Friday, February 6, 2009

Ghalib: Indifference is worse than enmity

Last week's she'r brought to mind another excellent use of the word "laag" by Ghalib. This one fully exploits the fast that "laag" can mean affection/love as well as animosity/enmity.

laag ho to us ko ham samjhe;N lagaa))o
jab nah ho kuchh bhii to dhokaa khaa))e;N kyaa

لاگ ہو تو اس کوہم سمجھیں لگاؤ
جب نہ ہو کچھ بھی تو دھوکا کھائیں کیا

लाग हो तो उस को हम समझें लगाओ
जब न हो कुछ भी तो धोका खाएं क्या

1) if enmity/love would exist, then we would consider it a bond

2a) when nothing at all would exist, then-- why would we be deceived?
2b) when nothing at all would exist, then-- would we be deceived?

Commentary and translation on Desertful of Roses. Parallel commentary in a social context on The South Asian Idea.

Let us explore this simple yet alluring verse. First here are the meanings of the two key words in the first line according to Platts Dictionary:
laag : 'Attachment, affection, love; ... enmity, animosity, hostility, rancour, spite'. (Platts p.946)
: 'Attachment, connexion; bond, link; ...inclination, propensity'. (Platts p.961)

Now the first line: If affection or hostility existed we could understand a bond to exist. Both are relationships albeit of the opposite kinds. So far what we have is an excellent use of the double-meaning of the word "laag." Incidentally this is a good time to reitirate that word play (iham) appears so centrally in Ghalib's poetry that there is no way to consider it incidental or accidental. Punning or word-play are considered inferior devices in much of poetry today (certainly in English poetry, but I think also in Urdu/Hindi). But in the hands of masters like Ghalib word-play is used in a way that greatly expands the meanings in a she'r. Since the she'r is severely constrained in its length and the ghazal very rarely extends a particular thought beyond one verse, the ghazal poet has to say as much as she can in a very small amount of space. In classical poetry this is achieved in several ways. One, metaphors build upon previous metaphors obviating the need for explanation within the poem. Thus one can speak of the Beloved or wine or the gatekeeper to the Beloved's lane and explain no further relying on the knowledge of the listener/reader to conjure up the full range of associations in the ghazal universe. Second word-play and ambiguity allow an even greater expansion of meaning. Ghalib is the master of both strategies.

In any case I digress. After the word-play of the first line the second line then says: when nothing exists then why would we be deceived? So neither enmity nor affection is displayed by the Beloved. Notice, connecting to my point earlier about brevity in a ghazal, that Ghalib does not even bother to mention " by the Beloved." It is understood. Now if nothing exists between the lover and the Beloved, why then would the lover be confused or deceived about whether the behavior implied affection or hostility? Indifference is complete and allows for no false hopes.

Exploting the divine meaning of the Beloved, this also becomes a plaint for one who feels ignored or forsaken by God. If God at least punished me I could imagine that She cared about me, enough to be hostile or rancorous. But when there is nothing between us, why would I be deceived? Asking rhetorical questions is a common and powerful device often employed by Ghalib.

Dont' forget to visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

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