Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Ghalib on a killer who kills on the basis of Religious and Secular Law

Our reader's comments on some previous verses brought up the issue of shariah. Taking cue from that we have chosen this week's verse of The Ghalib Project. We are going out on a limb here. We are taking a well-known verse and interpreting it in a new way. First we offer the verse itself, followed by its conventionally understood meaning. Then finally we offer our reading.

The verse (Ghazal 215, Verse 2, composed after 1847):

شرع و آئین پر مدار سہی
ایسے قاتل کا کیا کرے کوئ

shar'a-o-aaiin par madaar sahii
aise qaatil kaa kyaa kare koii

Even on the basis of religious and secular law
What to do with such a killer?

The conventional interpretation is that qaatil here refers to the Beloved and that Ghalib is suggesting that even on the basis of religious and secular law, what can we do about such a qaatil (who presumably is beyond both religious and secular law). Since the qatl is a metaphorical qatl and not a real murder, law (religious and secular) is powerless to punish. Everyone seems to agree on this interpretation.

Of course it is a nice, tight she'r even so interpreted. Firstly the meter is quite a short one, and though I am not a poet at all, I imagine the composing in such a short meter must be more difficult than composing in a longer one since there is almost no room for fillers. Every word must be made to work for the poet.

But what I find most pleasing is the colloquial nature of the second line, contrasted with the more "formal/literary" first line. Ghalib often uses this trick, which one can imagine would be a great hit in a mushairah. For example the verse we discussed two weeks ago, shows a similar format. The first line is somewhat formal, heavy on Persianisms (vafaadaarii ba-shart-e-ustuvaarii asl-e-imaaN hai), and the second line is much more punchy and colloquial (mare but'xaane meiN to ka'be meiN gaaDho barahman ko). Similarly here, kisii cheez kaa kyaa kare koi (what can one do with XYZ) is a nice simple colloquialism that offers contrast with the first line. FWP notes in particular the colloquial use of "kaa."

In any event, now on to our more heretical reading. We are reading the she'r as:
Even if [his actions are] based on religious and secular law
What to do with such a killer?

That is, what can one do about such as qaatil who murders on the basis of religious and secular law? Then we can take this verse as a protest against the way law (of either the religious or the secular variety) can be used (and even created) by power to "get away with murder." The English idiom, "getting away with murder" works nicely in this context. We see around us that power is able to get away with murder, in part because law itself is a creation of power. So Ghalib can be read as saying, un qaatiloN ka ham kyaa kareN, jo qaide ke boote par qatl karte haiN? (What can we do about those killers who murder on the basis of the laws they themselves may have written?)

Please visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for more on the contemporary relevance of this verse.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting observation on Ghalib's style of following up a formalized first line with a simpler second line.

    Interesting 'heretical' interpretation as well...look forward to more.