Ghalib – 28: Who’s Afraid of Multiple Meanings?

We resume the series with a she’r that illustrates well some of the underlying beliefs of The South Asian Idea:

nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa maiN to kyaa hotaa

1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God

2a) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what?

Note that there are at least three interpretations of the first line and six of the second. Frances Pritchett calls it a ‘meaning machine’ or ‘meaning generator’ yielding a “two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations.”

This is the simplest of couplets as far as the vocabulary is concerned. So, the meaning of the individual words is not at issue. It is the interpretation or the meaning that the reader takes away that is of interest.

What exactly did Ghalib mean? That perhaps is not the most fruitful approach to the task of interpretation. We have no authoritative text to refer to; nor can we ask Ghalib. We might also consider the possibility that perhaps Ghalib did not have any single meaning in mind. If he had, it would not have been difficult for him to remove the ambiguity.

This is a characteristic of literature – there are no correct interpretations. Great literature gets reinterpreted over time and yields entirely new meanings. At any given time readers can have differing interpretations that they can discuss with each other and enjoy rather than be frustrated by the multiplicity of meanings.

Social sciences share the same characteristic with literature. There is no one authoritative answer, for example, to why intolerance is increasing in South Asia. But here, we can go beyond enjoying the multiplicity of hypotheses, to examining them systematically. We can attempt to determine which one survives the common tests of logic, i.e., whether their supporting arguments cohere together or contradict each other (much as in the legal practice of cross-examination). In this process we can sift through the initial set of hypotheses, winnow out the ones that fail the accepted tests, and be left with a subset of robust answers for further evaluation. This was the essence of the famous Socratic Method or Method of Elenchus.

We can go further and subject the remaining hypotheses to empirical testing where possible. On the blog, we have been discussing whether our language shapes the way we think. There were contrary opinions about this proposition but now new and interesting insights have become available from empirical research at Stanford University. This has generated a lot of comments on the blog with readers adding insights from their own linguistic experiences.

[The peculiarities of language are also at the heart of the multiple meanings of the couplet under discussion. Frances Pritchett points this out: “Another point to remember is that the subject in Urdu can always be omitted if it’s clearly understood, as it is in this case. So if you do or don’t add in an implied subject, you generate twofold meanings for almost every phrase.”]

The lesson for us is that when people differ on issues that are important to society, there are ways to consider, debate, and test the various answers. It is not helpful to start with the belief that there is only one right answer to every question, that the answer is already available in some authoritative source, that our answer is the one that is right, and that everyone else holding a different answer needs to be eliminated, by force, if necessary.

A literary commentary on this couplet is presented at our companion blog Mehr-e-Niimroz.


  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 06:55h, 21 June Reply

    When nothing was, then God was; had nothing been, then God would have been.
    Undoing, my being has been; had I not been, then what would have been?

    (nah thaa kuchh, to khudaa thaa, kuchh nah hotaa, to khudaa hotaa
    duboyaa mujh ko honey ney, nah hotaa main, to kyaa hotaa?)

    In this verse, which is rather straight forward, the poet tells that before anything else, God was in existence; and, even if nothing else had manifested, He would have existed. That means, irrespective of anything and everything, God’s eternal existence is to be taken as a postulate. The first line reflects as if Ghalib were obsessed with the issue of God’s existence.

    Even the first half of the second line – his existence has ruined him, implying, by extension, that humanity is responsible for its own ills – seems to strengthen the importance of God and somewhat lower the stature of human being.

    But – and this but is very crucial – if I, the human being, had not taken birth, then what would have been the repercussions? The answer is obvious: Nothing, not even God’s existence would have been of any consequence. Thus, the concluding part of the verse upturns whatever had preceded it.

    The first line becomes the backdrop; the first half of the second line acquires just the opposite hue to the apparently stated one, and undoing (duboyaa) becomes raises (ubhaaraa); and, the highest pedestal is thus accorded exclusively to human being. The entire focus gets shifted from God to humanity.

    Only human existence provides any meaning to even God’s eternal existence. The second line transforms the eternally existing God into irrelevance! And, that is Ghalib. It is a beautiful example of the dialectical unity between human existence and irrelevance of God.

    In a way, the poet realises that the solution to the question of God’s existence defies human intellect – and the resolution of this problem lies outside the domain of the problem.

    In other words, while on the one hand, he assumed the existence of God to account for the creation of universe, but he also made that existence irrelevant. As we also see in the rest of his poetry, he does not subscribe to any of the so-called corollaries of the existence of God.

    For Ghalib, God’s eternal existence is irrelevant for all purposes – except for the explanation of the origin of universe. The initial impulse is designated as the abstract God.

    In any case, the origin of the initial impulse for the creation of universe defies any explanation even today, and is likely to defy human mind, forever. The reason for such an understanding is that the universe, without contradiction, is inconceivable; and, if the secret of the origin of the initial impulse – which appears to be the ultimate one – could be found, then the most basic contradiction, the fundamental driving force of societal movement would vanish.

    One may also recall the verse,

    “From negation, drips affirmation, as if
    the spot for the mouth is not endowed with at the time of creation”

    (nafee sey kartee hai asbaat taraawish, goyaa
    dee hai jaaey dahan us ko dam-e eijaad naheen)

    and one can substitute God for negation – from which, the affirmation of Nature, the human being included, has dripped.

    In the second line, the poet also highlights his ego. If I, Ghalib the great, were not there, then what would have happened? Without referring to his poetry, he is flaunting the same.

    In a way, Ghalib is showing himself to be superior to, or more important than, even the God. There could not have been a more forthright and sharp focus on human – even while granting eternity to God. And, in this verse, Ghalib has resolved (not to say ‘solved’) the dilemma – the issue of God’s existence, the permanent riddle, the primary source of contradiction, the solution-defying question – that was nagging him for some time.

    On a personal note, to me, this verse was the starting point for an abiding interest in Ghalib’s poetry; and in my view, this verse is ‘THE HIGH POINT’ of Ghalib’s poetry, and admirably reflects his mature philosophy, where the human being – with all frailties – is at the focus.

  • Aseem
    Posted at 04:03h, 03 April Reply

    A very deep poem. I saw another good analysis of it on (look under the ghalib tag)


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