Home Book Review ‘I Doubt, Therefore I Am’: Revisiting Mirza Ghalib’s Poetry

‘I Doubt, Therefore I Am’: Revisiting Mirza Ghalib’s Poetry

‘I Doubt, Therefore I Am’: Revisiting Mirza Ghalib’s Poetry

The book follows in Ghalib’s footsteps and while familiarizing the reader with his forever implicit questioning leaves the reader to ask their own questions and seek their own understanding of the ash’ār.

By Harbans Mukhia

Amidst innumerable endeavors to interpret and reinterpret the mysteries of Mirza Ghalib’s poetry around the globe by literary as well as non-literary scholars, Urdu as well as non-Urdu speaking, one slim, fascinating reinterpretation by two eminent Professors of Economics located across the politically divisive border has made a recent appearance on both sides.

Anjum Altaf, former Professor of Economics at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences and Amit Basole, currently Associate Professor of the same discipline at no less prestigious Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, have collaborated to produce a 122 page volume, Thinking with Ghalib, published by Folio Books in Lahore and Roli Books in New Delhi, although the two authors have never met in person. Thank you, Internet.

That the book is a reinterpretation of 30 of Ghalib’s couplets (ash’ār) is only half the story; its essential purpose is to make the reader think with Ghalib and the very soul of Ghalib’s poetry is doubt, doubt all received wisdom, even as he is actually immersed in the encompassing culture of received wisdom. His extreme sensitivity to the enriching quality of his cultural inheritance also makes him aware of its attributes of imprisonment; he embodies that richness as well as the most profound doubts about it.

Questioning from within is what makes him an uncompromising rebel. His questioning is rarely a frontal negation of the “truth” with a “counter truth”; he would rather draw a circle of suspicion around it. He seldom gives an answer to the question he has raised and lead the reader to an answer he might have in mind.

His doubt is an independent entity, not linked to any answer or solution. He is, as if, trying to get the reader to understand or perhaps guess that doubting every given truth, even the most sacred, is what makes one human and he is inviting the reader to raise their own doubts and seek their own answers if they would.

“Har haqeeqat majāz ho jaye (Let every established truth become suspect),” Faiz Ahmad Faiz has said in a part of a ghazal long after Ghalib; for Ghalib this was the centerpiece of his entire craft, his entire world of thought.

Ghalib-FB-FrontAltaf and Basole’s book also follows in Ghalib’s footsteps and while familiarizing the reader with his forever implicit questioning leaves the reader to ask their own questions and seek their own understanding of the ash’ār. It copies each couplet in three scripts, English, Devanagari and Urdu, renders its literal meaning, proceeds to unearth its embedded meaning according to their understanding and goes on to contextualize it in the present day scenario, especially in India and Pakistan. The interpretation of the first couplet itself knocks one out, for it brings out the sheer audacity of Ghalib’s spirit of doubting the most sacred “truth”. The audacity becomes all the graver coming as it does in very playful garb. The she’r is

Kya farz hai ke sab ko milé ek sā jawāb

Aao na hum bhi sair karén koh-i tuur ki

Why should it be a given that everyone should receive the same answer

Come all with me for a leisurely stroll on Koh-i Tuur

Koh-i Tuur is Mt. Sinai, well known to those familiar with Biblical and Islamic mythologies. The story the she’r refers to is part of every child’s upbringing in a Muslim household, “liberal” or “orthodox”, and relates to Prophet Moses, incidentally mentioned most times in the Quran, seeking on one occasion Allah’s appearance before him so he could assure the people of his own legitimacy as a prophet. Allah is furious at the suggestion and lightning strikes down both the Mount and Moses. This was Allah’s jawāb to him as recorded in the Quran.

The universally accepted meaning the story conveys is: Never be so audacious before Allah to seek what is impossible; the message delivered to Moses is one for all humanity.

Altaf and Basole beautifully bring out the audacity of Ghalib’s challenge. In the first line itself the poet questions the sanctity of the jawāb Moses receives from Allah himself which also has Quranic sanctity, without rejecting it: Why should there be just one answer to a question, he asks; why indeed can’t there be several? And if Moses had gone to the Mount in awe and fear, aware of the gravity of his demand, Ghalib invites everyone playfully, just everyone, to come and have a pleasant stroll on the same Mount in his company, out seeking one’s own jawāb there. Simple, light-weight words can hide such devastating meaning! The authors go on to elaborate the significance of questioning even such given truths and relate it to everyone’s own quest in life and around.

The next she’r  in the book has a similar level of audacity, again couched in simple words.

Lāzim nahin ke khizr ki hum pairavī karén

 Jānā ke ik buzurg hamein humsafar milé

It is not binding on us to follow in Khizr’s footsteps

We should know him as a senior fellow traveller

Khizr is the most revered guide in Islamic tradition for those who have lost their way in the quagmire of life, leading them to the path of righteousness, the path of God. Although he does not figure in the Quran by name, he is still present anonymously as a universal guide and the great Sufi thinker Ibn al-Arabi treats him as his patron-Saint.

Ghalib does not find himself tied down, compelled to abide by even Khizr’s guidance (Lāzim nahin); at best Khizr is a co-traveller, a senior and respected one, yes, but one whose guidance we might seek if need be, or else might as happily take another path! “Note, however, that by the very logic of the argument Ghalib would not wish us to follow his own advice blindly but use it as a venerable elder’s contribution to our stock of knowledge” observe the authors and proceed to connect the value of the she’r to the “advice” given by international agencies to developing nations as strings attached to their funds. If Ghalib could ignore the guidance of a holy figure attached with Quranic sanctity, each one of us, whether individual, family, community or nation is invited to look at any “guidance” with suspicion, never mind its sanctity or tradition, and seek out one’s own path. Hard to find a stronger plea for individual will.

Anjum Altaf and Amit Basole have indeed guided us well thus far. But, following them and following Ghalib himself yet another path seems to be beckoning: Ghalib’s suspicion of the existence of God himself and the paraphernalia that goes around him. Among his most well-known ash’ār is

Hum ko m’aloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat lekin

Dil ke khush rakhné ko Ghalib yeh khayāl acchā hai

Oh, well, we are aware of the reality of heaven

Ghalib finds it a fine idea to keep us in good cheer

The dual phenomenon of heaven and hell, swarg and nark, jannat and dozakh is central to every religion in everyday life even if not in terms of philosophical principles, although most principles too lead to the question of the hereafter; the choice is invariably between heaven and hell or, in some streams like the Buddhist, to the end of this search in nirvāna. And God is the dispenser of the judgment of whether one goes to heaven or hell, jannat or dozakh, swarg or nark. No questioning that.

Ghalib questions precisely that. First by laughing at the very idea of heaven and hell and pooh-poohing the notion of the hereafter and implicitly questioning God’s authority in awarding the final judgment to human beings. And what remains of God, if he is left with no discretion to decide on the most vital ultimate result of human life and endeavour? Indeed, what is left of God himself?

Yet another most beautiful she’r of his, though not included in this book is:

Hān woh nahīn Khudā parast jāo woh bewafā sahī

Jis ko ho dīn-o-dil azīz uss ki galī mein jāyé kyon

Of course she does not worship God, what if she is disloyal (to me)

Why have anything to do with one who holds her religion and loyalty dearer

Ghalib is turning every “given” upon its head here.

Unwavering loyalty to one’s religion and indeed to God himself and equally unwavering loyalty in love is the dual given condition of true love; the prevalent trope of the disloyal beloved (bewafā mehboobā) reinforces the given condition of true love.

For Ghalib, pure love is completely devoid of any condition that dilutes its purity. Even Khuda is dispensable in the pursuit of pure love. Khuda is irrelevant here, if he exists. Pure love is quintessentially human and any condition qualifying it chips away its grandeur. Following Altaf and Basole, one could extend the meaning of the sh’er and note that Ghalib’s pure love is pervasive and universal and the beloved is anyone: woman, humanity, nature, any cause. Indeed the “beloved” in Urdu poetry is so expansive as to encompass the Revolution for Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

For Ghalib religion and its practice is surely each individual’s entitlement; yet the paraphernalia of rites and rituals that goes with it is utterly dispensable. Of course, the revulsion against the binding rituals has been recorded by many profoundly religious figures in different religions. The great Arab Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj’s immortal call An al-Haqq (I am the Truth, which also means I am God) was an assertion of every human carrying God (Haqq) within oneself which, among other things, dispensed with the rituals for finding Him was one such and his bold challenge earned him death sentence from the Ulama, the theologians. The target of the Bhakti Movement in medieval India, with Kabir as virtually its outstanding “spokesperson” were the elaborate rituals both Hindu and Muslim. Ghalib in one playful sh’er and another a graver one either makes fun of them or propounds a deeply philosophical judgment and a prescription as a rare exception.

Jab maikadā chhutā to phir kya jagah ki qaid

Masjid ho, madarsā ho koi khānqāh ho 

If tavern is left behind, what binds one to any especial place?

It could be the masjid itself, the madrasā or the khānqāh

What could perhaps be perceived as an alarming equation of the sanctity of the most sacred spaces like the masjid, the madrasā and the khanqah with the tavern and might invite fatwās sanctioning his lynching in our times still mercifully left him unharmed, indeed enjoying the reputation of a master poet in his own time and for ever. One wonders whether the progress of “democracy” since the nineteenth century has made us more tolerant of dissent or less.

One she’r from his slim Diwan has the capacity to leave one breathless, although it is not the simplest one; it is the last one in Thinking with Ghalib too.

Hum muwāhidd hain hamārā kesh hai tark-i rusūm

Millatein jab mit gayeen ajzā-i ῑmān ho gayeen

We are monists, challenging customs is our religion

When communities are annihilated they merge in the true Faith

Altaf and Basole ask, though in relation to another she’r, whether Ghalib was reaffirming medieval India’s Sufi-Bhakti tradition and leave it open-ended (p. 18). I would dare suggest that he was almost verbatim translating Kabir’s refiguring of the Islamic tauhῑd (singularity of God). The doctrine encapsulated in the central belief in Islam expressed in lā illāh il illāh (There are no gods except Allah) is also foundational to Christianity and is part of some streams of Hindu philosophy, especially the Advaita stream. One who adheres to tauhῑd is muwāhidd. Tauhῑd, as an organizing principle of religion and society came to India on a substantial scale with Islam. Even as there were several disputes and discussions within the Muslim world on the meanings, parameters and dimensions of tauhῑd, these were all enclosed within the confines of Islam. Its conceptualization of the single God and the single form of worship contrasted sharply with the innumerable Hindu gods and goddesses and equally numberless forms of worship. The two concepts visualised God as two rival, competing entities, Allah and Ishwar, competition that did not remain mere difference of opinion among their followers and did involve tension and violence. It was the Sufi-Bhakti traditions that sought out an extraordinary conceptual alternative to it and Kabir stands tall among the creators of this concept. He dissolves the rivalry between Allah and Ishwar by breaking down the Islamic wall around tauhῑd and conceptualizing one universal God.

Bhai ré do jagdῑs kahān se āyo, kahu kauné baurāyo

Allā Ram Karῑmā Kesav Harῑ Hajrat nām dharāyo                      

Brother, where have two Gods come from

Who has misled you?

Allah, Ram, Karim, Keshav, Hari, Hazrat

Are all the names of the One

Indeed, in conceptualizing one universal God across religious boundaries, Kabir was displacing an existing dichotomy and creating another in its place: the dichotomy of denominational religions (Hindu and Muslim) was substituted by anther between one universal God and the existing religions, chiefly Hindu and Muslim. And of course his biting, challenging ridicule of the religious rituals of the two communities is still recalled with relish by school kids and adults alike.

Ghalib in this masterly she’r is virtually reproducing Kabir’s tauhῑd. Announcing himself as a muwāhidd, Ghalib asserts that challenging religious rituals is the defining constituent of his own religion (kesh). The next line even more boldly asserts that it is from the erasure of communities that the true faith will emerge. “Communities” here clearly points to communal identities as expressed in their religious rituals and not the religious identity of individuals who comprise a community. There is a beautiful double entendre in “faith” here, for while the term (ῑmān) is used as equivalent of Islam within the Muslim religious and cultural zone, Ghalib is questioning the equivalence and stating that (true) faith will emerge only with the erasure of denominational identifications. He is echoing Kabir here almost word for word. The Sufi Bulleh Shah was doing the same in his native Punjabi between the times of Kabir and Ghalib.

One would of course find ash’ār in Ghalib’s Dῑwān with contrary meanings and not finding them would be the great surprise, for that is in the very nature of any poet’s creativity, especially a great poet’s, besides being the core of the genre of ghazal. Each reader will also read the ash’ār differently and find one’s own meaning in them. Yet, the enduring legacy of Ghalib’s Dῑwān is Doubt. Anjum Altaf put it succinctly in an online discussion of their book organised by Ghalib Institute, Delhi, reformulating Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am” and appropriating it for Ghalib: “I doubt, therefore I am”.


Harbans Mukhia taught medieval history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is a Trustee of Ghalib Institute, Delhi.

 Courtesy: The Wire