Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ghalib on striking one's own path

We continue with the second post of the year on Ghalib. New readers should know that this is part of an ongoing series on reinterpreting Ghalib for today. It is a collaborative project with The South Asian Idea. Click on the category "The Ghalib Project" for past posts.

Here is this week's verse:

لازم نہیں کہ خضر کی ہم پیروی کریں

جانا کہ اک بزرگ ہمیں ہم سفر ملے

laazim nahii;N kih ;xi.zr kii ham pairavii kare;N
jaanaa kih ik buzurg hame;N ham-safar mile

लाजिम नहीं की खिज्र की हम पैरवी करें
जाना कि एक बुजुर्ग हमें हमसफर मिले

1) it's not necessary that we would follow in Khizr's footsteps
2) we considered that we had acquired one venerable-elder as a fellow-traveler

Click here for commentary on Desertful of Roses.

This is one of Ghalib's "independence of thought" verses. In Khizr Ghalib takes on one of the most revered wise men of the Islamic tradition. Khizr is said to have drunk from the fountain of youth and acheived immortality. He appears throughout history with Moses, with Alexander, at Mohammad's (PBUH) fuuneral and even today has been seen by many Sufi saints. The Sufi's consider him a guide to all those who are lost. Revealing himself to those who are worthy, he is also said to reveal divine secrets (sirr) to them. Ghalib is at his tongue-incheek best here. First he accepts Sufi tradition which claims that Khizr is still alive today (otherwise how would be meet him in our travels?), and Ghalib grants to himself the status of those to whom Khizr would deign to reveal himself (i.e. someone who is worthy of what Khizr has to offer). But then he undermines Khizr's special place by saying: its not really binding on us to imitate or follow him. We will just think we have found a buzurg as a fellow-traveler, a companion. The word buzurg is very multivalent and well-chosen. According to Platts:

P بزرگ buzurg [Pehl. vazr; Zend vazra; S. vajra], adj. & s.m. Great, reverend, venerable, aged, noble, respected, respectable;—great man, grandee; old man, elder, respectable person; holy man, saint; sage, wise man;

So you can see that it accords Khizr just the right amount of respect, without making him someone who should be followed blindly. Because, after all, we are smart enough to chart our own path. But the question is: what is Khizr doing here in the first place. Ghalib seems to suggest that his (Ghalib's) destination or at least search, is the same as Khizr (how else could they be hamsafars, or fellow-travelers?).

Finally, a bridge to modern times. This verse is quite open-ended in the sense that "ham" can be interpreted more broadly in terms of a country or society and Khizr could be several models of progress, development etc which are in front of us, which need not be imitated, but rather considered to be "elders" who accompany us in our search for a better world. For more on this line of thought please visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

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