Ghalib Says – 7

It is the month of Ramzan and Ghalib has his share of quotes for the season. Ghalib was known for his wit: when asked how many fasts he had kept he is reported to have replied ek na rakha (I did not keep one). Typical Ghalib.

But in his tongue-in-cheek manner Ghalib also pushes his readers to think of many other aspects of a situation than the one that seems obvious on the surface.

Our choice this week reflects this quality of Ghalib:

iftaar-e-saum kii jise kuch dast.gaah ho
us shakhs ko zaroor hai rozaa rakha kare

jis paas roza khol ke khaane ko kuch na ho
roza agar na khaaye to naachaar kya kare

the one who has the wherewithal to break his fast
that person should indeed keep the fast

the one who has nothing to break his fast with
what else can he do but be constrained to ‘eat the fast’

The Ghalib wordplay is obvious to the Urdu reader and the way he sets up the paradox is uniquely his own (see Mehr-e-Niimroz for the commentary).

But we can take away a lot more from this set of couplets (qat’aa).

Think of this situation: You observe an individual not eating during the day. You can conclude that the individual is fasting (i.e., not eating out of choice). But it is also possible that the individual is not eating because he or she has nothing to eat (i.e., not eating out of necessity). The person is starving! ‘Eat the fast’ is a nice play here because the colloquial expression signifies not fasting but it is particularly apt in the context for the destitute because eating a fast is equivalent to eating a zero, i.e., eating something that yields no sustenance.

Here we have a profound observation on our understanding of choice. The notion of choice only becomes relevant when our basic necessities are satisfied. Thus we can take the theory of choice for granted in the West. But in a location like South Asia, where almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line, we need to be a lot more conscious of attributing observed behavior to the exercise of free choice. Some fast, others starve – the observed behavior is the same (not eating) but the compulsions leading to that action are entirely different. Some do not eat for a month; others do not eat all year round. What does fasting mean in this context?

So, Ghalib is educating us to be aware of the context, to not be judgmental, to not think that our own way is the only correct way of behaving, to be empathetic and tolerant, and to understand the reasons that might compel others to behave differently from us.

To be willing to observe the rituals of piety is one thing; to be able to do so quite another. Let one not be judgmental from the luxury of a good sehri and well-laid iftaar table.

  • Naila Mahmood
    Posted at 16:49h, 04 September Reply

    All is well said here. I would, however, not interpret Ghalib in mere rich-poor economic hierarchy. His poetry is strewn with agnostic questioning of rituals of blind worship. His take on fasting is particularly interesting – intermixed with alleged guilt and his own sense of material deprivation.
    Saaman-e-khur wa khawb kahan say laoon?
    Araam key asbaab kahan say laoon?
    Ruza mera eman hay Ghalib! Laiken
    Khas Khana wa barf aab kahan say laoon?

    The mastery of wordplay that we see here is so unique in Ghalib that I am often unable to go beyond it. The poetic quality is intertwined with keen observation in an inimitably Ghalib style.
    Nukta Cheen hai gham-e-dil uus ko sunai na banay
    Kaya banay baat jahan baat banai na banay
    Mein bulata tu hoon uus ko magar aae jazba-e-dil
    Uus peh ban jai kuch aesi ke bin aaee na banay

    We often teach word play in copy writing/advertising. I use Ghalib to show the mastery of language and double play that all the books in the world cannot teach. There are perhaps facets of creativity that cannot be taught.

    What does Ghalib say about Eid?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:51h, 05 September Reply


    You are quite right. Ghalib continuously questions blind faith and ritual. We had highlighted these aspects in some of the earlier selections. For this particular verse, we opted to draw out the implications for the nature of choice and show how contextual it can be.

    Thanks for adding another qat’aa on fasting. That too points to the relationship between economics and faith. Is Ghalib saying that the observance of rituals can be a luxury afforded by economic security?

    If you are more interested in the wordplay you should not miss the commentaries on Mehr-e-Niimroz.

    I hope readers send us some verses on Eid.

  • Gauhar Raza
    Posted at 09:54h, 06 January Reply

    Ghalib laughed at ‘blind faith’ and rejected ‘faith’. I think adding ‘blind’ before ‘faith’ is superfluous. Beyond the boundaries of reason blindness reigns supreme. rituals are just faith in practice. I see Ghalib as the most robust rationalist poet.
    Challenging ‘faith’ of any kind probably gave him greatest pleasure. Few examples are
    Aatish parast kahte hain Ahl-e-jahan mujhe
    sargarm nala-ha-e-sharar bar dekh kar

    ——-Nahota mein to kya hota

    Hun garmiye nishat-e-tasawoor se naghman sanj
    mein andaleeb-e-gulshane na afreeda hun

    hai kahan tammana ka —-

    I agree with Mr Mahmood, ‘creativity’ cannot be taught but will add that it can be polished. The best way to polish it to read masters like ghalib.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:33h, 12 August Reply

    The beginning of Ramadan is the right time to revisit Ghalib’s message on fasting.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:25h, 20 July Reply

    Once again we offer these words of Ghalib as our Ramzan special – Ghalib’s penetrating insights into the core of social realities beat those of most social scientists of our time.

    Add to that his wit: asked how many fasts he had kept, he replied “aik na rakhaa” (I did not keep one).

    Ghalib was quite well aware of the price:

    yih masaail-e tasavvuf ye tira bayaan Ghalib
    tujhe ham wali samajhtey jo na baada-khwar hotaa

    (these problems of mysticism, this discourse of yours, Ghalib
    we would consider you a saint if you were not a wine-drinker)

    [for a more detailed commentary on this couplet, see:

    If you ask me, I will take a baada-khwar Ghalib over any paak-baaz poetaster – any day, any time.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 18:35h, 21 July

      There is park nearby I frequent. It is a public park but Brahmkumaris have usurped its ‘dekh-rekh’. As the parks go in a megapolis this one too is small, the size of two large traffic islands you will find in New Delhi. It has a raised jogging track just wide enough for three persons to walk abreast. Around the the track are trees taking steep vertical route to grow (not dome like canopies). Some of these tree trunks are impaled by Brahmkumaries to mount some purportedly motivational slogans. One of the slogans is
      ‘आप के बोल कितने भी महान हों
      लेकिन आप अपने कर्मों से जाने जायेंगे
      [ loosely means ‘No matter how great our utterings are, you will be remembered for your deeds only]

      I was wondering what about Mirza Ghalib? He was a hopeless drunkard, I think a bad husband and generally average fellow. We remember him for his ‘बोल’ not his ‘कर्म’. What smugness!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:44h, 22 July

      Anil: There is a certain truth in the Brahmkumari message in that, in general, what you do matters more than what you say. However, this becomes complicated when what you say is also what you do – as in the case of writers. I guess the Brahmkumaris define ‘deeds’ much more narrowly in moral terms which indeed makes the message smug.

      I would like to say something about the characterization of Ghalib. Based on my reading, he drank but was not a drunkard and adhered to the norm of most marital relationships of the time. He was ‘normal’ as a human being but certainly above average in intellect and intelligence.

      The following is a brief portrait from the Urdu/Hindi book I mentioned in an earlier comment (p. 209):

      “Ghalib went through poverty and the turbulence of the Mutiny and came to be recognized as a “royal poet” by Mughal King, Bahadur Shah. Ghalib was a humorist, humanist, atheist, satirist, wine bibber, gambler, scholar and a candidate for professorship at Delhi College.”

      You are quite right: When someone ‘says’ things of such high quality, his/her ‘deeds’ as a human being become secondary to the argument.

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