17 Jun Ghalib – 28: Who’s Afraid of Multiple Meanings?
We resume the series with a she’r that illustrates well some of the underlying beliefs of The South Asian Idea:
nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa maiN to kyaa hotaa
1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God
2a) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what?
Note that there are at least three interpretations of the first line and six of the second. Frances Pritchett calls it a ‘meaning machine’ or ‘meaning generator’ yielding a “two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations.”
This is the simplest of couplets as far as the vocabulary is concerned. So, the meaning of the individual words is not at issue. It is the interpretation or the meaning that the reader takes away that is of interest.
What exactly did Ghalib mean? That perhaps is not the most fruitful approach to the task of interpretation. We have no authoritative text to refer to; nor can we ask Ghalib. We might also consider the possibility that perhaps Ghalib did not have any single meaning in mind. If he had, it would not have been difficult for him to remove the ambiguity.
This is a characteristic of literature – there are no correct interpretations. Great literature gets reinterpreted over time and yields entirely new meanings. At any given time readers can have differing interpretations that they can discuss with each other and enjoy rather than be frustrated by the multiplicity of meanings.
Social sciences share the same characteristic with literature. There is no one authoritative answer, for example, to why intolerance is increasing in South Asia. But here, we can go beyond enjoying the multiplicity of hypotheses, to examining them systematically. We can attempt to determine which one survives the common tests of logic, i.e., whether their supporting arguments cohere together or contradict each other (much as in the legal practice of cross-examination). In this process we can sift through the initial set of hypotheses, winnow out the ones that fail the accepted tests, and be left with a subset of robust answers for further evaluation. This was the essence of the famous Socratic Method or Method of Elenchus.
We can go further and subject the remaining hypotheses to empirical testing where possible. On the blog, we have been discussing whether our language shapes the way we think. There were contrary opinions about this proposition but now new and interesting insights have become available from empirical research at Stanford University. This has generated a lot of comments on the blog with readers adding insights from their own linguistic experiences.
[The peculiarities of language are also at the heart of the multiple meanings of the couplet under discussion. Frances Pritchett points this out: “Another point to remember is that the subject in Urdu can always be omitted if it’s clearly understood, as it is in this case. So if you do or don’t add in an implied subject, you generate twofold meanings for almost every phrase.”]
The lesson for us is that when people differ on issues that are important to society, there are ways to consider, debate, and test the various answers. It is not helpful to start with the belief that there is only one right answer to every question, that the answer is already available in some authoritative source, that our answer is the one that is right, and that everyone else holding a different answer needs to be eliminated, by force, if necessary.
A literary commentary on this couplet is presented at our companion blog Mehr-e-Niimroz.