Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Ghalib - naa thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa

This brief three-sher masterpiece ranks among the deepest, most mystical, pieces in the entire Deewaan; impishly intriguing the imagination, but somehow always dancing out of the reach of understanding...

na thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa, kuchh na hotaa to khudaa hotaa
duboyaa mujh ko hone ne, na hotaa mai.n to kyaa hotaa

ना था कुछ तो खुदा था, कुछ ना होता तो खुदा होता

डुबोया मुझ को होने ने, ना होता मैं तो क्या होता

"when (there / I) was nothing, (there / I) was God; if (there / I) were nothing, (there / I) would have been God

(The fact of) Being drowned me; if I wasn't (me?) then what would I have been? (or 'what would have been the big deal?')

It is truly frustrating to have something as lovely, as unfathomably profound, as pregnant with prolific meanings, as this to translate - the linguistic/expressive/intellectual tools at one's command are so completely inadequate for the task...!

However, even if one can't entirely capture its richness of meaning, this sher still hits you with its depth, doesn't it? And rightly so; Ghalib is playing with Orphic mysteries here!

Take the first line - that recondite "ना था कुछ तो खुदा था कुछ ना होता तो खुदा होता" admits such a fecundity of meaning that the mind boggles!

And yet, on first glance, the line does not seem that difficult - it seems to be stating nothing more than the standard theological 'truism' that the Almighty preceded, and will outlast, all creation...[literally, "when there was nothing, there was God..." etc.]

However, that is only until one chooses to read the 'ना था कुछ तो' to mean 'when there was nothing'. Once one sees the (totally haunting) second line, other possibilities spring to mind... The introduction of the personal pronoun मैं in the second line is somewhat unexpected, given the impersonally 'abstract' nature of the first line; and it suggests that the 'ना था कुछ तो' of the first line might not have meant 'when there was nothing' but rather something like 'when (something unspecified) was nothing' i.e., the expression being evoked (by the ना था कुछ) may be the colloquial 'to be nothing' which means, of course, 'to not exist' or alternatively 'to not amount to anything'.

Which then makes one wonder what is this 'something unspecified' whose non-existence is being postulated... and one can begin to play around with possibilities...!

Is the Poet saying that when
he himself was nothing (i.e. when he did not exist), he was God? And that if he had continued to not exist, he would have continued to be God..?! That sounds almost unreasonably arrogant, but not when one recalls that in 'Sufi' traditions, one is supposed to derive one's existence out of the Almighty's, and to eventually subsume it into Him...!

Since 'कुछ ना होना' can also mean 'to be a nobody' i.e. to be someone insignificant and unremarkable, the poet could also be saying that 'when he was a nobody' (i.e. before he became successful) he was (as carefree as? as independent as?) God, and it was precisely 'becoming someone' that brought him down from this enviable pedestal...

Note that the 'ना होता मैं तो' of the second line could mean not just 'if I were not' (meaning 'if I did not exist'), but also something like 'if I was not I' (where one more मैं is 'implied')... which then would make the second half of the second line read something like 'if I were not I, what would I have been?'...! What, indeed?!

Finally, consider that 'तो क्या होता' right at the end of the sher. While it fits in beautifully with any of the previously evoked senses of the second line, there is another colloquial usage of the exclamatory expression 'तो क्या हुआ' which is something like the verbally challenging 'so what?!' in English. With this in mind, the second line could alternatively read 'It was being that drowned me; (however, even) if I didn't exist (or if i wasn't i), what would have been the big deal?!'

See what I mean? There's just too much going on in this sher to allow any hope to a translator...!! :-)

huaa jab gham se yuu.n behis to gham kyaa sar ke kaTne kaa
na hotaa gar judaa tan se to jaanuu.n par dharaa hotaa

हुआ जब गम से यूँ बेहिस तो गम क्या सर के कटने का

ना होता ग़र जुदा तन से तो जानूं पर धरा होता

"when it became so senseless with grief, why worry about the cutting of the head
If it wasn't separated from the body, it would have been resting on the knees"

Delightful! What an airy way to dismiss the fact that one has just 'lost one's head'!!

"Well", reasons Ghalib, "the wretched thing had, anyway, become so numbed with grief that even if it
hadn't been chopped off, it would have merely been resting lifelessly on the knees ... and there's no loss in losing a useless burden like that!!"

What makes this picture specially enjoyable is the fact that the resting of the head on the knees (or holding it in one's palms) is a sort of standard metaphor for being overcome with grief... it takes a Ghalib to impute a 'lifelessness of the head' to this 'standard' gesture of despair...!

Note also that the subject of the first half of the first line is left unspecified... so while it most naturally seems to be talking about the head being senseless, it could also be the protagonist whose grief-induced numbness is being evoked... i.e., 'since I am so numbed with grief, what pain would I feel if (even) my head was chopped off'!

huii muddat ki ghaalib mar gayaa par yaad aataa hai
vo har ek baat par kahnaa ki yuu.n hotaa to kyaa hotaa

हुई मुद्दत की ग़ालिब मर गया पर याद आता है

वो हर एक बात पर कहना कि यूँ होता तो क्या होता

"It's been an age that Ghalib passed away, but one (still) remembers
(his manner of) saying (in response to) everything, "if it were like this, what would have happened?"

A sublime, and much appreciated, Maqta, to end this short masterpiece of a ghazal...

The overall meaning of the sher is strikingly simple... Ghalib is dead, and an acquaintance is nostalgically recalling his habit of constantly saying 'यूँ होता तो क्या होता' in response to हर एक बात ... but it is the myriad ways in which this expression can be interpreted that makes this such a beautiful sher...

'यूँ होता तो क्या होता' can simply be the classic expression of regret... 'if only it were so...!' which evokes one characteristic of the defunct Ghalib, namely his air of chronic discontent...

However, at its most literal, the expression could also be a more direct 'explanatory' statement like 'if A had happened, then B would have happened'; the evoking of which could be a tribute to Ghalib's logical powers... and his ability to 'explain' हर एक बात

But also remember that more colloquial sense of 'तो क्या हुआ' that we evoked earlier... which is a dismissive expression like "so what's the big deal?!"... and wouldn't it have been just like Ghalib to have used something like that to respond to हर एक बात ???


Sheetal said...

truly, what a sher it is, that first one.

this reminds me somehow of another couplet. Amir Khusrau, I think:
इसी तलाश-ओ-तजस्सुस में खो गया हूँ मैं
जो मैं नही हूँ तो क्यों हूँ, जो हूँ तो क्या हूँ मैं

how they go on, these sufis, these oriental theologists, bemoaning that the fact of them keeps them from being Him.

Ghalib uses 'doobna' in one sense in this sher to say he is ruined by 'being', but he uses it quite in the opposite sense when he tells us:

इक आग का दरिया है और डूबके जाना है।
Khusrau again draws the same parallel, stressing that surrender is everything:
खुसरो दरिया प्रेम का, उलटी वा की धार
जो उभरा सो डूब गया, जो डूबा सो पार

long comment, and no real point to make - sorry about that :)

deewaan said...

I know... Khusrao has a way of asking the deepest existential questions, hasn't he?...and WITHOUT the big words! Abida Parveen goes in a rare frenzy singing this, btw...in case you haven't heard it.

And Shujaat Husain Khan does a neat number on 'khusro dariya...' definitely worth a listen!

A poetically inclined friend of mine responded to 'naa thaa kuchh to' with a bit from T S Eliot:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

... which i thought was rather smart!

Love the way you and Shweta write, by the way... the latest 'hands' post on k'uvvat-e-guftaar' is especially adorable!

Talking about long posts with no specific point... :D

Sheetal said...

Abida Parveen goes in a rare frenzy singing this, btw...in case you haven't heard it.

doesn't she just? Heh, there are also a couple of videos on utube, I believe.

Love the way you and Shweta write
thank you :)