Ghalib, what does it take for a man to become human?

We continue our collaborative blogsphere project with The South Asian Idea Weblog with yet another she’r by Ghalib. The first two she’r in this series raised questions regarding what it means to believe in a certain Faith. For this week’s post, we depart from the theme of “vafaadaarii” or faithfulness and instead come to a different type of morality. The morality of humanity. Ghalib has reflected extensively on the human condition. He was personally witness to the horror and terror of 1857. This verse, the opening verse (matlaa) of the ghazal, though, is from a ghazal composed around 1821. At this time Ghalib was around 24 years of age.

The verse:

بسکہ دشوار ہے ہر کام کا آساں ہونا


آدمی کو بھی میسر نہیں انساں ہونا

baskih dushvaar hai har kaam kaa aasaa;N honaa
aadmii ko bhii muyassar nahii;N insaa;N honaa

1a) it’s difficult to such an extent for every task to be easy
1b) although it’s difficult for every task to be easy

2) even/also for a man, it’s not attainable/attained/easy to become human/humane

Click here for complete commentary accompanying the translation by FWP.

We will first discuss two possible interpretations of this verse, made possible by the word baskih which can mean either “although” or “to such an extent.”

Thus the first line can be read as saying, “although it is difficult for every task to be easy,” i.e. we cannot really expect that every task would be an easy one, but look, Ghalib says (second line), isn’t it incredible that even man cannot attain humanity (humanness) in this world.

Another reading can be: “To such an extent is it difficult for every task to be easy, that even man cannot become a human in this world.” For a man to become human should be very easy, says Ghalib, almost by definition (as Hali points out). And yet, this is not the case. The inhumanity and cruelty of men is all around us. These are men all right, but are they human? Ghalib wonders.

As we have mentioned before, Ghalib was a lover of words and in this verse, as Frances Pritchett points out, Ghalib plays on the dichotomy between aadmii (man) and insaaN (human) words that are often considered synonyms but have distinctly different connotations (as evidenced by the noun insaaniyat or humanity derived from insaaN, not from aadmii). To become an aadmii, a descendant of Adam, a man, one need do nothing at all except be born. In other words we don’t become men, we simply are (the distinction between “to be” and “to become”). But, a human (insaaN) someone who has morals and social and cultural values. This we need to become. It takes work to become human. Sometimes so much work, that we fail to attain humanity. Ghalib uses the verb muyassar honaa very cleverly here. It can be read as saying that such is the wicked world that men are not allowed to be human (by impersonal forces, or “the system” as we might say). Or it can also be read as saying that men simply are failing to attain humanity (either through their own weaknesses or otherwise, we don’t know).

In the present day context of South Asia this verse raises many questions for us to ponder. One question that comes to my mind is, is Ghalib’s use of aadmii (man) purely an example of 19th century gender norms where “man” was used to refer to men and women (people in general) or does he perhaps wish to suggest that it is men (gender intended) in particular who find it difficult to become human. Women, by this reading, have no such problem, or they tend to show humanity far more often. I know this could be reading too much into the verse and I am prepared to accept that aadmii is simply gendered usage. But I couldn’t help but wonder…

Please visit The South Asian Idea Weblog for further ruminations and questions on the verse.

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