The hospital twinkles with lights, like a beacon dispelling the darkness of the winter morning. The lobby sparkles. A steady stream of people, nurses and staff flows through. My name is called. I am allowed two companions, so my husband and a close friend, who is a doctor, come with me. And my Ghalib Divan.

Comfortably ensconced in my hospital bed, I open the Divan. This ghazal winks at me:

Gilah hai shauq ko dil mein bhi tangi-i-ja ka
Gohar mein mahv hua iztiraab darya ka

[Ardour/ longing has a complaint, of the narrowness of space in the heart
The oceans’ restlessness was absorbed in a pearl]

Wah, Mirza Ghalib! You wily poet! You know your craft, you know your heart! Ah, the cleverness of adding the emphatic ‘bhi’! Ardour complains of narrowness of space even in the heart! This word ‘bhi’ [even] tells us that the heart is boundless. It is so limitless that both worlds are contained in it, and yet it remains empty.

Despite this boundlessness, ‘shauq’ [ardour] complains of the narrowness of space. Thus, it could be that the extent of longing is not in any way less than the range of the heart. Shauq is boundless. To support his claim of the heart’s spaciousness, Ghalib gives us the example of the pearl, which is actually a paradox. A pearl contains all the restlessness of the sea. The sea is compressed within the pearl. The second line is an enigma.

My father, the brilliant Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who taught me to appreciate Ghalib, explains this verse eloquently: A pearl has lustre, or aab, which also means water. Ghalib uses this conceit to explain the association between the waters of the ocean and the lustre of pearls.

But the second line has a twist. If taken as a negative rhetorical question (could the restlessness of the ocean ever be absorbed in a pearl?), then the meaning at once becomes plain: although the heart is broad — I prefer ‘fathomless’ — longing is broader/ unfathomable.

The illustration of this is that water/ lustre [aab] is in a pearl, and water is in the sea, too. But how can the ocean’s restlessness, its waves, ever be contained in a pearl? A pearl no doubt contains a thousand waters/ lustres, but it is less than the water of the sea. The water/ lustre of the pearl is likened to stilled water.

Darya, which can mean both river and ocean, is used to describe the heart’s boundlessness. Darya dil, dil darya is the generous, fathomless heart. I hold on to this verse as I am wheeled away for my angiogram. The irony of measuring the fathomless heart.

My heart’s constriction is measured. I am conscious, but not fully. I feel a sensation of a swarm of bee stings when the radial artery in my right wrist is punctured. A catheter is inserted through the artery. It feels as if lead is being poured into my arm. A heaviness settles. I have no sense of time. A feeling of calm envelopes me as I am wheeled back to my cubicle.

There is a hundred percent blockage in my circumflex artery that delivers oxygenated blood to the heart’s left pumping chambers. There are three more blockages in the minor outlying arteries.

Musahafi hum tau yeh samjhay thay ke hoga koi zakhm
Per terey dil mein bohat kaam rafoo ka nikla

[Musahafi! I thought it was some old wound
But there was much to be darned/repaired in your heart!]

In ghazals, the heart is pierced with love’s arrow and the arrow is perceived as to be lodged in the heart. The arrowhead resembles a heart. Ghalib has both playful and poignant verses on this theme and I think of the following verse:

Dil se nikla per na nikla phir bhi
Hai terey teer ka paikaan azeez

[It came out/ left the heart, but it did not leave the heart
The head of your arrow is precious]

Dil se nikalna has a straightforward meaning: to come or emerge from the heart. But it also has an idiomatic meaning, dil se nikal jaana: to leave the heart, to be forgotten. Thus, the proverbial lover’s arrow went through the heart; nonetheless, it remained in the heart because the arrowhead stayed. The cause of the heart’s throbbing could be the arrowhead!

In another, more playful verse, Ghalib literally makes the heart to be an arrowhead!

Kuchh khatakta tha meray seenay mein lekin aakhir
Jis ko dil samjhay thay woh teer ka paikaan nikla

[Something rankled in my chest but, eventually,
What I thought was my heart turned out to be an arrowhead!]

Ghalib discarded this verse, probably because the first line is a bit clumsy. The verb khatakna is an evocative Indic expression which means to rankle — Ghalib occasionally deployed Indic vocabulary in his early poetry. What should make a heart rankle, or why it rankled, is not clear.

Where do I go from here? My heart with its blockages is a veritable paikaan. It reminds me of its presence whenever I take a brisk walk or go uphill. I have a fresh perspective on the following verse now:

Jala hai jism jahan dil bhi jal gaya hoga
Kuraidtay ho jo ab raakh justaju kya hai

[Where/ when the body has burned, the heart must have burned too
Scraping the ashes now, what are you searching for?]

Indeed, what could be left in the ashes of a burned heart? A paikaan maybe?

But wait, I want to go down Mirza Bedil’s path, too, before I give up searching:

Dar talab gah-i-dil chu mauj-o habab
Manzil-o-jadah har do dar safar ast

[In the realm of quest for the heart, like wave and froth,
The destination and path both are travelling]

Fascinating! Does that mean that the quest never ends? Is that frustrating? To never reach one’s destination. But as a traveller on the path this may be encouraging: the eternal quest. Ghalib has borrowed and recreated this theme:

Har qadam doori-i-manzil hai numayaan mujh se
Meri raftaar se bhaagay hai biyaban mujh se

[At every step the distance to my destination becomes obvious
Wilderness runs ahead of my pace]

Thus, the lover can never reach the destination, but the quest goes on. The heart beats on.

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, May 21st, 2023

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