Ghalib: Independent even in servitude

We started The Ghalib Project with some verses by Ghalib on the nature of faith, on what it means to be a believer. With this week’s verse we return to this theme, except now, instead of reflecting on and critiquing the Shaikh or the Brahmin, Ghalib comments on the nature of his own faith. Of course as with all verses, we must be cautious in equating the “I” or “we” in the verse with Ghalib the historical personality. Rather upon reading the verse we take something away, not necessarily about Ghalib the man, but instead about his ideas on, in this case, bandagii or servitude (to God). So the verse:

بندگی میں بھی وہ آزاد و خودبیں ہیں کہ ہم
الٹے پھر آۓ در کحبہ اگر وا نہ ہوا

bandagii me;N bhii vuh aazaadah-o-;xvud-bii;N hai;N kih ham
ul;Te phir aa))e dar-e ka((bah agar vaa nah hu))aa

1) even/also in servitude we are so free and self-regarding that we
2) turned and came back if the door of the Ka’bah did not open

[Translation by Frances Pritchett, click here for verse commentary on Desertful of Roses]

First, some comments on the language and construction, before we get into the meaning. Notice, as Pritchett points out the great use of the colloquial “voh,” to mean not “that” but “to such an extent” or “in such a manner.” And also the idiomatic “ul;Taa phir aanaa”, to turn back. The hardness of the palatal “T” (ट, ٹ ) stands out (in a good way) in the midst of softer Perso-Arabic words (bandagii, aazaad, ;xvudbiiN, dar, ka’ba and so on). In my experience, Ghalib seems fully aware of the effects that can be produced in Urdu by taking advantage of the spectacular variety of consonants that derive from Indic and Perso-Arabic heritage. Another example is the verse from last month where Ghalib uses another Indic word with a palatal consonant, gaa;Rho (ढ़) in a sea of softer Perso-Arabic sounds (vafaadaarii, ustuvaarii, imaaN, but;xaanaa and so on).

And finally, yet one more time, notice how the dramatic climax (about the ka’ba door not being open) is saved for the very end, not only the second line (the first line is general annd doesn’t give much cause for excitement), but the second half of the second line.

Now for the meaning of the verse. We have chosen this verse because it takes a critical attitude towards (blind) faith. Ghalib suggests that “even in bandagii, even as a person of faith, I retain an independence of spirit, something essentially human. An example of my independent nature is that when I go to the ka’ba, I expect Providence itself to ‘meet me half way’ by opening the door of the ka’ba. I do not deny that I am a bandaa (a follower), but my bandagii is not unquestioning.”

So the questions we ask ourselves reading this are:
Whatever be our faith (Islam, Christainity, Hinduism, Atheism), what sort of faith do we practice (hum kis kism ke bande haiN?) Do we retain a spirit of aazaadii? Is our identity as a person of a particular faith based upon unquestioning, unflinching loyalty or does it allow space for some dissent?

I lay more stress on the “aazaad” (free, independent) than the “;xudbiiN” (self-regarding), but I do realize that the reference to “self-regarding” makes the verse sound more like Ghalib is saying, I am too possessed of a sense of self to surrender myself completely to the Divine. It is possible that he is commenting specifically on the concept of surrender in Islam (if I understand correctly the word “Islam” itself has Arabic connotations of surrender to God’s will). If he is doing so, then in context, I take the verse not as endorsing a selfishness but instead as questioning the concept of surrender and faith as it is handed down.

To continue exploring the contemporary relevance of the verse, as always do visit The South Asian Idea Weblog.


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