The great 19th century Urdu and Farsi poet Ghalib was a master in creating neologisms. He excelled in pushing language to its ultimate possibilities. Still, he rued that language could not keep up with the ideas that bubbled in his imagination:

Hujoom-i-fikr se dil misl-i-mauj larzay hai
Ke shisha nazuk o sahba-i-abginah gudaaz

[Multitudes of thought make the heart quiver like a wave/ For the wine glass is delicate and the wine bubbling]

Ghalib used far-fetched metaphors and unusual phrases, often borrowed from Farsi, to dress up his ambiguous verses. This is especially true of his poetry that forms the corpus of the so-called rejected verses or mustarad kalam. I have been working on Ghalib’s mustarad kalam for more than a decade. Finally, my book with my commentary on selected ghazals is in the press.

I was searching for a suitable title for my book. Several possibilities came to mind. My first book is titled A Wilderness At My Doorstep. I wanted the second book to resonate with the first one. The title I selected, Flowers In A Mirror, is drawn from Ghalib’s hamdiya ghazal (poem in praise of God). This ghazal was my first introduction to Ghalib’s mustarad kalam.

Chaman chaman gul-i-ainah dar kinar-i-havas
Umeed-i-mahv-i-tamasha-i-gulsitan tujh se

[There is an abundance of mirror-flowers in desire’s embrace/ Hope is a spectator engrossed in the colourful garden, because of You]

In this verse, Ġhālib has crafted a unique image of illusions. Gardens with mirror-flowers means an illusory garden, signifying that there are illusions within illusions. A subtle irony is at play here. ‘Mirror-flower’ may mean ‘the mirror which is like a flower’, or it may mean ‘a mirror in which a flower is reflected.’

In both cases, there is a profusion of illusions: mirrors in which flowers are reflected, or mirrors which are beautiful like flowers. Both ways, the havas or intense passionate desire (not necessarily lust or carnal desire, as is generally assumed) keeps itself happy by having in its embrace the illusion of flowers. The flowers now become the pleasures of union, with God or with a human beloved.

Hope is never stilled. It enjoys the spectacle of a colourful garden, even though there is nothing but illusions in front of it. Maulana Abdul Bari, an early commentator on Ghalib’s mustarad kalam, and Wajahat Ali Sandilvi, who comes much later and has commented on a very limited number of verses, have taken havas to mean ‘lust or carnal desire.’ According to them, there is satire here on the divine scheme of things: the lustful have all the colourful things at their command, but the hopeful one gets nothing but illusions.

The true lover watches this spectacle but does not give up hope. Gyan Chand Jain, in his remarkable commentary, Tafsir-i-Ghalib, seems to concur, more or less. But all these commentators ignore the possible meanings of havas.

One can push the interpretation towards the principle of maya, which signifies the world as an illusion, with God as the only reality. Thus, the desirer and the spectator both are under their own illusions.

The mirror in Persian and Urdu poetry is a symbol or image (paikaar) loaded with multitudes of meaning. A common meaning is that the heart is a mirror in which the beauty of God, or the beloved, is reflected. Conversely, a mirror is like the heart. It reflects whoever cares to come in front of it. Since the mirror remains silent, it means that it is wonderstruck. The cleaner the surface of the mirror, the sharper the image. The sharper the image, the greater the wonder of the mirror.

Again, when we look in the mirror, we can see ourselves as we are. The mirror doesn’t lie. Then, the mirror produces illusions which can be magical even. What one sees in the mirror is intangible and, yet, it looks indistinguishable from the reality that it reflects. Another way of looking at the ‘mirror’ trope is that, since pre-modern mirrors were made of steel or bronze or similar metal, they could be affected by scratches, or rusting, or dust and so on. Thus, the mirrors always needed to be polished. This symbolism of the dust or blemish in the mirror is that the heart too can become diseased or corrupt and may need purification.

Ghalib always had a penchant for the mirror as a trope, or a symbol, or a metaphor. His early poetry especially abounds with the mirror in one or more of its many meanings. It has to do with his perception of the nature of things. Individual perception of objects can be different. The objects themselves can be illusory. The reflection, the ‘aks’ in the mirror, is open to transformation or interpretation. We cannot see God, but we can see his reflection in objects around us.

I hope this book which I have expressly written in English so that it can reach a wider audience, will bring into prominence some of Ghalib’s neglected poetry. It would have been easier to write such a book in Urdu, but it would have deprived many readers who are drawn to Ghalib’s poetry.

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

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2023

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