Ghalib – 19: New Year Thoughts

One would expect Ghalib to have a unique way of welcoming the New Year:

dekhiiye paate haiN ushshaaq buton se kya faiz
ik barahman ne kahaa hai kih yih saal achchhaa hai

let’s see what favors lovers find from idols
a Brahman has said that this year is good 

This is indeed a very clever and witty she’r, as the interpretation at Mehr-e-Niimroz will make clear. The play is on the word but which in Urdu, in the context of the lover, signifies an extremely beautiful woman. But but also means ‘idol’, and that pairing with Brahmin is perfect in the second line. Who would be a better authority on the behavior of ‘idols’ than a Brahmin (who is an ‘idol-worshipper’ in the eye of a Muslim)?

[A digression. Here is Marco Polo on his stop in India on the way back from China in 1292 AD describing the people: They ‘pay more attention to augury than any other people in the world and are skilled in distinguishing good omens from bad.’ They rely on the counsel of astrologers and have enchanters called Brahmans, who are ‘expert in incantations against all sorts of beasts and birds.’] 

Now consider the she’r as a totality: it is a comment on the myopia, the parochial self-interestedness of the lover. The astrologer has augured that this would be a good year and the lover immediately takes that to imply that the beloved would bestow favors upon him. For all we know, the astrologer could well be predicting that there would be no wars or terrorist attacks in the New Year. The astrologer may not even be aware of the existence of this particular lover. But the lover is only interested in taking the meaning that advances his suit.

But this is a layered she’r and this is where you have to acknowledge the genius of Ghalib. In 18 words, he rips the hypocrisy of human beings to shreds and leaves them naked, shorn of all their righteousness and moral pretensions.

Consider this as the classic interaction of two ‘Others’ – in this case, Muslim and Hindu. Now imagine a Hindu soothsayer offering to make the ultimate dream of the Muslim come true. How many Muslims would there be who would reject the offer because the benefactor is the ‘Other’, an infidel, an unbeliever, one who should be put to death instead?

Suppose instead that the two have a difference of opinion on the distribution of an asset. How soon is this likely to turn into an issue of historical injustices and oppression, of having nothing in common except an intense hatred of the ‘Other’s’ ancestors? How soon would there be cries to bomb the ‘Other’s’ entire community into oblivion?

So, Ghalib has proven it to you – there is nothing principled in these righteous positions that people take; the positions are taken in the service of selfish and parochial material interests.

[I am waiting for someone to come after me for being a Muslim-hater. Rest assured, the process of ‘Otherizing’ is entirely symmetric. Switch the religions of the soothsayer and the client and nothing much changes (or does it?) except that the story gets weaker – Brahmins, as Marco Polo noted, are justly reputed to be the best soothsayers with a greater knowledge of idols. From which, of course, follow the associations employed by Ghalib who knew such things well.]

And this brings us to the Partition in which a million people died and ten million had to leave their homes. It turned on a difference of opinion on the mode of governance that would best meet the concerns of all the stakeholders. It became a battle of the ‘Others’ who convinced themselves they had nothing at all in common after having lived together for a 1000 years, who were not willing to compromise on anything to prevent a million deaths.

We have mentioned in an earlier post that the situation in Malaysia was more complex – not only were there Hindus and Muslims but Chinese as well who owned most of the wealth. But people sat down and compromised and found a way out. It can be done. It can be done when we look upon the person across the table not as the ‘Other’ but as someone we would eagerly embrace if he offered to unite us with the beloved.

  • aahang
    Posted at 18:27h, 10 April Reply

    Quite an interesting and elaborate interpretation. Congratulations!

  • c m naim
    Posted at 17:55h, 01 January Reply

    I can only add a loud AMEN.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:30h, 02 January Reply

    Although I find this she’r utterly enjoyable, but not your commentary. It seems labored attempt to give out a political sermon. To me she’r is simple and the construct of second ‘misra’ i.e. reference to anonymous ‘barahman’ (ik barahman) is clearly a jibe directed at his forecast and through him silly expectation of lovers. Ghalib says that the expectation of lovers is as bogus as the brahman’s claim that ‘this is year is favorable’. So life will be same as it has been. You can almost hear tired sigh of poet…

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:13h, 02 January

      Anil: You are correct in your observation. This series on Ghalib was designed as a collaborative effort with a dual approach in mind. The literary interpretation of the she’r was posted on the companion blog Mehr-e-Niimroz while a political interpretation relevant to our times was posted on The South Asian Idea. All the couplets in the series follow the same pattern. Both interpretations are available to suit the varying preferences of readers. This schema is explained in the introduction to the series:

      The greatness of Ghalib, and to some extent of all good poetry, is that it remains open to multiple interpretations.

    • Z Sabri
      Posted at 21:08h, 21 January

      Agree with Anil Kala completely! Ghalib’s work is definitely conducive to multiple interpretations, but very often we really just read into Ghalib what we want to read into Ghalib.

      Now “I am waiting for someone to come after me for being..” – what am I being? Matter of fact? :p

      Mahr-i Nimroz appears to be an interesting site. Thanks for reminding of this she’r at New Year’s. How perfect.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:55h, 27 January

      Z Sabri: Ghalib invites multiple interpretations which is why it makes sense to explore all of them. If an interpretation is contrary to what one prefers, that is all the better. The reader can benefit from another point of view and argue the respective merits.

      I don’t think there was any ambiguity in the text regarding your second point.

  • Gohar Azhar
    Posted at 20:42h, 02 January Reply

    I very much enjoyed the interpretation and agree that the greatness of a poet/artist is the ability of the observer to still connect to some aspect of the message, with varying backgrounds, perspectives and even moods. Creative people are often melancholy, but they aso have high ideals. For me it is important that I derive a positve message regardless of what the artist intended. One could debate about that forever!
    I also applaud and believe in the concept that “It can be done when we look upon the person across the table not as the ‘Other’ but as someone we would eagerly embrace if he offered to unite us with the beloved.”

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