Language/Meaning / 16.11.2014

By Anjum Altaf Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jantey haiN Daagh Saarey jahaaN meiN dhuum hamaarii zubaaN ki hai Daagh, we know, the language, Urdu is its name Celebrated over the entire world is its fame A Hindi speaker, fond of Urdu, came across the following text in a letter by Premchand (dated 22 February 1925): "Priy Shivapujan Sahay ji, Vande. Mujhe to aap bhool hi gaye. Leejiye, jis pustak par aapne kaii maheene dimagh-rezi kee thi vah aapka ahsaan ada karti hui aapki khidmat men jaati hai aur aapse vinti karti hai ki mujhe do-chaar ghanton ke liye ekaant ka samay deejiye aur tab aap meri nisbat jo rai qayam karen vah apni manohar bhasha men kah deejiye...

Language/Meaning / 06.03.2011

By Anjum Altaf In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut. I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? I am faced with that challenge from a reader: I would find it more interesting if...

Music / 25.01.2011

By Anjum Altaf For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the pleasures...

Education / 07.11.2009

By Anjum Altaf There has been a spirited debate triggered by Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School) and in this post I am setting down what I have taken away from the discussion. Science and the humanities are both ancient and great traditions and I doubt if there is anyone who would set them up in an antagonistic zero-sum confrontation the way people tend to do in the case of science and religion. Both are vital and necessary elements of a balanced education. That much should be a statement of the obvious. It is only when we focus on their different strengths that we enter into an interesting discussion. To posit their differences very starkly one can oversimplify a little and adapt the argument of a recent article on religion and science: humanities ask about the why, science explains the how; science researches...

Ghalib / 21.07.2009

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, Modernity / 28.06.2009

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail: kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer? Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision.
Ghalib / 17.06.2009

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?
Ghalib / 05.04.2009

From resignation and withdrawal, Ghalib is rousing himself:

huuN giriftaar-e ulfat-e sayyaad varnah baaqii hai taaqat-e parvaaz

I am captured by love of the Hunter otherwise, strength for flight is still left

How appropriate then the ambivalence: Does the protagonist really have the strength for flight or is he deluding himself?

I suppose the reality of becoming captive is a gradual process. To start with, the feeling that one can resist can be quite strong and real. Over time, as one becomes enmeshed in the web, it can turn into a delusion.

Ghalib / 20.03.2009

Last week’s selection is nicely followed up by the following couplet: baaziichah-e atfaal hai dunyaa mire aage hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage the world is a game/plaything of children, before me night and day, a spectacle occurs before me From resignation (ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa) to equanimity (hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage) seems quite appropriate. After all, how seriously can one (or ought one) to take what goes on in the world? Take for example, the current events in Pakistan. Do they have any import? In its over 60 years of existence, how many leaders have come and gone whose names are virtually impossible to recall but who were so incredibly important in their own times? How well Ghalib fuses into Shakespeare: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way...

Ghalib / 13.03.2009

Ghalib says in his letters that in moments of despair he was given to reciting this she’r: raat din gardish meiN haiN saat aasmaaN ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa night and day the seven heavens are revolving something or the other will happen – why should we be perturbed The meaning is open to interpretation and the reader is encouraged to refer to the commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz for more on the literary wordplay. The most common interpretation is as an expression of resignation in the face of overwhelming odds that an individual feels powerless to confront (as, for example, the 1854 epidemic in Delhi that Ghalib refers to in one letter). And indeed, at such times, it is a great consolation to be able to leave one’s fate in the hands of a power greater than oneself. Two thoughts come to mind: First, note that Ghalib takes recourse to this remedy...