The Lesser Known Ghalib(2): In praise of commoness

Continuing the series on Ghalib. I just rediscovered one of my favorite “anti- intellectual” verses by Ghalib. Ghalib is commonly acknowledged to be a “difficult poet” and revels in abstruse imagery and metaphors. And with his knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Arabic as well as poetics, can certainly be considered an intellectual, in the modern sense of the term. So its interesting to find such a direct comment on the ways of the intellectuals.

ہیں اہل خرد کس روش خاص پہ نازاں

پا بستگی رسم و راہ عام بہت ہے

haiñ ahl-e khirad kis ravish-e khās pah nāzāñ
pā-bastagī-e rasm-o-rah-e ʿām bahut hai

Loose, literal translation #1:
Of what special method are the intellectuals so proud?
The hold of common practice is strong enough in them
Loose, literal translation #2
Of what special method are the intellectual so proud?
Adherence to common custom is good enough for us.

Click here for the commentaries available for this verse on Frances Pritchett’s site.

Most commentators seem to have preferred reading #1 for this verse and this was also the reading that was most obvious to me on the first pass. In this reading, Ghalib is lampooning the intellectuals (ahl-e-khirad) for being vainly proud of their special methods/customs (ravish-e-khaas), when in fact they are as grounded/caught (paa-bastagi, lit. foot-fixedness) in everyday mores and custom (rasm-o-rah-e-aam) as the rest of us common people. At one level, the verse immediately appealed to me because of the number of times I have witnessed intellectuals display the all too common (common in both senses of the term, frequent and vulgar) traits of petty behavior, jealousy etc. At a more philosophical/methodological level, the verse can be interpreted as saying that the claims made on behalf of special methods (“scientific method” comes to mind, though Ghalib might not have had that in mind) are suspect because the individuals who espouse these methods are very caught up in mundane, everyday prejudices and limitations to really produce any objective or special knowledge. Am I reading too much into the verse?

Reading #2 is suggested by Pritchett as a possible secondary reading. Here, Ghalib is asking what is so special about these methods on the intellectuals? Being grounded in good old common sense is good enough for us. Here, “bahut hai” is interpreted not as “there is a lot” but as “is enough”, both interpretations are perfectly valid. The only problem, as Pritchett point out, is that “paa-bastagi” has the negative connotation of “being caught” rather than a more neutral or positive connotation of “being rooted” or “being grounded.”

Once again Ghalib shows how much can be done by simply exploiting the ambiguities or multivalence inherent in Urdu/Hindi.


One thought on “The Lesser Known Ghalib(2): In praise of commoness

  1. Of course, this couplet has no reference to you Sir.By the Grace of God, you too will become an great Indologist- but one like Kosambi, an economist- but one like Amartya Sen.Sir, please tell me, why else could India afford to lose you?


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