Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ghalib's Meaning Generator

The other day I had an intellectually stimulating discussion on literature and poetry with an office colleague. That made me realize that I've been neglecting poetry for a while now. Take this blog for example. When I started this blog, my intention was to write about my two major passions - poetry and films. While I have written about films consistently and diligently, I have not written much about poetry.

So for a change, I want to write about poetry. And what better way to do that than returning to the unfathomable depths of Ghalib's poetry?

In the context of ghazals, one characteristic that provides an enjoyable multivalence to a couplet (she'r) is called Ma'ani-Aafrini (म`नी-आफ़िरीनी) or, in other words, 'meaning-creation'. Simply put, this refers to a situation where a single couplet or she'r can have more than one meaning. If one were to go by S.R Faruqui's definition: 'meaning-creation' refers to a style of expression in which in a single utterance a number of kinds of meanings are manifest or hidden.

Mind you, this multivalence of meaning does not come merely by some clever punning of words; in many cases it can come from varied emphasis on different words or sometimes even by calculated omission of the 'subject' in a sentence - leaving the field open for varied interpretations.

Ghalib's poetry has many instances of 'meaning-creation'. In one of his letters to his friend Tafta, Ghalib says:

भाई शा`इरी म`नी-आफ़िरीनी है क़ाफ़ियह-पेमाई नहीं है
(My friend, poetry is meaning-creation, it's not the measuring-out of rhymes)

Some of Ghalib's verses are deceptively simple, yet contain such "bizarre multiplicity of meaning (that can make) your head spin" (quote: Frances W. Pritchett). One such verse - one of his most famous ones - is:

न था कुछ तो ख़ुदा था कुछ न होता तो ख़ुदा होता
डुबोया मुझ को होने ने न होता मैं तो क्‌या होता
(na tha kuchh to khuda tha, kuchh na hota to khuda hota
duboya mujh ko hone ne na hota maiN to kya hota)

I can't even dare to put all the different meanings that this verse can generate. In fact, Frances W. Pritchett, in her commentary on this verse, calls it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning-generator'. You can read the detailed commentary on this verse here, but let me just put the various meanings that emerge from the first line due to the omission of subject.
  1. when there was nothing, then God was; if nothing existed, then God would exist
  2. when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
  3. when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God
As you would notice, depending on where and what you want to put as the subject, the tone of the verse changes from being reverential to almost blasphemous. And I'm not even getting into the varied meanings the second line presents. This is how Frances Pritchett ends her commentary:
"Is this not a two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations? That's why I consider it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning generator'-- because of its radical undecideability."
Amazing stuff.