[Continued from earlier]

‘Constriction’ is a multivalent word. It holds in its depths a slew of emotions. It is like a tight knot of feelings inside your heart/chest, or a squeezing in your arteries that signals a warning — a red flag that you must see, stop or suffer.

Did I believe that the heart and not the mind is the centre of emotions? Perhaps not. What makes the heart race, what makes it sink? Desire and dread.

Gar yas sar na kheenche tangee ajab fizaa hai
Vusat gah-i-tamanna yak baam-o sad havaa hai

[If despondency not arise, stricture has a wonderful ambience/ The vastness of desire is like a hundred breezes that blow across a single terrace]

Ghalib plays wonderfully on constriction, or tangee, in this masterful verse — a verse he chose not to publish. Note the deft employment of tangee, one of Ghalib’s favourite words because of its multivalence. Here, too, it implies both scarcity and narrowness. Ajab fizaa [wonderful ambience] works with both meanings and adds a sense of mystery.

The second line complements the first perfectly. Desire is boundless even if the protagonist is confined or restrained in a narrow space or circumstance. The contrastive agreement between yak [one] and sad [hundred], and between tangee [narrowness] and vusat [spaciousness] makes the ajab fizaa.

Yak baam and sad havaa are joined with a vaao, but it is not a simple vaao-i-atf. It is, in fact, vaao-i-tasbeehee. That is, it creates two situations: yak baam is equivalent to a hundred breezes. And yak baam is the same as a hundred breezes.

A new idea is broached by the suggestion that disappointment can curb or sour the imaginings of desire. Yaas is a situation when one gives up hoping, certain of never achieving the desired objective. Tamanna, on the other hand, has possibilities of realisation. The word havaa becomes most interesting in the context of tamanna. If we read it to mean ‘desire’, then the narrator seems to tell us that myriad desires can be generated or made active by just observing from a terrace.

I got carried away by Ghalib’s clever deployment of tangee. Here’s another Ghalib verse on constriction:

Tangee-i-dil ka gila kya yeh voh kaafir dil hai
Keh agar tang na hota tau pareshan hota

[No use complaining of this sinner heart’s constriction/ If it wasn’t constricted, it would be restless]

There is a scintillating play on tangee and pareshani here. The heart is deemed to be restless. Thankfully, constriction limits its restlessness somewhat!

The nurse had asked me to pack an overnight bag. “Bring a book to read,” she said on the phone. Her words struck me as charming and comforting. I pondered her words. I was captivated. Did she not believe a phone was enough entertainment to while away time?

A book? I’m surrounded with books. Which to bring to the hospital where my heart was the subject of investigation? I shoved Ghalib’s slender Urdu Divan into my shoulder bag.

Ghalib’s Persian Divan has 10,000 verses as opposed to a little less than 2,000 of the Urdu Divan. Not many Ghalib lovers are aware of the extent of his Persian compositions, which he wanted to be recognised in the long line of the classical Persian tradition in the ghazal. He aspired to be canonised in the Persian tradition, acknowledged as the master of both literary and colloquial Persian, in poetry and prose. He fought many battles to enforce his claim, valorising his Persian, yet his fame rests on his slim Urdu Divan.

The Urdu Divan of 1840, brought Ghalib’s poetry to a wider audience. This little book of poems survived the looting, arson and mayhem brought by the 1857 uprising, when Company rule transitioned to that of Queen Victoria.

The uprising, ostensibly led by the old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, was crushed. Delhi was laid waste, its elite executed. Zafar, along with his immediate household, was deported. Ghalib and his wife survived the terrible days sequestered in his Ballimaran house, protected by Maharaja Patiala’s guards. Delhi, post-1857, was a different world altogether.

I had been searching for a copy of the 1840 Divan. In 2014, I went to Rampur, India, to track it down in the Raza Library that holds an impressive collection of Ghalib materials. The Nawab of Rampur used to be a patron of Ghalib.

I learned that a smaller library in Rampur, the Saulat Library, had a copy. But Saulat was closed for renovation. I returned disappointed. By a miracle, I discovered the Divan in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university library.

I had the chance to physically hold the small volume — with its light blue, cheap cloth cover — in my hands. The publisher’s signature on the front page affirmed that it was original. I carefully leafed through its translucent pages, marvelled at the candour of Ghalib’s Dibachah [Preface], the singularity of the production. It was an unforgettable moment that I have relived and savoured as a precious memory.

In 2015, I had clasped the 1820 Nuskhah-i-Hamidiyyah — the manuscript of Ghalib’s 1820 Divan — with trembling hands when it was sent to me for authentication. The Nuskhah, originally the property of Nawab Faujdar Ali Khan, the Begum of Bhopal’s maternal uncle, had gone missing from Bhopal’s library since 1947. Bound in leather, calligraphed in pearly nastaleeq, it has corrections and additions in the margin in Ghalib’s own hand.

I have also had the distinct pleasure of leafing through young Ghalib’s very first divan, that of 1816, inscribed in his own hand. With its handmade paper, shikastah calligraphy, artistic layout, and poignancy of the notes scribbled in the margins and in the back, it is a unique manuscript.

Ghalib dedicated his first divan to Hazrat Ali and his sons Hazrat Hasan and Hazrat Hussain, and, to the great Sufi poet Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil:

O Ali, the Chosen one, prayers (praises) and peace be upon him and his sons./ O Hasan, In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful/ O Hussain/ Abul-Ma’ali Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil, may God be pleased with him.

My journey with Ghalib’s divans was incredibly fortunate.

*To be continued

The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She tweets @FarooqiMehr

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 19th, 2023



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