THIS essay is a variation on a theme — the theme of the metaphorical preoccupation of classical Urdu poetry, something about which I have written under various rubrics, covers, and even disguises. But there is a good reason for pounding out over and over again the story of this preoccupation, for it is this very characteristic of Urdu poetry that seems to be its defining hallmark. It is, so I observe, the peculiarities of this very literary sport of metaphors that distinguish the massive bulk of Urdu verse from, say, English verse; it is this that distinguishes, say, a Ghalib from a Shakespeare; and it is this that largely explains the resilience of the ghazal genre. Therefore, one can claim that the uniqueness of Urdu poetry lies largely in the specific nature of this literary sport, and — what is here a serious consequence — we tend to consider as a bad poet the one who shuns it.
So what is the nature of this sport? It is a fascinating aesthetic-imaginative process of continuous poetic creation that manifests itself in two ways. First, in crafting a verse the poet turns a real-concrete object, for example, bād-i sabā (morning breeze), into a symbolic-metaphorical object (denoting gentleness/peace/joy); and then, considering the metaphor to be a real entity, gives it physical attributes — now dast-i sabā (the hand of the breeze), as Faiz has it for instance. In fact, Faiz makes the metaphor so real that he makes the breeze touch his eyes; sometimes he also places his arms around the “neck of the moon” (gardan-i mahtāb), the moon itself functioning as a metaphor:
The hand of the morning breeze — I have touched it with my eyes, at times.
At times, I have placed my arms around the neck of the moon.
What we have here is a creative circle of emanations: note the impregnation of the real so that it emanates the metaphorical, and the metaphorical, in turn, made to emanate the real. But this literary sport is even more complex and has found a second way of manifestation. So, in his almost terrifying craft, Ghalib for example draws metaphors from metaphors; more precisely, he draws sub-metaphors out of a given overarching mother-metaphor. Then what we have is a rich ramification, a kind of tree branching out in many directions. Listen to this:
God, who has blown into the ear of love,
the magic-spell of longing?
Longing — to be called desire!
Note the real physical entity, “ear” (gosh) then the metaphorical “ear of love” (gosh-i mahabbat); then “the magic-spell of longing/waiting” (afsūn-i intizār) which was to be called “desire” (tamannā) — how lush this generative tree is. In effect, to invoke another image that seems very appropriate, we see here the construction of a honeycomb-like structure of the real and the imaginal, the two now becoming indistinguishable from each other, one forming the very structure of the other.
This intricate craft is present in Ghalib plentifully, so intricate as to be mind-boggling. Thus, he speaks of the eyes of the beloved (“those eyes”) piercing through his heart. Eyes, here denoting glances and so functioning as a volitional-psychological and not a physical entity, are given physical characteristics — like a dagger they pierce through the heart. But then, they are transmuted into yet another physical object, the eyelashes (mizhgāñ). And how so? Due to the kotāhī (literally shortness/shortfall) of the poet’s fate, another case of attributing physical causal agency to something non-physical:
O Lord, why do those eyes keep piercing through the heart?
Eyes that became eyelashes,
owing to the shortfall of my fate.
How clever. The eyelashes indeed have the actual physical characteristic of sharp pointedness, like so many glowing needles; and they are long if they are beautiful, which they must be. The eyes pierce, then, by becoming eyelashes — sharp, pointed, and long; and their becoming long eyelashes is caused by a non-physical conceptual object that falls short, the fate of the poet. See the intricacies here. And yet, this is not a mess; no, it is all very beautiful, a galore trapped aesthetically into the rhythms of superb poetry. The imagery of piercing eyes is something of a trope in Urdu poetry. Iqbal too, though he is considered far removed from the traditional lyrical ghazal poetry, constructs the spectacle of the eyes shooting arrows, arrows that find their restful station in the heart — again, a metaphor rendered into a real object with physical attributes. And he does this in none other than his monumental poem Masjid-i Qurtuba (the Mosque of Cordoba). This is what we hear:
Until today, gazelle eyes are found
everywhere in this land.
And, until today, the arrows of their glance find their restful station in the heart.
Eyes shooting arrows, or throwing fire, seems uniquely Indo-Persian, and it is such a powerful metaphorical-real image that even Bollywood exploits it commercially — one recalls the famous song añkhyoñ sē golī mārē (shooting bullets from the eyes).
There exists a compelling explanation why visual metaphors are found in such abundance in Persian and Urdu poetic traditions. In his grand book, The Venture of Islam, the Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson, an outstanding scholar of our times, gives a highly learned, groundbreaking, and perceptive disquisition on this question. But let that pass. My narrow concern here is to look at the real-to-metaphorical-to-real circular movement of visual entities that is characteristic of classical Urdu and Persian poetry.
So let’s continue and return to Ghalib. In a daring step he plays this sport of visual metaphors by introducing meaningful paradoxes. Thus, he says that his passionate love has at last undone the ties of the veil that covered and hid the Beauty he was seeking — but, Lo! Now the eyes have become a hindrance. The very medium of sight paradoxically blocking the sight. An incorporeal medium having the concrete attribute of coming in the way:
Building a honeycomb of metaphors in the unique ways I have illustrated is indeed the defining feature of the poetic tradition called Sabk-i Hindi, literally “Indian formation”. Now it comes to us as a surprise that Faiz, a begetter of modern Urdu poetry, is drenched in this tradition, and so, perhaps ironically, he is also imposingly classical in earnest. A master player of the sport of visual metaphors, his virtuosity on this count touches the milky way in ‘Blackout’ which begins thus:
Since the candles have lost their light,
In the dust, I don’t know where, I search.
I have lost both of my eyes …
SYED NOMANUL HAQ is Professor and Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.
All translations are by the writer.