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Ghalib is an astonishing poet from India, perhaps the most important poet since Kabir. In The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib: Selected Poems of Ghalib, poet Robert Bly and Urdu scholar Sunil Dutta collaborate to bring the delicacy and intensity of Ghalib's poetry to readers of English. This collection of thirty ghazals by Ghalib also serves as an introduction to the ghazal, the elegant and amazing poetic form revered for centuries in the Muslim world.
Ghalib was unorthodox in many ways: he was a Muslim, but he drank and was fond of gambling. He had a difficult life, full of rejections and excesses; much of his life was spent in Delhi during the British conquest of India. Ghalib's poems often mingle humor and anguish. In "The Clay Cup," he says:
I know that Heaven doesn't exist, but the idea
Is one of Ghalib's favorite fantasies.
His form and detail are exquisite. Many emotions flood into one poem--he complains, he pokes fun at intellectuals, he grieves over desires--and it is up to the reader to find the thread that holds the couplets together. Ghalib ends "The Road with Thorns" with a charming boast:
The lightning that fell on Moses should have
fallen on Ghalib.
You know we always adjust the amount of the wine
to the quality of the drinker
His work lies in the tradition of Hafiz and Rumi; and yet he manages to join that fervor with a contemporary style. More than one hundred years after Ghalib's death, his ghazals remain indisputably modern, intense, and as fresh as ever.
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THE SURPRISES IN GHALIB
By Robert Bly
Reading the literal versions of Ghalib that Sunil Dutta and I began working on, it was clear to me that some fresh substance was appearing that I hadn't experienced before.
When I look out I see no hope for change.
I don't see how anything in my life can end well.
Ghalib's lines, so elegant and sparse, do stretch the muscles that we use for truth, muscles we rarely use.
My destiny did not include reunion with my Friend.
Even if I lived a hundred years, this failure would be the same.
Ghalib's tart, spicy declaration of defeated expectations ranges over many subjects:
Heart-sorrow eventually kills us, but that's the way heart is.
If there were no love, life would have done the trick.
Another surprise I felt as we worked lay in discovering that Urdu has no pronouns to distinguish gender. Some of Ghalib's highly flavored and elaborate love poems declare that his lover doesn't answer his letters or is
capriciously cruel or generally inaccessible. There is no way of knowing from the "you" or from objective pronouns whether the person he is addressing is a woman or a man. Moreover, one can't tell whether it is a
divine or human personage. A gift given by such pronouns is that the question of whether the divine is male or female is bypassed from the start. We are freed in one stroke from the issue of God's gender which has so bedeviled Western religion. Moreover, when the word "you" can refer to either a divine or a human "you," the description of a love affair on the human plane resonates on the divine plane as well:
Others in your poetry gathering kiss the wine cup;
But we remain thirsty even for the invitation.
Ghalib says in one ghazal:
I'll write this letter even though it may not have a message.
I'll send it just because I'm a lover of your name.
An Indian friend recently said to me, "At the university I loved Ghalib. I memorized his poems. He described all my experiences in love affairs. Now that I'm older, I read some of the same poems but I now experience them as written to God."
Some of Ghalib's poems are, in essence, pure love poems to a human lover, or so they seem to me; and others are clearly poems to God. But many hold both possibilities in reserve.
My message hasn't received a reply so I guess I'll write another.
I think I know what the Great One will say anyway.
Such a poem seems to beg to be read in two senses simultaneously.
Why shouldn't I scream? I can stop. Perhaps
The Great One notices Ghalib only when he stops screaming.
If it seems clear that the poem is addressed at least partially to God, we have sometimes used the phrase "the Great One" instead of a pronoun such as "he" or "she."
When a poem is clearly addressed to God, we sometimes use the word "You":
Since nothing actually exists except You,
Then why do I keep hearing all this noise?
Our perception that "things" are real doesn't quite fit with the idea that they don't actually exist. One Muslim belief sees the universe we know as a mixture of the Existent and the Non-Existent. Things such as trees,
streets, people, and clouds all belong to Non-Existence: they are only shadows thrown by a genuinely existent Sun.
These magnificent women with their beauty astound me.
Their side-glances, their eyebrows, how does all that work? What is
These palm trees and these tulips, where did they come from?
What purpose do they serve? What are clouds and wind?
I think this is a marvelous poem. He ends the poem by saying:
The abundant objects of the world mean nothing at all!
But if the wine is free, how could Ghalib hold back?
This last poem lets us see the amazing way that Ghalib's ghazals are put together. No clear thread unites all the couplets. For example, if we return to the poem mentioned above, "My Spiritual State," which begins:
When I look out, I see no hope for change.
I don't see how anything in my life can end well.
we see a statement of theme. But a fresh theme, a little explosion of humor and sadness, arrives in the next stanza:
Their funeral date is already decided, but still
People complain that they can't sleep.
The third couplet, or sher, embarks on a third theme:
When young, my love-disasters made me burst out laughing.
Now even funny things seem sober to me.
It slowly becomes clear that we are dealing with a way of adventuring one's way through a poem utterly distinct from our habit of textual consistency in theme. Most of the poems we know, whether written in
English, French, German, or Hausa, tend to follow from an idea clearly announced at the start. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The poet then fulfills the theme, often brilliantly, by drawing on personal
experience, and by offering anecdotes, dreams, other voices: "Good fences make good neighbors." By the end, the theme is fulfilled. The ghazal form does not do that. It invites the reader to discover the hidden center of the poem or the hidden thought that ties it all together, a hidden center unexpressed by the poet himself or herself. I find this delicious. Moreover, when we arrive at the final sher, where, according to our typical
expectations, the poet should clinch his argument, Ghalib often does exactly the opposite. He confounds everyone by making a personal remark.
Your talk about spiritual matters is great, Oh Ghalib.
You could have been thought of as a sage if you didn't drink all the time.
Over the centuries, the ghazal writers have found a way of keeping the mystery of the poem intact, or perhaps it is a way of asking the reader to do more work than Western poets ask. This ghazal way refuses to accommodate our felt need to have the windows lined up, with one beam of light shining straight through all of them. In a ghazal, it is as if the writer has thrown a group of handsome bones onto the field, and the reader has to put them together to make a dog, or if he or she prefers, a larger companion, perhaps a horse. This holding of mystery resounds in the poem called "When the Day Comes." It begins:
One can sigh, but a lifetime is needed to finish it.
We'll die before we see the tangles in your hair loosened.
The second stanza says:
There are dangers in waves, in all those crocodiles with their jaws open.
The drop of water goes through many difficulties before it becomes a pearl.
The third embarks on a different thought:
Love requires waiting, but desire doesn't want to wait.
The heart has no patience; it would rather bleed to death.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Sunil Dutta for the hundreds of hours of labor he has put into these translations. Our work would begin as he wrote out each couplet in Urdu script; a word-by-word version in English, awkward and virtually incomprehensible, followed. Sunil would then abandon the Urdu word order and create two lines in English that hinted at the content of the Urdu. So many ambiguities would be omitted in this version that he usually followed by writing several paragraphs of prose to bring the hidden cultural, religious, or philosophical questions out into the open. At that point I would enter the process and try to compose a couple of lines that would resonate a little with each other. Imposed meanings would stick out here and there like burrs on a dog, and we would have to painstakingly remove those burrs.
Perhaps in the future others will be able to do better with Ghalib poems than we have done; we know that our versions have flaws. But eachof us has drawn on his own, separate delight in Ghalib, and as Ghalib says,
"This poem has come to an end, but my longing to praise hasn't."
ROBERT BLY is the author, editor, and translator of numerous works of poetry and prose. His books include his most recent Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems, Morning Poems, The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy: acred Poems from Many Cultures, pulished by the Ecco Press, and Meditations on the Insatiable Souls as well as Iron John, the Sibling Society, and The Maiden King, which he wrote with Marion Woodman. Bly lives in Minnesota.SUNIL DUTTA is a biologist as well as a student of classical Indian music and literature. He is helping to preserve the ancient musical tradition called Dhrupad singing in India. He was born in Jaipur, India, and now lives in Los Angeles, California.
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