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Hujum-i-fikr se dil misl-i-mauj larze hai
Keh shishah nazuk-o-sehba-i-abginah gudaz
[The heart pulses with a storm of ideas like a wave
Because my glass is delicate and the wine simmering]

— Ghalib

What is this language that I speak, and the language in which I write? What is my voice? How did I come to this point? I debate these questions, and more, when I write. As an Urdu speaker who grew up learning several languages, it became complicated when I moved to the United States and began writing as an academic. I came to realise that languages have their own codes and value systems which are demanding and discriminating. A simple example is accents; something happens to language as it moves from one region or culture to another. My language possesses me. It is the most intimate marker of my identity; it exposes me, too. I’m presently reading Yiyun Li, an immigrant writer who left China in 1996 as a trained scientist, but became an American novelist instead. Li has shown that you can write flawlessly in an acquired language, but, as she confesses, she was writing from a shelter — a place where she could see, but not be seen.

I’m thinking of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and his obsession with the Persian language. Ghalib came at the end of a long tradition of Indian Persian poets. He was in search of a voice, a style that would both connect him to the tradition and mark his uniqueness. Ghalib was passionate about Persian’s ‘purity’. Purity of language is an ambiguous concept. Jacques Derrida explains purity as being in sync with the idiom of the language. Idioms are the markers of language. Idioms make language close to being untranslatable. Comparing Ghalib’s stance towards his Urdu and his Persian oeuvre, I saw many thought-provoking examples of negotiating language. In Persian, Ghalib is adventurous but careful; in Urdu he can be reckless with the language, especially in his early poetry.

Composing in Persian had several advantages. There was an exemplary tradition in poetry that went back more than 800 years. Although the ghazal originated in Arabic, it was perfected through innovations in style and themes in Persian. The world of Persian adab [literature] was a vast cosmopolis. Rekhtah — or poetry in Urdu — was, in comparison, a new literary sphere with a short — albeit rapidly growing — history. In the 19th century, Persian was losing ground in British India, but there was no dearth of writers who wrote in both Urdu and Persian. Ghalib stands out because he gave precedence to Persian, composing much more in it than in Urdu, but the irony is that it is in Urdu that he got everlasting fame.

In my forthcoming book, I study Ghalib both as a Persian and Urdu poet. His posturing and aggressive stance regarding language use is fascinating. It’s not a tall claim when I say that Ghalib’s awareness of, and his engagement with, the subtle nuances in the transfer of thought to language, or finding the language for the thought are unparalleled in Urdu poetry. Beginning with Urdu, he gave precedence to idea (fikr) over language. His fertile imagination produced ideas that were difficult to clothe in language. Many of his early verses are densely packed with metaphor, but awkward and clunky in that there is a lack of flow (ravaani). A verse I particularly like and have commented on earlier is an example of the rare, exotic vocabulary that young Ghalib enjoyed, mindless of the awkwardness in construction:

Dil ko izhar-i-sukhan andaz-i-fath-ul bab hai
Yan sarir-i-khamah bajuz istikak-i-dar nahin
[For my heart, expression through language is the same as the opening of a door
The scratching of the pen is to me like the creaking sound of an opening door]

For a poet’s heart, the ability to express is like opening a door. The scratching of the pen is like a door opening. The play on ‘opening a door’ is both original and elegant. The simile is one of the most elegant and perfect that a poet could produce. People wrote with reed pens or with a quill. The paper was handmade and rough. Thus, both the instrument and the medium were liable to produce slight, scratchy noises as one wrote. The doors were heavy and made of seasoned wood. Their hinges were not always oiled and they creaked when pushed open. Now what more could a poet imagine than the sound of the quill on paper is like the sound of the opening of a door to poetic creativity?

Here is another favourite verse of mine, culled from the early period:

Hun ba vahshat intizar avaarah-i-dasht-i-khayal
Ek safedi maarti hai dur se chashm-i-ghizal
[Crazed with waiting, I roam the wilderness of the mind
The gazelle’s eye is a white speck in the distance]

Vahshat is a polysemic word whose exact meaning is impossible to capture in English. It implies solitude, craziness, loneliness and fear all at once. It goes well with avaarah (restless) and dasht (wilderness). Intizar avaarah (restless waiting) is a powerful expression coined by Ghalib. The gazelle, too, is a vahshi creature. Thus, the gazelle and the speaker in the poem are both running wild. The speaker is running in the world of ideas (dasht-i-khayal) and is so utterly lonely that only the whiteness of the gazelle’s eye can be seen glimmering at a distance. The spark of whiteness could also mean the glimmer of an idea.

Hun garmi-i-nishat-i-tasavvur se naghmah sanj
Main andaleeb-i-gulshan-i-na afridah hun
[I sing from the warmth of the joy of imagination
I am the bulbul of a garden yet to be created]

Ghalib did not include the famous verse I have quoted above, nor the previous ones, in what he chose to publish as a Divan. My point is that Ghalib realised that a wider audience would appreciate flow (ravaani) and clarity (fasahat) over far-fetched ideas. Ghalib did not change his style per se, but the proliferation of unfamiliar expressions was toned down. Although his Urdu poetry after 1840 is only a small fraction of his early work, he included almost all ghazals from the later period in subsequent editions of his Urdu Divan because they are more polished with no rough edges.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 4th, 2019