Sunday, March 29, 2015

Angels & Prophets … and Ghalib

“Appreciation of poetry is a complex process, especially in the context of Urdu poetry. Besides a good understanding of the language, it is important for a reader to understand the cultural backdrop and conventions of Urdu poetry…”

Some years ago, I had written a short piece about how ‘Knowledge’ is essential to the understanding of ‘poetry’. I am reminded about that today in the context of how poets refer to historical/ legendary/ mythical characters in their poetry. And that takes me to an unpublished ghazal by Ghalib that abounds with references to Proper Nouns, especially Angels, Prophets and other references from the mythology of Abrahamic religions.

This ghazal per se is not very exciting in terms of themes covered. However it demands knowledge and understanding of religious texts, mythology and history. In order to make some sense of it, I had to refer to a lot of other material. If the usual thrill of breaking one’s head over deciphering the meaning(s) of the verses was missing, there was an excitement of trying to learn more about other religions and cultures.

What is unique about this Ghazal is that 4 out of the 6 verses have Proper Nouns that are crucial to the understanding of the verses. If one verse talks about the Horn of Archangel Raphael that signals the arrival of doomsday, another talks about the Prophet Jacob’s blindness on account of grieving for his son Joseph and the river Nile (Joseph was incarcerated in Egypt). One invokes the Crown of Archangel Gabriel, while another talks of the Evangel or gospel truth. The final verse, obviously, has another Proper Noun – the poet’s pen name. In addition, one must also know that in Persia, blue was the colour of mourning. And of course, what most Indians would be familiar with, that a black mark is meant to ward off the evil eye.

Here is the ghazal (written in 1821). I have tried to do a literal translation of it in English, but as we know, translating successfully  in another language is a are skill, which I certainly do not possess.

फूँकता है नाला हर शब सूर इस्राफ़ील की
हम को जल्दी है मगर तूने क़यामत ढील की

(नालह = lament; सूर = horn; इस्राफ़ील = Angel Raphael)

Phoonkta hai naala har shab soor Israafeel ki
ham ko jaldi hai magar tune qayamat dheel ki

Each night the lament blows the horn of Raphael
I’m impatient, but doomsday pays no heed

की हैं किस पानी से याँ याक़ूब ने आँखें सुफैद
है जो आबी पैरहन हर मौज रूद-ए-नील की

(याक़ूब = Jacob; सुफैद = white; आबी = like water, light blue; मौज = wave; रूद-ए-नील = River Nile)

Ki hain kis paani se yaaN Yaqoob ne aakhen sufaid
hai jo aabi pairahan har mauj rood-e-Neel ki

With what has Jacob washed his eyes clean
Every wave of Nile mourns in blue clothes

’अर्श पर तेरे क़दम से है दिमाग़-ए-गर्द-ए-रह
आज तनख़्वाह-ए-शिकस्तन है कुलह जिबरील की

(‘अर्श = skies; तनख़्वाह-ए-शिकस्तन = the reward of destruction; कुलह = crown; जिबरील = Angel Gabriel)

’arsh par tere qadam se hai dimaagh-e-gard-e-raah
aaj tankhwah-e-shikastan hai kulah Jibreel ki

The dust on the road feels proud that you step on it
the trampling is a reward as great as Gabriel’s crown

मुद्द'आ दर-पर्दा या'नी जो कहूँ बातिल समझ
वो फ़िरन्गीज़ादा खाता है क़सम इंजील की

(मुद्द'आ = complain; दर-पर्दा = aside; बातिल = permanent, truth; फ़िरन्गीज़ादा = British; इंजील = The New Testament)

Mudd’a dar parda ya’ani jo kahoon baatil samajh
wo firangizaada khaata hai qasam Injeel ki

“Forget everything else, whatever I say is the gospel truth”
So says the British lad, taking an oath on the Evangel

ख़ैरख़्वाह-ए-दीद हूँ अज़-बहरे दफ़'अ-ए-चश्म-ए-ज़ख्म
खेंचता हूँ अपनी आँखों में सलाई नील की

(ख़ैरख़्वाह-ए-दीद = well-wisher of the eyes; अज़-बहरे = on account of; दफ़'अ-ए-चश्म-ए-ज़ख्म = banish the wound of the eye i.e. evil eye; सलाई = needle; नील = black)

Khairkhwah-e-deed hoon az behr-e-dafa’-e-chashm-e-zakhm
kheenchta hoon apni aankhon mein salayi neel ki

I am a well-wisher of the eye, so to ward off the evil eye
I draw a black mark on the eye with a needle

नाला खेंचा है सरापा दाग़-ए-जुर'अत हूँ असद
क्या सज़ा हैं मेरे जुर्म-ए-आरज़ू तावील की

(नालह = lament; सरापा = completely; दाग़-ए-जुर'अत = guilty of courage; जुर्म-ए-आरज़ू तावील = crime of expressing the desire)

Naala khencha hai saraapa daagh-e-jur’at hoon Asad
kya saza hai mere jurm-e-aarzoo taaveel ki

Having expressed my lament, I’m guilty of intrepidity
Now, what is the punishment of my crime of expressing my desire?


I am not giving detailed explanation for this entire ghazal, but would want to highlight one couplet that I find the most interesting due to multiplicity of meaning.

ख़ैरख़्वाह-ए-दीद हूँ अज़-बहरे दफ़'अ-ए-चश्म-ए-ज़ख्म
खेंचता हूँ अपनी आँखों में सलाई नील की

The way one looks at the first word (ख़ैरख़्वाह-ए-दीद) would determine how the couplet unfolds itself. Let’s ask the question - well-wisher of whose eyes?

  1. I am a well-wisher my own eye, so in order to save it from evil’s eye, I draw a black mark on it.
  2. I am a well-wisher of your eyes… for this to make sense, one would have to look at the implied meaning i.e. I blind myself by pricking my eyes, so that I cannot cast my evil eye on your beautiful eyes.
  3. A third meaning emerges if the poet considers the harm caused by the evil eye to be much worse than that caused by blindness. As a well-wisher of his own eyes, he prefers to blind himself than let an evil eye fall on them.

I don’t think I have been able to capture the essence of नज़र लगाना in the above explication. But that’s the best I could.