Sunday, June 29, 2014

“The moon waxes big so that it might become your forehead”: Ghalib’s metaphor-inverting verses

[Note: I am returning to blogging on this site after  nearly four years. I hope to continue with a series of posts on Urdu poetry.]
The human mind works through metaphors and analogies. And no one understands this better than a poet. In the sub-continental Urdu-Persian poetic tradition, the metaphor was carried to great heights of sophistication during the classical period. The “Indian style” of Persian poetry (sabk-e-hindi) and its allied Urdu tradition became famous (some would say notorious) for their “metaphorical excesses.”[1] Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” (1797-1869) one of the foremost exponents of this style, is known for his intricate and abstract metaphorical constructions, so much so that he is sometimes called a “mushkil pasand shaayar” or “difficulty loving poet.” But Ghalib also wrote many accessible verses and has always been a very popular poet in India and Pakistan. Choosing some verses from his Urdu and Persian ghazals, in this essay I discuss a particular device that Ghalib used to impart freshness to established metaphors.

Both simile (tashbiih)[2] and metaphor (istiyaara) form the soul of the Urdu-Persian poetic tradition. An entire universe of equivalences has been poetically established over the centuries. Many have been used (and overused) in Bollywood songs. The beloved is like the flame of a lamp (sham’a) and the lover like the moth (parwaanaa). The world is like a wine-tavern (maiKhana), a place of sin. The beloved’s glances are like arrows (tiir-e-nazar), her eyes like cups of wine (aaNkhoN kii mastii). Her lane (kuu-e-yaar) is like heaven while the lover’s house is like the desert or wilderness (biyaabaaN).[3] The list is long.

Good poets create new meanings out of old metaphors thereby lending freshness to them. Here we will see one technique Ghalib uses towards this end. But before we go into that let us understand a bit more about the use of metaphors in Urdu-Persian poetry. All the examples here are in the form of a two-line poem, known as she’r which forms part of a ghazal.[4] But since a ghazal does not usually have a thematic unity, a she’r can be considered in isolation as a stand-alone poem. Consider the following famous verse by Jigar Moradabadi (1890-1960):

yeh ishq nahiN aasaaN bas itnaa samajh lijiye
ek aag kaa daryaa hai aur Duub ke jaanaa hai.

What they call love, understand, it isn’t easy
You must immerse yourself in this river/sea of fire.[5]

The metaphor is straightforward here: love (ishq) = a river or sea of fire (aag kaa daryaa). And both appear explicitly in the verse. But metaphors such as this one have become so thoroughly part of the language that usually poets do not need to be as explicit.  For example here is Meer Taqi “Meer” (1723-1810) on another fiery aspect of love, the burning it produces within the lover:

chhati jalaa kare hai soz-e-daruuN balaa hai
ek aag lag rahi hai kyaa jaaniye ke kyaa hai

The breast burns with a calamitous ache
A fire is burning, who can tell what it is

Love is not mentioned in this verse at all. The rhetorical (inshaiyaah) style of the she’r (“who can tell what is it?”) leaves it implied. Similarly, whenever a poet uses the words “sham’a” or “parwaana” the audience knows instantly that these are stand-ins for something else. A coded language comes into being, through which poets and their knowledgeable audiences (the ahl-e-zabaan or the sah-hridaya) communicate. So whenever the word “chaman” (garden) is used, we know that the poet’s intention is not to talk about an actual garden, but to call to the readers’ mind the entire corpus of poetry that has previously used the word “chaman” to speak about a flower garden as a metaphor for the world as a collection of objects endowed with divine beauty, the coming of the spring season with the beloved’s arrival, and so on.  With equations being so well established only half the metaphor need appear in the poem. And the verse “says” a lot more than is contained in its words. This is a very handy device because in a two-line poem every word counts.

Naturally, poets also compete with each other to see who makes the most skillful, startling, beautiful use of a well-worn metaphor. Indeed, a poet’s reputation and stature is measured by the freshness that he or she brings to an old theme (mazmuun) and the way a new theme is created using well-known symbols (known in the tradition as mazmuun aafriinii). A particularly interesting such device is the turning of a metaphor on its head. Let us take the same metaphor on which we have seen two verses so far, fire and love. Ghalib says in a Persian verse:[6]

az daruun-e-siina-am iN taur paidaa aatish ast
khalq migoyand aatish ra ke goyaa aatish ast

loose Urdu translation:
mere siine meN paida hui aisi aatish hai
duniya ne aatish ko kaha, yeh goyaa aatish hai

In my heart such a fire has been born
Seeing fire, people said, ‘in a manner of speaking, that is fire.’

This verse is difficult to translate without losing all its beauty but the gist is conveyed. Before coming to the metaphor inversion, let us note some other strengths of this verse. Recall that classical poetry was composed to be recited in oral performance (the expression in Urdu is still “she’r kehnaa” not “she’r likhnaa” i.e. to “say a she’r” to “to write a she’r”). Thus the placement of the words and their sequence was critical in achieving the correct mood. A common trick used by many poets was to withhold the punch till the last possible minute. Thus a well-constructed verse would have a first line that was deliberately vague or general. And in the second line, the word right before the refrain (radiif) would deliver the punch.[7] 

In this verse, the most important word is “goyaa,” which Ghalib holds back till the last minute, right before the refrain or radiif, which in this ghazal is “aatish ast.” “Goyaa,” is a beautiful word that can mean “so to speak,” or “as it were” or “in a manner of speaking.” So Ghalib says, what a fire there is within me, when people see real fire out there in the world, they say that it is fire only in a manner of speaking. What a marvelous though, and so compactly expressed! This verse is an excellent example of how a well worn, almost stale, theme like “fire in the heart” can be taken and elevated to a different level through metaphor inversion.

Consider another common theme. The beloved’s lane or street is a crowded, thriving place. Her famous beauty attracts lovers, rich and poor, from near and afar, to her neighborhood. Before we see Ghalib’s “inverse metaphorical” take on this theme, let us see a more conventional treatment by Ghalib’s contemporary, Momin Khan “Momin” (1800-1851):

rahte haiN jamaa kuucha-e-jaanaaN meN Khaas-o-aam
aabaad ek ghar hai jahaan-e-Kharaab meN

Rich and poor gather in the beloved’s lane
One house flourishes in this wretched world

In itself, this is a good verse. Specially, the two contrasting words “aabaad” or flourishing, and “Kharaab” or wretched, bracket the second line creating a pleasing effect. Note that wordplay (riaayat) and relationships between words are extremely important in appreciating a well-crafted she’r. But now consider the following she’r by Ghalib on the same theme:

kam nahiN jalwaagarii meN kuuche se tere bahisht
yehi naqshaa hai vale is qadr aabaad nahiN

Heaven is not any less splendorous than your lane
It has the same design/plan, though its not as flourishing

The point is to extoll how popular, thriving, and attractive the beloved’s lane is, and to this end poets will often compare it to heaven. But Ghalib is not comparing the beloved’s street to heaven; he is comparing heaven to the beloved’s lane. And he finds it wanting. This simple inversion adds an incredible mischievousness (shoKhi) to the verse. The first line starts with a back-handed complement to heaven by saying it is “no worse” than the beloved’s lane. But the second line takes it to another level. The word “naqshaa” can mean a design, a plan, a map, or a model. So Ghalib is saying to the beloved, heaven is modeled on your street! Just as the metaphorical fire in the heart became the measure of real fire, instead of the other way around, here too the same trick is employed. And the final stroke is the use of the rhyme word “aabaad” before the refrain, “nahiiiN.” Notice that it is the same word used by Momin in his verse to describe the beloved’s lane. But in Ghalib’s verse it does much more work because of the inverse-metaphorical construction.

Ghalib uses this technique repeatedly and to phenomenal effect. An extension of the beloved’s lane-compared-to-heaven metaphor is that the guard (darbaan) who watches the entrance to the beloved’s house is like rizwaan, the guard who stands at heaven’s door. Our poor lover has no better chance of entering his beloved’s house than he does of entering heaven. Again, watch Ghalib in action with this popular metaphor:

ba’ad-e yak umr-e vara’a baar to detaa baare
kaash rizwaaN hii dar-e yaar kaa darbaaN hotaa

After a whole lifetime of abstinence, he would have granted entry
If only rizwaaN had been the darbaaN of the beloved’s door.

Once again, the verse is carefully constructed to achieve maximum effect. The first line is ambiguous. It most likely refers to rizwaaN since there is a reference to a lifetime of piety and to entry being granted somewhere, most probably heaven, though we can only guess at this point. Only in the second line, and towards the end of the verse do we get the full impact, with the word darbaaN. What makes it special is the complete inversion of the metaphor. It is not that the fellow guarding the beloved’s door is as strict and impassable as heaven’s guard. No! If only it were heaven’s guard on duty at the beloved’s door! He at least would let the lover through after a lifetime of abstinence and piousness. No chance of that happening here, because the beloved’s darbaaN is far more formidable. Though, the way the poet has constructed it, it doesn’t even need to be said explicitly. The word “kaash” does all the work. There are also obvious affinities in the verse between a lifetime of abstinence and rizwaaN, as well as granting entry and darbaaN.

Let us take another example. Tears are often compared to blood, as in the expression khoon ke aaNsoo rona (to cry tears of blood). The metaphor is simple and rooted in the daily observation that when say, a hand or a leg suffers a physical wound, blood runs down it. Similarly when the heart is (metaphorically) wounded in love, tears run down the cheek. Many verses can be found on this theme, but for illustration purposes, here are two, the first by Meer and the second by Ghalib, which make straightforward use of this metaphor.

we din gaye jo zabt kii taaqat thii hameN bhii
ab deeda-e-Khoonbaar nahiN jaate sambhaale

Gone are the days when we had self-control
We cannot control these blood-steaming eyes

juu-e KhuuN aaNkhoN se bahne do kih hai shaam-e firaaq
maiN yeh samjhuuNgaa kih sham’eN do furozaaN ho gaiiN

Let a river of blood flow from the eyes, it is the evening of separation
I will think that two lamps have become radiant

Note, this metaphor works by elevating tears to the status of a much more precious bodily fluid, viz. blood. Now here is a verse by Ghalib that turns it on its head.

ragoN meiN dauDte phirne ke hum nahiN kaail
jab aaNkh hi se na Tapka to phir lahuu kyaa hai

We don’t accept its running around in the veins,
If it doesn’t drip from the eyes, what good is blood

Let us see what makes this verse work. It is one of Ghalib’s famous verses and also “mushaira verse,” (see note 7) a verse carefully constructed to achieve maximum effect in oral recitation. The first line is deliberately ambiguous. It makes a general proposition without giving too much away. In the second line too, the most important word, lahuu, does not make an appearance till the last possible minute, right before the refrain (kyaa hai). Adding pleasure is the inventive use of the colloquial expression “dauDte phirna” or to run around, usually without purpose or without result. 

Using this phrase for blood coursing through the vein is, of course, highly ironic, since this movement is anything but pointless. In real life, if anything, it is the flowing of tears that can be said to be pointless. For the lover, however, blood running in the veins is blood wasted. Unless it pours through the eyes, it has not fulfilled its potential. The overall effect is that of a metaphorical inversion. Instead of comparing tears to blood Ghalib is comparing blood to tears.  It is not tears that are elevated to the status of blood, but blood that is found wanting in status before tears. Running around pointlessly in veins, what is that good for? As long as it doesn’t flow from the eyes, its not really blood is it?

A final example is again from Ghalib’s Persian verse:
chun ba-Khabar ke na aaNast bakaahad az sharam
maah yak chand babaalad ke jabeen-e-to shavad

loose Urdu translation:
jab Khabar hoti hai ke woh, woh nahi hai, sharm se ghaTtaa hai
chaaNd baDhtaa hai ke teri jabeeN ban jaaye

when it thinks it is not that, then it diminishes in shame
the moon waxes big so that it might become your forehead
(English Translation – Yusuf Husain, Persian Ghazals of Ghalib)

The comparison between the moon (maah) and the forehead (jabeen) is so much part of the language that there is a word in Urdu that embodies the metaphor: maahjabeen (it also a name). Ghalib makes clever use of this common association in the verse. By now readers know to look at the crafting of the word order: the ambiguous first line followed by the second line which delivers the punch at the very end, right before the refrain (which in this ghazal is –e-to shavad). But the wordplay is also worth noticing here. There is an obvious connection between diminishing or waning in the first line and increasing or waxing in the second. Further both these actions are connected to the moon. Finally, the waxing and the waning of the moon are connected to the beloved’s forehead. The moon waxes in an attempt to rival the forehead and wanes (in shame) when it realizes that the task is hopeless.

No doubt many more examples can be found in Ghalib as also in other poets. Classical Urdu-Persian poetry is worthy of many more such pleasurable explorations. It is hoped that interested readers will explore this and other themes further.

[1] See S R Faruqi’s “A Stranger In The City: The Poetics of Sabk-i Hindi,” Annual of Urdu Studies Vol. 19 (2004)
[2] Urdu words have been transliterated into Roman script using a simplified version of the scheme developed by Frances Pritchett, available here:

[3] Note that even though I am using the feminine pronoun to describe the beloved, conventionally the beloved is referred to as male in Urdu poetry. Persian of course has no genders.

[4] For a description of the ghazal form see:

[5] All translations are the author’s unless otherwise noted.

[6] Quoted by Ustad Ahmad Javed in his lecture on the sabk-e-hindi (Indian School) style of Persian poetry The lecture is available at: (see 1:30:00 for the verse.)

[7] Prof. Fraces Pritchett has labeled such verses “mushairah verses.” See

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