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?