Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience



Updated July 30, 2017


The phrase ‘pretty wrongs’ comes from the first line of William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 41’, a line that somehow rings familiar when received in the universe of Urdu literary sensibility. This is how the sonnet opens: “Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits/ When I am sometime absent from thy heart ...”

Intriguingly, these words of a colossus of English literature are aptly applicable to a colossus of Urdu literature — Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Yes, Ghalib’s liberty does sometimes commit wrongs, transgressing conventional rules and subverting traditional regulatory norms, but his wrongs are always ‘pretty.’

So we must recognise: Ghalib’s contraventions often enhance the meaningfulness of a verse, thus enriching its semantic range, and there are times when his law-breaking introduces new modes of sound patterns — for example, novel rhythms in verse construction. But while he subverts the pedantic rule to open a new vista in the chamber of poetry, at times he does this for sheer playfulness — not frivolity, nor rebellion without a cause let’s note, but a pulsating playfulness that throbs all around us. Ironically, Ghalib’s liberty raises its head only under unyielding aesthetic and intellectual control.

Nobody in Urdu poetry made plurals of Persian infinitives — that is, plurals of a verb, not of a noun, something very hard to translate into Urdu. But look at this verse by Ghalib, highly complex as it happens to be:

[From the bud to the bloomings, known is the provision of security/ Despite the collectedness of its heart, the dream of the rose is in disconcert]

Note Ghalib making the plural, shiguftan-ha [bloomings] — this is an act of insubordination to Urdu poetry’s conventions, an act that did receive the censure of conservative critics. As Francis Pritchett brings to our knowledge, one critic, Shadan Bilgrami, declared categorically that the Persian infinitive is just not suitable here “without being in some construction [for example, shiguftan-i-gul (the blooming of a rose)].” Then Bilgrami adds sarcastically, “And what’s more, Janab Ghalib has added a ‘ha’ to it, [making it a plural].”

But Ghalib’s wrong is pretty indeed. See what it does to the rhythm of the verse. The verse is constructed virtually in what is called a broken meter involving a hiatus — a pause of silence — when one reads its lines, as if each half-verse (misra’) contains two quarter verses. Then, in the first line of the verse we have an internal rhyme too, ta and ha. This hiatus, this internal rhyme, this sound pattern makes the verse glow.

Then, look at the imagery and substance of this technically ‘flawed’ verse. A bud has all its petals closed up, held tight together, fully collected. Naturally, its dream is to bloom, to become a flower. But then, there is a cosmic paradox waiting to manifest itself: as soon as the bud opens up to bloom, it loses its collectedness; now its petals have lost the firm embrace of one another, thrown thereby into disconcert. What was togetherness has, in the fulfilment of the dream, turned into a scatter. Winds will further scatter the split-open bud — now a flower — by blowing away its petals, and bees and worms will invade its integrity to destruction. Recall ‘The Sick Rose’ of William Blake here: “O Rose, thou art sick ...”

Note how an ordinary phenomenon of nature, a mundane, everyday observation, forms the ground for seeing a cosmic irony — the dream of the bud itself, its own desire, brings about its scatteredness and eventual destruction. This is an irony, a cosmic clash, an opposition that Ghalib talks about elsewhere, too. For example, in a ghazal that radiates a powerful sound pattern, he says:

[Ready for annihilation are all elements of the created world/ Here, a lamp in the wind’s passage is the sun riding on the supreme sphere]

As Shamsur Rahman Faruqi points out in the case of Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, too, draws universal principles out of ordinary phenomena, raising mundane observations to a metaphysical level, finding cosmic meanings in the otherwise unremarkable and the common. This is one explanation, I speculate, why Ghalib made a plural of a Persian infinitive shiguftan. As I read the verse, the word ghuncha [bud] here functions as a collective noun, a generic term, and means all buds — thus bloomings rather than blooming. Professor Pritchett might reconsider her criticism that the poet’s pluralised abstraction here hardly enriches the meaning.

Going back to the ‘flawed’ verse under consideration, we find that it is packed with poetic craftsmanship. Note, for example, the opposition (tazaad) between ‘collectedness’ and ‘scatter’, and conceptually between the desire for ‘fullness of being’ on the one hand and ‘annihilation’ on the other. And more, the use of the word barg functions on two levels — in its near-meaning, ‘leaf/petal’, and its distant-meaning, ‘provision.’ So we can say ‘leaf of security/protection’ and this harmonises so nicely with the image of a bud; or we can say ‘provision of security/protection’, and this works too. Professor Pritchett notes this latter feature eloquently.

I claimed earlier that no Urdu poet, save Ghalib, has made plurals of Persian infinitives. But do we have instances from Persian poetry? The answer is in the affirmative. Interestingly, the examples I found most readily came from the 17th-18th century Indian Persian poet Mirza Bedil. For instance, Bedil says, “My raftan [going] is my aamadan-ha [comings] and my comings are my going” (note singular-plural/plural-singular); or, “the soft, wax nature is aware of the shikastan-ha [breakings] of hearts.” Now we can take historical mileage out of this: yes, indeed, Ghalib considered Bedil his mentor and even ‘plagiarised’ him, and we see once again how long the mentor’s shadow covers the acolyte.

The columnist is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi, and visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 30th, 2017