The measure of all things

February 6, 2022

A general invitation to think with Mirza Ghalib — one of the most creative minds in the history of South Asia

The measure of all things

This book invites young South Asians to think with Mirza Ghalib. Poetry is traditionally loved, enjoyed, amused and appreciated by those who indulge in it – a whole business peppered with a suite of sensual pleasures. Reading poetry often becomes a jaunt into a multiverse of feelings, impressions and intuition. The authors’ intention, while being well-thought out and unambiguous, seems to go against the social grain. Why do the authors wish for young folks to navigate Ghalib’s poetry by turning the whole experience into a cerebral act? A partial answer lies in adhering to Ghalib as a modern poet.

Interrogative spirit is the hallmark of every modern writer. To be modern means to question whatever is perceived (through senses), conceived (through intellect) and received (through education, history and tradition). Belief in the modern paradigm quintessentially puts both outer (social, historical, political, tradition) and inner (emotional, psychological, phenomenological) worlds under scrutiny. Human intellect is believed to be the measure of all things. By declaring that “Ghalib is the poet par excellence of critical thinking”, the authors seem to anchor all their exegetic endeavours to the modern, intellectual, critical paradigm.

Motivated by an American critic, Stanley Fish’s essay on Milton which suggests that “Milton’s poetry is good to think with”, authors of the book under review took up this project to think with Ghalib. The idea behind it, “if they have Milton, we have Ghalib – a poet of great stature ; if they find it useful to think with a great poet, we can emulate that” is postcolonial in nature. Addressing our local problems through emulation and speaking to the West still informs the fabric of our intellectual endeavours. Thinking with an Urdu-and-Persian poet in English – a language of former colonial masters (and writing this review in the same language, too) is a postcolonial irony. Are we doomed to live with such ironies? What does our critical thinking suggest in this regard? The thought deserves serene deliberation.

But what exactly does thinking with a giant, modern poet mean? We know that in poetry it is the poetics – conventions and grammar of poetry – that come first. For if you disregard poetics, you become oblivious to how poetic language differs from ordinary language. In poetry, nothing is superfluous. Here each word and the order of words matters and words may be used in a literal or a figurative sense or both. So reading poetry is an excursion into embracing every bit of nuances, resonances and other subtleties ensconced in words, lines and between the lines. Drawing out thought(s) from poetry is not an illegitimate idea as long as violence to the aesthetic is avoided. When you exclusively focus on an abstract thought extracted from some verse and flout the poetics and inner context of the verse, you are guilty of violence to poetry.

The authors have occasionally remarked on the poetic devices employed by Ghalib, but the overall scheme of interpretation adopted in the whole book is awash with reflecting over intellectual contents of the selected couplets. Their main, perhaps the sole, object seems to have been reflectively unravelling the real, economic, cultural, socio-political issues South Asia faces today by delving into Ghalib’s poetry. Immersed in critical thinking, Ghalib’s poetry provides a sort of firm, convincing ground to investigate and interpret cultural, socio-political questions withering our region’s soul away. Our authors’ interpretative strategy involves raising some pertinent, incisive question(s) which not only aim to illuminate the basic theme of the couplets but seek reader’s deep involvement as well. The idea of thinking with Ghalib keeps working throughout the book. Authors of the book are not only aware that Ghalib’s poetry is multi-layered and full of paradoxes but they also have wonderful knowledge of the tradition of classical Urdu poetry and its Perso-Arabic background. They perceptively and incisively disentangle the poetic symbols, historical allusions and other poetic devices Ghalib’s poetry employs.

Thinking with a giant like Ghalib is not – and cannot be – an easy task. All great thinkers and poets stir a sort of disquietude not just in our minds but also in our very perception of things. So does Ghalib’s poetry. For instance, in the following oft quoted she’r

baskeh dushvaar hai har kaam kaa asaaN hona
aadmi ko bhi muyassar nahiN insaaN hona

Ghalib not only seems to draw a distinction between aadmi and insaan but also breeds an edginess in the way we perceive ourselves, our human identity and how we evaluate our journey from being to becoming. Here Ghalib asserts that many an aadmi is devoid of the conditions that could help him grow into an insaan. There is a cascade of questions inherent in this simple assertion. Are the words aadmi and insaan antagonistic? Does the word aadmi denote a being with dark and savage instincts? Does the word insaan imply the pinnacle of human endeavours to grow intellectually, emotionally and intuitively? One is essentially to be detested and the other is to be desired? If we are born as aadmi, then who has the legitimate authority to chalk out the path from aadmi to insaan? Can we blindly trust parental, political, social and cultural powers of our age or should we doubt them all along? Is the passage from aadmi to insaan tantamount to an abrupt yet complete transformation or a slow, life-long process?

These are a few of the questions just one couplet triggers. While interpreting this couplet the authors’ intention has been to first draw a distinction between man/woman and human being and then to establish that aadmi refers both to man and woman. The reference to Phyllis Trible’s reading of Bible is illuminating where the word adham, from which Adam derives, is described as a creature of undifferentiated sex. However, the authors’ focus in interpreting this she’r has been on “what is it that makes it difficult for the descendants of Adam to reach the status of a (perfect) human being?”

As the book’s purpose is to engage young South Asians in reflecting critically on cultural and socio-political issues, the interpretative discourse of the book avoids the abstract yet fundamental philosophical problems Ghalib’s poetry provokes. A pragmatic approach has been adopted by the authors. In search of the answer to the above-mentioned question, the authors have rightly distinguished between education and indoctrination. The purpose of education on one hand is reduced to information while on the other, to indoctrination. “In the process, a descendent of Adam can become either “a fanatic, a jihadist” or “an auto mechanic or a brain surgeon”, but not necessarily a human being”.

Explaining another couplet, the authors raise a question consistent with the point in question: where does learning begin and where does it stop? Who is there to decide the objectives and boundaries of our learning? Through interpreting Ghalib, they come to affirm that we “should seek the truth within ourselves, the last place we look, instead of outside in every direction”. It simply means that it is our fearless critical, interrogative spirit that keeps all hegemonic, demonising and dehumanising powers at bay.

The authors seem to emphasise that only through relentless interrogation, imbibed and developed through wide-ranging education, can we become human beings. Books like this, and other literary texts, that make us feel and critically think must be part of the syllabi of all disciplines. In this marvellous book important questions, such as assessing leaders, thinking for oneself, choosing destinations; and issues as significant as fatalism, the other, relationship, justice, governance, intellectual myopia, law, morality, identity, dignity, humanism and others, have been thoroughly debated and investigated by pegging to the basic themes in Ghalib’s couplets. This book deserves to be taught at the undergraduate level in our universities.

Thinking with Ghalib

Poetry for a New Generation

Authors: Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole.

Publisher: Folio Books, 2021

Pages: 128

Price: 500

The reviewer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. His new book of criticism Ye Qissa kiya hai Maani ka is in press.

The measure of all things