Ghalib – 18: Beyond Symbols

We need someone to shake us up at this time and Ghalib does it with panache:

ka’be meN jaa bajaaeNge naaquus
ab to baaNdhaa hai dayr meN iHraam

we will go beat the gong in the Ka’bah
we have tied the holy cloak in the temple

The conventional associations between Ka’bah/iHraam and dayr/naaquus are obvious and Ghalib’s intention to provoke us into rethinking the conventions is also obvious in his iconoclastic mixing of the associations.

The detailed interpretation of the sh’er can be found at Mehr-e-Niimroz. Here we raise some questions triggered by the images that came to mind on reading this verse.

The image is of a Montessori where the teacher has given a class of six-year olds a set of four picture blocks to mix and match – Ka’bah, iHraam, dayr, naaquus. One would expect most children, home-schooled in their religious traditions, to make the obvious pairings.

Now, the teacher mixes up the blocks and asks the students to think about the new pairings. One can imagine the doubts, the misgivings, the bewilderment, and the confusion at seeing what is not supposed to be. (Note, we have not mentioned the emotion of anger – that, and the charges of blasphemy, come at a later age.)

The student who thinks outside the box would certainly have cause to wonder. If Ka’bah and dayr represent the places where you seek the Truth and the iHraam and the naaquus are the means to that Truth, does it really matter how you seek the Truth? Is there only one way of loving the Beloved?

Here we see the distinction between the external, ritualistic, aspect of religion and the internal search for Truth; between being tied to the way we think things ought to be and the essence of what we are really after. Ghalib continuously reminds us of the difference between the superficiality of the priest and the depth of the sufi.

Ghalib is also continuously reminding us to rise beyond our exclusivities and particularities and realize the common humanity at the core of our being. Today, in this crowded global village where we are thrown together, often against our wishes, this message is all the more important. After all, we ourselves have realized that we need to transcend the exclusivities of caste and sect – it has become acceptable to concede that point; in fact we are being encouraged to do so. Where then is the logic of drawing the hard line at religion and sticking adamantly to that exclusivity?

Ghalib certainly does not intend us to actually violate the sanctity of customs but he wishes us to see through and beyond them, to think of why we do what we are doing. If a Hindu and a Muslim both desire peace, what is it that matters more – the desire for peace, or the difference of religion?

Ghalib would have endorsed this maxim from the student revolution in France (1968): “We do not live to change the world; we change the world so as to live.” For the same debate being played out in the US (2008), see here: “In a country marked by graphic religious diversity and deeply entrenched religious pluralism, how does one mark out common ground? Is it even possible? The answer is Yes!

There is a second question related to this topic and that pertains to the reaction we said comes at a later age – the charge of blasphemy and the emotion of anger. Keep in mind that at the level of the collective, we hold Ghalib in very high esteem – one of the giants of world literature, in the same league as Shakespeare and Milton, an icon of our tradition and heritage.

Here is the question: If Ghalib had been our contemporary in present-day South Asia, would he have been alive today? Would he have been killed by some jihadi or lashkari or would he have been hiding in Dubai like MF Hussain?

Let us not prejudge what the answer represents. For some, we have stumbled on the road to tolerance; for others we have ascended the heights of purity.

And another thought – Would the silencing of Ghalib have put an end to these questions? I can think of Ghalib himself responding to that question:

Ghalib-e khasta ke baghair kaun-se kaam band haiN
roiiye zaar zaar kyaa kiijiye haay haay kyuuN

without broken-down Ghalib, which tasks are ended?
why do you weep bitterly? why do you lament?

It would be interesting for readers to weigh in with their opinions.

Thanks to Dr. Moazzam Siddiqi for explaining the meaning and intent of the sh’er. The onus of the liberties we have taken is on us.


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