Ghalib on leading and being led

In our collaborative Ghalib Project with The South Asian Idea Weblog, we have discussed she’rs that offer insights on contemporary politics and society. See for example the verse on impeachment posted around the time of the near impeachment of General Musharraf in Pakistan.

For this week, we have chosen a similarly politically relevant verse that talks about leadership, a commodity sadly in short supply in contemporary South Asia. First the verse itself:

chaltaa huu;N tho;Rii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahii;N huu;N abhii raahbar ko mai;N

1) I go along a little way with every single swift walker
2) I do not now/yet recognize a/the guide

As always we take our translation from Desertful of Roses, Prof. Frances Pritchett’s excellent online divaan. Click here for commentary on this verse.

In this case, even a conventional interpretation serves us well. But even conventionally there are a few possible interpretations as always is the case with Ghalib (bhaai, shaari ma’ani afiirnii hai, kaafiyaa paimaai nahiN hai, he once remarked in a letter, rough translation, “Brother, poetry is meanning creation, not weighing of rhymes.”).

Straightforwardly, Ghalib says, every person I see walking swiftly, as if they know where they are going, I walk with them for a bit. Why is that? Because I don’t recognize or know of a guide, a leader yet. So in this interpretation, the lack of a reliable leader, a guide, makes the person gullible enough to follow whoever smooth-talking, fast-walking person comes along.

In a different interpretation sustained by the meanings of the word “abhi” which can mean “yet” or can mean “now” or “anymore”. So the second line can be read as: “I don’t recognize a guide/leader yet” or “I don’t recognize a leader anymore.” The first possibility we just discussed. The second meaning creates the following situation: “Nowadays I just follow whoever comes along, for a bit, because really, I have stopped believing in leaders. They are all just the same. So it doesn’t matter who you follow.”

The second interpretation particularly appeals to me with respect to Indian politics. The Indian electorate in recent times (i.e the last decade and half or so) has shown remarkable political maturity and has taken to extracting whatever political mileage it can from its “leaders” who are perceived as corrupt to a (wo)man. Anti-incumbency is the norm but rather than being a sign of voter gullibility (they never learn their lesson, just keep on changing governments in the hope that something will change) in this reading it is a sign of voter sophistication. Knowning that the political system is thoroughly compromised, the masses participate in a game with their “leaders.” They don’t promise undying loyalty to anyone, but merely use whoever is in office (or looks like (s)he is headed for office) to press their demands.

Please visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea for more on the verse and its relevance to Pakistan.

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