Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ghalib: Paradise or the Beloved's Lane?

کم نہیں جلوہ گری میں ترے کوچے سے بہشت
یہی نقشہ ہے ولے اس قدر آباد نہیں

kam nahii;N jalvah-garii me;N tire kuuche se bihisht
yihii naqshah hai vale is qadar aabaad nahii;N

1) it's not less in splendor-possession than your street, paradise--
2) there is this very same design/layout, but it's not populous/flourishing to this extent

Click here for commentary and translation on Desertful of Roses.

This week's verse is lesser known but nevertheless great follow-up on last week's verse. As we saw last week, Ghalib took a rather "instrumental" approach to the existence or non-existence of paradise. It may or may not exist (and we suspect it doesn't), but its still a good idea to keep us happy or contented.

This week's verse has Ghalib continuing his pontifications on paradise. Now he finds it lacking from another angle. It is not any less splendorous than "your street", it even has the same map/layout/plan though its not quite as populated or flourishing. Conventionally we interpret the "you" in the she'r to be the beloved, and more so in such a verse an earthly beloved (as opposed to God). So the standard interpretation goes that the poet having witnessed paradise himself, finds it quite similar to his beloved's street, but also finds that the later is much more popular and flourishing, perhaps because its easier to get there, perhaps because only boring ascetics go to paradise and hence its much less popular (see S.R.Faruqi's interpretations on this point). Lastly the commentators also note the cheekiness or mischievousness (sho;xii) in comparing paradise to the beloved's street rather than the beloved's street to paradise.

This verse brings to mind a verse from Ghalib's predecessor Mir Taqi Mir:

کس کا قبلہ کیسا کعبہ کون حرم ہے کیا احرام
کوچے کے اس کے باشندوں نے سب کو یہیں سے سلام کیا

kis kaa qiblah kaisaa ka'ba kaun haram hai kya ahraam
kuche ke uske baashindoN ne sabko yahiiN se salaam kiya

whose qiblah what ka'ba who is pure and what is impure
the denizens of his/her street greet everyone from here itself/have no need to go anywhere (on pilgrimage)

Here's a twist though on this theme. What if we interpret the "you" in the verse (staying for the moment with Ghalib's verse) not as the earthly beloved but instead as the divine beloved (or God)? Addressing divinity by the second person familiar pronoun is of course a well established convention in the ghazal (as in "jabke tujhe bin nahiiN koi maujuud, phir yeh hungamaa ai ;xudaa kyaa hai"). Then the beloved's street becomes God's neighborhood. How is that different from paradise? Perhaps this is Ghalib's point. That the conventional paradise that the religious orthodoxy speaks about is remote, unreachable except for the chosen few (chosen by the criteria of the orthodoxy itself). On the other hand, a personal God, who can be directly experienced, which is a major theme in Sufism and Bhakti poetry, is available to many more of us. His street therefore, is much more popular than the paradise of the religious establishment. The establishment in the name of bringing us closer to divinity, only separates us from it.

I admit that this interpretation doesn't sit entirely comfortably with the general tenor of the verse. So the earthly beloved may still be the better way to go here.

My interpretation may work better with Mir's verse. Rather than worrying about the Ka'ba and the qiblah and about what is pure or impure, those who live in the proximity of God (the personal, immediately accesible beloved on Kabir and Tukaram) don't need to be go anywhere to purify themselves. This theme is very popular in Sufi and Bhakti poetry, as I said before. Here is another example of it. As the famous ghazal atributed to Khusro goes (sung today as a qawwali):

har qaum raast raahay diine wa qiblah gaahay
man qiblah raast kardam bar samt kaj kulaahay
sansaar har ko poojay kul ko jagat saraahay
makkay meiN koi DhoonDhay kaashi ko koi jaaey
guyyiyaN meiN apne pii ke payyaaN paDuuN na kaahay

Every sect has a faith, a direction (Qibla) to which they turn,
I have turned my face towards the crooked cap (of Nizamudin Aulia)
The whole world worships something or the other,
Some look for God in Mecca, while some go to Kashi (Banaras),
So why can’t I, Oh wise people, fall into my beloved’s feet?

On the South Asian Idea Weblog we take this discussion into more contemporary and socio-political contexts.

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