Naqsh Faryaadi is the first ghazal in the 1816 manuscript of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s Divan. In the 1821 manuscript, it has the original seven verses and there are two additional verses in the margin, in handwriting that’s definitely not Ghalib’s. They were added to the ghazal in the 1826 Divan as verses seven and eight, for a total of nine.

The 1826 manuscript also has an inscription in the margin, a reworked version of verse two. The ghazal’s final version has only five verses in the published Divan-i-Ghalib (1841).

Thus, we note that Ghalib modified, deleted and moved around verses, changing the ghazal’s final ordering. In Gul-i-Raana, Ghalib’s first selection of his poems (1828), he chose only verses one, seven and five (in that order) from Naqsh Faryadi. Perhaps it means he felt these to be the best from that ghazal. But first, lets return to the five verses in the published Divan and the commentary on this iconic ghazal.

Naqsh faryaadi hai kis ki shokhi-i-tehreer ka
Kaaghazi hai pairahan har paikar-i-tasveer ka

[Of whose mischievous writing does the picture complain?

Every figure in the picture wears a paper robe]

This verse had perplexed and ruffled many during Ghalib’s lifetime itself. The second line, especially, was an enigma for those unaware of the supposed ancient Iranian practice of petitioners wearing paper robes when presenting complaints at the royal court.

In a letter to Maulvi Abdur Razzaq Shakir, Ghalib explains this verse: “In Iran, there is a tradition that a plaintiff puts on paper robes when he goes to seek justice from the ruler. This is akin to lighting a torch in the daytime, or carrying blood-soaked garments on a bamboo pole.”

Therefore, the poet reflects, of whose impudent writing is the image a plaintiff — since the form of the image/picture is paper. That is, although existence, like the picture, is merely illusional, it is the cause of sorrow and regret.

Poet and scholar Nazm Tabatabai — who wrote the first complete commentary on Ghalib’s Urdu Divan — was learned in Arabic and Persian, had read a smattering of Western theoretical works, and was inclined to be more critical than laudatory. In Sharh-i-Divan-i-Urdu-i-Ghalib, he was quick to denounce verses that didn’t measure up to his exacting viewpoints.

Tabatabai put question marks on what he considered to be flaws in this verse. According to him, kaaghazi pairahan is a known istilah [expression, idiom] in Persian and Urdu, but the tradition of plaintiffs wearing paper robes is not substantiated. More importantly, he writes that the Sufi devotional practice of fana fi Allah, or the high point of complete immersion in love for the Creator so much so that separation becomes pain and grief, is not obvious in the verse. Thus, in Tabatabai’s opinion, the verse is too ambivalent to be assigned any meaning.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s pioneering Tafheem-i-Ghalib offers a point for point, brilliant interpretation of this verse. According to Faruqi, the Iranian custom that Tabatabai questions is not unsubstantiated, but has precedence. He quotes a verse by Kamal Ismail:

Kaaghazin jamah beg posheed-o-ba dargah aamad
Zaadeh-i-khaatir-i-man ta beh dehi daad-i-maraa

[It wore the paper robe and arrived at the royal court

So that my poem would get better justice]

According to Faruqi, Tabatabai’s objection that there’s no word in the verse that attests the plaintiff’s despair at existence being a cause of separation from God, is also incorrect. The picture is paper clad in protest; it is protesting for two reasons: one, for being created in a transient world; and two, for separation from its creator. The big question of the first line is kis ki shokhi-i-tehreer [of whose writing] does the picture complain? Why should we assume the Power is God?

The first line’s “whose” is more interrogatory than astonished. It is possible that, if the question “Of whose mischievousness of writing?” can receive a true answer, then the “figure in the picture” can seek justice. The “image” is, in truth, man, who is speechless like a picture, and who, in a language of speechlessness, is making the complaint “Who ensnared us in suffering?” It is also a cause for reflection that the image is speechless, and its very speechlessness is the proof of its being a plaintiff. Ghalib was very fond of this kind of paradoxical utterance.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz has an interesting, plausible explanation of this verse. By shokhi-i-tehreer is implied “intense writing” — the intensity of thought of the poet himself. Faiz’s explanation is: “There is so much intensity/passion in my thoughts that when I put them on paper, the pen and paper protest in pain.” He quotes a Persian verse of Ghalib to strengthen his point:

Ghalib na bud shevah-i-man qaafiyah bandi
Zulmist keh bar kilk-o-qalam mi kunam im shab

[Ghalib, I am not a poet who only matches rhyming words

It is pain that I am inscribing with the pen tonight]

Moving on, I found that verse two was modified into the maqta [closing verse]. Below are the original and new versions:

Atashin paa hun gudaaz-i-vahshat-i-zindan na poochh
Mu-i-atash didah hai halqah meri zanjeer ka

[My imprisoned feet are fiery from the heat of restlessness/ Every link in my chain is a fire singed hair]

Bas keh hun Ghalib asiri men bhi atash zeri-i-paa
Mu-i-atash didah hai halqah meri zanjeer ka

[Ghalib, even in bondage I am so aflame with restlessness;

Every link in my chain is like fire-singed hair]

Comparatively, I think the earlier version shows more anguish. The torment or anguish felt by the speaker in the poem is accentuated by vahshat-i-zindan, the desolation of imprisonment, and the personal plea, “na poochh” adds to the appeal. The amended line in the maqta is more assertive in implying that even imprisonment hasn’t broken the spirit of rebelliousness. We can see that Ghalib has not merely moved a verse from position two to the end of the ghazal, but has changed the mood of the verse as well.

In the earlier versions, the closing verse was:

Vahshat-i-khwaab-i-adam shor-i-tamaasha hai Asad
Juz mazah jauhar nahin aainah-i-taabeer ka

[Asad! The disquiet from dreaming of non-being lies in the tumult of watching/ The eye that doesn’t have the essence (jauhar) can only enjoy the show in the mirror of interpretation]

(To be continued)

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, September 26th, 2021

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