Saturday, March 21, 2009

For Ghalib the world is merely children at play

This week we proceed from last week's mood of resignation and defiance combined, to a mood of bemused indifference towards the goings-on in the world. Here it is:

बाज़ीचा-ए-अत्फाल है दुनिया मेरे आगे
होता है शब-ओ-रोज़ तमाशा मेरे आगे

baaziichah-e a:tfaal hai dunyaa mire aage
hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage

1) the world is a game/plaything of children, before me
2a) night-and-day is [habitually] a spectacle, before me
2b) night and day, a spectacle is [habitually] before me
(Translation: FWP)
Commentaries on Desertful of Roses and parallel post on The South Asian Idea.

This is a justly famous verse from a justly famous ghazal. The various commentaries collected by Prof. Fran Pritchett offer the agreed-upon reading of it. It is indeed a relatively simple yet powerful verse. Though as wee will see it is not without its hidden meanings. As far the language itself goes, the only phrase likely to pose some difficult is baaziichah-e a:tfaal, for which here are the meanings:
baaziichah : 'Fun, play, sport; wagering; toy, plaything'. (Platts p.122)
a;tfaal is the Arabic plural of tifl which means child.

The clear reading is that this temporal world is merely a children's game or plaything as far as I am concerned (mere aage = in front of me, or in my estimation). Note that "dunyaa" is a loaded word and evokes the meaning of this material/temporal world as opposed to the next immaterial/eternal one (diin wa dunyaa). And how do I know that the world is a mere plaything? Well, night and day there is a spectacle in front of me. The word tamaashaa is used brilliantly here and again contains more possbilities than conveyed by "spectacle." It has the sense of something fake or theatrical, as in, when someone is said to be doing tamaashaa we mean that they are creating a scene or behaving in a manner that is not only undignified but also shallow ("creating a scene" perhaps). This entire range of commotations is appropriate here. We of course do not know what sorts of tamaashaas Ghalib had in mind when he said this, but as the post on The South Asian Idea notes, contemporary politics often provides us with plenty of opportunities to remember this verse.

There is a second meaning in the verse which is not mentioned by any of the commentators. This meaning is allowed by the grammatical structure of sentences in Hindi/Urdu and Ghalib uses it very often. Any line that says "A is B" can equally well be read as "B is A" in Hindi/Urdu. Thus baaziichah-e a:tfaal hai dunyaa can be read as "the world is a plaything of children" (or "the world is merely children at play"), which is the favored reading here, or it can also be read as "plaything of children is a world" ("or "children at play show us a world"). The second reading adds an entire new dimension as we consider below and provides a delightful new angle to the verse, since we now see the playing of children as a metaphor for the material world just as the world reminds us of children at play.

What does it add? Coming back to the idea of dunyaa as speciafically the material world, we can also see why activities in this world are like children at play. Because, just as children at play are in their own play-world and oblivious of the "real world" (i.e. for them their toy world is the real world), but we who are adult or grown-up see them as being in error or just being children, so also those who possess knowledge of existence beyond the material world consider those whose thought is limited to the temporal/material world, to be in error. Thus "children" are a metaphor for spiritually unaware people.

As always a seemingly simple verse hides a world of meanings (alaam-e-ma'ani).

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