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 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.