Apparently, this week saw Bahadur Shah Zafar's 232nd birth anniversary. I wouldn't have known, but Hindustan Times carried a feature on the 'last Emperor of India' (or rather the last 'Indian' emperor - nominally, of course, India came under Queen Victoria a couple of decades after the 1857 revolt, and the British sovereign formally remained India's emperor until Independence).
We do know that, even before he was deposed, Zafar's was merely a 'paper reign', and his personal limitations as a statesman are also well-documented. However, at a human level, his is a truly fascinating story - a poet at heart, reluctantly trapped on the seat of power in times too tumultuous for him; a man destined to be immortalised by what he would come to represent - the passing of an age, the end of a dynasty....
However, even if Zafar hadn't become the iconic historical symbol he is, Urdu poetry would still owe him a greater debt than probably to any other single individual. A passionate - and not incompetent - shaayar himself, Zafar provided the crucial royal patronage that permitted the remarkable flowering of Urdu poetry - and the refinement of its poetics - in the 19th Century, and led to the eventual shift away from Persian. Just consider - Zauq, Ghalib, Momin and Daagh all enjoyed the patronage of Zafar's court; one shudders to imagine what we might have lost but for him!
It is the end of his his life, of course, that makes Zafar's story so poignant - stripped of his throne, forced to watch the beheading of his sons and grandson, then exiled to the foreign climes of Rangoon for his remaining years. And it is this history which imbues the following ghazal - written by the octogenarian king during his final incarceration - with rare beauty, a beauty that one probably may have failed to perceive in it in the absence of this context. Generally seen as Zafar's epitaph for himself, particularly on account of its Maqta, these are fated to remain the best-known words of the poet-king:
लगता नहीं है जी मेरा उजड़े दयार में
किसकी बनी है आलम-ए-नापायेदार में
I remain dispirited in (this) desolate place
(but then) who has found fulfillment in (this) fleeting world?
A rather inadequate translation, I admit - 'dil na lagnaa' is an extremely multivalent expression, which can mean anything from 'being bored' to 'not being able to get used to a place' to outright 'being melancholy'. Similarly, 'kiskee banee hai' is also a broad colloquialism which can express a variety of nuances. However, the overall idea seems straightforward - the second line 'qualifies' the lament in the first line (Zafar complaining about being forced to live in alien strangeness?) by pointing out that, in any case, it isn't as though anybody manages to quit this transient world satisfied...
बुलबुल को न बागबां से न सैय्याद से गिला
किस्मत में कैद लिखी थी फ़स्ल-ए-बहार में
The bulbul has no complaints, neither against the gardener nor the hunter
It was written down in (its) destiny, to be imprisoned in the flush of spring
Once again, the context in which these words were written almost forces us to see them as a personal statement. However, even otherwise, the sher expresses a fatalism worth relishing, and would have been quite enjoyable from anyone's pen.
I rather like the ambiguities that can be pulled out of the second line. In its straightforward interpretation, it was in the bulbul's destiny to fall into the hunter's net during spring (as in my translation above), which expresses a sorrowful resignation. However, a more triumphant interpretation can also be gleaned out of the words, namely, the blessed bird was destined to remain (perpetually) trapped in the height of spring! The two readings reflect back in very different ways on the first line also!
कह दो इन हसरतों को कहीं और जा बसें
इतनी जगह कहाँ है दिल-ए-दागदार में
Tell these desires to find some other abode
Where is the space (to accommodate them) in (my) wounded heart?!
Not too deep, but still touching in its disconsolate intensity! Probably because one invariably thinks of the words as coming from a broken man, on the eve of his death...
एक शाख-ए-गुल पे बैठ के बुलबुल है शादमान
कांटे बिछा दिए हैं दिल-ए-लालाज़ार में
Seated on a flower-bearing branch, the bulbul is content
(even if) thorns line (its) heart's garden
A little more ambiguous, but it has a nice sound to it. Presumably the idea is the standard one that the bird is happy with its proximity to the bloom, even if its breast is rent by thorns in the process of enjoying it. However, the 'dil-e-laalazaar' could also be read as the 'heart of the garden' I think, which would admit alternative interpretations...
उम्र-ए-दराज़ माँग के लाये थे चार दिन
दो आरज़ू में कट गए, दो इंतज़ार में
Having asked for longevity, (I) had brought (a span of) four days (with me)
Two (of them) were spent in longing, (the other) two in waiting
One of the most famous couplets in the ghazal, and probably its best. The first line could mean simply that the poet had requested from the almighty a life-span of four days and brought the same to the world. However, since the more common sense in which 'daraaz' is used is for emphasising the length or duration of something, a nicer reading is that he had asked for a long life, but had been given only four days. Then the second line goes on to ruefully observe that even this abbreviated duration was wastefully spent, first in desire, then in anxious anticipation...
दिन ज़िंदगी के ख़त्म हुए, शाम हो गयी
फैला के पाँव सोएँगे कुन्ज-ए-मज़ार में
life's span is over, the evening falls
(I) shall spread out my legs and sleep, in a corner of my tomb
Very nice... while the haunting quality of the verse certainly depends on our knowledge that the King is dying, and is destined to actually be entombed soon, the devil-may-care colloquialism captured in 'phailaa ke paanv soenge' shows a triumphant expectation of restful repose! And then, to follow it up by saying that this rest shall be availed of in a mere 'corner' of the tomb...a deft touch!
कितना है बदनसीब ज़फर, दफ्न के लिए
दो गज़ ज़मीन भी मिल न सकी कू-ए-यार में
How wretched is Zafar (that even) for (his) burial
(he) could not get two yards of land in the lane of the beloved
This is the 'defining' signature-sher of this Ghazal - quoted almost as often as some of the best ones of Ghalib! And invariably seen as Zafar's final cry of anguish at dying away from his Delhi. Coming from the failed Emperor, this sher could hardly have become anything other than the abiding symbol of his personal tragedy!
This ghazal has been reproduced, along with some other of Zafar's writings, in his mausoleum. Incidentally, the Myanmarese authorities have done a credible job of maintaining Zafar's tomb - I had had occasion to visit it a few years back while on a tour to Yangon, and was quite impressed with the upkeep of the premises and the stately dignity with which religious ceremonies were regularly performed there. Looking at the shameful shambles we had made of, say, Ghalib's tomb and haveli until the Courts intervened (or almost any of our monuments), one wonders if Zafar was really 'unfortunate' in not having found the 'do gaz zameen' in his beloved city, nahin?