The one whose spring would be this, then its autumn — do not ask!
Published November 15, 2020

An illustrious federal minister of Pakistan, Shibli Faraz, son of an even more illustrious father, the truly illustrious Ahmad Faraz, recently committed a resounding gaffe. In a tweet, Faraz-the-son (mis)quoted a verse of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and fathered it upon his own father. The (correct) verse in question is:

جس کی بہار یہ ہو پھر اس کی خزاں نہ پوچھ

[The one whose spring would be this, then its autumn — do not ask!]

The honourable minister suppressed the verse’s sixth word (phir) and thereby derailed it from its metre. This makes him doubly culpable. First, for not knowing that the line is not Ahmad Faraz’s creation; second, for mutilating Ghalib. Both prongs of the faux pas are deeply embarrassing.

Is this fakery? No, because fakery is replicating an object in such a cunning manner that an ordinary eye cannot detect the difference between the original and the copy. The great artist Sadequain is an eminent victim of fakery in our own times. It is not fabrication either, because that act consists of manufacturing something new in close emulation of someone in vogue to whom it is wilfully attributed.

So is the minister’s blunder an instance of falsification? No, again it is not, because falsification presupposes a dual act: wilfulness on the part of the culprit, and an illicit entry into the original to change it. We have no evidence here to doubt the intention of the younger Faraz, nor do we see him breaking into his paternal poetic legacy. He is, then, exonerated on all these three counts.

But surely something wrong has come to pass anyway, and the question is, how do we formulate the charge against the offender? Quite simply, his offence is of a passive nature — it is sheer ignorance, ignorance leading to frivolity. And when we ponder over this historic apocryphal attribution of our minister, it opens up many windows — windows that show us spectacles of drastic cultural deterioration around us.

This makes him doubly culpable. First, for not knowing that the line is not Ahmad Faraz’s creation; second, for mutilating Ghalib

Indeed, as far as I am concerned, the cultural losses we have suffered are way more serious than the economic losses we feel and constantly talk about, way more disastrous than our financial woes. Cultural losses involve loss of languages and loss of a historical sense; and more, obliteration of an intellectual legacy.

I might dare make a grand pronouncement, much grander than my stature: as long as a society is unable to explain itself, remaining suspended in the air without a cultural-historical anchorage, it will not find a sustainable cure for its economic ills, for it would not know what questions to ask and which way to look.

See what has befallen us: Ahmad Faraz is a superb poet of our times, and perhaps the most popular by far, a ruler of the realm of taghazzul, that is, lyricism, symbolism, metaphor and rhythm of the ghazal genre. A world knows this glowing poet; he is a monument in the gallery of world culture, all major singers have sung his songs. But his son, leading none other than the federal information ministry, doesn’t know him. In other words, he doesn’t know his own cultural milieu. What happened here in a single generation? We are witnessing a painful irony of mythological proportions.

In the intellectual world, misattribution is considered a heinous crime. Take the case of Shibli Faraz’s victim, Mirza Ghalib. There were instances of fakery in his times. Fakers would use his takhallus [pen name] and float their own inferior verses attributed to him. This incensed the great poet. In a letter written in 1859 to Munshi Shiv Narain, who had been fooled by another poet’s fake verse with the takhallus “Asad”, Ghalib says: “Brother: If this ghazal is mine — Heaven Forbid! I repeat, Heaven Forbid! What do I say to the odd faker? But if indeed I am the one who wrote these verses, then a thousand-fold shame and curse on me!”

And in another letter: “Some 50 years ago ... I wrote a ghazal ... And what do I see? Lo, someone faked an opening verse and wrote four more fake verses, added to them my first verse and my last verse to manufacture a ghazal — and now people sing it all around. Opening verse and another verse being mine, and the rest of the verses written by some stupid idiot [ullu, literally owl]!”

Note again that what we have here is fakery — and fakery is in itself a kind of creative act, though a sneaky creative act. Elmyr de Hory springs to mind here. In 1973, the cinematic giant Orson Welles gave us a film focusing on this counterfeit champion, calling the docudrama F for Fake. Who is Elmyr de Hory? He was a Hungarian-born painter of the last century who became a hero of art forgery, selling more than one thousand forgeries to the world’s top art galleries.

Recently, Mark Forgy wrote a fascinating biography of this clever faker, The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist. De Hory was a master of his manufacturing trade; perhaps we can even call him a ‘genius’. Then, as an aside, Welles asks a fecund philosophical question: Can a creative artist forge himself? So, in an act of self-fakery, could a genuine Ghalib create a fake Ghalib? This question merits another discourse.

But what is happening ubiquitously these days in our Urdu world is, in general, no creative act. It arises generally out of the darkness of ignorance — an embodiment of cultural indigence, a yawning absence, a privation. We are bombarded daily with popular, sentimental, and sensational she‘rs, often transgressing Urdu poetry’s hallowed metrical tracts. And these crude, pseudo-poetic lines are attributed to luminaries such as Ghalib, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Faraz.

There is a market in the cantonment area of Lahore called the Royal Artillery (R.A.) Bazaar. At its main entrance stands a wall with a permanent carving “Iqbaliyyat” on its forehead. Carved under this heading is a ‘poem’ that is fake, written by, to quote Ghalib, “some stupid idiot.”

The columnist is Dean of Liberal Arts at Lahore’s UMT and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 15th, 2020