Ghalib Says – 6

The selection this week:

bandagii meN bhii vuh aazaadah-o khud-biin haiN kih ham
ulTe phir aaye dar-e ka’bah agar va na huaa

even in servitude we are so free and self-regarding that we
turned and came back if the door of the Ka’bah did not open

This is an expression of pride in one’s being. The poet is saying that we may be indebted to you but you still have to treat us with respect. The point is made by exaggeration – we are servants of God but even God has to come and meet us halfway. A detailed interpretation is available at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

Once again we are treated to Ghalib’s ability to think far ahead of his times. Remember, he lived in the age of patronage; artists especially were almost completely dependent on their patrons for their livelihoods. And the patrons were quite willful, withdrawing their stipends at the slightest provocation. In such an environment to be able to think of a relation of social equality was quite remarkable.

The more typical sequence is that changes in material conditions lead to changes in attitudes and ideas that in turn have a profound impact on society. We have alluded many times on the blog (see the posts on modernity) to the material changes in Europe that led to the Enlightenment ideas and subsequently to the emergence of democracy as a form of governance compatible with a society in which all human beings enjoyed a status of equality.

The most important of these changes was the lessening in dependency of one human being upon another – something de Toqueville called ‘equality of condition’. We have commented on this in the post Democracy in India – 7. Such an equality of condition still does not obtain in South Asia. A domestic servant, for example, will not find a seat at the kitchen table.

In the West, by comparison, the master-servant relationship has been replaced by contractual agreements. I may be contracted to serve you in some capacity but I still remain your social equal in all other aspects. The director and the janitor can be found at the same table in the office cafeteria.

The question that we have asked earlier is what does this continued social inequality in South Asia imply for the functioning of democratic systems?  Our own answer was that it is the democratic process in India that is serving as the vehicle for the attainment of social equality. The European sequence has been reversed.

The journey to the self-respect that Ghalib alluded to is not yet over.

We would like to hear the views of readers on this issue.

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