Ghalib – 30: Similarities and Differences

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 couches this in the religious idiom by encapsulating in these few words the entire story about the Ka’bah – that there were idols there before they were removed – to make the point that the idols can stake claim to a kinship that cannot be denied.

One can extend the metaphor to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Human beings were severed from the company of the Divine but a link remains that human beings continually strive to repair.

Thus the commonality remains whether we believe in evolution or in creationism and whether we begin at the beginning or pick up the human story at a later date.

It is here that Ghalib, true to his style, forces us to examine the aspect of the relationship that is mostly ignored – that of the connection rather than of the severance. Yes, we have parted ways but we did have a common origin. Both aspects need acknowledgement and the common heritage, the common gene, the fundamental commonality, deserves its share of respect.

So it should be in this world where the fact of our commonality suggests that we strive to repair the differences that separate in order to promote the common good. Modern concerns like global warming lend urgency to such thoughts. Failure to acknowledge our linked future and to arrive at shared understandings could spell disaster for all.

This is a richly layered couplet containing not just history but many literary allusions. In Urdu poetry, the word but stands for idol and also for the beloved; and the beloved is commonly referred to as kaafir, i.e., an unbeliever or an idol. There is another very clever play on the word nisbat which refers to affinity but is also used for a matrimonial relationship.

Ghalib is conveying the same meaning at many levels. At the most immediate and concrete, he is asking the question that many others have experienced: What if the beloved is an unbeliever? As human beings we have something fundamental in common that should, if we think right, override our differences. It is remarkable what falling in love can do to the biases that we take for ultimate truths.

The reader familiar with the poetic, religious, and humanist traditions can appreciate how Ghalib encapsulates an ocean in a droplet, conveys a concept from modern science, and exposes the fragility of our beliefs. Ghalib pushes the reader to think and think again.

The parallel post is on Mehr-e-Niimroz.



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