Archive for the ‘Ghalib’ Category

Ghalib – 30: Similarities and Differences

July 21, 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. (more…)


Ghalib -29: On Being Modern

June 28, 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. (more…)

Ghalib – 28: Who’s Afraid of Multiple Meanings?

June 17, 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? (more…)

Ghalib – 27: Rhetoric or Reality?

April 5, 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. (more…)

Ghalib – 26: A Tale Told by an Idiot?

March 20, 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 to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)

And yet, while the fools strut and fret and blunder their ways to dusty death, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, they still inflict tremendous damage on the poor country whose stage they occupy and whose audience they insult with their antics.

And for that reason, much as one might want to withdraw and muse over the spectacle as a spectacle, one needs to engage to ensure that the degree of foolishness declines over time.

And this brings us to some points to ponder:

Why has the quality of leadership declined so steeply in Pakistan?

Has there been a similar decline in the quality of leadership in other countries in South Asia? If yes, what are the systemic forces leading to this deterioration? If no, what explains the variations in the different countries?

Are there any reasons to expect the quality of leadership to improve over time?

See Mehr-e-Niimroz for a literary interpretation of this week’s couplet which is linked to our post on the Long March at the suggestion of Amit Basole.

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Ghalib – 25: On Resignation

March 13, 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 at the moment of his greatest helplessness – a time at which even the most unsentimental of critics would concede the laying down of arms. But what happens when the sentiment is the norm? What happens when in the best of times a society is prone to leave its fate to be decided by the revolution of the seven heavens?

In such situations, I would shift the stress on the words ghabraayeN kyaa differently. Instead of reading them as ‘why should we be perturbed’ I would be inclined to read them as ‘shouldn’t we be perturbed?’ Would I be wrong to feel that the prospect of the ‘something or the other’ likely to happen with such an attitude should be a cause of major concern?

Would readers consider this a commentary on the Pakistan of today and its predicament? Not for nothing have the faithful been advised: ‘Trust in God but tie your camel.’

Second, from turning to a higher power for solace in a moment of despair to believing that all fate is decreed by a higher power can seem an imperceptible extension but it is an extension with profound implications.

Doesn’t this take us back to Hobbes (1588-1679) and Leviathan (1651) in which Hobbes makes his momentous contribution – shifting the focus of deliberation from the heavens to the earth and outlining a theory of politics that rests on anthropology and not on theology?

Hobbes’ contribution is now known as the ‘Great Separation.’ Was it this conceptual and intellectual break that determined that the ‘something or the other’ that happened in societies that went different ways would be so radically at odds with each other?

For an excellent introduction to Hobbes and the Great Separation, see the lecture by Ian Johnston.

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Ghalib – 24: On Deceivers and the Deceived

February 26, 2009

Readers would be well aware by now that there is always more to Ghalib than comes across at the first encounter – therein lies one aspect of his genius. In this week’s selection Ghalib addresses the issue explicitly:

haiN kawakib kuchh nazar aatey haiN kuchh
detey haiN dhokaa yeh baaziigar khulaa

the stars/constellations are one thing and appear another
These conjurers/tricksters trick/fool us openly

At one level the meaning is obvious – things are not what they seem and we are being openly deceived. There are a few twists – Is Ghalib referring to the stars in the firmament or to the stars on earth and what exactly does the deception comprise of? These aspects are addressed in the companion commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz.

Here we presume that Ghalib is referring to the stars on earth and explore a tangential thought – to what extent are we complicit in our deception?

This is a familiar trope in Urdu poetry when the reference is to the beloved – the lover revels in the deception, in agonizing over whether the No actually means Yes or the Yes, No. In fact, the lover would have it no other way – a predictable, honest-to-goodness beloved would be no fun at all. All the ecstasy of the lover actually resides in his pain.

So far, so good – we can understand this tortured relationship of the lover and the beloved. But how do we explain the same phenomenon in the realm of politics?

Take Pakistan, for example. Here are these leaders who have never ever spoken the truth, never ever come clean on anything (except when a gun is held to their heads). How can they continue to fool all the people all the time? How do people continue to have faith in their leadership?

Let us separate the population into two broad groups – the vast majority that lacks all power except the vote and those that belong to various segments of the power elite.

Of the first, let me try and capture a complex sociological phenomenon in an anecdote. I once asked a rural constituent why he was voting for a candidate whose rhetoric was in open contradiction with his criminal record. The answer was instantaneous: “Do you really believe a ‘decent’ man can provide us all the protection we need to survive here?” Let us leave it there for the moment and expand on the theme at another time.

What of the members of the power elite? It seems to me that often it suits many to go along with the deception and this is not unique to Pakistan or to South Asia. How many of the ‘best and the brightest’ went along with the lie that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction or was in league with Al-Qaeda?

There is a nice quote by C.V. Wedgewood that captures one aspect of this reality:

“Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right, rather than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.”

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Ghalib – 23: Mirrors and Mirrors

February 13, 2009


This week we engage with a complex she’r by Ghalib in an attempt to understand how we know what we know:


az mihr taa bah zarrah dil o dil hai aaiinah

tuutii ko shash jihat se muqabil hai aaiinah


from sun to sand grain, all are hearts; and the heart is a mirror

the parrot is confronted from all six directions by a mirror


Given the complexity of this verse and the absence of punctuation in Urdu, numerous interpretations are possible. The reader is referred to Mehr-e-Niimroz to resolve some of these complexities.


From our perspective, the following are important in extracting the particular interpretation that we wish to present here:


  1. Whether the break in the opening line comes after zarrah or after the first occurrence of dil.
  2. The knowledge that in Sufi thought there is a very close relationship between the heart and a mirror and the metaphor of ‘the mirror of the heart’ is much used in Urdu poetry. Mirrors in earlier times were made by polishing metal till it could reflect and the human heart was to be polished in the same way so that it could reflect the truth of the Divine Beloved (God).
  3. Talking parrots were taught to speak by making them see their own reflection in a mirror while an unseen human voiced the words.
  4. The parrot is a metaphor for the poet.


We take the break in the opening line to be after the first dil and offer the following train of thought:


Everything is made of sand and every grain of sand is like a heart (here the imagery lends beauty to the words – the sun and sand-grains shimmer and seem to pulsate like a heart); and every heart is a mirror. Thus the learner (parrot/poet/human) is completely surrounded by mirrors and sees its own reflection everywhere.


We learn by looking at ourselves and into ourselves, by examining ourselves, and by reflecting on the world and external reality as it impacts our heart and its feelings. Knowing is a process of reflection, understanding and thinking.


Here we introduce a modern-day concern into this interpretation. Knowledge/learning is crucially dependent on the accuracy of the reflection of reality/existence in the human heart/mind. And this, in turn, is crucially dependent on the faithfulness of the mirror.


If the mirror is distorted, it becomes a completely different ball-game. And the question we are confronted with today in South Asia is whether the mirrors we are using to reflect reality are faithful or distorted?


What do you think?


Look at the textbooks through which we are reflecting history and facts into the minds of our young generation. Read a guest post on this blog for references to the teaching material being used (Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?). For a new report on secondary school textbooks in Pakistan see Producing Thinking Minds, an initiative by a group of concerned students.


From hearts and mirrors to smoke and mirrors is a short step. The point to ponder is whether we are raising thinking human beings able to comprehend the truth, whatever it is, or parrots regurgitating platitudes that their masters wish to hear.


Not to forget that even parrots trained through distorted mirrors can only take that much distortion without losing their minds and poking out the eyes of the trainers.


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Ghalib – 22: Against Indifference

February 5, 2009


The beauty of language and the art of wordplay determine this week’s selection from Ghalib:


laag ho to us ko ham samjheN lagaao

jab nah ho kuchh bhii to dhokaa khaaeN kyaa


if enmity would exist, then we would consider it affection

when nothing at all would exist, then how would we deceive ourselves?


In last week’s selection (Heaven Unto Hell), the word laag had appeared in one guise. This week Ghalib uses it in a completely contrary meaning and then pairs it with lagaao to create the beauty of opposites. One can’t resist the temptation to say: lage raho Munnabhai!


Mehr-i-Niimroz will delve further into this intricate facility with words. The meaning, on the other hand, is quite clear: any kind of relationship is better than indifference; even enmity from the beloved is preferable to no relationship at all.


What interpretation can one extract from this in the social context?


We can do no better than to urge the reader to listen to the first few minutes of this interview with Noam Chomsky, one of the leading intellectuals on the left side of the political spectrum.


For those who are unable to view the video, here is a summary of Chomsky’s observation. Chomsky is commenting on the remarkable occurrence in American politics whereby the two leading presidential candidates of the Democratic Party were a non-white male and a woman – an occurrence that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.


And here is Chomsky’s explanation: it was the activism of the young in the 1960s that changed and civilized America – the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement; all were the products of that activism.


Chomsky notes that the conservative forces of today portray that generation of activists in a negative light – as immoral hippies and irresponsible dropouts – to preclude any recurrence. But he warns that without a resumption of that activism, very few of the dreams associated with the election of Obama would come to pass.


And from this we derive the political lesson that goes with Ghalib’s she’r: love your society or be deeply angry with it; either way, be involved. Praise where praise is due and raise your voice where it needs to be raised especially when the rights of the weakest sections in society are trampled and violated. The worst thing you can do is to remain uninvolved when human beings, all human beings not just those that look like you, are treated as less than humans.


Let us civilize South Asia.


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Ghalib – 21: Heaven Unto Hell

January 31, 2009

Even as I was writing about Pascal’s wager (On God: Existence and Nature), Ghalib’s words were echoing in my mind:

taa’at meN taa rahe nah mai-o-angabiiN kii laag
dozaakh meN Daal do koii le kar bihisht ko

so that in obedience, the desire of wine and honey may not remain
let someone take heaven and cast it into hell

The question is quite obvious: What is the motivation to do the right thing or to act ethically? But, of course, this begs the prior question: What is right or ethical to start with?

Ghalib’s position on the prior question is well known – he never placed much value on the rituals and gestures of propriety; for him it was always the sincerity of intent that mattered more. There is the constant contrast in Ghalib’s poetry between the genuineness of the Sufi and the hypocrisy of the Mullah.

Here Ghalib is going a step further and saying that even the ethical act devalues itself if it is driven by considerations of reward or punishment. One has to be good out of an inner conviction – that it is right, for example, to stop at a red light even if no one is watching.

And so Ghalib is proposing a thought experiment as the ultimate test: Do away with Heaven (or the Divine Policeman) and then let us see what happens – will we distinguish between the truly ethical and those whose good behavior is motivated only by self-interest?

It would be interesting to discuss why we need the concept of Heaven in the first place. And this raises the further question of whether Heaven has lost its effectiveness as a motivator of behavior? When we see the extent of dishonesty and corruption in South Asian society it suggests that the rewards or punishments of afterlife are not very material in affecting the acts of individuals.

Not only that, but as social systems are getting more religiously inclined the extent of dishonesty and corruption seems to be increasing. Does anyone have good explanations for this trend?

It is hard to disagree with Ghalib. Even in mundane personal interactions, I feel disinclined to ask others to do anything that I feel they ought to do of their own accord. The act loses something if it is done only to please me or to make me happy. It suggests I am responsible for making them do what they would rather not have done and that is a depressing feeling.

Relations at work are of a different nature because the welfare of an organization comes before personal likes and dislikes. So many officials need to be reminded every day that it is part of their job descriptions to actually carry out certain tasks. It is a surprise that they themselves do not see it in the same way prompting the oft-repeated verdict that only authoritarian rule will produce results in South Asia.

Do you agree with that verdict?

As always, a more literary interpretation is presented at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

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