Ghalib Redux

Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear

When we first embarked on our project to translate a selection of Ghalib's ghazals, we foolishly chose to begin with Dil e nadaan tujhey hua kiya hay...a ghazal that struck us as exceptionally lucid in its simplicity and brevity. After several hours of arduous labor, we discovered our mistake and Ghalib's beguiling force. It made us conclude that there is little distinction between surface and depth in Ghalib's most seemingly accessible ghazals and so we began once more armed with the understanding that the mystery of Ghalib's poetry is its mirage-like quality: it is most opaque when it appears to be crystalline with clarity. This opacity however posed a challenge to the translators, who then had to further acknowledge that translation and interpretation were nearly synonymous. We read widely in available translations of Ghalib and finally decided that our mode and methodology should be based on dialogue because it best represents the continuum and the dynamic flow that initiates the acts of translation. As Walter Benjamin wisely observed, "Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the original—not so much for its life as from its afterlife."

This current article is, as it were, our tribute to the two past masters, Ghalib and Benjamin in that it represents the afterlife of our initial project Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance. Here, we essay a return to a few of the shers that we previously translated and interpreted in order to witness how our own perspectives have evolved and modulated our prior readings of these verses. In the process, we took care not to consult our original interpretation but juxtaposed our readings only after we had completed the second version. The shers were selected arbitrarily and do not represent any progression of Ghalib's thoughts or any predilections on our part. We revisit the question of Ghalib's translatability: is he fundamentally inaccessible to a non-Urdu speaking audience or does his vitality lend itself to the perpetual struggle between text and reader to exceed the boundaries of one language and intuit that, yes, this is an accurate reflection of what the original means. Rather than expecting a focus on the static dimensions of a literal translation, we trust that our readers will experience the vibrancy of poetic thought in action. It was such an impulse after all that gave us the courage to approach many minded Ghalib's language in the first place so that we could try to represent the myriad levels of metaphysical sorrows without reducing his ineffable sense of humor. We present our readers, therefore, with two interpretations of the same selected shers in the hopes that they may prefer one reading over the other, or better still, to move away with an interpretation of their own, continuing the endless process of re-reading.

‎فرصتِ کاروبارِ شوق کسے

ذوقِ نظّارۂ جمال کہاں

Who has the leisure for the industry of passion
Where is one's longing to behold the glorious

Interpretation: This sher mourns the passing away of a unique vitality that drove the poet to be a witness of wonders. There is no longer world enough, or time, to engage fully and deeply in the commerce of living, nor is there the fierce longing or the ability to behold the manifestations of beauty. The paradox here is that Ghalib connects the energy of youth with the concept of a certain luxury: its engagement with the intricacies and demands of passion are represented as a vanished miracle that can no longer be sustained by the sheer vicissitudes of age. It is hard to resist invoking Wordsworth's similarly poignant bewilderment expressed in the Immortality ode:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Reinterpretation: This haunting ghazal hinges on the plangency of the radif Kahan, the refrain "where". It also represents Ghalib's exploration of Ghazal e Musalsal consisting of a group of shers with a common theme, being in this case, his meditations on the passage of time and its connection to the inevitability of aging. The poem moves in a succession of unanswered questions related to the poet's catalog of objects and sensations that were once vital but are now absent from his existence. In listing these various losses, the poet uncannily contrives to recreate them so that the act of mourning is transmuted into one of celebration. In the sher we have selected, the first misra asks a question of who now has the time for the getting and spending of desire, which implies that the play of desire was once a bustling commerce. In the second misra, the poet vividly evokes the landscape of his longing which he encapsulates in his use of the word "jamal". The word signifies both beauty and radiance and is rendered doubly mysterious since it invokes one of the ninety-nine attributes of God. Thus there are resonances of divinity in the poet's invocation of the glorious.

‎عاشقی صبر طلب اور تمنّا بیتاب
دل کا کیا رنگ کروں خونِ جگر ہو نے تک

Love demands endurance, while desire is consuming
What should be my state until obsession devours patience

What Ghalib represents in this sher, is an extraordinary tension between devotion and desire. Whereas in much of his poetry the two terms are coterminous, here he makes a strange separation between the stillness of love and the movement of passion. The question is which energy is going to take over body and soul.

Reinterpretation: This sher represents two conflicting poles of desire; on the one hand, love requires unending fortitude, while on the other, it must accommodate the fierce restlessness of its own yearning. Here Ghalib reflects upon the curious mobility of passion which while being all consuming simultaneously remains steadfast. In other words, desire must keep itself alive despite its urge to be self obliterating. Instead of immolating itself like a phoenix, passion must be contained within the intricacies of its own discourse. The second misra presents both the translator and reader with a fine example of Ghalib's untranslatability. The language involves two bodily parts and the passage of blood from one to the other in an attempt to represent the passing of time. In some strange way the poet seems to be suspended in between the eruption of desire and its inevitable demise. The conceit here is that if desire is fulfilled, it can no longer serve as a source of life giving energy. With uncharacteristic ambivalence, the question the poet poses could be read as a lament over his own helplessness in that he is veritably living between two worlds, the vitality of passion followed by the oblivion that attends its extinction.

‎بازیچۂ اطفال ہے دنیا مرے آگے
‎ہوتا ہے شب و روز تماشا مرے آگے

The world is a children's playground before me
Night and Day, this theatre is enacted before me

Interpretation: This matla places the poet on a position of profound and disdainful elevation towards the world. He is capable of looking down upon it and seeing it as merely a playground, and what is more, one that is redolent of immaturity. Even the natural cycle of night and day can only repeat the essential pettiness that the poet reads into the universe. The great refrain is one that states the poet's presence even when he claims the diminishment of all that surrounds him: he is there as an integral poetic voice while scorning the significance of all beings other than his own.

Reinterpretation: This matla of one of Ghalib's most celebrated ghazals embodies the metaphysical arrogance with which he faces the world and the repetitiveness of time. The opening misra encompasses the great distance that the poet sets between his own mind and the workings of the world: in front of him the universe is nothing more than an infantile playground in which he chooses to be an indifferent spectator. The second misra represents the cycle of night and day in the passive voice so that the very vitality of the mutability of time is subverted and rendered static. Instead, it is reduced to a mere game or spectacle which the poet regards with some disdain. This apparent act of renunciation serves to elevate Ghalib's stature both as a poet and as a thinker. A ghazal that opens with such dramatic fanfare only increases in intensity as the shers unfold while the world in all its aspects is belittled and reduced. The poet's own vigor seems to be enhanced by each gesture of repudiation. Ironically, there is a symbiotic relation between the diminishment of the universe and Ghalib's sense of the empowerment of his own voice.

‎ہے مشتمل نمودِ صور پر وجودِ بحر
یاں کیا دھرا ہے قطرہ و موج و حباب میں

What appears as confirmation of the Ocean's actuality
Is it merely a sum total of wave, drop, phosphorescence

Once again, this sher is a piercing interrogation of the apparent unity of the elements. Ghalib's spiritual companion, W. B. Yeats was to ask a related question a century later:

Oh chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer
Are you the bole, the blossom, or the branch?
Oh body swayed to music, brightening glance,
How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

Ghalib examines the integrity of the ocean not necessarily to see it dissipate into the disparate forms of waves, drops and bubbles, but rather to marvel at the taut dynamism between the very immense and the very fragile. Their vital interdependence is the heart of reality, which further implies that philosophic issues concerning permanence and impermanence are finally strangely redundant. What remains is the sea and not the illusion of the sea and the breaking waves that constitute the being of that body of water. How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

Reinterpretation: This powerful sher both confirms the doctrine of Wahdat ul Wujood or the Essential Unity of Being and at the same time, hints at its dissipation into an assembly of parts. Does the ocean embrace the elements it is comprised of or does it exist to affirm the individuality of each of its elements? The misras move from an invocation of the sea's immensity into a delicate catalogue of specificities without which the ocean would drown in its own nothingness. The ambiguity of this sher stems from Ghalib's ability to posit a fundamental question which in the final analysis must remain unanswered. The query vexes both the poem and the reader into a contemplation of whether the fundamental unity of God and the universe are valid concepts or are Janus-faced in their interdependence.

‎ہاں وہ نہیں خدا پرست جاؤ وہ بیوفا سہی
‎جس کو ہو دین و دل عزیز اس کی گلی میں جائے کیوں

Granted they are not a lover of God, yes, they are unfaithful
Whoever holds creed and heart beloved, do not dare to wander up their way

Interpretation: With great delicacy, this sher celebrates individual as opposed to institutional religion. It dismisses both traditional worshippers of God, and even accepts the unfaithful. The second misra, however, celebrates a different form of belief, one based on the self reliance of the heart and its faithfulness to itself. It takes a brave soul indeed, to wander up the wayside of such a psyche (human). Given Ghalib's self-referentiality, it is clear that this sher has as much applicability to poetry and language as it does to aesthetic theory.

Reinterpretation: Love, Ghalib implies, is not for the faint hearted. Even though it demands an unconditional surrender, the very act of this annihilation implies reservoirs of hidden strengths. Rather than depicting passion as embodying submission or passivity, the poet chooses to utter a stern admonition to those who do not have courage equal to desire. Ghalib urges those with obsessive devotions to shun easy crutches of conventional beliefs in either faith or the strictures of love. The first misra invokes an ambivalent "other" who is neither bound by the confines of divinity nor by the ethics of fidelity. This "other", however, lacks the capacity to experience passion beyond its paraphernalia, be they secular or sacred, and must be banished from Ghalib's metaphysical world.

The authors wish to acknowledge that the quotations and interpretations have been drawn from Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance published by Penguin India.