Ghalib / 21.07.2009

Here we have another example of the ability of Ghalib to couch a very modern thought in a very traditional idiom while simultaneously subverting the intent of the tradition: go vaaN nahiiN pah vaaN ke nikaale hue to haiN kaabe se in butoN ko bhii nisbat hai duur ki though they are not there, still that is where they were expelled from these idols too have a distant kinship with the ka’bah This is modern evolutionary biology – whatever our differences, we are descended from a common gene.
Ghalib, Modernity / 28.06.2009

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail: kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer? Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision.
Ghalib / 17.06.2009

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?
Ghalib / 05.04.2009

From resignation and withdrawal, Ghalib is rousing himself:

huuN giriftaar-e ulfat-e sayyaad varnah baaqii hai taaqat-e parvaaz

I am captured by love of the Hunter otherwise, strength for flight is still left

How appropriate then the ambivalence: Does the protagonist really have the strength for flight or is he deluding himself?

I suppose the reality of becoming captive is a gradual process. To start with, the feeling that one can resist can be quite strong and real. Over time, as one becomes enmeshed in the web, it can turn into a delusion.

Ghalib / 20.03.2009

Last week’s selection is nicely followed up by the following couplet: baaziichah-e atfaal hai dunyaa mire aage hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage the world is a game/plaything of children, before me night and day, a spectacle occurs before me From resignation (ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa) to equanimity (hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage) seems quite appropriate. After all, how seriously can one (or ought one) to take what goes on in the world? Take for example, the current events in Pakistan. Do they have any import? In its over 60 years of existence, how many leaders have come and gone whose names are virtually impossible to recall but who were so incredibly important in their own times? How well Ghalib fuses into Shakespeare: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way...

Ghalib / 13.03.2009

Ghalib says in his letters that in moments of despair he was given to reciting this she’r: raat din gardish meiN haiN saat aasmaaN ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa night and day the seven heavens are revolving something or the other will happen – why should we be perturbed The meaning is open to interpretation and the reader is encouraged to refer to the commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz for more on the literary wordplay. The most common interpretation is as an expression of resignation in the face of overwhelming odds that an individual feels powerless to confront (as, for example, the 1854 epidemic in Delhi that Ghalib refers to in one letter). And indeed, at such times, it is a great consolation to be able to leave one’s fate in the hands of a power greater than oneself. Two thoughts come to mind: First, note that Ghalib takes recourse to this remedy...

Ghalib / 26.02.2009

Readers would be well aware by now that there is always more to Ghalib than comes across at the first encounter – therein lies one aspect of his genius. In this week’s selection Ghalib addresses the issue explicitly: haiN kawakib kuchh nazar aatey haiN kuchh detey haiN dhokaa yeh baaziigar khulaa the stars/constellations are one thing and appear another These conjurers/tricksters trick/fool us openly At one level the meaning is obvious – things are not what they seem and we are being openly deceived. There are a few twists – Is Ghalib referring to the stars in the firmament or to the stars on earth and what exactly does the deception comprise of? These aspects are addressed in the companion commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz. Here we presume that Ghalib is referring to the stars on earth and explore a tangential thought – to what extent are we complicit in our deception? This is...

Ghalib / 13.02.2009

This week we engage with a complex she’r by Ghalib in an attempt to understand how we know what we know:   az mihr taa bah zarrah dil o dil hai aaiinah tuutii ko shash jihat se muqabil hai aaiinah   from sun to sand grain, all are hearts; and the heart is a mirror the parrot is confronted from all six directions by a mirror   Given the complexity of this verse and the absence of punctuation in Urdu, numerous interpretations are possible. The reader is referred to Mehr-e-Niimroz to resolve some of these complexities.   From our perspective, the following are important in extracting the particular interpretation that we wish to present here:   Whether the break in the opening line comes after zarrah or after the first occurrence of dil. The knowledge that in Sufi thought there is a very close relationship between the heart and a mirror and the metaphor of...

Ghalib / 05.02.2009

The beauty of language and the art of wordplay determine this week’s selection from Ghalib:   laag ho to us ko ham samjheN lagaao jab nah ho kuchh bhii to dhokaa khaaeN kyaa   if enmity would exist, then we would consider it affection when nothing at all would exist, then how would we deceive ourselves?   In last week’s selection (Heaven Unto Hell), the word laag had appeared in one guise. This week Ghalib uses it in a completely contrary meaning and then pairs it with lagaao to create the beauty of opposites. One can’t resist the temptation to say: lage raho Munnabhai!   Mehr-i-Niimroz will delve further into this intricate facility with words. The meaning, on the other hand, is quite clear: any kind of relationship is better than indifference; even enmity from the beloved is preferable to no relationship at all.   What interpretation can one extract from this in the social context?   We can...

Ghalib / 31.01.2009

Even as I was writing about Pascal’s wager (On God: Existence and Nature), Ghalib’s words were echoing in my mind: taa’at meN taa rahe nah mai-o-angabiiN kii laag dozaakh meN Daal do koii le kar bihisht ko so that in obedience, the desire of wine and honey may not remain let someone take heaven and cast it into hell The question is quite obvious: What is the motivation to do the right thing or to act ethically? But, of course, this begs the prior question: What is right or ethical to start with? Ghalib’s position on the prior question is well known – he never placed much value on the rituals and gestures of propriety; for him it was always the sincerity of intent that mattered more. There is the constant contrast in Ghalib’s poetry between the genuineness of the Sufi and the hypocrisy of the Mullah. Here Ghalib is going a...