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.