WHAT DREW ME TO THE GHAZAL
An excerpt from the Introduction to my Diwan of English Ghazals
As beautiful as the Ghazal form is, I think I owe the readers an explanation regarding:
- Why I took up the Ghazal form in the first place.
- What made me try my hand at adopting the strict rubric of rhythms, rhymes and refrains that the Ghazal form demanded, that too in English?
To these short questions I am afraid I have only a slightly longer answer. I was led to the Ghazal by two paths, one, I may tentatively dub the ‘ideological' and the other I shall call the ‘literary'.
I was fourteen when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York and the subsequent (also consequent) ‘War on Terror' began. Brought up in a secular Indian household with little more than a Laodicean attitude to religion I had never felt the intellectual need to delve into Islamic, Indo-Islamic or for that matter any religious tradition as a child. Growing up in the midst of a uniquely Indian profusion of religious variety and having families belonging to four different faiths on all four sides as neighbors, Religion to me was (and still is!) just a nominal accident or an excuse for a ‘general holiday' or festivities (Indians are unique in the world in having more than 50 listed national holidays, as all the major festivals of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are officially observed!). I had had firsthand experience of the horrid riots of 1992, the senseless brutality of which convinced me more effectively than any philosophical argument could that in religious matters agnosticism was the sanest and safest position. I slipped into a comfortable adolescent agnosticism, revered Bertrand Russell as a rational prophet and assumed that 'culture' and dogmatic religion were two different entities, the former a marker of civility the latter a sure path to bigotry. Good people who had the benefit of modern education would be good people no matter what and the unfortunate who will be denied this would turn out bad-In this Manichaean Utopia I lived happily until the post 9/11 world dawned on my teenage naiveté.
As newspaper headlines daily screamed of blasts, attacks, wars and fatwa's I was confronted daily with the reality of names that sounded like mine attached invariably to the words ‘militant' or‘'terrorist'. As early adolescence gave way to youth I found to my disgust that nominal identity was more powerful than I had imagined. Often I heard even the most educated stoop to abusing other communities, castes or creeds as barbaric and primitive. I realized that prejudice could raise its ugly head even in the most polite company and the ‘pride' of identity quite often trumped calm ratiocination and clouded our common humanity.
As terrorism, fanaticism, and extremism seemed to envelope one Muslim community after another and every aspect of ‘Muslim' culture coming under global scrutiny, I was led to examine and explore my own cultural roots as a liberal humanistic Indian born into a secular and progressive Muslim family.
What was the cause, what were the historical antecedents of this conflict, I asked myself. Were we witnessing a ‘Clash of civilizations' as Huntington would have us believe or was it something deeper. I knew liberalism, rationalism, humanism to be the answer but was this answer to be found only in the libraries of Europe in Lock, Kant, Spinoza and Russell? Was there no oriental and more specifically Islamic or Indo Islamic tradition that could be called humanistic at all? Even as I began to look for answers I was convinced, partly by the force of convention and partly by the prejudice of education to consider Liberalism, humanism, secularism and democracy to be essentially ‘Western' values that the ‘Orient' and in particular the ‘Muslim' world had to import, adopt and wear as an alien garment to conceal and suppress a natural tendency to religious extremism. This illusion was further reinforced by the fact that apparently all across the ‘Muslim world' exclusivist religious identity was rearing its Hydra-heads and was repressing free thought, gender equality and practically destroying any high culture. The Muslim world, and in this the Muslims of India too, needed a renaissance of character, I thought, a restoration of public sanity and the best road to this was the successful path that the ‘Western ' Democracies had taken. This natural antipathy to anything oriental as superstitious and regressive was further drilled into me by the experiences of those around me (my father had had a few bad experiences of ‘Mullahgardi'-Mullahism-and had only contempt for bigotry and a deep distrust of overt religiosity of any kind), and the numerous and daily Headlines in the Media, stories of Salman Rushdie's persecution, the trials of Taslima Nasreen in ‘Secular' India, not to mention the implosion of neighboring Pakistan in a maelstrom of religious frenzy and militaristic chauvinism.
What made matters worse was the this ‘Moslem' extremism was often met with an equal and opposite mirror-image fanaticism by the ‘other' side, exciting and fostering resentment and religious bigotry in its wake. I was deeply shaken as a passionate Nehruvian Secularist by the rising tide of sectarian chauvinism in India (Hindutva) manifesting most barbarically in the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the rising Islamophobic rhetoric and racism in the West. India also bore the particularly savage stigmata of a brutally sectarian Partition on religious lines and this pent up underground sectarianism often burst out in volcano's of blood — all this made a strong impression on me and convinced me of two facts. Firstly I was reconfirmed in my prior belief that if Patriotism was still, as Doctor Johnson had guessed, the last refuge of every scoundrel Religion had in our times become the first refuge of every scoundrel. I came to believe and am still convinced that religion, at least Public Mass religion and religious group identity is the bane of the Modern world. Secondly, as an unreasonable and unfortunate corollary of the first conviction I came to distrust everything ‘Oriental' as suspect and worthy, at best only of superficial consideration and at worst of unequivocal distrust and denunciation.
Still in my mid-teens, I had received till then a suitably ‘Modern' (read European) education and continued to be steeped in Western literature and Philosophy, Music and Art. Encouraged by progressive and liberal parents to reason fearlessly and think freely I fell in love with the works of Bertrand Russell, Lock, Kant, Hume and above all Spinoza even if I could not fully appreciate them. I trained in the Western Classical Violin and discovered Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, taught painting at School I looked to Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Goya and Whistler for inspiration. Even though I also loved A.R.Rehman's music and Raja Ravi Verma's paintings, the works of Nehru, R.K.Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Rushdie, Tagore, Vikram Seth even they, to my naïve mind, appeared great only in as much as they had turned for inspiration towards the dynamic and progressive West. Committed by fidelity to reason and compassion to a love of Humanism and failing to find any evidence of these values in large swathes of the contemporary culture of the Islamic (including Indo-Islamic) world I had concluded with immature smugness that because the present was gloomy the past had been darker still. It did not even fleetingly occur to me that my failure to find was perhaps a failure to seek! How blind and blinkered was I, how naïve and lazy! I had heard precious little of Ghalib, Iqbal and Mir and practically nothing of any other Urdu poet. I had heard of Ghalib only through vague references in Indian popular culture and once on inquiring who he was, was led to believe that he was an immoral drunk who wrote little love ditties. I had been taught only enough Urdu to be able to read it rather perfunctorily even though it was ostensibly my mother tongue. English was the medium of instruction throughout my schooling and was for all intents and purposes not only my first language but in every significant Literary sense my only language. I read serious literature only in English, I wrote poems, stories and essays only in English and I spoke most often in English. This natural dominance of English was, in my case, further accentuated by the fact that my mother is a Professor of English Literature and as a consequence books bearing the names of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Hardy, Lamb, Bacon line our book shelves in row after imposing row. Even the Indian writers I knew, as I mentioned above, invariably wrote in English. While this parade of books had the happy result of whetting my appetite for literature, it satisfied my love of reading so fully that any other cultural source of literary delight was rendered spectacularly inconspicuous even in absolute absence.
This unfortunate circumstance was luckily to change, and little did I know that no less a poet than Ghalib was waiting just round the corner for me.
My first foray into the marvelous world of the Ghazal began with an experience that, like many happy experiences in our lives, was owed entirely to chance. On one of my weekly expeditions to the dusty old Central Library of Mysore which luckily abuts our Medical College, I chanced to discover among the usual old heaps of dusty books, a newer book with the cover-picture of an old bearded gentlemen with a ‘turki topi' for a chapeau. The book was Ralph Russell's ‘Oxford Ghalib'. Even as I thumbed through the introduction I was hooked. As I read the life, the poetry, the letters of Ghalib I felt like Keats had ‘On first looking into Chapman's Homer'
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific
Even in English translation I knew that a great man had wandered into my ken. Here was no bearded Mullah, nor was here a raving romantic, even in translation the deep philosopher-poet, the proud noble, the witty letter writer was brought to life before me. What a revelation, coming as it did from a 19th century Mughal gentleman, was this verse to a teenaged agnostic–
We know the truth about Paradise but,
It is a good idea to keep the Heart glad.
or this hardly veiled scorn flung with panache at the hypocricritical preacher–
Where is the door of the wine-house, Ghalib-- and where the Preacher? But we know this much: yesterday he went in, as we came out.
Or this masterful poetic expression of the theory of forms–
It is the ‘hidden of the hidden', what we witness as true,
They are still dreaming, who have woken in a dream.
The beauty of the originals cannot be made known in English any more than Hamlet's Soliloquys or Milton's sublimity can be captured by Urdu, but the effect on me was not short of revolutionary. I was forced to revise my fixed beliefs about Indo-Islamic Culture and was impelled to find out more about it. As I came across Frances Pritchett's extraordinary work on Ghalib (All 2000 pages of it incredibly made freely available through the Internet) and discovered the nuances of language, the wealth of metaphor, the richness of allusion and to top it all the felicity of expression in Ghalib I was already in love with the Ghazal and its possibilities. As I read more Ghazals in Urdu and made an acquaintance with the Persian greats I came across some brilliantly effective translations of Ghalib's Shers, many of them by Frances Pritchett herself. I soon found myself wondering if the Ghazal had been seriously worked with in English and to my delight found whole literary journals devoted to the form. Gene Doty's The Ghazal Page was a remarkable compendium of contemporary Ghazals in English. I soon contributed 5 of my first Ghazals to The Ghazal Page. Encouraged by their acceptance I ventured to seriously try to compose ‘Real' Ghazals (as Agha Shahid Ali had termed them) in English.
As I explored the Ghazal canon further and perused the other greats, Mir, Sauda, Hali, Iqbal, Faiz, Firaq, Atish, Daagh, Danish, Josh and many others the value of the literary treasures I had stumbled upon dawned on me like a whole new sun animating a whole new world. I found the same allusions used in a thousand different ways, themes similar in basic outline but enriched by varied verbal strokes, a new touch here, a new thought there. But I soon realized that underlying all this flurry of passionate creativity, arguably the greatest modern poetry of India was a common ‘something' –always there lurking in the background, never obtrusive but always immanent, always ‘there' in never being ‘there apart'. What was this ‘something' that enabled the speaker to express the anguish of the longing of love, bring out the absurdity of fanatical faith, give poetic voice to the profoundest philosophies-and do all this while remaining faithful to the extremely demanding strictures of an ancient form. What was the secret of this form, how could these geniuses say so much in so small a space and so severe a formula?
I noticed that much of the beauty of the Ghazals was inherent in the nature of the medium itself. Just as the rainbow, of a thousand different hues is reflected, refracted from the self same water, so was the Ghazal poetry of India. These poems were like a single beam of light refracting off the complexity of a thousand minds and radiating in a million different directions but all of them still retained that single connecting thread of light, the same medium, the same form-the Ghazal. There was something common to the Ghazal form itself that was the cause of its growing beauty and power and prestige through so many different ages and cultures. The Ghazal I found, had a nature, a tradition, a culture all its own. This Ghazal tradition, this ‘Ghazal Culture', I found, was at the root of the Ghazal form's richness. Its wealth lay in a series of characters, allusions, traits, tropes, types that formed its peculiar heritage and animated its witheringly severe formula of Matla, Qafiya, Radif, Takhallus, Maktha. If not for this lively cultural ‘soul' the severe formulaic sternness of its outward ‘body' would not be alive. To write Ghazals in any language as a ‘form for form's sake' (as Agha Shahid Ali denounced the practice) was to drift ‘far from the letter' of the Ghazal and farther from the spirit'. If I wanted to write Ghazals I would have to be faithful not only in letter but also in spirit. This literary gold, if it could not be hauled across the Atlantic could at least be transmuted by the alchemy of talent into something that bore a similar glitter. An Urdu mind would have to move an English tongue to poetry.
The most important part of this Ghazal Culture that I have worked within is the Ghazal World. A world, indeed a universe, with its own (stock) characters, personalities, laws, reasons, ideas that form a giant-whole meaningful only through its parts. While it was impossible for me to work with every trope or concept of the Ghazal universe and infuse every mazmun (theme) with my own novel ma'ani (meaning), I utilized, just as an Urdu bard would, the various Dramatis Personae who populate the Ghazal world as spokespersons for my own ideas.
It was the hope of capturing and representing, with whatever little success, this beautiful literary tradition to readers and lovers of English poetry that I took to composing English Ghazals.