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.

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