Friday, September 26, 2008

Ghalib on charity-doers

This week's Ghalib moment relates to charity and philanthropy.

بنا کر فقیروں کا ہم بھیس غالب
تماشا ۓ اہل کرم دیکھتے ہیں

banaa kar faqiiro;N kaa ham-bhes ;Gaalib
tamaashaa-e ahl-e karam dekhte hai;N

1) having put on the guise of the Faqirs, Ghalib
2) [we] see the spectacle of the people of generosity

[Translation by Frances W Pritchett. Click here for interpretation on Desertful of Roses.]

As Josh succintly puts it: "The meaning is that It's not our purpose to become a Faqir and ask for alms. We've adopted the guise in order to see who is generous, and how generous, and in whom there is no genuine feeling of generosity."

In a class society, such as one Ghalib lived in, inequality is par for course. With inequality come doctrines of charity and exhortations to generosity. "Be kind to those less fortunate than yourself." "Give to the poor, for therein lies the salvation of the rich." And so on. Sometimes charity is genuine, from the heart, other times it is a show put on for the benefit of society.

To view the spectacle of the charity-givers giving alms to the poor, we ourselves sometimes disguise as a needy person. Only by assuming the disguise, the outward form (بھیس , भेस) and therefore the perspective of the poor do we get to see the spectacle (تماشا , तमाशा) of their ostensible kindness.

In this interpretation tamaashaa is used in its pejorative sense of a false spectacle or a show। The lack of genuine feeling among the rich is exposed only when they are viewed from the perspective of the poor.

Technically the verse plays nicely on the symmetry between "bhes" and "tamaashaa." Usually one puts on a bhes or disguise precisely to perform a tamaashaa, a play or a spectacle. Here Ghalib uses the affinity of meanings between the two words to nice effect. In order to view a tamaashaa, I am putting on a disguise.

There are other possible meanings that I haven't explored here. In keeping with the general spirit of The Ghalib Project to explore Ghalib in ways that carry social-political meaning today, we choose to emphasize the social charity aspect. Ghalib urges us to scrutinize philanthropy in our own world. What motives does it have? Can it ever put itself out of existence? That is, can philanthropy get rid of those very class distinctions on which it rests? Or will it always be a way for the rich to "manage" the poor, such that poverty does not threaten social stability? I favor the later.

Being an economics student this naturally takes me in the direction of an analysis of international development aid and its role in reducing or managing poverty. But I will save this line of thought for a separate post.

Please visit the parallel post on this verse on The South Asian Idea.

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