Ghalib on the double bind faced by the one who is promised redress

This week, a wonderful and very famous verse from an equally famous ghazal (aah ko chahiye ek umr sar hone tak). I have commented earlier on another verse from this ghazal.

ہم نے مانا کہ تغافل نہ کروگے لیکن
خاک ہو جائینگے ہم تم کو خبر ہونے تک

ham ne maanaa ke ta;Gaaful ne karoge lekin
;xaak ho jaa))e;Nge hum tum ko ;xabar hone tak

1) we conceded/agreed that you won’t show negligence/heedlessness, but
2) we’ll become dust, by the time of the news reaching you

Click here for the entry on Desertful of Roses. Note that Fran Pritchett sticks to the original radif, hote tak, which is usually modernized these days to hone tak.

As always for this series run in collaboration with The South Asian Idea Weblog, we try to interpret the verse in a somewhat “hat ke” manner, as they might say in Bollywood. But first the technical aspects worth noting and the convention interpretation.

The first all too obvious matter of construction. Notice how the first line gives away minimal information. All it says is: “we admit or concede that you will not ignore us.” This itself is of course interesting in the ghazal universe because ta;Gaaful or ignoring/disregarding is the essential quality of the beloved. As for example Khusro’s ze haal-e-miskin makun ta;Gaful, doraaye nainaa, banaaye batiyaaN, and countless others. So contrary to the “regular beloved” this one has promised to come to our lover. So Ghalib says: “I agree with you, I believe your promise that you will not ignore me.” But then in the second line, and not only the second line but in the last kaafiyaa part of the second line we are delivered the punch. “I will be dust (I will be dead) by the time the new [of my state] reaches you.”

Leaving meaning and focusing on sound for a moment, there is a nice play in the second line where “hum” precedes the very similar sounding “tum,” almost like the refrain “hum tum taanaa naa naa” in the classical qawwali by Khusro, man kunto maula.

At the heart of the verse is a contradiction as Fran Pritchett notes: “A lovely, witty, little ‘catch-22’ lies at the heart of this one. If I don’t accept your pledge not to neglect or ignore me, I’ll offend you– and thus I’ll never get any favors from you. Yet if I do accept it, and thus earn your good will, I’ll never live long enough to get any favors from you. (For I’ll of course be in such bad shape in your absence that I’ll be dead before you even learn of it.) So no matter what I do, I’m doomed.”

This is strongly reminiscent of another paradoxical verse about the beloved’s promises to come and the lovers dilemma:

tere vaade pe jiyeN hum to ye jaan jhoot jaanaa
ke ;xushi se mar na jaate agar aitbaar hotaa

This verse is another marvel of meaning creation (ma’ani afiirnii) and I won’t go into the intricacies of it here (save it for a later time). But just note the paradox. The only way I can subsist on your promise (to come to me) is by believing it to be false. Because if I actually believed it (believed that you would come to me one day), I would die of happiness! Ghalib can really keep your mind spinning with his little paradoxes.

But now onto a somewhat more serious interpretation. In the wake of the recent Delhi bomb blasts (and other similar blasts in other cities in India) and the ensuing hysteria and Muslim baiting that usually results (witness the controversy over Jamia Milia Islamia University) we offer this verse as a metaphor for the dilemma facing the Muslims and other minorities in India. To the State they say: “We have faith in your promises to pay atention to our state and to do something about it, because how can we not? If we say we do not, we risk your wrath. But even if we believe in your promises of justice by the time you get around to doing anything about our state, we will be finished!”

A sombre note but one that behooves us all to think long and hard about how a beseiged minority may feel even when it exists in a [at least nominally] democratic, pluralistic society. This theme is taken up in the entry on The South Asian Idea.


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