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.