Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Ghalib - Aah ko chaahiye

Sorry for the longish radio-silence... delegations, delegations, delegations!
Anyway, to continue with the Ghalib 'classics', here is one of his nicest ones, as promised a couple of posts back...
In the originally published version in Ghalib's deewaan, the radif of this ghazal was the more archaic 'होते तक' rather than 'होने तक'... but most modern commentaries take the liberty of modifying it to accord with current usage.

aah ko chaahiye ek umr asar hone tak
kaun jiitaa hai terii zulf ke sar hone tak

आह को चाहिए एक उम्र असर होने तक
कौन जीता है तेरी ज़ुल्फ़ के सर होने तक

"it takes a lifetime for a sigh to take effect
(but) who lives until your tresses are tamed?"

Despite the almost compulsive 'cleverness' that characterises most of Ghalib's work, this is one of his rare shers which impress more by their haunting 'beauty' than their 'brilliance'...

There have been widely divergent commentaries on what this sher is trying to say, even if all of them are united in conceding its exceptional charm. The most notable aspect of the sher is the apparent 'unconnectedness' between the two lines: the first, just a plaintive observation; the second, a rhetorical question... The relish of the sher comes from the many-hued ways these two elements can be made to link up in one's mind.

In my preferred interpretation of this sher, it highlights the helplessness of the Poet's doomed love; contrasting its 'ineffectual-ness' with the 'gargantuan-ness' of the task it faces.

After all, what 'instrumentality' can the poor Lover call upon to achieve his desired end (i.e. Union with the Beloved)? Just his agonised sighs! And a sigh, - that wispy, gossamer like tool - can hardly be expected to move mountains in a jiffy! It struggles on plaintively, painstakingly...taking an entire lifetime to bring about even the slightest of effects...

Now, note that it isn't that which gives the Lover cause for worry - he would be perfectly delighted if a lifetime spent in plaintive sighs could bring about the desired end on the eve of death... no, his problem is more serious... he realises that the 'lifetime' that his sighs have at their disposal is actually too short - why, it takes longer than that for even the Beloved's curls to get untangled, let alone move her heart in his favour...!!

It is that contrast - so starkly contrived - which makes this sher so beautiful. One the one hand, one evokes an entire 'lifetime' of sighs; on the other, merely the time it takes for the Beloved to 'subdue' her tresses... and then one turns this contrast on its head by making the latter 'period' seem so much longer than the former! What an innovative way to highlight the 'asymmetry' of power between the two protagonists... even the most 'everyday' activity of the Beloved is of greater consequence than an entire lifetime of suffering by the ill-fated Lover!!
Since this is Ghalib, some word-play is inevitable... the 'zulf ka sar honaa' is a carefully chosen expression. 'sar honaa' can mean something like 'to be tamed, subdued, or conquered' which, when used for the Beloved's tresses, has a particularly delicious ring to it. However, the expression can also mean something like 'to become aware' - and hence the second line could also be lamenting the fact that the Poet's limited lifetime isn't enough, - even if he continues to sigh piteously throughout its duration - for even the tangled curls of the Beloved, let alone her hardened heart, to become aware of his condition...!

daam har mauj mei.n hai halkaa-e-sad-kaam-e-nihang 
dekhe.n kyaa guzre hai katre pe gauhar hone tak

दाम हर मौज मे है हलका--सद काम--निहंग
देखें क्या गुज़रे है कतरे पे गौहर होने तक

"There is a net in every wave; a ring of hundred crocodile mouths
Let's see what befalls the drop until it becomes a pearl"

As I mentioned earlier, I am no fan of 'straightforward' similes in poetry.... if it has to be done, this is the way to go about it!!

You probably are familiar with the Hindu belief that raindrops falling into the sea during the Swati 'nakshatra' become pearls if they manage to find their way into a sea-shell... [स्वात्यम सागाराशुक्तिमाध्यापतितम संमौक्तिकम जयते]. Taking that as a starting point, the sher paints a vivid picture of the pitfalls that lie en route this transformation... every wave acts as a 'net' (for a raindrop, every wave does evidently present the threat of subsuming it within itself!), like crocodile mouths ranged ready to swallow the poor droplet... it must somehow traverse all these hazards if it is to realise so lofty an ambition...

The implied simile - the tortuousness of the path we must all walk if we hope to reach success/excellence - doesn't even need to be stated!

aashiqii sabr-talab aur tamannaa betaab
dil kaa kyaa rang karuu.n khuun-e-jigar hone tak 

आशिकी सब्र-तलब और तमन्ना बेताब
दिल का क्या रंग करूँ ख़ून--जिगर होने तक

"the practice of love is patience-demanding, while desire (is) impatient
what colour should I give to (my) heart, until the blood/death of the liver?"

A lovely sher, albeit somewhat obscure.

The first line presents the fundamental quandary of love... the 'urgency' of desire, in contrast to the interminable wait (the first sher provides a suitable measure) that a Lover must inevitably endure.

It is the second line which beguiles us with a strange beauty, without quite revealing its secrets. What is it saying? Opinion is divided on the exact nuance, but everyone agrees that the stylisation being evoked is that same 'heart-liver' disjunct we had occasion to discuss earlier - namely, the fact that the Lover's bleeding heart can continue to beat only until it keeps receiving a regular supply of blood from the Liver...

Hence, 'what colour should the Lover make of his heart' [a wonderfully evocative rhetorical query - where 'colour' can mean anything from 'mood' to 'fate'] until 'ख़ून--जिगर होने तक'? This last expression can be interpreted in two ways, both of which yield nuances worth savouring.

Firstly, the 'khoon' could be taken to mean 'being slayed' or 'dying' - hence the Lover is asking what he is to make of his heart until his tortured liver is finally 'finished off' by the excruciating paradox presented in the first line. Evidently, once the liver has kicked the bucket, the problem of what to do with the heart would become superfluous. In the second interpretation, the word 'khoon' could be taken in the more literal sense of 'blood' - in this case, the Poet is asking how he should manage his heart until the blood from the Liver comes about (i.e. arrives). The implication being, of course, that for the moment the Liver has stopped functioning, probably because it has realised the hopelessness of the task it faces, in view of the first line's paradox.

The 'khoon-e-jigar honaa' evidently also plays upon the common Persian idiomatic usage of 'khoon-jigar shudan', which, when used for a person, means something like 'to become devastated with pain or grief'. 

hamne maanaa ki tagaaful na karoge lekin 
khaak ho jaayenge ham tumko khabar hone tak

हमने माना की तगाफुल ना करोगे लेकिन
ख़ाक हो जायेंगे हम तुमको खबर होने तक

"Granted that you won't neglect/disregard; but
I will be dust by the time you become aware"

A relatively 'simple' sher compared to others in this Ghazal. And yet, lovely in its own right...

The tone is slightly mocking; the Beloved's promise of 'coming quickly' if she hears of the Lover being in any trouble is ironically bounced back at her with a 'Yeah, sure!' sort of response - "I do believe you when you say you will come quickly on hearing of my state - but I will be dust by the time you do get to hear about it".

This could be a quip either on the vast 'distance' that separates the Beloved from the doomed Lover; or a bitter hint at the kind of excuse that the Lover knows the Beloved will eventually use ["Oh I would have come immediately, but I never even heard about it until a moment back!"]

partav-e-khuur se hai shabnam ko fanaa kii taaliim
mai.n bhii huu.n ek inaayat kii nazar hone tak 

परतव--खूर से है शबनम को फ़ना की तालीम
मैं भी हूँ एक इनायत की नज़र होने तक

"The Sun's rays teach (about) oblivion to a dewdrop
I too am in existence (only) until the appearance of a kind glance"

The sher uses a heavenly hyperbole to highlight, once again, the 'insubstantial-ness' of the lover's existence vis-a-vis the Beloved. One 'kindly' glance from her, and he would evaporate like a dew-drop in the sun...
Like most direct 'simile-based' shers, I find this one somewhat lacking in that 'ineffable-ness' that is otherwise so enjoyable in Ghalib's inshaaiyaah style.

The second line is more enjoyable if one reads it in 'taunting' tone - the 'merciful' glance of the Beloved would be enough to kill the poor Lover off!

yak nazar besh nahii.n fursat-e-hastii gaafil
garmii-e-bazm hai ek raks-e-sharar hone tak

यक नज़र बेश नहीं फुर्सत--हस्ती गाफिल
गर्मी--बज़्म है एक रक्स--शरर होने तक

"not more than a glance is the reprieve of existence, o ignorant one!
the warmth of the party is only until the dance of a spark"

What a classy way to capture of the ephemeral, fleeting, evanescent, nature of existence!

Ghalib uses lovely metaphors in both lines to illustrate the point. But the metaphors are chosen with deliberate care, to convey more than just the central quality of 'short-livedness'.

Take the first line, for instance. By "no more than a glance" Ghalib means, of course, 'no longer than the duration of a glance'... but it also means that our existence offers us no time to do anything more than just 'glance' at the world... i.e. it is futile to even try to understand it!

Similarly, the 'dance of a spark' is such an expressive illustration of extreme transience - the way a spark flares for a mere instant before blinking out into oblivion. But note the beginning of the line - "garmee-e-bazm" - which is used, of course, in the sense of 'liveliness of the soiree', but also lends itself to the interpretation of actual 'warming' of the party by the spark's dance!

While looking at this sher by Ghalib, many commentators cite an equally lovely one by Zauq:
क्या एतबार हस्ती--नापायेदार का
चश्मक है बर्क़ की कि तबस्सुम शरार का

"what faith (can one have) in this fleeting existence
(is it) the wink of lightning, or the smile of a spark?"

gham-e-hastii kaa asad kis se ho juz marg iilaaz
shama'a har rang mei.n jaltii hai sahar hone tak

गम--हस्ती का असद किस से हो जुज़ मर्ग ईलाज
शमा हर रंग में जलती है सहर होने तक

"What, other than death, can cure the sorrows of life, Asad
the lamp (continues to) burn, in all moods, until dawn breaks"

A poignantly lovely maqtaa!

Once again, the simile is simply implied, without being 'hammered home' as lesser poets often tend to do!

The first line simply 'states' the ineluctable tragedy - that there is no escape from suffering in human life, except death. And then, the brilliant simile - a candle must continue to 'burn' (i.e. suffer), no matter what the mood of the gathering is... and the only escape from this burning is to be extinguished (i.e. dying) at the arrival of dawn!