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.