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COLUMN: The intricacies of silence

Updated March 12, 2017


Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib often questions the capacity of words to express thoughts, asking if silence communicates more than words. In a beautiful and very unusual hamd [poem in praise of God] Ghalib touches on the subject of communication with God. This hamd is among the large corpus of his “rejected” verses; I will examine the first two of its nine verses. The ghazal’s first verse is known as the matla. Sometimes a poet can have two matlas, as is the case with this one:

[The tongue begs You for strength to speak/ Because silence is as eloquent as speech for You.]

Note the congruency between taqrir [articulate utterance], zaban [either tongue or language], and bayan [diction].

Although in God’s eyes, silence is as communicative as speech, the tongue begs for courage to speak. Ghalib is also asking God to bless language with more power, because God bestows eloquence to silence. Although Wajahat Ali Sandilvi and Gyan Chand Jain have commented on this complex ghazal, they haven’t elaborated on the beautiful wordplay in this extraordinary matla. Sandilvi writes: “The tongue begs You for strength to speak because You alone can give silence the power of speech.” Jain says: “The tongue begs You for the ability to speak. Silence gets the ornament of speech from You.”

We must also note the grammatical nuance in the radeef [refrain] “tujh se.” Tujh se in the first line means “to you.” In the second line, it means “from you.” This delicate equation of tujh se is continued in the second verse:

[In times of sadness, the disheartened appeal to you/ The autumn’s rose and the lamp at dawn is all yours.]

Autumn’s rose is a faded flower, as is the lamp at dawn. Both are past their glory days, in a state of despondency, and appeal to God. They are his creation and only God can deliver them.

Ghalib’s beautiful imagery captures not only the pain of the dying lamp and wilting rose, but also faith in renewal through God’s grace.

I may have been nine or ten years old when my father presented me six, seven verses of this ghazal to memorise.

That was when I learned the word mustarad [rejection]. Revisiting this ghazal now, with my sensibilities sharpened by years of reading Ghalib, I am drawn to the specificities of the equation of word-meaning-speech-silence-utterance that Ghalib has invoked.

For a poet, words and the meanings they enclose and convey is the essence of the craft. When Ghalib struggles to find words, he bends, twists, and ultimately crafts language anew to contain his ideas:

[Multitudes of thought make the heart quiver like a wave/ For the glass is delicate and the wine bubbling.]

The search for themes to write on, the urge to write, happens in a space afforded by silence:

[Concentrating on making poems is in fact nothing but a prison house of silence entirely/ The smoke from the guttering candle is like a soundless chain.]

The angst or the concentrated restlessness that is the main part of the process of creating a poem is like a jailhouse of silence. That is, a poet can compose only when there is quietness. One usually writes at night with the aid of a lamp or candle. The smoke from the lamp spirals like a silent chain to become a metaphor for the ephemeral imagination and struggle to put thought into words. But more importantly, Ghalib is saying that a poet is rarely able to express, or communicate himself. Whatever he imagines is too delicate, too evanescent (in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s words) to be constant. The language is a poor companion in the journey of poetry.

Yet, perhaps taking his cue from Abdul Qadir Bedil and other sabk-i-hindi [Indian style] poets, Ghalib also thinks deeply about the meanings of silence. Silence, too, is a text that narrates in its own language. Can silence be more effective than speech? Does it, by its contrastive significance, give speech eminence?

[The longing for silence cannot be expressed through speech; but/ She, the wrecker of life and home, knows only words.]

The she’r presents a beautiful paradox: the expression of silent desires or the desire to be silent, both are liable to be broken by speech. Speech is not the only form of communication; silence has its own language.

One of the great pleasures of reading Ghalib is relishing his fascination with words, and also with silence, or the absence of words. Often in these early verses he gives precedence to the complexity of words, the novelty of idiom, instead of emotional experience. But his preoccupation with words also pushes him to think about the power or inadequacy of language.

As Bedil has said:

[Speech, even if it’s entirely full of content and meaning/ Would still admit of addition or subtraction; Silence is a text from which no selection is possible.]

The columnist is an associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 12th, 2017