses.

The first line makes a broad comment. Our object of worship is beyond (a beautiful use of a simple word, pare) the border or limit of the senses or of perception. Most commentators have chosen to interpret idraak here as simply the senses or sense perception, but it can also mean understanding or comprehension. The later gives a stronger interpretation. Not only is our object of worship beyond the senses, it is beyond human comprehension. And since that which cannot be perceived can still be comprehended (for e.g. the existence of unseen planets or start, or even a magenta colored flying horse), it actually means something to say that the Absolute is not only beyond our senses, it is also beyond comprehension.

It is not till the second line that we get the full significance of the first (a sign of a well-crafted she'r). So what is the consequence of the fact that our object of worship is beyond perception and comprehension? It is that those with vision or those who have true perception (ahl-e-nazar) call the qiblah, qiblah-numa. The qiblah, the direction to prayer for a Muslim (the direction where the Ka'ba is to be found), is itself a pointer to the Real Qiblah. Platts dictionary defines the qiblah-numa thus:

qibla-numa, s.m. lit. 'Showing the qibla'; an instrument by which Muhammadans at a distance from Mecca ascertain the direction of the qibla;—a mariner's compass.

Thus as Nazm notes, "by doing prostrations toward the Ka'bah, the goal is not to do prostrations to the Ka'bah. Rather, the one to Whom we do prostrations is beyond the directions, and a prostration must have a direction. For this reason, He has decreed the direction of the Ka'bah."

So the Qiblah itself is merely a pointer to the Qiblah. As the commentators say, no one but Ghalib would have thought of calling the qiblah, a pointer to guide to the qiblah. What the commentators don't mention is that this second line also sets up a nice little infinite regress. Since the new qiblah being pointed to is itself, a qiblah, it is therefore also a qiblah-numa and so on ad infinitum. This interpretation is sustained by the fact that Ghalib doesn't say, the qiblah is a pointer to the "real qiblah" or anything like that. He simply says, a qiblah (any qiblah) is a qiblah-pointer. Perhaps this is why in the first line Ghalib says that the object of worship is beyond comprehension. Thinking about it sets us down a path of infinite regress.

Actually the verse works at two levels parallely. If we interpret idraak as senses or sense perception then the second line offers "proof" that the real object of worship is beyond the senses just as the real qiblah is only gestured to by what ordinary people call the qiblah. In this reading, there is nice resonance between sarhad-e-idraak and ahl-e-nazar (limit of senses, and people who have sight or vision). On the other hand, if we interpret idraak as understanding or comprehension, then the second line gives a separate proof and can be read in the way I mentioned above with an infinite regress in it.

In either reading, Ghalib invokes his favorite theme regarding the Absolute or the Divine. This is the theme of that worldly objects (existence) gestures to the Other World, points to non-existence. I have commented earlier on other verses that display this theme.

Finally, as always Ghalib has lessons for us today. What do we worship? Are we falling into the trap of symbolsim, mistaking the symbol for the object it signifies? In the course of this project we have seen this theme occupy Ghalib's mind on repeated occasions. Given the turmoil over religion in South Asia we feel this is one theme has bears all the repeating. Visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for for questions and for what we can learn from Ghalib in this instance.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ghalib on the double bind faced by the one who is promised redress

This week, a wonderful and very famous verse from an equally famous ghazal (aah ko chahiye ek umr sar hone tak). I have commented earlier on another verse from this ghazal.

ہم نے مانا کہ تغافل نہ کروگے لیکن
خاک ہو جائینگے ہم تم کو خبر ہونے تک

ham ne maanaa ke ta;Gaaful ne karoge lekin
;xaak ho jaa))e;Nge hum tum ko ;xabar hone tak

1) we conceded/agreed that you won't show negligence/heedlessness, but
2) we'll become dust, by the time of the news reaching you

Click here for the entry on Desertful of Roses. Note that Fran Pritchett sticks to the original radif, hote tak, which is usually modernized these days to hone tak.

As always for this series run in collaboration with The South Asian Idea Weblog, we try to interpret the verse in a somewhat "hat ke" manner, as they might say in Bollywood. But first the technical aspects worth noting and the convention interpretation.

The first all too obvious matter of construction. Notice how the first line gives away minimal information. All it says is: "we admit or concede that you will not ignore us." This itself is of course interesting in the ghazal universe because ta;Gaaful or ignoring/disregarding is the essential quality of the beloved. As for example Khusro's ze haal-e-miskin makun ta;Gaful, doraaye nainaa, banaaye batiyaaN, and countless others. So contrary to the "regular beloved" this one has promised to come to our lover. So Ghalib says: "I agree with you, I believe your promise that you will not ignore me." But then in the second line, and not only the second line but in the last kaafiyaa part of the second line we are delivered the punch. "I will be dust (I will be dead) by the time the new [of my state] reaches you."

Leaving meaning and focusing on sound for a moment, there is a nice play in the second line where "hum" precedes the very similar sounding "tum," almost like the refrain "hum tum taanaa naa naa" in the classical qawwali by Khusro, man kunto maula.

At the heart of the verse is a contradiction as Fran Pritchett notes: "A lovely, witty, little 'catch-22' lies at the heart of this one. If I don't accept your pledge not to neglect or ignore me, I'll offend you-- and thus I'll never get any favors from you. Yet if I do accept it, and thus earn your good will, I'll never live long enough to get any favors from you. (For I'll of course be in such bad shape in your absence that I'll be dead before you even learn of it.) So no matter what I do, I'm doomed."

This is strongly reminiscent of another paradoxical verse about the beloved's promises to come and the lovers dilemma:

tere vaade pe jiyeN hum to ye jaan jhoot jaanaa
ke ;xushi se mar na jaate agar aitbaar hotaa

This verse is another marvel of meaning creation (ma'ani afiirnii) and I won't go into the intricacies of it here (save it for a later time). But just note the paradox. The only way I can subsist on your promise (to come to me) is by believing it to be false. Because if I actually believed it (believed that you would come to me one day), I would die of happiness! Ghalib can really keep your mind spinning with his little paradoxes.

But now onto a somewhat more serious interpretation. In the wake of the recent Delhi bomb blasts (and other similar blasts in other cities in India) and the ensuing hysteria and Muslim baiting that usually results (witness the controversy over Jamia Milia Islamia University) we offer this verse as a metaphor for the dilemma facing the Muslims and other minorities in India. To the State they say: "We have faith in your promises to pay atention to our state and to do something about it, because how can we not? If we say we do not, we risk your wrath. But even if we believe in your promises of justice by the time you get around to doing anything about our state, we will be finished!"

A sombre note but one that behooves us all to think long and hard about how a beseiged minority may feel even when it exists in a [at least nominally] democratic, pluralistic society. This theme is taken up in the entry on The South Asian Idea.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ghalib on charity-doers

This week's Ghalib moment relates to charity and philanthropy.

بنا کر فقیروں کا ہم بھیس غالب
تماشا ۓ اہل کرم دیکھتے ہیں

banaa kar faqiiro;N kaa ham-bhes ;Gaalib
tamaashaa-e ahl-e karam dekhte hai;N

1) having put on the guise of the Faqirs, Ghalib
2) [we] see the spectacle of the people of generosity

[Translation by Frances W Pritchett. Click here for interpretation on Desertful of Roses.]

As Josh succintly puts it: "The meaning is that It's not our purpose to become a Faqir and ask for alms. We've adopted the guise in order to see who is generous, and how generous, and in whom there is no genuine feeling of generosity."

In a class society, such as one Ghalib lived in, inequality is par for course. With inequality come doctrines of charity and exhortations to generosity. "Be kind to those less fortunate than yourself." "Give to the poor, for therein lies the salvation of the rich." And so on. Sometimes charity is genuine, from the heart, other times it is a show put on for the benefit of society.

To view the spectacle of the charity-givers giving alms to the poor, we ourselves sometimes disguise as a needy person. Only by assuming the disguise, the outward form (بھیس , भेस) and therefore the perspective of the poor do we get to see the spectacle (تماشا , तमाशा) of their ostensible kindness.

In this interpretation tamaashaa is used in its pejorative sense of a false spectacle or a show। The lack of genuine feeling among the rich is exposed only when they are viewed from the perspective of the poor.

Technically the verse plays nicely on the symmetry between "bhes" and "tamaashaa." Usually one puts on a bhes or disguise precisely to perform a tamaashaa, a play or a spectacle. Here Ghalib uses the affinity of meanings between the two words to nice effect. In order to view a tamaashaa, I am putting on a disguise.

There are other possible meanings that I haven't explored here. In keeping with the general spirit of The Ghalib Project to explore Ghalib in ways that carry social-political meaning today, we choose to emphasize the social charity aspect. Ghalib urges us to scrutinize philanthropy in our own world. What motives does it have? Can it ever put itself out of existence? That is, can philanthropy get rid of those very class distinctions on which it rests? Or will it always be a way for the rich to "manage" the poor, such that poverty does not threaten social stability? I favor the later.

Being an economics student this naturally takes me in the direction of an analysis of international development aid and its role in reducing or managing poverty. But I will save this line of thought for a separate post.

Please visit the parallel post on this verse on The South Asian Idea.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ghalib on leading and being led

In our collaborative Ghalib Project with The South Asian Idea Weblog, we have discussed she'rs that offer insights on contemporary politics and society. See for example the verse on impeachment posted around the time of the near impeachment of General Musharraf in Pakistan.

For this week, we have chosen a similarly politically relevant verse that talks about leadership, a commodity sadly in short supply in contemporary South Asia. First the verse itself:

chaltaa huu;N tho;Rii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahii;N huu;N abhii raahbar ko mai;N

1) I go along a little way with every single swift walker
2) I do not now/yet recognize a/the guide

As always we take our translation from Desertful of Roses, Prof. Frances Pritchett's excellent online divaan. Click here for commentary on this verse.

In this case, even a conventional interpretation serves us well. But even conventionally there are a few possible interpretations as always is the case with Ghalib (bhaai, shaari ma'ani afiirnii hai, kaafiyaa paimaai nahiN hai, he once remarked in a letter, rough translation, "Brother, poetry is meanning creation, not weighing of rhymes.").

Straightforwardly, Ghalib says, every person I see walking swiftly, as if they know where they are going, I walk with them for a bit. Why is that? Because I don't recognize or know of a guide, a leader yet. So in this interpretation, the lack of a reliable leader, a guide, makes the person gullible enough to follow whoever smooth-talking, fast-walking person comes along.

In a different interpretation sustained by the meanings of the word "abhi" which can mean "yet" or can mean "now" or "anymore". So the second line can be read as: "I don't recognize a guide/leader yet" or "I don't recognize a leader anymore." The first possibility we just discussed. The second meaning creates the following situation: "Nowadays I just follow whoever comes along, for a bit, because really, I have stopped believing in leaders. They are all just the same. So it doesn't matter who you follow."

The second interpretation particularly appeals to me with respect to Indian politics. The Indian electorate in recent times (i.e the last decade and half or so) has shown remarkable political maturity and has taken to extracting whatever political mileage it can from its "leaders" who are perceived as corrupt to a (wo)man. Anti-incumbency is the norm but rather than being a sign of voter gullibility (they never learn their lesson, just keep on changing governments in the hope that something will change) in this reading it is a sign of voter sophistication. Knowning that the political system is thoroughly compromised, the masses participate in a game with their "leaders." They don't promise undying loyalty to anyone, but merely use whoever is in office (or looks like (s)he is headed for office) to press their demands.

Please visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea for more on the verse and its relevance to Pakistan.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ghalib and Jesus on stone throwing

For this week we have chosen a very well-known she'r from a well-known Ghazal:

میں نے مجنوں پہ لڑکپن میں اسد
سںگ اٹھایا تھا کہ سر یاد آیا

maiN ne majooN pe la;Rakpan meiN 'asad'
sang uThaaya thaa ke sar yaad aayaa

1) against Majnun, in boyhood/childishness, Asad,
2) I had picked up a stone-- when {I got hold of myself / 'the head came to mind/recollection'}

Click here for commentary and translation on Desertful of Roses

This is a justly famous verse, beautiful as it is in its simplicity, using very common/ordinary words to communicate a profound thought. In my opinion, it is through verses like these that Ghalib reminds us, "Although I am capable of fancy jargon and rhetorical fireworks, I can equally well say things simply, if I want to."

Although the verse has a well-known conventional interpretation, we are once again interested in exploring if it can sustain more unconventional interpretation, more relevant to our times. The conventional interpretation is that majooN is the archetypal mad lover who wanders the street aimlessly, lost in his love of lailaa. Children, as a pastime, jeer and throw stones at majnooN. Our "hero" (the lover, the "I" in the verse) in his boyhood/childhood had similarly picked up a stone to throw at MajnooN. But at the last moment the boy/child "recovers either his maturity or his prudence" (FWP), remembers his own head or gains control of himself ("sar yaad aanaa" can mean both).

However, as FWP also says la;Rakpan (लड़कपन) not only means actual childhood, it also means the state of childhood or childishness. If we lean towards the interpretation that it is the adult who is being childish in the present, not really recollecting his own childhood days, then the verse says: "in a moment of childishness I picked up a stone to throw at majnooN, but then (in the nick of time) I remembered my own head/gathered my senses." Why? Presumably because I myself have become like majnooN in my love for my beloved.

So far so good. Here then is the twist that can broaden the interpretive horizon of the she'r. majooN, as noted earlier, is the archetypal lover, but perhaps he can also stand for the archetypal "deviant," a person who is different from "us" for whatever reason. This "other" is the object of ridicule and metaphorical stone throwing for the rest of "normal" society. But Ghalib says this is childish behavior. "I too, in childishness, ridiculed and abused the person who is not like me or is differnet from me, but then I gathered my senses. I remembered my head, because his head is not really that different from mine. I remembered that I am equally well a "deviant" or "the other" in someone else's eye, and therefore equally "worthy" of being stoned/insulted. So when I stone majnooN, I open up the possibility of getting stoned myself."

At this point, the well-known parable of Jesus comes to mind, which Ghalib may or may not have had in mind (perhaps some of our readers can comment on this). A woman considered to have sinned (accused of adultery) is about to be stoned by the self-proclaimed moral police. Jesus appears on the scene and says, yes by all means, if she has sinned stone her, but let him who has never sinned throw the first stone.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Inequality, Choice and the New Indian Dream

In the image (see New York Times article Vogue's Fashion Photos Spark Debate in India) a child from a visibly poor Indian family is shown wearing a bib prices at $100. The cation says "Its never too early to start living in style." But what defines India in this neoliberal period is not merely the such obscenity (unthinkable in media before the 1990s), but the even more incredible fact that apologists for this obscenity are not afraid to make a case publicly for its legitimacy.

This particular story was carried in several newspapers and blogs. One particular one caught my attention: the brief blog post in Managing Globalization, an International Herald Tribune Blog run of Daniel Altman. Read it. Then read my comment, Daniel's response and my long rejoinder. I am pasting only our exchange below. But to get the context you will have to go to the link above and read the brief original post.
My first comment:

Your assertions that “…India is a democracy, and you can’t simply tell people what to do with their money.” and “Nor can you tell poor people what they should aspire to in life” are laughable. One doesn’t know where to begin with such statements. The mythical “all-powerful planners” are faulted for their hubris in wanting to decide who spends how much on what, but the all too real market forces that effectively force the same decisions (tell people what to do with their money and what to aspire to) are rendered completely invisible in your “analysis.” Of course, from a neo-classical perspective this is perfectly “natural”, because as we know the free market is a force of nature like gravity while government interventions, except when they come to the rescue of capitalists, are to be fought tooth and nail. Such simplistic reasoning can masquerade as analysis (or better still “science”) only when it serves as a pathetic apology for power.

(From India)

Moderator’s note - Apologies for believing that people should be free to buy and aspire to whatever they want!

Posted by: Amit Basole — 03 September 2008 1:51 pm

[The "Moderator's Note" above seemed designed to invite further debate. So I obliged with the following]

My follow-up comment:

At the risk of appearing overenthusiastic about posting comments, I feel I should respond to the “moderator’s note” on my comment above. I fear that you have willfully misunderstood me. You may by all means believe that people should be free to buy and aspire to what they want. All I ask is that you not be naive enough to think that these wants and aspiration somehow appear out of thin air (or in economic terms are exogenously given). Rather I wanted to emphasize that they are endogenously generated within capitalism via advertising (and in other ways). Whether planners do it or the market, the point is wants and aspiration cannot be unproblematically taken as given. It is over one hundred years since Veblen wrote on conspicuous consumption. It is ten years since Juliet Schor wrote on the contemporary consumption culture in the United States and the damage it has wrought. It is a sad comment on Economics as a science if important discoveries made so long ago need repeated reminding.

And to return to your point about India being a democracy, i should point out that it is a political democracy, not an economic democracy. In the face of such massive economic inequality the power of political democracy is very seriously curtailed. And in a market system it is ability to pay that decides who buys what (you vote with your dollar or rupee), unlike political democracy where you get a vote regardless of whether you have a dollar or not. So conflating political democracy with economic decision-making is dangerous and misleading.

(From India)

Posted by: Amit Basole — 03 September 2008 6:59 pm

Daniel's response:

Amit, I want to be sure I understand you. Are you saying that advertising luxury goods to poor people is like advertising cigarettes to children? That somehow it should be prevented, in a spirit of beneficent paternalism?

I would like to hear your specific policy prescriptions for undoing the problems that you mentioned in your most recent comment. Do you propose to change the nature of advertising, marketing and production, or to change human nature itself?

Posted by: Daniel Altman (moderator) — 03 September 2008 7:00 pm

My rejoinder:

Dear Daniel
Yes, you raise important questions, which I fear I cannot do justice to in such short notes. But here goes.

First off, in these days when media is so pervasive, targeted advertising, though by no means extinct, has started to lose “targetted-ness.” In a sense this is what happened when television became universal in the US. People’s reference groups changed form their neighbors and friends to people seen on TV leading what seemed to be far more opulent lifestyles. So luxury goods (like $50,000 automobiles) are routinely advertised to people who can’t afford them (whether in India or the US). There is no question of preventing this in, as you say a “spirit of beneficent paternalism.” Taking that position would be tantamount to saying that there is a class of people who are “worthy” of being advertised to and others who should be “protected.” Further this type of want-creation and aspiration creation has fueled US capitalism to a large extent in recent times and made possible growth of other economies that depend on US consumption.

In fact rather perversely I see capitalism’s demise in this very process. Since I believe (an act of faith on my part) that the fruits of modernity can only be promised to the poorest of the poor, never actually delivered, if we set in motion processes by which the poor can increasingly make these demands (for higher wages, to be able to buy better and more expensive products) the contradictions of the system (which continually creates inequality and creates aspirations that cannot be fulfilled) will become clearer and clearer. If you are at all familiar with old-school Marxist arguments, what I have said above may sound awfully like the idea that capitalism’s contradictions will one day be its un-doing. I am not denying the affinity though I am not one to see socialism round the corner either.

Now to your second point. The problems of inequality and lack of economic democracy (by which I mean grossly unequal decision-making power in the economy) are not going to disappear with some magic policy bullet. But for starters it would help if sovereign governments stopped genuflecting to international capital and gave themselves some policy space. Economists themselves can help by acknowledging that free trade and free mobility of capital is not a universal, unimpeachable good. There is no dearth of good proposals to make globalization more pro-poor. I see that one of your contributors is Joe Stiglitz, who has also written on this, as have Dani Rodrik, Amartya Sen and many other not-too-radical folks.

Naturally this above is a less ambitious program than imagining a wholly alternative economic system (”changing advertising, marketing, production”). Although there is no dearth of such alternatives either, they tend to be more piecemeal, experiments here, experiments there. If neoliberalism continues to wreak the havoc it is wreaking (mind you by havoc I don’t mean only poverty creation, I mean unprecedented wealth creation together with poverty creation), I am confident that these grassroots resistances (of which there are several in India, which one will not read about in the pages of the English language national press) will only grow. Mind you, I am not saying that as the poor are empowered they will necessarily demand this thing or that thing (because as you rightly say, who I am to decide what people should want).

Lastly, the human nature thing. This one really cannot be addressed properly here. Economists are fond of appealing to human nature when it suits their models. Stretching myself back to my biology days, the nature versus nurture problem was endlessly debated. I came away from those books and papers with the idea that human behavior is so complex and interconnected with its environment that any simple statement about it (humans are selfish, humans are altruistic, humans always want more, humans inherently want to help other humans) are sadly open to many caveats. Thus the interesting question is not what is “real human nature” but what values and visions guide us in our behavior. Different circumstances will bring out different behaviors (the same profit-hungry capitalist who will not hesitate to fire workers will become a loving and doting father and so on), the challenge is to create institutions that nurture our desirable natures (plural).

I must really apologize for this long essay. I realize this is not the place for such a debate.

Posted by: Amit Basole — 03 September 2008 8:00 pm

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ghalib on Fasting and Starving

Its the month of Ramadan. And Ghalib has something interesting to say as always. I once read somewhere in a Bombay newspaper that in Bombay one half of the city is starving while the other half is dieting. Just as this quip, in a funny way forces an important truth upon us, Ghalib uses the concept of the holy fast of Ramadan to make a similar point.

The verses in question reproduced below are not part of a Ghazal, but rather a verse-set known as a qat'aa (if you have a diivaan you will find it at the very end after all the ghazals).

iftaar-e-saum kii jise kuch dast.gaah ho
us shakhs ko zaroor hai rozaa rakha kare

jis paas roza khol ke khaane ko kuch na ho
roza agar na khaaye to naachaar kya kare

the one who has the wherewithal to open his fast

that person should indeed keep his fast

the one who has nothing to open his fast with

what else could he do but be constrained to "eat the fast."

[Translation: Anjum Altaf]

As with many Ghalib verses, this one too has layers which turn on paradoxes and word play. What is fasting? It is defined in relation to eating or the ability to eat. If one doesn't or can't eat, then where is the question of fasting. So not fasting need not be a sign of lack of faith. And then the use of "rozaa khaanaa" is great because it simultaneously suggests that such a person (poor, indigent) should not be required to keep rozaa (उसे रोजा खाने के अलावा क्या चारा है?) and that such as person may have nothing to "eat" except the rozaa itself. That is, the idiomatic use of the phrase "rozaa khaanaa" makes the verse witty. The phrase means not keeping a fast, but it can also be taken literally to mean eating the fast itself, that is staying hungry. So the person is both fasting and not fasting at the same time.

So much for Ghalib's paradoxes. I could spend the day exploring them! But we also chose this verse because it raises important question about hunger and choice today. For this I encourage you to visit The South Asian Idea Weblog and see the discussion there.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ghalib: Independent even in servitude

We started The Ghalib Project with some verses by Ghalib on the nature of faith, on what it means to be a believer. With this week's verse we return to this theme, except now, instead of reflecting on and critiquing the Shaikh or the Brahmin, Ghalib comments on the nature of his own faith. Of course as with all verses, we must be cautious in equating the "I" or "we" in the verse with Ghalib the historical personality. Rather upon reading the verse we take something away, not necessarily about Ghalib the man, but instead about his ideas on, in this case, bandagii or servitude (to God). So the verse:

بندگی میں بھی وہ آزاد و خودبیں ہیں کہ ہم
الٹے پھر آۓ در کحبہ اگر وا نہ ہوا

bandagii me;N bhii vuh aazaadah-o-;xvud-bii;N hai;N kih ham
ul;Te phir aa))e dar-e ka((bah agar vaa nah hu))aa

1) even/also in servitude we are so free and self-regarding that we
2) turned and came back if the door of the Ka'bah did not open

[Translation by Frances Pritchett, click here for verse commentary on Desertful of Roses]

First, some comments on the language and construction, before we get into the meaning. Notice, as Pritchett points out the great use of the colloquial "voh," to mean not "that" but "to such an extent" or "in such a manner." And also the idiomatic "ul;Taa phir aanaa", to turn back. The hardness of the palatal "T" (ट, ٹ ) stands out (in a good way) in the midst of softer Perso-Arabic words (bandagii, aazaad, ;xvudbiiN, dar, ka'ba and so on). In my experience, Ghalib seems fully aware of the effects that can be produced in Urdu by taking advantage of the spectacular variety of consonants that derive from Indic and Perso-Arabic heritage. Another example is the verse from last month where Ghalib uses another Indic word with a palatal consonant, gaa;Rho (ढ़) in a sea of softer Perso-Arabic sounds (vafaadaarii, ustuvaarii, imaaN, but;xaanaa and so on).

And finally, yet one more time, notice how the dramatic climax (about the ka'ba door not being open) is saved for the very end, not only the second line (the first line is general annd doesn't give much cause for excitement), but the second half of the second line.

Now for the meaning of the verse. We have chosen this verse because it takes a critical attitude towards (blind) faith. Ghalib suggests that "even in bandagii, even as a person of faith, I retain an independence of spirit, something essentially human. An example of my independent nature is that when I go to the ka'ba, I expect Providence itself to 'meet me half way' by opening the door of the ka'ba. I do not deny that I am a bandaa (a follower), but my bandagii is not unquestioning."

So the questions we ask ourselves reading this are:
Whatever be our faith (Islam, Christainity, Hinduism, Atheism), what sort of faith do we practice (hum kis kism ke bande haiN?) Do we retain a spirit of aazaadii? Is our identity as a person of a particular faith based upon unquestioning, unflinching loyalty or does it allow space for some dissent?

I lay more stress on the "aazaad" (free, independent) than the ";xudbiiN" (self-regarding), but I do realize that the reference to "self-regarding" makes the verse sound more like Ghalib is saying, I am too possessed of a sense of self to surrender myself completely to the Divine. It is possible that he is commenting specifically on the concept of surrender in Islam (if I understand correctly the word "Islam" itself has Arabic connotations of surrender to God's will). If he is doing so, then in context, I take the verse not as endorsing a selfishness but instead as questioning the concept of surrender and faith as it is handed down.

To continue exploring the contemporary relevance of the verse, as always do visit The South Asian Idea Weblog.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ghalib on Impeachment

Last week impeachment was all the rage in Pakistan, as the fate of (now former) President Musharraf hung in balance. We now know that Musharraf chose the face-saving way of resignation over the ignominy of impeachment. But impeachment (mu'aa;xazah) brought to our mind the following verse by Ghalib:

بچتے نہیں مو اخذۂ روز حشر سے
قاتل اگر رقیب ہے تو تم گواہ ہو

bachte nahii;N muvaa;xa;zah-e roz-e ;hashr se
qaatil agar raqiib hai to tum gavaah ho

[people/you] don’t escape from the reckoning/reproach of Judgment Day
if the rival is the murderer, then you are the witness/proof

[Translation FWP, click here for commentary in Desertful of Roses]

Once again, we must be a little creative in our interpretation to explore the full possibilities of this verse. Traditionally, the verse has been interpreted as Ghalib's admonishment to the beloved. "You won't escape the reckoning of Judgment Day, because, even though you are not the murderer yourself, you have been the [silent] witness to the crime [i.e. the lover's murder].
Why "silent" witness? Here is what S.R. Faruqi has to say on this matter:

"If the question be raised as to where in the verse is there mention of keeping the crime hidden, then the reply will be that if the crime is not hidden, then the verse's premise itself is at an end. The point is that the Rival (or the Rival conspiring with the beloved) has contrived the lover's murder, or brought about this result, and only these two know about it. If everybody would know about this, then where's the meaningfulness in making only the beloved a participant ('if the Rival is the murderer, then you're a witness')? If there were many witnesses, then accusing the beloved alone would be frivolous." (quoted from FWP's site)

But notice that the beloved is never mentioned in the verse. Her/His presence is inferred by the mention of a rival (raqiib), the traditional adversary that the lover faces in his efforts to woo the beloved. The verse is addressed neutrally to just about anyone (second person singular or plural) and uses the grammatical property of Hindi/Urdu wherein the subject of a sentence can be dropped (not as easy to do in English except colloquially). Ghalib uses this feature all the time.

So applying Ghalib's admonishment to the present-day political scenario in Pakistan, we offer the following interpretation: Those who are today Musharraf's opponents and are out to impeach him, are as complicit in the "murder" (of Pakistan's polity and society?) and will not escape the larger trial of Judgment Day. Qaatil agar Musharraf hai, to tum gavaah ho!

Please visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for more direct political commentary and questions surrounding this interpretation. One question raise there is:
"Ghalib says that we should take a Day of Judgment perspective in separating the innocent from the guilty. Is he right?"

Perhaps Judgment Day could be interpreted more widely to mean a day of true social reckoning. Not Divine reckoning, but the reckoning of what Gandhi called दरिद्र नारायण (daridra naaraayan) or God in the guise of the poorest of the poor. I am then saying: neither Musharraf nor his opponents will escape the Judgment of the poor and oppressed, they are both equally complicit in the murder of people's aspirations. I like this interpretation but I am not at all saying Ghalib had this in mind since he was almost certainly not a socialist! But since when are interpretations of text limited to authorial intent?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Ghalib on a killer who kills on the basis of Religious and Secular Law

Our reader's comments on some previous verses brought up the issue of shariah. Taking cue from that we have chosen this week's verse of The Ghalib Project. We are going out on a limb here. We are taking a well-known verse and interpreting it in a new way. First we offer the verse itself, followed by its conventionally understood meaning. Then finally we offer our reading.

The verse (Ghazal 215, Verse 2, composed after 1847):

شرع و آئین پر مدار سہی
ایسے قاتل کا کیا کرے کوئ

shar'a-o-aaiin par madaar sahii
aise qaatil kaa kyaa kare koii

Even on the basis of religious and secular law
What to do with such a killer?

The conventional interpretation is that qaatil here refers to the Beloved and that Ghalib is suggesting that even on the basis of religious and secular law, what can we do about such a qaatil (who presumably is beyond both religious and secular law). Since the qatl is a metaphorical qatl and not a real murder, law (religious and secular) is powerless to punish. Everyone seems to agree on this interpretation.

Of course it is a nice, tight she'r even so interpreted. Firstly the meter is quite a short one, and though I am not a poet at all, I imagine the composing in such a short meter must be more difficult than composing in a longer one since there is almost no room for fillers. Every word must be made to work for the poet.

But what I find most pleasing is the colloquial nature of the second line, contrasted with the more "formal/literary" first line. Ghalib often uses this trick, which one can imagine would be a great hit in a mushairah. For example the verse we discussed two weeks ago, shows a similar format. The first line is somewhat formal, heavy on Persianisms (vafaadaarii ba-shart-e-ustuvaarii asl-e-imaaN hai), and the second line is much more punchy and colloquial (mare but'xaane meiN to ka'be meiN gaaDho barahman ko). Similarly here, kisii cheez kaa kyaa kare koi (what can one do with XYZ) is a nice simple colloquialism that offers contrast with the first line. FWP notes in particular the colloquial use of "kaa."

In any event, now on to our more heretical reading. We are reading the she'r as:
Even if [his actions are] based on religious and secular law
What to do with such a killer?

That is, what can one do about such as qaatil who murders on the basis of religious and secular law? Then we can take this verse as a protest against the way law (of either the religious or the secular variety) can be used (and even created) by power to "get away with murder." The English idiom, "getting away with murder" works nicely in this context. We see around us that power is able to get away with murder, in part because law itself is a creation of power. So Ghalib can be read as saying, un qaatiloN ka ham kyaa kareN, jo qaide ke boote par qatl karte haiN? (What can we do about those killers who murder on the basis of the laws they themselves may have written?)

Please visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for more on the contemporary relevance of this verse.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ghalib, what does it take for a man to become human?

We continue our collaborative blogsphere project with The South Asian Idea Weblog with yet another she'r by Ghalib. The first two she'r in this series raised questions regarding what it means to believe in a certain Faith. For this week's post, we depart from the theme of "vafaadaarii" or faithfulness and instead come to a different type of morality. The morality of humanity. Ghalib has reflected extensively on the human condition. He was personally witness to the horror and terror of 1857. This verse, the opening verse (matlaa) of the ghazal, though, is from a ghazal composed around 1821. At this time Ghalib was around 24 years of age.

The verse:

بسکہ دشوار ہے ہر کام کا آساں ہونا

آدمی کو بھی میسر نہیں انساں ہونا

baskih dushvaar hai har kaam kaa aasaa;N honaa
aadmii ko bhii muyassar nahii;N insaa;N honaa

1a) it's difficult to such an extent for every task to be easy
1b) although it's difficult for every task to be easy

2) even/also for a man, it's not attainable/attained/easy to become human/humane

Click here for complete commentary accompanying the translation by FWP.

We will first discuss two possible interpretations of this verse, made possible by the word baskih which can mean either "although" or "to such an extent."

Thus the first line can be read as saying, "although it is difficult for every task to be easy," i.e. we cannot really expect that every task would be an easy one, but look, Ghalib says (second line), isn't it incredible that even man cannot attain humanity (humanness) in this world.

Another reading can be: "To such an extent is it difficult for every task to be easy, that even man cannot become a human in this world." For a man to become human should be very easy, says Ghalib, almost by definition (as Hali points out). And yet, this is not the case. The inhumanity and cruelty of men is all around us. These are men all right, but are they human? Ghalib wonders.

As we have mentioned before, Ghalib was a lover of words and in this verse, as Frances Pritchett points out, Ghalib plays on the dichotomy between aadmii (man) and insaaN (human) words that are often considered synonyms but have distinctly different connotations (as evidenced by the noun insaaniyat or humanity derived from insaaN, not from aadmii). To become an aadmii, a descendant of Adam, a man, one need do nothing at all except be born. In other words we don't become men, we simply are (the distinction between "to be" and "to become"). But, a human (insaaN) someone who has morals and social and cultural values. This we need to become. It takes work to become human. Sometimes so much work, that we fail to attain humanity. Ghalib uses the verb muyassar honaa very cleverly here. It can be read as saying that such is the wicked world that men are not allowed to be human (by impersonal forces, or "the system" as we might say). Or it can also be read as saying that men simply are failing to attain humanity (either through their own weaknesses or otherwise, we don't know).

In the present day context of South Asia this verse raises many questions for us to ponder. One question that comes to my mind is, is Ghalib's use of aadmii (man) purely an example of 19th century gender norms where "man" was used to refer to men and women (people in general) or does he perhaps wish to suggest that it is men (gender intended) in particular who find it difficult to become human. Women, by this reading, have no such problem, or they tend to show humanity far more often. I know this could be reading too much into the verse and I am prepared to accept that aadmii is simply gendered usage. But I couldn't help but wonder...

Please visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for further ruminations and questions on the verse.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Ghalib: Reflections on Faith, Humanity and Beyond": Announcing a new collaborative project with The South Asian Idea Weblog

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.
- William Carlos Williams

Somewhere, sometime poetry speaks to all of us. Poetry makes us think, sometimes precisely because it does not ask us to think, does not seek to convince us. Humanity, peace, coexistence, faith, are on test today in South Asia. And we turn to one of its greatest poets to learn some simple and hence first-to-be-forgotten Truths. We turn to Ghalib to learn to think. In leaning upon Ghalib, we also self-consciously reach for a source indigenous to South Asia, to its own civilizational genius, to search for a way forward.

To millions across the world, the name "Ghalib" needs no introduction. Perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most famous poet of Urdu and Persian that South Asia has produced, Asadallah Khan 'Ghalib' (1797-1869) has been recited, read, interpreted and quoted countless times in the past 150 years.

Through Ghalib we want to raise questions that are relevant to us today in South Asia and to South Asians elsewhere in the world. What does it mean to practice a certain Religion in a plural society? How should we treat those who are different from Us? What is the nature of Belief? Or Unbelief? What is the nature of the Divine? Can (wo)man presume to know the workings of Nature (the Beloved)? As humans must we accept our fate? Or do we have Free Will? In many ways these are the eternal questions that face us as humans. But as we will see, Ghalib raises them (and occasionally provides answers) in a manner all his own. "Kehte haiN ke Ghalib kaa hai andaaz-e-bayaN aur."

In this new project, on which we have embarked just last week, we depart from the conventional model of presenting an entire ghazal followed by its translation. Instead we present only one she'r at a time along with its literal (not poetic) translation followed by a commentary and the questions it raises. Each week we will choose one verse. A commentary will be offered here on mehr-e-niimroz and questions surrounding the she'r will be posted on The South Asian Idea Weblog

Adept at expressing highly subtle and complex thoughts and emotions within the space of two lines (the she'r), Ghalib's poetry has the rare virtue of appealing directly to the heart as well as providing much food for thought. However, unlike Iqbal, unlike the Sufis (like Khusrau), unlike the Bhakti poets (like Kabir), Ghalib was not a poet with a message. His first love was words and he loved to explore their sounds and meanings. And since he was not committed to convincing people of a message, reading him is a journey whose destination is not already known.

In the popular imagination Ghalib is a romantic poet, a poet of love, longing, and desire. More scholarly attention focuses on Ghalib's technical prowess, his socio-historical and literary context, his skills in creating multiple meanings out of single words and phrases and his ability to create fresh, new metaphors.

We, however set out to do something different. In his Urdu divaan, Ghalib talks not only about love and longing, but also about faith and religion, about the nature of Divinity, about Being and Nothingness, about what it means to Believe. Ghalib's questioning nature comes through very clearly in his verses. Not content to accept any received truths either from the Shaikh or the Brahmin, Ghalib constantly puts everything to the test of his own reason and experience. It is this aspect of Ghalib's critical thinking that we wish to explore in our project.

Join us in this journey by leaving your thoughts and by suggesting she'r for discussion.