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More Than Real is the telling title of a recent book by a scholar of Sanskrit, David Shulman, writing joyfully about the History of Imagination in South India — the phrase affixed on the book’s cover to serve as its subtitle. Published last year by Harvard University Press, this work was reviewed in the May 24, 2013, issue of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), a review that speaks of the “modernity of the ancient and early modern imagination, … leap[ing] out of its contexts and find[ing] its place … with a luminous and, crucially, a present-day life of its own.” This highly meaningful observation sounds on standard logical grounds to be a subversion of serial time, and worse, it seems to be harbouring a contradiction when received conceptually. Modernity of the ancient imagination? How so? How can ancient be modern? And early modern be (fully) modern? Then, how is it that so many centuries, from ancient times to our times, collapse into the same single moment by a leaping out of its own contexts?

And yet, what the reviewer is saying makes perfect sense to us — and that is the whole point. This subversion of formal, chaste, and unadulterated logic and this obliteration of temporal intervals, open for us a multiplicity of new vistas. Thus, we begin to see prefigured in classical literary writings of India so many literary techniques and devices of our present-day literature, prefiguring at the same time so many modern and even postmodern critical attitudes. What we call magic realism is one example; another is the creative and courageous act of bringing into concrete being worlds that are formed in abstract imagination. How interesting: the same can be said of classical Arabic and Persian literature — from the Maqamât of the 11th/12th century Hariri of Basra to the ever-accruing Hamza Nama, and from Baghdad’s Qudama ibn Ja‘far’s literary criticism of the 9th/10th century to Ghalib’s Afghani mentor Bedil from the 17th/18th century, we see the same prefiguring all over. These observations are lavishly meaningful, for they bind together what otherwise appears to be isolated manifestations of world literature, thereby binding together all of humanity in the realm of imagination — a realm which is ‘more than real.’ So the gain is pragmatic too.

But perhaps even more significant is the TLS reviewer Rosinka Chaudhuri’s invocation of the American modernist poet Marianne Moore who is quoted by Shulman without quotation marks. Moore’s words here have attained proverbial status, we are told by Chaudhuri in explanation, and so no quotation marks were warranted. What is this Moorean proverb? “Poems are,” she once wrote, “imaginary gardens,” but that they are “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” This imbrication of the imagined with the real, this wedding of the two, this docking of the abstract into the concrete, this “singing into being” what arises in fantasy and vision — this is, then, the poet’s trade. So one must not expect a straightforward, non-complex representation of reality in poetry; in fact, I very strongly feel that one must not talk about representation in literature at all. The world of literature has its own sovereignty and cannot be judged with reference to the actual world, that world which is bounded in space and time. Entering into the sovereign empire of literature without abandoning standard rules of logic, without surrendering intellection, will amount to a breaking-in, an offence!

Again, Moore, an American poet of our own times, rings so very familiar to those of us who work on classical Persian and Urdu poetry. Is she not talking about Sabk-e Hindi? Sabk-e Hindi, that stock attitude of the two related poetic traditions of entangling imagination into reality and reality into imagination. First you create a metaphor in what the mind-boggling scholar of Sufism Henry Corbin called the imaginal world. Then consider this imaginal world to have been breathed into the fullness of real existence. Now draw further imaginal sub-worlds out of this, and at the same time apply laws of the physical world to these worlds. Note how complex this sport is! So we see: Faiz Ahmad Faiz puts his arms around the neck of the moon, and pays homage to the morning breeze by making its hands touch his eyes —


Sometimes, I have made the hand of the morning breeze touch my eyes …

And sometimes, I have placed my arms around the neck of the moon.

Hands of the breeze? Neck of the moon? Eyes of the poet? Embrace? Touch? How the physical is here enmeshed with the real! It is in the same vein, and in the same ring of the Moorean proverb and the same domain of Sabk-e Hundi, that Ghalib could boast that he is beyond non-existence, that he transcends non-existence — so much that the wings of the imaginary bird ‘anqa was burnt down to ashes by his fiery sigh. But look at the terrifying linguistic and conceptual complexity:


I am even beyond non-existence, O heedless one—

My fiery sigh burned the wings of ‘anqa

Isn’t this exactly what Moore was describing?

One of the protagonists of Shakespeare once declared that if he is bounded in something as small as a nutshell, he will consider himself “king of infinities.” The logical vice of contradiction is again being committed here, and yet this vice is a virtue in the counter-logic of poetry. Indeed in classical Urdu and Persian verse, contradictions are recognised as powerful poetic devices, called an ‘art’ (san‘at), the san‘at of tazad (contradiction). Just as we relish the contradiction embodied in the expression ‘the sound of silence,’ we cherish the ‘vice’ of Ghalib who excels in this san‘at. See, for example:


In intemperance, we turned out to be the most agile—

For the more we became, the less we became

Or even more solemnly, we note the massive process of meaning-creation in the richness of a fundamental contradiction:


Our being is the proof of our non-being,

So much were we obliterated that we became our own guarantee

In the dominion of poetry, as Marianne Moore has also instructed us, we need to separate imagination from intellection. Thus a good poet creates his own logic, a logic that serves not in a single but in a multiplicity of contexts; it even has the potential of leaping out of its contexts. We are talking about a sovereign dominion where all that is deemed anathema in organised rational thought can be as soothing as the morning breeze. Whether it is hyperbole or distortion or subversion — all of this can create meanings. Distortion? Yes, as Shamsur Rahman Farooqi told us, distortion is what we call fiction. So every novel, every story and tale is a distortion.

Nor is it permissible in the legal code of the dominion of poetry to verify the truth of its pronouncements by an appeal to the natural world, the real world. When Nasir Kazmi, a poet with a unique voice in the Urdu tradition, says that upon hearing the “golden song” of the day, the black and white of the night turned its course, we cannot possibly ask if the day really sings a song or if songs have colours, or if the night really changes its course like this. We just revel in his world:


Nasir has created ‘more than reality.’

  • By Syed Nomanul Haq