Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ghalib: Idols and the Ka'ba

With this verse we are concluding, at least for now, our collaborative series of commentaries on Ghalib.


go vaa;N nahii;N pah vaa;N ke nikaale hu))e to hai;N
ka((be se un buto;N ko bhii nisbat hai duur kii

1. even though [they] are not there, still [they] have been expelled from there
2. with the ka'ba even those/ also those idols have a distant relationship

nisbat : 'Referring (to, - se ); deriving (from); --reference, respect, regard (to); attribute; relation, connexion; affinity; analogy; comparison; --ratio; proportion; --relationship by marriage; matrimonial alliance; betrothal; --a relation, or connexion; --a conundrum'. (Platts p.1137)

Click here for translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses. Click here for parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea

A charming and straightforward verse, though not without its hidden depths, as we explore here. The historical reference necessary to appreciate the verse is the episode in early Islamic history when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) orders the Ka'ba cleared of all idols since these can have no place in a monotheistic faith which preaches belief in the one abstract God.

But Ghalib is not content with this. So what if the idols are not in the Ka'ba, have they not been expelled from there? Hence they have a relationship, albeit a distant one, to the Ka'ba. One cannothelp but think of Ghalib (or the archetypal poet/sinner) who has similarly been expelled from the mosque, but seems to be saying: sure, I have been removed, I am no longer welcome there in the house of worship, but at least I have been expelled (as opposed to never having been there at all), so I have a relationship still, its one of expulsion!

This theme, that even expulsion or a negative relationship is better than nothing at all is explored by Ghalib in other ways where the beloved's greatest "sitam" is to ignore the lover. Click here for an example. To be expelled from her mehfil would be a far greater honor than to not be there in the first place due to neglect! In a volte face here it is the idols (but, which is the usual metaphor for a beautiful person or the beloved) who are being expelled from God's mehfil. And interestingly some of these idols were indeed of godesses (banat allah or daughters of God).

Philosophically Ghalib seems interested in exploring the relationship or connection between True and False belief. He seems to challenge the everyday perceptions of idol-worshipers (but-parastaaN) (Hindus) and idol-crushers (Muslims) as being really different, unrelated when it comes to matters of faith. He is obviously constrained by space in how much he can say in two lines, but does a great job, in the process using the word "but" (idol) in its non-metaphorical form.

Structurally, the she'r follows all the usual rules to make it work in a recitation. The first line gives almost nothing away, it is too general. The second line holds back the punch until we hear the word "nisbet" and then if we have kept the radif (rhyme scheme) in mind, we can fill in the end in unison with the poet, since "duur" is the obvious choice. In terms of wordplay, Ghalib uses the potential hidden in "bhi" which doubles as "also" and "even." Both those meanings work here, even though "even" seems to work better in context.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ghalib sets off for Mount Sinai

This week, Ghalib at his irreverent best.


kyaa far.z hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab
aa))o nah ham bhii sair kare;N koh-e :tuur kii

1a) is there an assumption/obligation that all would get a similar answer?
1b) what assumption/obligation is there that all would get a similar answer?
1c) what an assumption it is-- that all would get a similar Linkanswer!

2) come on, won't you? let's even/also us take a stroll around Mount Tur

Click here for translations and commentary on The Desertful of Roses. Parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea.

This verse is impossible to interpret until we understand the significance of Mount Sinai (koh-e-tuur). As many readers will be aware this is the mountain on which Moses goes in order to ask God for an appearance, so that his people would believe that Moses was truly a prophet. The answer (jawaab) that Moses receives is "No! You cannot behold the radiance of God." (I am not sure what the exact words are according to the Quran. I am giving the gist here). There follows a bolt of divine lightning which burns the mountain and strikes Moses down.

Now for Ghalib's take on this story. Frances Pritchett, who offers us the translations above, calls this verse "mischievous." We could call it downright cheeky and insolent (gustaaKh). Why so? There are multiple reasons for it. First, taking the verse as a whole there is the basic premise: "it is not necessary/why is it necessary that everyone should receive the same answer (No!)? Come let us try our own luck, who knows maybe we will be graced by the vision that was denied Moses." This is already a cheeky proposition. But the way it is made, as Pritchett notes, is even better. Ghalib uses the expression "sair karna," i.e. to take a stroll. So we are not setting out determined or prepared or afraid or any such thing. We are just out for a stroll and we will see if we might not get a glimpse of God.

As the parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea notes, we see in the two lines a link to tradition (via the symbolism of Mount Sinai) and to modernity (via the questioning of received wisdom). The questioning is effected via the clever use of "kyaa" which as the translation above shows is compatible with a few different readings. A derisive reading, "as if everyone would get the same answer, what a thought!" or a more innocent question "what is the necessity of everyone getting the same answer?"

Finally let talk about the structural properties of the verse itself. As always, the suspense is withheld till the last minute. We don't get the full import of the verse, or indeed in this case, we do not understand anything specific about what is being said until we hear the rhyme word, tuur. Fran Pritchett makes this point very well. Next, commentators of this verse have also noted the use of the very colloquial "aao nah" which we use in contemporary language as an expression of familiarity. If fact all the words used are of a simple nature. The power of the verse lies in the bringing together of simple words and sentiments with the complex valences associated with a significant event (Moses going to Sinai).

From the point of view of theme-creation (mazmuN afiirnii) I wonder if one can point to a novel theme being generated here to do with "cosmic sawaal-jawaab" the questions posed by humans and answers given by life. This theme would be a sort of variation on the more traditional sawaal-jawaab between the lover and the beloved in which also the lover repeatedly asks the question only to receive the predictable answer (No!). Perhaps readers who know more poetry would know of a precedence for this "cosmic sawaal-jawaab" theme.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ghalib is...God

We are back after a long hiatus with an ever-green favorite.


nah thaa kuchh to ;xudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to ;xudaa hotaa
;Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa mai;N to kyaa hota

1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God

2a) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what?

Translations are by FWP. Click here for commentary on Desertful of Roses. And the parallel entry on The South Asian Idea is here.

This is probably one of the most famous verses in Urdu poetry and justly so. FWP calls it "a two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations." And as you can see from her possible translations above she does an fantastic job pulling out the possible meanings hidden in the verse. In fact, until I saw her commentary on the verse I had rather a poor understanding of it merely as a combination of 1a and 2b. And many native Hindi/Urdu speakers I have talked to haven't grasped the magic of the omitted subject which is revealed spectacularly here. Ghalib exploits the ambiguity caused by omitted subjects all the time to great effect but this is truly mind-boggling. And as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi notes multiple profound meanings are generated via the use of extremely simple language. Only one word, Khuda is Persian and that too a very common Persian word. This verse also perfectly illustrates Ghalib's famous description of poetry: bhaii, shayari ma'ani aafirnii hai, kafiyah paimaaii nahiN hai" (my friend, poetry is meaning creation, not the measuring out of rhymes).

In a mushairah where the first line would be repeated several times to allow people to absorb it an interesting effect is produced. One may be inclined after just hearing the first line to go for interpretation 1a. Other meanings are hidden and the line appear well crafted but somewhat plain apart from the obvious existential profundity (what does it mean for nothing to exist?). But then after the seemingly impersonal reflection on existence of the universe, Ghalib surprises us with the second line coming straight to the highly personal: "being was my downfall, if I had not been [I], then what would [I] have been?" When we encounter the personal note in line 2, we go back to line 1 and find a hidden personal reflection there too. This is FWP's 1c: when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God.

This then makes line 2 appear to us in a new light. What Ghalib is effectively saying is that if he had not taken this human form he would have been one with God, one with that which is beyond existence and non-existence. In this interpretation (1c, 2b), the question kyaa hotaa? is a regret of sorts. "See, if only I had not existed what I could have been (God)." Of course the irony of expressing non-existence as a form of existence (na hota to kyaa hota?) is also not lost on Ghalib.

The second interpretation of "to kyaa hotaa" which is "so what" rather than "what could have been" is also intriguing. For it says, if I had not existed, so what? After all, it would be a good thing to not exist. Because then I would have been God.

It reminds me of a qawwali by Aziz Mian in which he weaves this couplet of Ghalib in the middle of the following words:
yahaaN hona na hona hai aur na hona ain-e-hona hai
here existence is non-existence and non-existence the essence of existence

And this train of thoughts ends with Aziz Mian saying:
na yeh duniya bani hoti na yeh aalam banaa hota
aur woh bandaa kise kehte aur woh kiskaa Khuda hota?

neither the world would have been, nor would time/space
then who would He call his follower and whose God would He be?

I haven't yet managed to discover who has penned this lines above.

Finally, I can't resist juxtaposing Ghalib's pontifications on the nature of existence with the famous creation hymn of the Rig Veda (translation by Wendy Doniger). Note the very last line.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred?
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

[deleted text]

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen
� perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not �
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps He does not know.

The “People’s Movement Left” and Rammanohar Lohia: an evaluation at a time of crisis

June 13, 2009

By Amit Basole, Sanhati

Simplifying matters somewhat at the present juncture three significant streams of Left political practice can be identified in India: first, the Communist Parliamentary Left or what Dipankar Basu has termed the Social Democratic Left (SDL) which includes the CPM, CPI and their allies, second what may be termed the Communist non-Parliamentary Left (CnPL) which includes CPI (Maoist), CPI (ML) and smaller Maoist Parties and third, the People’s Movement Left (PML), sometimes called the “non-Party Left,” which is also largely non-Parliamentary (though for reasons different from the Maoist Left). PML includes various organizations belonging to the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and other related movements (such as the anti- caste movement, the new farmers’ movements).

This essay argues that the socialist tradition that lies behind the PML has much to offer to overcome the shortcomings of the Marxist Left.

The SDL faces multiple crises at this juncture, some of which have been extensively analyzed following its electoral defeat. Whatever may be its failings on the leadership and organizational fronts (and those are many), it is clear that there is a profound crisis of thought also. The SDL suffers from excessive attachment to a Eurocentric and stagist theory of history (wherein industrial capitalism is a necessary step to socialism) and an economic determinist philosophy (which gives short shrift to non-economic forms of oppression and expression). In addition its theory does not allow significant revolutionary agency to peasants and informal sector workers who constitute the overwhelming majority of the working population of India. The demise of the Soviet Union has added to the bankruptcy of thought and the feeling of “TINA.”

The CnPL is also unable to break completely from a Eurocentric form of Marxism and a stagist theory of history, albeit due to its Maoist moorings it is sensitive to an ex-colonial reality not only in practice but also at the level of theory, and recognizes the central role of the peasantry in revolutionary transformation of society. Despite significant experiments in direct democracy as well as economic development in Maoist controlled territories, its strategy of armed struggle and its boycott of parliamentary politics has precipitated a crisis of its own as the State retaliates in a violent manner, and the working population is caught between the two. The ensuing cycle of violence has claimed many lives and within current praxis there does not seem to be an end to it. Furthermore, arguably the abdication of the Chinese leadership to a particularly vicious form of industrial capitalism may have contributed to a muddying of the CnPL’s vision for a future Indian society.

The PML has risen to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, as the Soviet and Chinese experiments were running their course. It is thus less burdened with their failures. It is also more rooted theoretically in the Indian political tradition, drawing more inspiration from Gandhi rather than from Marx. It has largely relied on non-violent methods of resistance and some of its ideologues speak of “alternative models of development” in a manner reminiscent of Gandhi’s critique of development. However it seems to lack theoretical coherence since it takes the form of myriad local struggles over jal, jungle aur zameen (water, forest and land). The degree to which a given local movement challenges the established order also varies greatly across the country. Hence it is difficult to ascertain the revolutionary potential of the sum of such movements. Notwithstanding this it has received widespread support from Left intellectuals, academic ones in particular, perhaps because it is unburdened with failures of “actually-existing Socialisms” of the 20th century.

The theoretical backbones of the SDL and the CnPL are well-known. The writings of Marx, Lenin and Mao stand tall in this regard. The theoretical basis of the PML is less clear but in fact has a long and distinguished career in India. This is a type of Socialism that takes not only Marx but also Gandhi seriously and attempts to construct both a political practice and a vision for a future society different from orthodox Marxism. In this article I will use Rammanohar Lohia’s writings as an example of this tradition.

Lohia is an unjustly neglected figure in the Indian political tradition. To the extent that people are familiar with him, they either know him as Gandhi’s disciple or perhaps as Nehru’s critic in the 1960s and if they are familiar with some socialist history, as Jayaprakash Narayan’s co-worker in the Socialist wing of the Congress and later a leader of the Socialist Party. In fact Lohia was a highly original thinker who had something interesting to say on questions as diverse as mode of industrialization, possibilities for an India-Pakistan Federation and the “national language” question in India. He is also someone whose world-view is most in harmony with the PML. Below I highlight some crucial aspects of Lohia’s thought that are helpful to us in charting a way forward.

Lohia is an atheist and a materialist who takes Gandhi’s critique of modernity seriously. He believes, as Gandhi did, that the promises of modernity are only for making and not for fulfilling. Gandhian ideas of non-violence and inseparability of means and ends also influence Lohia’s thinking. Yet, from his early years in Germany, Lohia is also deeply influenced by European socialist traditions in which Marx looms large. From Marx Lohia takes materialism and class, but rejects his theory of history and progress. If Ram Guha’s assertion that “inside every thinking Indian is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy” is correct, in Lohia the two are hybridized in a fecund manner. However, characteristically Lohia himself rejects any suggestion that he tries to combine Marx and Gandhi and says: “Socialism does not need to claim either that it is Marxist or Gandhian, nor that it is anti-Marxist or anti-Gandhian.” In Lohia’s hands Gandhian theory and practice acquired a far more radical edge. Distinguishing himself from the “official Gandhism” of the day (and people like Vinoba Bhave) Lohia jokingly referred to himself as a “kujaat Gandhivaadi” (low-caste Gandhian).

Another significance of Lohia’s elaboration of Gandhi’s ideas is that he is far more well-acquainted with the European socialist traditions than Gandhi ever was and as a result may be more approachable to those who are unwilling to take Gandhi seriously only because he was unacquainted with Marx


Arguably most Indian political thinkers with some mass following have thought within European modernist paradigms, ways of thinking about society that reached their culmination in 19th century Europe. This includes “indigenist” (”swadeshi”) thinkers on the Right who do so unwittingly. Prominent exceptions are Gandhi and later Lohia. Of the modernist paradigms, Liberalism and Marxism in particular have profoundly influenced Indian thinkers. Marxist thinkers, despite their radical aspirations, have been mostly unable or unwilling to shake of the modernism of Marx, which in keeping with its time viewed the world from the point of view of Europe, and measured progress as a process of Europeanization of the non-European world. The advent of postmodernism in the Euro-American and later the Global Academy has served either to seduce some Marxists to postmodernism or to harden Modernist positions among others. It is not clear yet if postmodern Marxists can create a different socialist vision for the 21st century.

In his books “The Wheel of History,” and “Marx, Gandhi and Socialism” (of particular interest is an essay titled “Economics After Marx”) Lohia challenges the Eurocentrism of orthodox Marxist accounts of History. He notes that the vast majority of humanity has only a secondary place in a narrative centered largely on the “Rise of Europe.” Further he challenges a narrative of progress which only recognizes the adoption of industrialism in either its capitalist or (then) communist forms by the colonies as progress. Struggling to keep history open-ended and the fate of post-colonial societies in their own hands Lohia notes:
“Capitalism and Communism are two completely elaborated systems and the whole world is in their grip. The result is poverty, war and fear. A third way of thinking is also making its presence felt on the world stage. It is still insufficient and has not been completely elaborated, but it is open-ended. An open system retains the possibility of truth and progress, while in a closed system facts are treated violently, declared meaningless and cast aside.”

Mode of Development:

Along with the question of Eurocentrism, the question of the type of economic development was Lohia’s most fundamental theoretical challenge to Marxism. Marxists have been by and large unwilling to confront the possibility that industrialism and not capitalism may be the primary impediment to achieving the good life everywhere on the planet. Dazzled by the spectacle of modern science and technology and seduced by promises of plenty, Marx and later Marxists gave short shrift to two of their own fundamental insights: that history matters and that technology is both a cause and effect of the social relations of production. Assuming that the evils in industrialism (which have never been particularly hidden in its two centuries of existence) would disappear under socialism amounted to forgetting the peculiar historical conditions under which industrialism took shape in Europe and America and overlooking that fact that modern technology is profoundly shaped by capitalist social relations (early Soviet experiments with Taylorism in an effort to increase productivity are a case in point).

Thinkers in the Lohia tradition have long emphasized that the availability of colonies was crucial to Europe’s industrial development and that the non-availability of such colonies for India means a process of internal colonization in the manner that we have seen ample evidence of since 1947. Thus crucially, history has borne out the Gandhian-Lohiaite position on this issue. Marxists and other modernists still find this difficult to accept wholly since it calls into question the very possibility that industrial capitalism in the European manner could take shape in the colonies. And if it cannot, what prospects then for socialism?

Kishan Patnaik, another unjustly neglected figure in the Indian Socialist tradition notes that Lohia returns time and again to the question of technology. In his essay “Gandhi, Lohia and Modern Civilization,” Patnaik quotes Lohia:

“That scientific progress will bring forth an age of plenty is a pitiable thought, one that forsakes intellect. We must consciously build a political and economic structure that bridges the gap between and within nations. Current industrial technology cannot do this- that it can do this is extremely doubtful. This technology originates in very specific circumstances: one low population and abundant land; two, a certain given amount of capital available per capita and developed machinery; three, Western Europe producing industrial goods for the whole world.” (translated from Hindi)

Further Patnaik notes that “In Independent India’s politics Lohia is the only leader whose agenda included the ‘obstinate’ insistence on challenging Nehru’s policy of Westernizing the Indian economy and society as well as organizing the masses to resist it.”

Lohia is able to avoid the “productivity-fetishism” of Marxism because of the influence of Gandhi. Yet by forcefully bringing up the question of class, private property and economic equality, as well as by adopting a stance that is not anti-technology, but rather anti-industrialism, he is better able to deal with allegations that he is merely glorifying poverty. This also means that a “small is beautiful” approach to technology is not taken to be a panacea for the problem of development.

Economic Determinism:

Lohia explicitly rejects economic or class reductionism and accords equal importance to caste and gender oppression. Caste as well as class are center-pieces of his theory of history. And his idea of the “seven revolutions” (sapt-kranti) anticipates “race, class and gender” analyses that are popular today. The seven revolutions are for: gender equality, end to racial inequality, end of caste inequality, end to imperialism and creation of a world government, end to economic inequality based on private property, end to use of arms and institution of the principle of civil disobedience and opposition to encroachments upon individual freedom.

The followers of Lohia have thus found it far easier than Marxists to take caste struggle on its own terms and to recognize that the question of caste cannot be reduced to the question of class.


Lohia also anticipates contemporary notions of decentralized governance although he tempers Gandhi’s anarchist tendencies with a sort of “functional federalism.” His concept of the “four-pillar state” (chaukhamba raj) is a pragmatic attempt to combine Gandhian village democracy with a modern State apparatus, the four pillars being: village, district, state and center. It is important to remember that Lohia was speaking of a decentralized socialist state at a time with such ideas were not part of Left mainstream thought.

A few words by way of conclusion. The foregoing is not intended as a comprehensive survey of Lohia’s thought or as a complete critique of the SDL and CnPL from the Lohiaite perspective. Nor is it meant to be a mud-slinging exercise against Marxists. Rather it is a modest effort to acquaint those who may not be so acquainted with attempts to “Indianize Marx” as it were. Marx has encountered Gandhi in a very productive way over the past hundred years in India. While Communists of various persuasions have not taken Gandhi particularly seriously, the Socialists have done so. This is not an arm-chair intellectual tradition but rather a political one. From Jayaprakash Narayan and Lohia to Shankar Guha Neogi those who have contributed to it have been in the thick of politics. As such it may suffer from theoretical inconsistencies and dead-ends. However, it is a heritage which in attempting to build a new Socialism for the 21st century it would behoove us to engage critically with.

Further Reading:

1. Rammanohar Lohia, Itihaas Chakra (The Wheel of History) Navahind Prakashan, 1963
2. ________________, Marx, Gandhi and Socialism, Navahind Prakashan, 1963
3. ________________, Fundamentals of a World Mind, Sindhu Publications, Bombay, 1987
4. Kishan Patnaik, Vikalpheen nahin hai duniya, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2000
5. Sunil, Nandigram and the Blind Faith in Industrialization, Samayik Varta, June 2007 (original in Hindi, English translation at http://sanhati.com/excerpted/588/)
6. Special Issue of Hindi Journal Samayik Varta (March 2003), Lohia in the 21st Century
7. Blogs: http://samatavadi.wordpress.com and http://samajwadi.blogspot.com

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ghalib: In captivity I retain the power of flight

After a longish break, we are back with Ghalib. This time we have selected a verse remarkable for its simplicity and its power.

huu;N giriftaar-e ulfat-e .sayyaad
varnah baaqii hai :taaqat-e parvaaz

1) I am captured/captivated by love/affection of the Hunter
2) otherwise, strength for flight is still left

Click here for translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses. Click here for parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea.

Before we get to interpretations, a note on the construction of the verse. As we have seen on this blog before, and as Fran Pritchett often points out in her commentaries, the positioning of the lines and words usually are the result of great thought. We see that at work here. Upon hearing the first line, our first thought might be that the poet is going to tell us what happens to him in this state of captivity. Perhaps some lament on his helplessness or something about how enjoyable this bondage of love is, etc. But Ghalib delivers a completely contrary idea. The lover is thinking of flying away! What heresy! And yet, not really, because does he actually fly away? Of course not. But "I am just saying, I could fly, I retain the power of flight...I am just saying..." And via the skillful use of parvaaz, the metaphor of ensarement and hunting is complete.

Coming t0 the interpretations, they turn on who the "sayyaad" (hunter) is in this story. The simplest reading is the earthly beloved, the beuatiful one who has ensnared the lover in her love. So despite having the physical strenght to get up and walk away from it all, the lover is simply unable to do so. Anyone who has experienced romantic love will know what this is about. Moving on and enlarging the scop;e of our reading, the Hunter can be, as Nazm and Josh both read it, "wordly relationships." So here, the trappings of the maerial world ensanre and bind us in captivity "lovingly." We have it within us (as humans) to escape these bonds and to be free, but the attachment (ulfat) to the world and its attractions keeps us unfree. In this reading it is a simple lament of one who has discovered the transience or ephemeral nature of the world and yet lacks the capacity to trascend it. A typically Ghalibian moment. Awareness without trascendence. Knowledge without action.

A few other readings are possible. If the hunter is not the earthly beloved but rather the Divine Beloved of Sufi thought, then the verse says: I am ensnared in the love of the Absolute/God. That is why I remain a Believer. Otherwise I retain the power to fly (or in this case "to doubt"). This reading doesn't sit too well with the general Sufi inclination of Ghalib's thought, but on the other hand it fits right in with his impish sense of humor. It says, look I have the power to break free of the bondage of your love, O Divine One, but your love keeps me here. For anyone other than Ghalib I would not suggest such as reading!

Finally, more in keeping with the socio-political dimensions of our project, the hunter can be our beloved leaders, politicians, even institutions in our society who are objects of our affection and who keep us from being free. For more along these lines see the post on The South Asian Idea.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

For Ghalib the world is merely children at play

This week we proceed from last week's mood of resignation and defiance combined, to a mood of bemused indifference towards the goings-on in the world. Here it is:

बाज़ीचा-ए-अत्फाल है दुनिया मेरे आगे
होता है शब-ओ-रोज़ तमाशा मेरे आगे

baaziichah-e a:tfaal hai dunyaa mire aage
hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage

1) the world is a game/plaything of children, before me
2a) night-and-day is [habitually] a spectacle, before me
2b) night and day, a spectacle is [habitually] before me
(Translation: FWP)
Commentaries on Desertful of Roses and parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

This is a justly famous verse from a justly famous ghazal. The various commentaries collected by Prof. Fran Pritchett offer the agreed-upon reading of it. It is indeed a relatively simple yet powerful verse. Though as wee will see it is not without its hidden meanings. As far the language itself goes, the only phrase likely to pose some difficult is baaziichah-e a:tfaal, for which here are the meanings:
baaziichah : 'Fun, play, sport; wagering; toy, plaything'. (Platts p.122)
a;tfaal is the Arabic plural of tifl which means child.

The clear reading is that this temporal world is merely a children's game or plaything as far as I am concerned (mere aage = in front of me, or in my estimation). Note that "dunyaa" is a loaded word and evokes the meaning of this material/temporal world as opposed to the next immaterial/eternal one (diin wa dunyaa). And how do I know that the world is a mere plaything? Well, night and day there is a spectacle in front of me. The word tamaashaa is used brilliantly here and again contains more possbilities than conveyed by "spectacle." It has the sense of something fake or theatrical, as in, when someone is said to be doing tamaashaa we mean that they are creating a scene or behaving in a manner that is not only undignified but also shallow ("creating a scene" perhaps). This entire range of commotations is appropriate here. We of course do not know what sorts of tamaashaas Ghalib had in mind when he said this, but as the post on The South Asian Idea notes, contemporary politics often provides us with plenty of opportunities to remember this verse.

There is a second meaning in the verse which is not mentioned by any of the commentators. This meaning is allowed by the grammatical structure of sentences in Hindi/Urdu and Ghalib uses it very often. Any line that says "A is B" can equally well be read as "B is A" in Hindi/Urdu. Thus baaziichah-e a:tfaal hai dunyaa can be read as "the world is a plaything of children" (or "the world is merely children at play"), which is the favored reading here, or it can also be read as "plaything of children is a world" ("or "children at play show us a world"). The second reading adds an entire new dimension as we consider below and provides a delightful new angle to the verse, since we now see the playing of children as a metaphor for the material world just as the world reminds us of children at play.

What does it add? Coming back to the idea of dunyaa as speciafically the material world, we can also see why activities in this world are like children at play. Because, just as children at play are in their own play-world and oblivious of the "real world" (i.e. for them their toy world is the real world), but we who are adult or grown-up see them as being in error or just being children, so also those who possess knowledge of existence beyond the material world consider those whose thought is limited to the temporal/material world, to be in error. Thus "children" are a metaphor for spiritually unaware people.

As always a seemingly simple verse hides a world of meanings (alaam-e-ma'ani).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pakistani classical vocalist Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi Gharana

An absolutely stellar performance from Karachi-based Ustad Naseeruddin Saami of the Delhi Gharana, trained by Munshi Raziuddin and by the descendants of Tan Ras Khan, Bahadur Shah Zafar's music teacher. This was performed at the All Pakistan Music Conference in 2006. Hindustani classical has many excellent practitioners in Pakistan, another in a long list of shared cultural traits between India and Pakistan, that deserves far greater awareness. So we may counter the virulent logic most recently articulated by Varun Gandhi, who appears foolish and immature and yet only strongly vocalizes that which many softly mutter.

Ustad Naseeruddin Saami from Tasawwuf on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ghalib trusts in the Seven Heavens


raat din gardish me;N hai;N saat aasmaa;N
ho rahegaa kuchh nah kuchh ghabraa))e;N kyaa

1) night and day they're in [a state of] revolving/turning/wandering, the seven heavens
2) something or other will end up happening-- why would/should we be perturbed/agitated?

Commentary on Desertful of Roses and parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

A FWP notes, this was a verse Ghalib often quoted in his letters. It is an excellent verse to keep handy in difficult times or when the heavens really seem against you. A defiant yet humble verse. Defiant because we refuse to be intimidated by circumstances, yet humble becuase really we know out own efforts are small compared to the movements of the heavens.

Gardish is again a very multivalent word. According to Platts:
gardish : 'Going round, turning round, revolution; circulation; roll; course; period; turn, change; vicissitude; reversion; --adverse fortune, adversity; --wandering about, vagrancy'.

Ghalib uses it here in the sense of eternal or perpetual movement of the stars (the "seven heavens" of Aristotle). Elsewhere he has used it in the sense of a frightenning perpetualness of motion as in:

kyuu;N gardish-e mudaam se ghabraa nah jaa))e dil
insaan huu;N piyaalah-o-saa;Gar nahii;N huu;N mai;N

Why would this perpetual motion/circulation not terrify the heart
I am human, not a glass and flagon (wine pitcher)

Anyway, returning to the present verse, it is a great example of one of Ghalib's inshaiiyah verses, i.e interrogative, exclamatory, rhetorical versesm, as opposed to ;xabariyah (informative) verses. The meaning itself is straightforward. There are no profundities or paradoxes here. "Merely" a well-put summary of the human condition: eternally hopefully yet eternally powerless also. We get the feeling that many things are happening outside our control. Ironically, not only do adverse things happend witohut our permission, but as Ghalib puts it, even solutions appear by themselves. ho rahega kuch na kuch, has an excellent idiomatic feel that conveys the sense of "something is bound to happen one way or another. "Thus "aasmaaN", the heavens are our friends as they are our enemies. So contrast this "heavans as friends" verse with an explicit "heavens as enemy" take:

ham kahaa;N ke daanaa the kis hunar me;N yaktaa the
be-sabab hu))aa ;Gaalib dushman aasmaa;N apnaa

What kind of wise men were we, in posession of what unique skill
Without cause, Ghalib, the heavens turned against us/became our enemy

This verse also relies on ordinary Urdu vocabulary ("baazaar-haaT language"), showing that Ghalib is quite capable of stating things in a simple straighforward manner if he wishes. Contrast this with some of the heavy duty Persianized verses (See for e.g. this one and this one) we have blogged about in the past.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ghalib is openly deceived

This week,s verse reaches outside the usual compilation of ghazals in Ghalib's divaan. It is from a qasiidaa (panegyric) in the form of a ghazal.

ہیں کواکب کچھ نزر آتے ہیں کچھ
دیتے ہیں دھوکا یہ بازیگر کھلا

हैं कवाकिब कुछ नजर आते हैं कुछ
देते हैं धोका यह बाज़ीगर खुला

haiN kawakib kuchh nazar aate haiN kuchh
detey haiN dhokaa yeh baaziigar khulaa

1. The stars/constellations are some [one] thing and appear another
2. These conjurers/tricksters trick/fool [us] openly

Acc. to Platts:
A کواکب kawākib, s.m. pl. (of kaukab), Stars; constellations.
P بازي बाज़ी bāzī, vulg. bājī (see bāz, 'playing'), s.f. Play, sport, game, trick; game of chance, hazard; gaming; stake (at play), wager, bet:

This verse does not appear in Desertful of Roses. The translation is ours. Please visit the parallel entry on The South Asian Idea, placing the verse in contemporary social context.

It is a charming verse which exploits the power of the simple yet multivalent word "kuchh" which can mean both "something" and "a few things." The rhetorical power of the verse also derives from the idiomatic use of "khulaa dhoka dena" (to trick or cheat openly).

In one reading here we can imagine the word "aur" at the end of line one. Then the verse reads straightforwardly as the stars are open tricksters because in full view they appear as one thing but are actually something entirely different. Of course we don't know what precisely Ghalib has in mind. Is he talking about real stars in the sky which appear as tiny twinkling spots but are really immense, fiery balls spewing gas plumes?

Or less scientifically and more poetically is he referring to the stars on Earth, the beautiful ones who appear sweet and innocent but really are heartless killers who won't think twice about trampling on lovers' hearts. They trick (play with the lover's heart) openly, in full view of the world. The word "baazigar" is more complex than "trickster," carrying an implication of someone who gambles on love or plays with one's affections.

This verse also sustains a nice socio-political implication if we think of baazigar also as siyaasatdaan (politicians). The post of South Asian Idea explores this connection further.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ghalib: Heart is a Mirror and Mirror a Heart

This week we have chosen a lesser known and complex verse which nonetheless offers richly rewarding readings.

az mihr taa bah-;zarrah dil-o-dil hai aa))inah
:tuu:tii ko shash jihat se muqaabil hai aa))inah

अज मिहर ता बा-ज़र्रह दिल - ओ - दिल है आइनह
तूती को शश जिहत से मुकाबिल है आइनह

1) from sun to sand-grain-- heart; and heart is a mirror
2) {from / by means of} the six directions, a mirror confronts the parrot

Translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses. Parallel commentary on The South Asian Idea.

The most straightforward reading is offered by Bekhud Mohani on Desertful of Roses:
"From the sun to the sand-grain-- that is, everything in the world-- is a heart, and the heart is a mirror. Thus the parrot sees a mirror in every direction. That is, the world is a mirror-house, in which the mystical knower sees his own face in every direction."

The parrot is a well-used metaphor for the poet since at least Khusro, if not earlier, since it, like the poet is famous for its sweet speech (shirin sukhan). There is something very intriguing about the image Ghalib constructs in the second line. The poet surrounded on all sides by mirrors: an infinite number of reflections surrounding him. But lets take the verse in detail.

The first line, as FWP points out, has a flowingness (ravaangii) created by the phrase dil-o-dil. Semantically, the line can easily be read as two separate thoughts as outlined above: the world is a heart and the heart is a mirror. However, other readings are not ruled out. Breaking the first line after sand-grain, we get 'from sun to sand-grain, heart after heart is a mirror.' But this does not substantially change the meaning, particularly given the more specific context of the second line. A more radical departure from the interpretation given above would be to take advantage of Urdu grammar which allows "dil hai aainah" to be read both as "heart is a mirror" and "mirror is a heart." Thus, we interpret the first line as the whole world (or each aspect of the world) is heart-like and the mirror too is a heart. Why privilege the mirror separately? Is it not part of the world as well. Yes and no. The mirror is of the world and also reflects the world. It is thus like the heart (or in modern terminology consciousness or the brain), which is also part of the world and at the same time reflects it. Thus both heart and mirror are united in this property and the equation works both ways (heart = mirror).

Coming to the second line. As I said, here Ghalib constructs a highly memorable vision, almost Borges like in its exploitation of the mirror theme (I will write something soon exploring the Ghalib-Borges parallel a bit further). The parrot/poet/seeker wherever he turns is confronted by a mirror or is confronted by the heart/consciousness. Wherever we turn we find both a conscious reality and we find ourselves reflected in it. Further we cannot rule out a double meaning of finding ourselves face to face with ourselves. We face ourseleves everywhere as ego that we are unable to get rid of, but we also face ourselves because we know that the atman (self) and brahman (universe) are One.

The language of mirror and confrontation is used by Ghalib in a Persian verse that I have blogged about before:

Ghalib chuN shaKhs-o-aks dar aainah-e-Khayaal
ba Khveshtan yaki o do char khudiim ma

Ghalib, like the person and the reflection in the mirror of thought
With ourselves we are one annd we confront ourselves

Mirrors are particularly favored by Ghalib's paradox-loving nature, because of that aspect I alluded to earlier of mirror being part of reality and also reflecting it, as do minds.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ghalib: Indifference is worse than enmity

Last week's she'r brought to mind another excellent use of the word "laag" by Ghalib. This one fully exploits the fast that "laag" can mean affection/love as well as animosity/enmity.

laag ho to us ko ham samjhe;N lagaa))o
jab nah ho kuchh bhii to dhokaa khaa))e;N kyaa

لاگ ہو تو اس کوہم سمجھیں لگاؤ
جب نہ ہو کچھ بھی تو دھوکا کھائیں کیا

लाग हो तो उस को हम समझें लगाओ
जब न हो कुछ भी तो धोका खाएं क्या

1) if enmity/love would exist, then we would consider it a bond

2a) when nothing at all would exist, then-- why would we be deceived?
2b) when nothing at all would exist, then-- would we be deceived?

Commentary and translation on Desertful of Roses. Parallel commentary in a social context on The South Asian Idea.

Let us explore this simple yet alluring verse. First here are the meanings of the two key words in the first line according to Platts Dictionary:
laag : 'Attachment, affection, love; ... enmity, animosity, hostility, rancour, spite'. (Platts p.946)
: 'Attachment, connexion; bond, link; ...inclination, propensity'. (Platts p.961)

Now the first line: If affection or hostility existed we could understand a bond to exist. Both are relationships albeit of the opposite kinds. So far what we have is an excellent use of the double-meaning of the word "laag." Incidentally this is a good time to reitirate that word play (iham) appears so centrally in Ghalib's poetry that there is no way to consider it incidental or accidental. Punning or word-play are considered inferior devices in much of poetry today (certainly in English poetry, but I think also in Urdu/Hindi). But in the hands of masters like Ghalib word-play is used in a way that greatly expands the meanings in a she'r. Since the she'r is severely constrained in its length and the ghazal very rarely extends a particular thought beyond one verse, the ghazal poet has to say as much as she can in a very small amount of space. In classical poetry this is achieved in several ways. One, metaphors build upon previous metaphors obviating the need for explanation within the poem. Thus one can speak of the Beloved or wine or the gatekeeper to the Beloved's lane and explain no further relying on the knowledge of the listener/reader to conjure up the full range of associations in the ghazal universe. Second word-play and ambiguity allow an even greater expansion of meaning. Ghalib is the master of both strategies.

In any case I digress. After the word-play of the first line the second line then says: when nothing exists then why would we be deceived? So neither enmity nor affection is displayed by the Beloved. Notice, connecting to my point earlier about brevity in a ghazal, that Ghalib does not even bother to mention " by the Beloved." It is understood. Now if nothing exists between the lover and the Beloved, why then would the lover be confused or deceived about whether the behavior implied affection or hostility? Indifference is complete and allows for no false hopes.

Exploting the divine meaning of the Beloved, this also becomes a plaint for one who feels ignored or forsaken by God. If God at least punished me I could imagine that She cared about me, enough to be hostile or rancorous. But when there is nothing between us, why would I be deceived? Asking rhetorical questions is a common and powerful device often employed by Ghalib.

Dont' forget to visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ghalib: Paradise Lost and a Good Thing Too!

A wealth of Ghalib verses relate to theological or religious notions of the Godhead, of reward and punishment for good or bad behavior, of the nature of true worship, faith and so on. In our series we have seen several examples of these already. The question of the nature of God came up on The South Asian Idea and that prompts the latest post.

:taa((at me;N taa rahe nah mai-o-angabii;N kii laag
doza;x me;N ;Daal do ko))ii le kar bihisht ko

طاعت میں تا رہے نہ مے و انگبیں کی لاگ
دوزخ میں ڈال دو کوئ لے کر بہشت کو

ता'अत में ता रहे न मै ओ अन्गबीन की लाग
दोज़ख में दाल दो कोई ले कर बहिश्त को।

1) so that, in obedience/worship, the attachment/desire of wine and honey does not remain
2) take Paradise, and cast it into Hell

Click here for translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses.
Click here for the parallel entry on The South Asian Idea.

Platts Dictionary: Arabic اطاعت it̤āʻat [inf. n. iv of طوع 'to be or become submissive'], s.f. Obedience, submission, subjection, subordination, fealty, allegiance; observance; reverence, worship, homage; obsequiousness:—it̤āʻat karnā (-), To obey, do the bidding (of);

This verse is from a relatively short ghazal (118) consisting of only four verses. The brief length might be explained by the somewhat unusual rhyme scheme, "isht ko." It is a mischievous, even blasphemous verse. Paradise (bahisht) is famed as the land of flowing honey and wine. The preacher (shaikh, vaaiz) regularly demands obedience and worship from his followers by tempting them with the prospect of paradise. This of course rubs Ghalib the wrong way. Of what use is worship or obedience or submission to God (see above for the Platts entry on the word ta'at) if it is motivated out of a desire for such rewards? So Ghalib says: so that reverence and obedience are not obtained with wine and honey in mind, let us just take Paradise and cast it into Hell. Na rahe gaa baaNs, ne bajegi baaNsuri (a Hindi idiomatic expression, lit. neither the bamboo will remain, nor the flute make its sound, meaning to remove the root cause of some trouble).

The verse's content is shocking but not particularly profound. What makes it work is the chutzpah and the way it is constructed, as also the choice of words. First, as always notice that the first line does not give too much away. It simply makes a general proposition: we are going to do something such that worship is no longer tied to the promise of reward. The second line reveals the momentous nature of what we propose to do. It is fun to try and guess the informed listener's reaction as the verse is recited. As the first line is repeated a few times, our mind starts spinning, "what could be coming?" Then as the second line starts, "cast into hell..." initially it seems only a regular curse (in English "to hell with"). But since we have already h eard the first verse of this ghazal and therefore know the rhyme scheme, our mind is drawn to the word that both fulfills the rhyme scheme and offer a wonderful counter-point to "dozakh" (hell), and that word of course is bahisht (paradise). In a sudden "ah" moment we get the full impact of the verse. This is one of those verses which one gets the full meaning as soon as it is heard and understood.

Lastly the choice of words, once again Ghalib makes full use of Urdu's vocabulary which ranges from Arabic, via Persian to the Prakrit derived languages of the Subcontinent (the languages like braj, awadhi, hindvi that came together to form modern Hindi). So the wonderful word "laag" appears here. A very evocative word that conveys fondness, attachment, desire, the feeling of being entangled, all at once. It works perfectly here because it conveys exactly how attachment to earthly pleasures, which gets int the way of true worship, is simply transferred to heavenly pleasures. The fact of attachment remains and hence the obstruction to true worship also remains...as long as we don't do away with the whole notion of paradise. And not only should we do away with Paradise, Ghalib even tells us how we should do it- to hell with it! What excellent wordplay and contrast!

The conversation continues into more contemporary and socially relevant territory on The South Asian Idea.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ghalib on striking one's own path

We continue with the second post of the year on Ghalib. New readers should know that this is part of an ongoing series on reinterpreting Ghalib for today. It is a collaborative project with The South Asian Idea. Click on the category "The Ghalib Project" for past posts.

Here is this week's verse:

لازم نہیں کہ خضر کی ہم پیروی کریں

جانا کہ اک بزرگ ہمیں ہم سفر ملے

laazim nahii;N kih ;xi.zr kii ham pairavii kare;N
jaanaa kih ik buzurg hame;N ham-safar mile

लाजिम नहीं की खिज्र की हम पैरवी करें
जाना कि एक बुजुर्ग हमें हमसफर मिले

1) it's not necessary that we would follow in Khizr's footsteps
2) we considered that we had acquired one venerable-elder as a fellow-traveler

Click here for commentary on Desertful of Roses.

This is one of Ghalib's "independence of thought" verses. In Khizr Ghalib takes on one of the most revered wise men of the Islamic tradition. Khizr is said to have drunk from the fountain of youth and acheived immortality. He appears throughout history with Moses, with Alexander, at Mohammad's (PBUH) fuuneral and even today has been seen by many Sufi saints. The Sufi's consider him a guide to all those who are lost. Revealing himself to those who are worthy, he is also said to reveal divine secrets (sirr) to them. Ghalib is at his tongue-incheek best here. First he accepts Sufi tradition which claims that Khizr is still alive today (otherwise how would be meet him in our travels?), and Ghalib grants to himself the status of those to whom Khizr would deign to reveal himself (i.e. someone who is worthy of what Khizr has to offer). But then he undermines Khizr's special place by saying: its not really binding on us to imitate or follow him. We will just think we have found a buzurg as a fellow-traveler, a companion. The word buzurg is very multivalent and well-chosen. According to Platts:

P بزرگ buzurg [Pehl. vazr; Zend vazra; S. vajra], adj. & s.m. Great, reverend, venerable, aged, noble, respected, respectable;—great man, grandee; old man, elder, respectable person; holy man, saint; sage, wise man;

So you can see that it accords Khizr just the right amount of respect, without making him someone who should be followed blindly. Because, after all, we are smart enough to chart our own path. But the question is: what is Khizr doing here in the first place. Ghalib seems to suggest that his (Ghalib's) destination or at least search, is the same as Khizr (how else could they be hamsafars, or fellow-travelers?).

Finally, a bridge to modern times. This verse is quite open-ended in the sense that "ham" can be interpreted more broadly in terms of a country or society and Khizr could be several models of progress, development etc which are in front of us, which need not be imitated, but rather considered to be "elders" who accompany us in our search for a better world. For more on this line of thought please visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ghalib on the New Year

We are back after a break for the Holiday Season. And what better way to start off the new year than with a verse pontificating on the possibilities of what the year holds in store. Admittedly it hasn't been a promising start with the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the US Dept. of Labor announcing record breaking layoffs. Lekin phir bhi...

دیکھیے پاتے ہیں عشاق بتوں سے کیا فیض
اک برہمن نے کہا ہے کہ یہ سال اچھا ہے

dekhiye paate hai;N ((ushshaaq buto;N se kyaa fai.z
ik barahman ne kahaa hai kih yih saal achchhaa hai

1) let's see what grace/favor/benefit lovers find from idols
2) one Brahman has said that this year is good

Frances Pritchett calls this a "sly and witty little verse." And so it is. Witty, tongue-in-cheek, almost nonchalantly beguiling. The first line is very innocuous, hackneyed even, alluding as it does to a very conventional Ghazal image of lovers (ushshaaq is the Arabic plural of aashiq) obtaining beneficience/grace/bounty from idols, idols here meaning the respective beloveds. But the second line enhances the effect substantially. One can almost imagine the verse being recited in a mushaairaa, where after several repetitions of the first line, we begin the hear the second one, ik barahman ne kahaa hai, and knowing what the rhyme scheme of the ghazal is (since we have heard a few verses being recited before this one), we can feel what is coming, and perhaps in unison we join the poet in exclaiming, yeh saal achchha hai! At that moment we realize that the word "but" or idol in the first line can be taken in two senses, the conventional Ghazal sense of the Beloved and the religious sense of an idol to be worshiped, on which of course Brahmin's are acknowledged experts.

As Hali notes, Ghalib comments on the fact that for a Lover the only meaning of a "good year" is the year in which he will obtain the grace of his Beloved: "he considers the sole meaning of its being good to be that perhaps this year beloveds might be gracious to lovers, not that this year there would be no famine or pestilence or wars, etc. etc." But the double meaning of "idol" that Ghalib invokes by speaking of a Brahmin, can take us further. The Lover is hopes for grace not only from the Beloved but from the Supreme Beloved or God, without whose grace, in fact no earthly grace is possible. Let us join Ghalib then in praying for a New Year in which we the seekers and searchers of Divine and earthly beloved find the grace we are looking for.

Please visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea.