It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there
– William Carlos Williams
Somewhere, sometime poetry speaks to all of us. Poetry makes us think, sometimes precisely because it does not ask us to think, does not seek to convince us. Humanity, peace, coexistence, faith, are on test today in South Asia. And we turn to one of its greatest poets to learn some simple and hence first-to-be-forgotten Truths. We turn to Ghalib to learn to think. In leaning upon Ghalib, we also self-consciously reach for a source indigenous to South Asia, to its own civilizational genius, to search for a way forward.
To millions across the world, the name “Ghalib” needs no introduction. Perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most famous poet of Urdu and Persian that South Asia has produced, Asadallah Khan ‘Ghalib’ (1797-1869) has been recited, read, interpreted and quoted countless times in the past 150 years.
Through Ghalib we want to raise questions that are relevant to us today in South Asia and to South Asians elsewhere in the world. What does it mean to practice a certain Religion in a plural society? How should we treat those who are different from Us? What is the nature of Belief? Or Unbelief? What is the nature of the Divine? Can (wo)man presume to know the workings of Nature (the Beloved)? As humans must we accept our fate? Or do we have Free Will? In many ways these are the eternal questions that face us as humans. But as we will see, Ghalib raises them (and occasionally provides answers) in a manner all his own. Kehte haiN ke Ghalib kaa hai andaaz-e-bayaN aur.
In this new project, on which we have just embarked, we depart from the conventional model of presenting an entire ghazal followed by its translation. Instead we present only one she’r at a time along with its literal (not poetic) translation followed by a commentary and the questions it raises. Each week we will choose one verse. A commentary will be offered on mehr-e-niimroz and questions surrounding the she’r will be posted on The South Asian Idea Weblog.
Adept at expressing highly subtle and complex thoughts and emotions within the space of two lines (the she’r), Ghalib’s poetry has the rare virtue of appealing directly to the heart as well as providing much food for thought. However, unlike Iqbal, unlike the Sufis (like Khusrau), unlike the Bhakti poets (like Kabir), Ghalib was not a poet with a message. His first love was words and he loved to explore their sounds and meanings. And since he was not committed to convincing people of a message, reading him is a journey whose destination is not already known.
In the popular imagination Ghalib is a romantic poet, a poet of love, longing, and desire. More scholarly attention focuses on Ghalib’s technical prowess, his socio-historical and literary context, his skills in creating multiple meanings out of single words and phrases and his ability to create fresh, new metaphors.
We, however set out to do something different. In his Urdu divaan, Ghalib talks not only about love and longing, but also about faith and religion, about the nature of Divinity, about Being and Nothingness, about what it means to Believe. Ghalib’s questioning nature comes through very clearly in his verses. Not content to accept any received truths either from the Shaikh or the Brahmin, Ghalib constantly puts everything to the test of his own reason and experience. It is this aspect of Ghalib’s critical thinking that we wish to explore in our project.
Join us in this journey by leaving your thoughts and by suggesting a she’r for discussion.
This introduction is written by Amit Basole and is reproduced from Mehr-e-Niimroz.