What began as a volley of tweets between @soHbet_ & me led to some interesting ideas & finally a culmination on a plan to translate 81 (my idea) or 5 (hers) of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan’s (Mirza Ghalib) remarkable ghazals. While his stature is nearly set in stone & should need least effort to acknowledge, much more than we imagined was demanded of the industry in choosing, and then translating his words. Much of the difficulty I shall hastily assign to the incongruence of tapping one language’s spine & hoping it would cough in another tongue. English is best suited for poets who think & feel in the Anglic tongue. Urdu is best when one seeks to build a flight of stairs for the Gods to descend & delight in poetry.We picked this particular ghazal of Ghalib’s, called Hazaaro’n Kwaishe’n Aisi. If you must read the ghazal in the Devanagari script (although there are couplets which Ghalib never wrote), click here. If you wish to read the Arabic version of it, click here. If we wish to download the entire Deewan-e-Ghalib (no translation, only Devanagari & Arabic scripts in there), click here.
No poetic interpretation is wrong. They are at worst a poor dagger (as poetic daggers come) to cleave your heart. We shan’t ever know what the poet originally meant. Here is what I think he might have felt. Please note: I do not translate “nikale” as “take”. I have merely chosen “take” to help me weakly adhere to the rules of ghazals. “Nikale” has many connotations as each line below reveals. It can mean any of the following: to lose, to arise, to depart, to emerge, to remove, to turn out, etc.
Hazaaro’n khwaishe’n aisi ke har khwaish pe dum nikale,
Bahot nikale mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikale
Many are those wishes such that each, my breath did take
Many dreams have I lost (to Time), yet not much did it take
Darey kyun mera qaatil, kya rahega uski gardan par
Woh khoon, jo chashm-e-tar se umr bhar yoon dam-ba-dam nikale
Why must my tormentor fear that her neck shall have to bear
The blood, which in my tears this life’s breath already did take
Nikalna khuld se aadam ka sunte aaye the lekin,
Bahot be-aabroo ho kar tere kuche se hum nikale
The expulsion of Adam from Eden is certainly much fabled, but
From your streets, my removal was with all the disgrace I could take
Bharam khul jaaye, zaalim, tere qaamat ki daraazi ka
Agar is turah-e-pur pech-o-kham ka pech-o-kham nikale
Should the illusion dissolve, vile one, on your stately mien
Uncoiling your tresses, revealing the truth, is all it would take
Magar likhvaye koi usko khath, to humse likhvaye
Hui subah, aur ghar se kaan par rakh kar kalam nikale
But must someone write to her, allow me to be scribe
Every dawn I left home & a pen, behind my ear, I did take
Hui is daur mein ma’nsoob mujhse baadah aashaamee
Phir aaya woh zaamanah jo jahaa’n mein jaam-e-jam nikale
Since then I’ve indulged & earned disrepute as a drunkard
Then came that time when the cup of revelations in my hand I did take
Hui jin se tavakko’h khastagee ki daad paane ki
Woh hum se bhi zyaada khastaa-e-teg-e-sitam nikale
In many I held the hope that they heal my wounded soul
But much worse were they in the jabs that Fate’s sword did take
Muhabbat mein nahin hai farq jeene aur marne ka,
Usi ko dekh kar jeete hain, jis kaafir pe dam nikale
There is no schism in love, separating life from death
I live, gazing at the lover who, my every breath, does take
Kahaan maikhaane ka darwaaza Ghalib, aur kahaan vaaiz?
Par itna jaante hain kal woh jaata tha ke hum nikale
So separated the tavern door & the priest, Ghalib
Yet I recall, as I left the inn, the first step in he did take
As with all good poetry, mere translation is unsatisfying to the translator. What follows is my exploration into the possible meaning of it all. Please note, ghazals in their very design do not demand that the shers (couplets) be connected or related. Each sher can be about an unrelated theme as long as the rules are followed. You can find more about ghazals, here.
Is it merely my ability to extrapolate or is the ghazal genuinely pregnant with meaning? We might never know.
Ghalib uses the image of a lover, tormentor, assassin of the heart in different effects throughout this poem. While the lover could well be another human being, it might as well be one’s notion of God or a state of being where none of these travails assail one. However, one wishes to shake interpretation out of that image, Ghalib wonders what frailty of the human soul spurs us to wish for more. One is well aware of the toll that hope takes on our soul, yet we succumb to its promise at the slightest ray of possibility. Some of us are such to not make much of all those wishes made & denied as if we can never have enough of being denied. The very fabric of wishing, cloaks us from what we have experienced & lays us bare to the thrashings of a new hope denied. Such is this desire to want, that stripped & clothed at once, we are in its throes.
Then what fear does any God or lover need to have? So powerful is this desire that I willingly walk into death, absolving all tormentors of the guilt of having driven me to there. In Urdu, “blood on one’s neck” as translated from “uski gardan par woh khoon” is equivalent to the English “blood on one’s hands” i.e. blame of misdeeds. A dagger’s plunge does splatter the killer’s body with blood. Ghalib asks – what does my slayer have to worry about? None shall blame the murderer who stands above a soul drained of all blood (life force) shed over a lifetime of tears (in wishes unfulfilled & hopes dashed). The utter helplessness of the soul is captured in this sher. Not only must he be a living dead, he cannot even hope for justice meted out to the tormentor but he must also reassure that murderer that s/he has nothing to worry about. Such is this soul’s love for the granter of all wishes!
Often the celebrated one’s trauma becomes more vital & renowned than what a common man walking the street goes through, but Ghalib avers, that his heart’s implosion is perhaps more deafening if only we would cease to chant the tales of yore, of Biblical/Quranic/Tanakhic import which makes supreme suffering (in the common man’s heart) petty by exalting the travails of Adam & other historic/mythological figures & thereby denying the sufferer even the right to feel comfort in that realisation that his wounds are indeed excessive & grand. Ghalib lends the heartbroken, belief-shaken soul an ear declaring that the dishonour was none less than the fabled disgrace of Adam.
Bharam is perhaps a corruption/variation of the word bhram (Sanskrit/Hindi, with the meaning of illusion/confusion). In Urdu it carries a possible connotation of “character or credit or worthiness”. So at once, Ghalib cautions & praises the lover/God that either the illusion (of the God/lover’s greatness) or the supreme fabric (of the same) would be revealed was he to tug at that twist of all understanding of the true stature of the God/lover. For a human lover, what he’ll tug at would be the piled up tresses thus revealing the beauty or banality of the lover (the hair coming undone being the dramatic first suggestion to the following torrid love-making scene). For God that tassel to be tugged at would be to reveal the source of all Godliness & divinity, thereby either debunking the “God” as is popularly held or in the rapture of re-recognising what was the “original God”. Either way, there are some who will be offended in the revelation & some delight in confronting truth in all its splendour. The unveiling, Ghalib says, will be convoluted & sinuous like the lover’s tresses or God’s “reality”. Ghalib insists it is like the knot to which each generation has only added a twist & turn & wind but he knows of this one loose end which just needs a tug to find all knots & curls undone.
Ghalib, the ever-curious, insists on acting as scribe to all lovers/believers so he may understand the working of hearts & minds held in the hold of this magnificent beauty. Somehow he believes that by being the one to pen the letters to the God/lover, he would find the root of all suffering as well as the finest expressions of love which he may adopt in his personal letters. In being the scribe, he is laying bare the love of others for love, when described to another, making its innards known in words, is revelatory. By laying it bare he hopes either the lover sees the illusion of it all or Ghalib gains insight into the beauty of it. Either way, he always becomes the lover as he is the one writing what they wish to say. By being proxy to their gushing, he becomes the only lover that the God/lover will ever see. He becomes the essence of all lovers. And if nothing were to come of this, ever, he at least benefits by fuelling the writer in him. Thus Ghalib, in offering his services, stands to gain no matter what the outcome.
In pondering over love & being in the midst of lovers & pining for that one vision, Ghalib confesses to being drunk in the want for a clear sign. Such constant drunkenness earns the lover a reputation of a “madman” or “drunkard”. Many will sober up re-earning societal accolades & good repute, but it is he who remains in that inebriated state who will find the portal to the worlds revealed promised in the mythological Cup of Jamshed’s. Ghalib, being a poet, cannot discard the possibility that the madly intoxicating state a possessed writer lives in can very well be the gateway to all union with his lover/God.
Those who might come to aid to such a drunkard are dearly sought after, but most “wise” men are either feel-good godmen or priests blinded by words that were long dead. Thus, these men, cut by the sword of their respective Fate which brought them close to divinity & beauty but left them mere storytellers of a glory they have no clue about, these men, earn Ghalib’s sympathy as a wounded soldier feels when he enters a hospital of a plague-inflicted town. These people who claim to right all wrongs, provide guidance to the passionately possessed or protect the ones madly in love are cripples themselves finding sanctuary behind their cloaks & social propriety.
For in love, absolute complete transforming love, there is no dichotomy of life & death, says Ghalib. Once in love, there is only loving. Once consumed by love, there is only that infinite existence gazing at the lover/God whose beauty takes away one’s breath. Ghalib in one sweeping stroke dispels all cowardly love that treats love as an option, a practical consideration, a convenient avenue or a customary facet of life. None of that is love, says Ghalib, as the separation between living (and the practical choices) continues to thrive in opposition to death while that is impossible to be held thus, in opposition, in love. Ghalib’s clarity in this matter of the heart is so simply stated but infinitely important & decisive. How can one be in love if there is a state of being that excludes the lover? Isn’t love a complete immersion?
And everyone, every wise man, is aware of this though in fear turns his face away from this truth. The sheer intoxication of such love is beyond all rationality & plotting. One cannot to behave this way or that when in love as much as a convulsing epileptic cannot plan for his next seizure. This state of mindlessness unknown is frightening to the godly & ignorant alike. Were he not aware, why would he call me a madman, hiding his fear, his cowardice in invectives? He creates societal veils, moral walls to keep these who know the secret lest his cowardice be challenged, lest he be prodded to desert all sanity for the sake of a lover, it is easier to worship than to love. Thus, he pretends to keep his distance from the watering hole of such madmen & everyone chides Ghalib for even suggesting that the godmen must have an interest in the spirits. But, says Ghalib, he does recall many a day in his infinite past, when some godly men have risked entering the tavern of lovers, when they thought no one was watching.
With such ease, Ghalib moves from attacking desires & their multitude, to declaring how he too has been victim of human hope & want, bleeding dry, walking through all disgrace till he discovered that one key to all clarity. He jests while hiding his true intent of being completely immersed in the love of others as well as his. He then moves to describe the intoxication & why that is preferred to all sobriety. Such is this state that he realises that those who we are in the role to help are incapable to do so. He then summarises this state of love & its primary trait closing with the invitation & reassurance that all are welcome to this state of being as occasionally availed by the high priest himself.
While perhaps Ghalib might not have intended this, this ghazal is brilliant study in human psychology & even runs parallel to the Bhagavad Gita. In there, a confused Arjuna, besotted by desire to please, to conform, to gain the heavens, to be respected, approaches Krishna who assures him that the individual is neither killer nor killed, especially when the life is completely devoted to the Parabrahman. Krishna then reveal the one key to unlock all confusion, which he assures Arjuna is all truth. Arjuna then beholds Krishna in all splendour before being made aware of the complete immersion that bhakti brings about. The worth of mere word-content of the scriptures, & all purported aides (priests, et al) for the seeker is dashed to the floor by Krishna in later chapters. The oneness of the God in which life & death merge, where all dichotomy ceases is beautifully mirrored here in the ghazal as well. I am sure one can draw parallels to other works exploring the confusion of the spiritual soul.
Ghalib ensures that this ghazal is accessible to a common man who is in love as well as one who grows in love to seek the union with the Divine. Thus, in fairly simple words, Ghalib weaves a tapestry of remarkable import. Hope you enjoyed the work of this poetic genius.
There are 2 shers which are commonly inserted in this ghazal and passed around as Ghalib’s work. They do not belong there. Their worth is not in question & is left to the reader, but their lack of authenticity has been ascertained beyond doubt. I will refrain from translating them.