Ishq par zor nahiin, hai yeh voh aatish Ghalib, keh lagaaye na lage aur bujhaa’e na bane. You have no power over passion; it’s the sort of flame, Ghalib, that can’t be kindled on a wish and refuses to be snuffed out even when you try. This is the maqtaa of Ghalib’s ghazal whose matlaa is the often sung sher that opens with nuktah chiin hai gham-e-dil. An utterly musical sher, its paradoxical simplicity and the ironies at play in it are the heart of its magic. And of course, since ghalib means victorious, jubilant, triumphant, the sher dances around the paradox of love’s exorbitant force, its playful, almost mischievous power. A person might reach for love, long their way towards it, but it comes as it pleases and once it sneaks in, love insistently stays alive like one of those skinny trick birthday candles which go out but suddenly reignite, and then refuse to go out again however much you try to put them out. A sher from Ghalib that slyly insinuated itself, or was tucked into the song “Satrangii re”; the song itself is the centerpiece, the fulcrum, of the movie Dil Se. “Satrangii re” embodies the movie, and one could say about the movie, as many have, that whether or not desire travels through all the objects that pull at it (nation, qaum, beloved), the movie is really about educating audiences in the seven travails of love.
I taught this song from Dil Se along with other lyrics written by Gulzar in a class on Bombay cinema I was teaching at WellesleyCollege. “Satrangii re” brought my students to Urdu poetry, and through poetry, to Ghalib. As with all such classes taught in the US, whether they are organised around South Asian culture, history or politics, or train students in South Asian languages, my students came to it armed with a motley bag of wishes and hopes. The Pakistani students were startled at coming upon Urdu again unexpectedly in the United States. Those from India were charmed by their introduction to Urdu through a familiar song, foot-tapping dance music reaching back for them into a lineage of mystical poetry. Some American students lived poetry as their genre, something young people like them performed at slams; they suddenly encountered forms that were sung here and now, in contemporary keys but with much older lyrics amalgamated into current practices. For others, this introduction to poetry was like being foisted into an arranged marriage with a dumpy partner they could not imagine they might even want to see, on par with being dragged reluctantly to a museum; poetry for them fell into the ‘I don’t do this’ category of activities. This class was typical for me, in that, as I and many other professors at universities in the United States often do, I tuck moments like this into many different syllabi, as a courtship to enchant my students, to seduce them to Urdu and poets such as Ghalib. And several students returned as they often do — to another class I taught on 19th-century aesthetics, and encountered Ghalib and love again, learned a bit more about Urdu, grew into the pleasure of Urdu.
I began this short rumination on teaching, researching and learning with this particular sher by Ghalib, because, for me, it offers a tasviir that portrays my practice as a student, teacher and researcher of Urdu in the United States. The double bind of love that Ghalib captures so subtly, complicitly furnished with the ghazal’s panoply of accoutrements — the lover, the beloved, the everyday world off kilter when love catches hold — ignites the ambience of the classroom. Love’s sly force is not merely an allegory for my encounter with Urdu; it is a graphic description of what happened to me. But the sher’s language also offers a tasavvur, a path of imagining the way in which learning itself ought to do its work. At its best, learning ought not to follow the routinised byways so beloved of educators worldwide and especially espoused in the United States at this moment when education is being re-envisioned, when checkpoints such as exams reveal what students have managed to hold onto. In this image of good education, their basket of answers is unpacked and the state finds out what it is students “really know”. At its best, learning, like love, is sneaky, something that sometimes, despite oneself, steals into the crevices of one’s being, and despite any and all attempts, resists leaving. Something that throws askew all the cherished beliefs which organise the familiar and dumps students into a universe for which they feel unprepared. Something that an exam cannot contain. Something that Gayatri Spivak in a recent book, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, might see as an aesthetic education, the aesthetic learning. The double bind that love ferries along with it, which Ghalib captured so completely, replete with irony and paradox. And in some ways that I will come to later, Urdu taught in the United States offers an ideal pathway for this kind of learning. One never knows when one teaches Urdu where the teacher or the student might land, somewhere you might not have been asking for, somewhere unfamiliar that grabs hold, never to let go.
I did not grow up reading Urdu. I grew up with several different genres of Hindi, Hindustani, ghareluu, household Urdu. Bambaiya, the pastiche Cockney of the city in which I spent my childhood; which I have come, as an academic, to see as a language. Hindi, the language whose sounds filled announcements with a vocabulary that felt insistently regulatory, the mandated sarkari voice of the state. Hindustani, my nani’s Agra rhythms, and Urdu, the language in which my mosa, who had hung out with scriptwriters and poets in his slightly wilder younger days, recited shai’rii. But I never learned to read Urdu. I wanted to. However in Mumbai, Bombay as it was known then, I had to be Muslim, I was told, to learn to read Urdu. So when I came to the flowing letters of naskh and nastaliq as a graduate student in the US, it felt as though I had managed something special, managed to hold in my hands a desire that I had not been allowed. In some ways, reading and writing Urdu meshed the oddly unfamiliar/familiar in a rich closeness. Familiar in that many people who grew up in my grandparent’s generation learnt their words in those scripts. Unfamiliar in that, like so many other Indians whose nostalgia for poetry, for ghazal, pulls them to want to read Urdu, its alphabet was not a set of letters that sat without notice in my daily habits. As I studied Urdu, poetry came along, the lambent lingering of verbs that collapsed love. Urdu offered me negotiations with worlds I was now permitted to inhabit. But when I met Ghalib through Frances Pritchett and Shamsur Rehman Farooqi; entered the smallish universe of Urdu in the US academy; read The Annual of Urdu Studies; the essays penned by C.M. Naim and translations by Muhammad Umar Memon; and finally began my slow parsing of the poet Miraji’s oeuvre; those worlds opened into the literary, with the stark angles and gentle curls of lyrics, love that refused to go out.