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.

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