Ghalib -29: On Being Modern

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.

And here comes the second aspect of being modern – that you don’t have to be a slave to tradition or history. Just by asking the question “Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer?” Ghalib illuminates the essence of being modern. The ability to question, to look beyond precedent, to reject stereotypes, to search for a fresh perspective – this is the quintessential characteristic of a modern mind.

Ghalib provides us with a handle to define modernity. In this perspective one can see that of all who belong to modern times, only some are modern in attitude and outlook.

There is a nuance that Ghalib leaves as a bonus for those who do know the history and can recall that Moses went up to Mount Sinai full of fear and trepidation. Focus on the contrasting course being advocated by Ghalib in the nature of his invitation to explore Mount Sinai – notice the sense of ease in the term sair kareN:

aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii

The search for answers, the explorations and investigations that are the essence of being modern have to become second nature to human beings. The natural state of a modern mind is to be open.

This one sh’er says a whole lot: To be modern is to be informed by history but not enslaved by it; to be modern is to search for new answers to old problems; to be modern is to have an open mind. A modern human is a thinking human unafraid of the act of thinking.

One cannot walk away from this she’r without remarking on its mastery of construction. It is not till one reaches the very end that the reference to koh-e tuur reveals both the meaning of the verse and its immense power and audacity.

In a sense this reaffirms the relationship of tradition to modernity. To those ignorant of the story of Moses and Mount Sinai, the couplet would mean virtually nothing at all. Being modern is not an ahistorical phenomenon and South Asians cannot just ape the West with a lag. An indigenous modernity builds on the foundation of tradition and then moves beyond it to explore the new unknowns that have emerged over time.

And what better source for both than Ghalib!

A literary analysis of this verse is presented in a parallel post on Mehr-e-Niimroz.


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