Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The metaphor of morning as death in Ghalib

Morning (or more precisely, dawn) is often a metaphor in poetry for birth or the start of a new life or a new social order. As typified by Saahir Ludhianvi's famous refrain वह सुबह कभी तो आएगी (woh subah kabhi to aayegi; that morning will come someday) in which morning is a metaphor for the new world free of injustice, exploitation and oppression. So keep that image squared away in your mind.

Now in parallel, almost contrariwise, at least in South Asia, a burning lamp or a flame is a metaphor for the soul or life-force. Thus the familiar trope in Bollywood movies to show death or the passing away of the soul from the body is to show the extinguishing of a flame.

So here is the rub. A lamp usually burns in the night. With the coming of dawn the lamp's inevitable fate is to be extinguished. Thus here morning takes away rather than gives life. Couple this now with the usual importance given, in the Ghazal universe to the night as the realm of all poetry, of colorful assemblies, of wine drinking and romance, or life itself. In the world of the classical Ghazal, the poet comes alive during the night, whether because he exults in shab-e-visaal (the night of union with the beloved, usually singular!) or pines in shabaan-e-hijraN (nights of separation from the beloved, usually plural!).

Thus perhaps it is not surprising that we find in Ghalib a beautiful inversion of the dawn = birth metaphor to a dawn = death metaphor. Metaphor (mazmuN) in general is a vital part of the Ghazal, and mazmuN afiirnii (metaphor creation) is considered even one notch superior to ma;anii afiirnii (meaning creation). But I don't know enough to say whether this particular metaphor originates with Ghalib or not.

Here I take a look at two verses, one Urdu and one Farsi, that both offer examples of this mazmuN of morning being death. First the famous Urdu verse (Ghazal 78, verse 7):

غم ہستی کا اسد کس سے ہو جز مرگ علاج
شمع ہر رنگ میں جلتی ہے سحر ہوتے تک

gham-e-hasti kaa 'asad' kis se ho juz marg ilaaj
sham;a har rang meiN jalti hai seher hote tak

The sorrow of existence 'Asad', what is its cure but death
The lamp burns in every color, until the morning comes

Click here to read Frances Pritchett's commentary on the verse as well as of other commentators she has collected.

First note that the verse follows a well-established pattern wherein the first line offers a general proposition and the second line offers a poetic "proof" for the "theorem." The first line is a more-or-less straightforward proposition: life is suffering, and there is no cure for it except death. To live is to suffer. So far so good. Poetically said, but not quite sublime. ـIt is the second line that takes the verse to Ghalibian levels. Here the lamp is a metaphor for the human body, while its flame is the spark of life. But Ghalib emphasizes not only the light given by the flame (the light of life) but also the heat (burning, jalnaa). Not only is the flame life of the lamp, as the soul is the life of the body, the flame also burns (jalnaa), its essence is burning as the soul also suffers, its essence is suffering (what is a flame if we take away the burning, what is life if we take away suffering?). Here Ghalib deploys the double meaning of the verb "jalnaa", to burn or to suffer. Further, not only does the lamp burn, but as all the commentators note, it is powerless to extinguish itself. Only the coming of morning will extinguish the lamp and relieve it of its burning/suffering. But that relief is the relief of death, for then the flame is extinguished and life is no more. So death extinguishes all the types of burning/suffering that life brings as morning extinguishes every colored flame of the lamp.

Of course as Pritchett notes in passing, from the point of view of Sufism or Vedanta death is only another beginning, the start of another journey. For one who is aware of divinity, of the oneness of being (wahdat al-vujood), of the True nature of Reality, death is a continuation of life by other means, as it were. This is where Ghalib takes us in his Farsi verse:

نشاط ھستی حق دارد از مرگ ایمنم غالب
چراغم چوں گل آشامد نسیم صبح گاھان را

nishaat-e-hasti-e-haq daarad az marg aimaanam Ghalib
chiragham chuN gul aashaamad naseem-(e)-subaH gaahaan raa

A literal translation based on Steingass might be:
I exult in the existence of God/Ultimate Reality, from death I am safe/secure Ghalib
My lamp, like a flower/rose drinks off the morning breeze

Before we compare it with the Urdu verse, a couple of small semantic points:
I haven't been able to find out if gaahaan (گاھان ) has an independent meaning, mostly Steingass uses it in combination with some other word to mean at such and such time (andar-gāhān, Intermediate times) or na-gahaan meaning unexpectedly or untimely. So perhaps naseem-e-subaH gaahaan should be read as one phrase (morning time breeze).

Secondly I am not sure why Ghalib uses the verb aashaamidan (unless aashaamad is not the third person singular of this verb) here. A lamp drinking or sipping the breeze seems funny (unless the breeze is like oil that the lamp drinks to burn).

In any case back to the main theme. We know that the morning breeze is the death of the lamp, but it enlivens the flower. Ghalib's lamp (the lamp of life of a Sufi or of one immersed in the existence of God/Brahman) unlike the regular lamp (the lamp of life of an ordinary person who considers death to be the end of life) described in the Urdu verse, is not extinguished by the morning breeze, rather it is enlivened by it. And why is that? Of course, the first line offers the clue. Because he is immersed in the existence of God or the Ultimate Reality.

This verse follows a logical structure quite similar to the Urdu verse. Once again, the first line offers a proposition. Now instead of being told that suffering in life ends only with death, Ghalib tells us he is secure from death because he knows the secret of existence. Once again, the first line itself though poetic is not particularly thought provoking. As Pritchett might note, like a good Ghazal verse, we have to wait not only till the second line of the verse but till the last part of the second line (the part about the morning breeze) to get the full impact of the metaphor. And once again, as with the Urdu verse, the second line takes the verse to a new level. It offers "proof" or example of the proposition stated in the first line.

Of course in both verses, as always we need to distinguish Ghalib, the historical personality, from "Asad" or "Ghalib" of the poem. The question of whether, in real life Ghalib would have been as sanguine about death, or as immersed in the Oneness of Being, is in some ways a moot point. We cannot expect the classical Ghazal to be personal in the same way as say the Romantic poets off the 19th century. "The poet in the poem" in the case of the Ghazal is a vexed issue. See S.R. Faruqi's essay on this theme.

Finally, in one sense the Farsi verse is also a response to the Urdu verse. It is true that life's suffering ends only in death, but one need not be afraid of death, if only one knows the secret of the Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.

As Kabir would say:

भला हुआ मोरी मटकी फूटी रे
मैं तो पनिया भरन से छूटी रे !

bhalaa hua mori matkii phootii re
main to paniyaa bharan se chhootii re

Its just as well that my pot lies shattered
I have been released from the duty of filling water!


  1. What a well written piece - extremely profound and subtle to pick the nuances

  2. Wonderful...great blog...dedicated to something that is an essential part of my life...

  3. I am reminded of a famous quatrain from Hafiz-
    Farib jahaan qissah roshan ast
    Sehar tha che zaid, shab aabastan ast
    Dar ain khu nafishan arsah-rasthakheez
    Thu khoon surahi beh saaghar bar eez.
    My translation was as follows-
    That the World is Fair, remain a fable Bright
    Break not Dawn, nor the waters of Night!
    That Resurrection regather what our Armageddon’s spill
    From thy blood red, Saqi, my cup refill!
    Obviously this is not a perfect translation. It fails to capture the notion that what is being requested is the setting of an example of thrift in wine pouring, so that all the blood spilled in the Final Battle is recycled in the new vessels that Resurrection provides. Nevertheless, I thought my effort passable, until a friend showed me the version of, the great Orientalist, A.J.Arberry- which runs as follows
    ‘Tis a famous tale, the deceitfulness of Earth
    The night is pregnant, what will dawn bring to birth?
    Tumult and bloody battle rage in the plain
    Bring blood-red wine and fill the goblet again!’

    In this context there is a mysterious quatrain of Ghalib's which I would like someone to very kindly explain to me-
    ‘Shab zulf-o-rukh arq fishaan ka gham tha
    Kya sharaah karoon ki turfa tar aalam tha?
    Rota main hazaar aankh se subah talak
    Har qatarh ashk deedah purnam tha!’
    My instinctive translation was as follows-
    ‘This Sorrow that as Night’s braids get beaded with sweat
    No theodicy can I offer in her gravest travail yet
    Liquiesce must Night’s labour the full Moon in this wise?
    To, as tear drops, so lacquer my now thousands of eyes!’
    I think there is an old tradition of poets keeping vigil while the Queen is in labour. In Joyce's Ulysses it yields an extraordinary chapter.
    The travails of the sham'ma (candle) through the night become a metaphor for the pregnancy of Night- what will Dawn bring to birth? The wave function collapses, the matrix of all possibilities is reduced to an either/or result.
    Aabastani as a word for pregnancy is very suggestive to the wine drinker. When you begin drinking you don't know whether you will end up with the secret of all Friendship or just a head-ache and hang-over.
    Actually, drinkers know it will be the latter but still they make their way to the tavern with hope in their hearts.

  4. Similar to Kabir's verse:

    Na lut-ta din ko to kab raat ko aaram se sota,
    Raha khatka na chori ka, dua deta hoon rehzan ko