Wednesday 31 March 2010

Ghalib's ghazals- is it all just Wine, Whining and Word play?

Neither Mystic, nor Mutineer, nor heralding a new day
Of Ghalib, Ghazal's God, 'tis our via negativa to say
 'He loved Wine, gaudy Whining and febrile Word-play'
(A tribadistic trio to turn any man gay!)

Ghalib's safina and Ibn Arabi's 'ship of stone'

Amongst many treasures contained in the Ibn Arabi Society website, is a beautiful essay by
Claude Addas titled 'the Ship of Stone'.

"Of the many voyages that Ibn 'Arabi describes, it is on the one to which he invites us in Chapter eight of the Futûhâtthat I would like to focus.[5] Chapter eight is dedicated to the ard al-haqîqa, the 'World of Reality' that was created with what remained of Adam's clay. It belongs, says Ibn 'Arabi, to the 'âlam al-khayâl, the Imaginal World, and it is part of the barzakh, the 'isthmus' that joins all the orders of reality. It is the theatre where the visions of the gnostics are seen, where dreams take place, where souls reside as they await the Last Judgement. It is a spiritual World where, contrary to what happens in this one, bodies have a subtle consistency and intelligibles take on form. This world is penetrated only by the 'spirit', not to be confused with the imagination, for the imagination is capable of engendering only that which is unreal. This preliminary information just outlined is followed by first-hand accounts of spiritual travellers who, like Dhu-l Nun al-Misri, had the privilege of visiting this marvellous world: cities of gold, silver, saffron and musk, fruit with unparalleled flavour, oceans of precious metals that touch one another without mixing their waters. The 'fantastic' character of these descriptions should not be misunderstood; the ard al-haqîqa is not a mythical kingdom. Despite the fact that it is ma'nawiyya, 'spiritual', it is nonetheless no less real than is the ground upon which we tread. It is first and foremost the World of the purest Adoration offered to God: 'It is God's World', Ibn 'Arabi explains elsewhere.
He who inhabits it has realized true servitude before God; God joins him to Himself, for He has said: 'O, my servants who believe, My World is vast, so worship Me!' I myself have been worshipping God in that World since the year 590, and we are now in 635. That World is immutable and imperishable; that is why God has made it the abode of His servants, and the place par excellence of His worship.[6]
And it is undoubtedly to remind us of this essential truth that Ibn 'Arabi then reports that in that world he saw a Ka'ba, from which the veil (kiswa) had been removed, speak to those who were making the ritual circumambulations, and that it granted them spiritual Knowledge.
But the account that follows plunges us into a strangely phantasmagoric universe reminiscent of surrealist paintings. He says,
In that world I saw a sea of sand as fluid as water; I saw stones, both large and small, that attracted one another like iron and a magnet. When they came together, they could not come apart without someone intervening, just as when one takes the iron away from the magnet without the magnet being able to hold on. But if one fails to separate them, these stones continue to stick to one another at a set distance; when they are all joined, they have the form of a ship. I myself saw a small vessel with two hulls. When a boat is thus constructed, its passengers jump into the sea, and then they embark for wherever they wish. The deck of the vessel is made of grains of sand or of dust, soldered together in a special way. I have never seen anything so marvellous as these stone vessels floating on an ocean of sand! All the boats have the same shape; the vessel has two sides, behind which are raised two enormous columns higher than a man's head. The rear of the ship is at the same level as the sea, and is open to the sea without a single grain of sand coming inside.[7]
At first glance, the reader is tempted to see nothing in this text other than a typical example of ajâ'ib, the mirabilia in which Arabic literature abounds. This would be ignoring the fact that, regardless of his form of discourse, the author of the Futûhât never aims at 'distracting' his reader but, quite on the contrary, at bringing him around to the essential. It is also a fact that a careful reading of the vocabulary used by the author in this passage suggests that this strange story is masking a subtle point in Ibn 'Arabi's teaching. This is not to suggest that the account is a simple allegory. In theMundus Imaginalis, where a square can be round or something small can contain something large, Ibn 'Arabi has certainly been the astonished witness to this quite distinctive ocean voyage. But his narration of this experience is, for him, less an occasion to astound us than it is a means of subtly teaching us a principle of initiation of which the scene he describes is the concrete expression.[8] It is also true that to structure the story he deliberately borrowed key terms from a specific lexicon in Arabic linguistics: bahr is the word commonly used for the ocean. But it is also the word that, in the language of Arabic poetry, denotes the meter of a poem; likewise, ramal, which ordinarily refers to sand, is the name for one of the sixteen meters in classical Arabic prosody.[9] The use of vocabulary borrowed from the language of Arabic poetry is obviously not coincidental in the least. From this point of view, the story of the stone vessels sailing over a sea of sand has nothing to do with the dream state of a delirious mind. The vessel (safîna) represents the qasîda, the classical Arabic poem; the inseparable stones are kalîmât, the words that, when joined together, form the verses which, when arranged together make up the poem; the two sides of the boat are the hemistiches of each line of verse, and the two columns refer to the two 'pillars', watid, of Arabic meter. Thus, with slightly encrypted language, Ibn 'Arabi points out to us that poetry is the privileged way to 'travel' in the 'âlam al-khayâl, whose haqâ'iq (spiritual realities) it carries, although spiritual realities, by their very nature, are supraformal.'

I have no iota of proof that Ghalib was familiar with Ibn Arabi's works, still, I confess, there is scarcely a line of Ghalib whose meaning is not enriched by reading the essay quoted above.
Some ten or twelve years ago, I translated a pair of couplets from Ghalib as follows-
woh sehar mudda talbee mein na kaam aaye
jis sehar se safina ravaan hon saraab mein.
Ghalib chutee sharab par ab bhee kabhee kabhee
Peeta hon roz-e-abr-o-shab-e-maahtaab mein (97.12)
It’s good for nothing else & actually, the Lake’s a mirage
Tho’ still that Magic steer Avalon’s faery barge
Ghalib’s given up Wine, tho’ now & then he might
Drink on a cloudy day, drain a moonlit night.

Actually the previous couplet, 'woh naalah dil mein khas ke barabar jagah  na paee
                                                           jis naale se shigaaf parhe aftab mein'
is thought to compose a 'qita' with 'woh sehar mudda' with the meaning- whine, whine, my complaint hasn't entered her heart to the extent of even a blade of grass; whine, whine, though I'm such a smashing poet that it could have scarred the face of the sun, whine, whine. 
On the other hand if Ghalib is speaking of his own reception of Arabi then it isn't a case of whine, whine but Wine! Wine! 

Which is as it should be.

Monday 29 March 2010

Ghalib's 'jab tak dahaan-e-zakhm'

jab tak dahaan-e zakhm nah paidaa kare koi
mushkil hai tujh se raah-e sukhan vaa kare koi
ʿālam ġhubār-e vashat-e majnūñ hai sar-ba-sar
kab tak khayāl-e turrah-e lailā kare koī
afsurdagii nahii;N :tarab-inshaa-e iltifaat
haa;N dard ban ke dil me;N magar jaa kare koi
rone se ay nadiim malaamat nah kar mujhe
aakhir kabhii to uqdah-e dil vaa kare koi
See Prof. Pritchett's wonderful site 'A desertful of roses' for text & commentary.

Till the mouth of the wound gravid utterance attain
All paths to your ear, mere aporias detain
Majnun's footy blister has raised a dusty twister to pervade the Plenum's plane
Whom, longer, in imaginal Limbo, can Lailah's locks limn sane?
Not Civility has a freezing center, all heating, guests to gain
Save my sleeting heart, she enter, who entered ere as pain.
Cup companion, my tears' flood to slow, reprove not- no reproof is vain!
That my Noah's knot of the heart's rainbow, the Saqi sooner obtain

Saturday 27 March 2010

barzakh- a partition which both unites and divides

Click here for an essay on Ibn al Arabi's concept of the barzakh and here for a description of it as a sort of purgatory sharing features with the Tibetan bardo (bardo means limit) thodol and the Swedenborgian hell.

Another perspective is found here where a critic of Sufism attacks Deobandi and Bahrelvi beliefs regarding Barzakh.

How would the notion of the barzakh affect a poet? Well, a self conscious poet is faced with the question 'which word to choose?' as well as 'which conclusion to draw?".

Now in the apprehension of any 'two-ity'- i.e a distinction between two things- the question arises 'what two poles do they define?'- is there a continuum, so to speak, between them? If there is perhaps there is a third word, which hasn't yet occurred to me that is the mot juste. 

Another way of approaching the same problem is not to seek to construct the continuum between the two-ity but place oneself in between as the asymptotic limit of both. Contemplating oneself as the divider between the 'two-ity' one may find one's own facticity vanish as one's stable sense of identity is questioned. 
To take an example 'kaffir/muslim'- where does the one end and the other begin? One method is to draw up a continuum between 2 opposite idealized conceptions. This process may itself suggest some striking images. The other method is to place oneself in between as the limit case of both conceptions. In Arabi's terminology one now sees with both eyes and imaginally creates (as does Allah when he creates Man with both hands but other beings with but one hand) the new ontological position for yourself to which you are then propelled. This liminal state of barzakh is like the bardo of the Tibetans. Moreover, Mulla Sadr's system begins to look a bit like Heidegger's project. In other words the poet is now in an altered state- one of becoming, one of transformation- rather than one of sitting in judgement or pursuing a craft skill. 
The ordinary meaning of barzakh as the Islamic limbo constrains one's use of the term but also informs one's reception of Arabi's theory. The poet, in barzakh, hears his own voice, witnesses his own imaginal projections, as coming- so to speak- from beyond the grave in that space between life and resurrection that- certainly for the school of Ibn Taiymiyya then coming into prominence in India- was nothing but oblivion. The Wahabbis can bring forward plenty of evidence that not even the Prophet can hear or know or do anything till the resurrection. However, Arabi's followers still have a way out. They can simply have a meta-barzakh as the divider/unifier between their position and the Wahabis.
But, just as it turns out that Stoics maintain that their system only works for someone who is already a Sage and is quite unavailing in lesser hands, so has Arabi drawn the ladder up after him, declaring himself the seal of Awlia. In other words, there is a meta-meta-barzakh defined by futility/unity which Ghalib inhabits.

Any evidence that Ghalib knew Arabi's, or Sadr's system? Well, he did read Bedil and Jami. Also maybe his one philosophical essay ?
As a Muslim he must have known the ordinary and popular meaning of barzakh. Indeed, the less philosophy he read the more the tension in his mind between the popular meaning and the esoteric one. 
In popular lectures on barzakh, the Masters often quote the line-
hum vahan hai jahan se hum ko bhi
kuch hamari khabar nahin aati
Incidentally this was (the psycho-analyst) Masud Khan's favorite quotation.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Greatest Indian English poem ever?

The post modern era in Indian poetry in English commenced with the ending of the era previous to it. It was during this epoch making era that the melifluous fragrance of this poem, marking the return of the poet to India, wafted down the avenue of history leaving its footprints on everything it trampled.
My father became old
My father
became old

Now he plays
with his old wedding sari
and braids
 his hair with jasmine and marigold.
Damn! Not Dad it's  Mum
 niggers start to look alike
they say
I see it's true
having returned
Why You?

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Prof. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi & how to read Ghalib

Prof. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi & how to read Ghalib

Perhaps one of the most admired man of letters in India today, Prof. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi has some enlightening things to say about his method of close reading a poem. He holds meaning to be contextual, and thus subject to an inherent degree of instability arising out of semiotic slippage. Close syntagmatic and paradigmatic reading of the text generates a set of meanings- subjective projections freely arrived at- which, so to speak, then taking a canonical form, become accessible for intersubjective reception in such a manner as (or so it appears to me) fulfills the wider purpose of poetry.

My own, perhaps naive, approach was to regard the poem as an axiom system and the set of meanings, or projections by the readers- as models of that axiom system. Thus, a subjective projection on my part that makes a poem meaningful to me could be called my model of the poem. If I find that the poem captures features of my real life situation and suggests an optimal action schema to me, I may say 'this poem has real truth- it works-'. This would be equivalent to finding that a model of a system is concrete- i.e. relates to real world objects- rather than merely abstract entities- and thus the axioms, or truths, of the poem are mutually consistent.

Since I am speaking metaphorically, drawing an analogy rather than positing a one to one correspondence, and since moreover Dialethia is so closely related to dialog- the highest function, surely, of natural language- it follows that logical paradoxes, emergent properties of systems vaster than can be envisioned and beyond the scope of volition, or puzzles about infinity do not represent a foundational problematic though bound to arise within this field of reference.

Perhaps, for this same reason, Prof. Faruqi is careful to limit the meaning of the poem to itself and its reception rather than turning it into a seismograph  tracing the chthonic tectonics of some abstraction like History, or Being, or Identity. However, he notes, quoting the authority of al Jurjani, that metaphorical, or so to speak, symbolic language does have this property of excess or surplus meaning which, it may be, can not be exhausted by any finite individual or social process .

He quotes both Jurjani and Bhartrhari to show that the occurrence of  two or more meanings, two perhaps inconsistent Truths, was not a source of scandal, or an 'aporia' in Derrida's sense, nor evidence that some great Metaphysical Original Sin had occurred at some point in History which must now be expiated by literary scholars to the neglect of their more obvious function of illumining texts for lesser minds.

Prof. Frances Pritchett's web-site- a desertful of roses- is a textbook example of how Literary Scholars can render a truly invaluable service to the general reader by a close and sympathetic reading of the text. Reading her comments, the lover of Ghalib starts to see how greatly  performativity and dialogic  underly our reception of the ghazal. (This is because, she invites us to imagine ourselves as part of the mehfil, listening to the sher, trying to anticipate the next line, and taking a sort of rueful delight in the manner in which the poet makes fools of us with his wizardry). But the performative aspect of the Ghazal's stock set of imagery is radically Dialethic- pointing to the incompossibilty (in Leibniz's sense) of the two Truths that might make Existence bearable. This is a context in which exaggeration is a poetic virtue- as Prof. Faruqi maintains- rather than a sign of degeneracy as perhaps Victorian taste might have judged it.

Prof. Faruqi stresses clarity of image over clarity of meaning- and pays great attention to the logical consistency of poetic aetiology. This seems reasonable when we consider that if metaphors are properly derived from other metaphors and the regulative principle of that derivation is itself applicable, or adds piquancy, to what follows then, clearly, a condition for meaning- namely mindfulness on the part of the author- is met.  Furthermore, so long as the poetic aetiology is consistent- and Prof. Farqui is a rigorous constructivist-  at least we don't get, Ex falso quodlibet, an explosion of nonsense! This is not to say that the operation of the metaphor rules out incompossible states, on the contrary, Prof. Faruqi's courage is to grasp that nettle, and his great insight to show how 'Meaning production' is enhanced rather than rendered a nullity in such a 'six dimensional' world.

Still, the remaining problem is decidedly nontrivial. How are we to separate the poet's meaning from the continuum of its echoing associations and dialogic divagations?

In this context, L.E.J. Brouwer, champion of intuitionism in Mathematics and member of the 'Significs' circle, held that pure mathematics consists primarily in the act of making certain mental constructions . The point of departure for these constructions is the intuition of the flow of time.[5] This intuition, when divested from all sensuous content, allows us to perceive the form “one thing and again a thing, and a continuum in between”. Brouwer calls this form, which unites the discrete and the continuous, “the empty two-ity”. It is the basic intuition of mathematics; the discrete cannot be reduced to the continuous, nor the continuous to the discrete.

As time flows on, an empty two-ity can be taken as one part of a new two-ity, and so on. The development of intuitionistic mathematics consists in the exploration of which specific constructions the empty two-ity and its self-unfolding or iteration allows and which not.

Similarly, Ethical Intuitionism might posit the essential undefinability of its terms while leaving a continuum between their apprehension of a 'two-ity'. In other words, bijective analysis does not necessarily subordinate the subject to a 'Structure' above and beyond it, which becomes the proper locus for Meaning rendering the subject relatively voiceless.

 This continuum tends to disappear- to be cut as by an axe- if certain sorts of infinite objects- in particular those hypothesized but never actually constructed, are admitted as having equal reality with what can be constructed and experienced by the mind.
A wholly different approach- based on the concept of barzakh (the isthmus between 2 seas, the boundary, the limit- but also purgatory) as used by Ibn Arabi- who influenced Jami and Bedil- and refined by Mulla Sadr- would be to look not at the continuum between a 'two-ity' but to focus on the margin, the boundary, the limit which divides them. However, given the imaginal rather than real aspect of life in the barzakh, it follows that this boundary or isthmus tends to vanish and thus becomes  a unifier in the sense of being the asymptotic limit of both sides of the 'two-ity'.
Whereas, the Stoic continuum is underpinned by the pneuma which inflates things to their tensility, so to speak, while also pervading the plenum, thus preserving a steady state, the system of Arabi and Sadr focuses on the liminal, imaginal, aspects of consciousness as this feather light barzakh which is not fixed in place but blown forward as by a great wind.
However, within Islam, it is by no means unanimous that the barzakh really does represent a place of creative, imaginal, activity. The plain reading would be that nothing happens in the grave prior to the resurrection. Not even the greatest prophet or Saint feels anything, knows anything, hears anything or imagines anything.
 Thus rigor in poetic aetiology or the derivation of fresh metaphors or themes on the basis of logical operations has a double significance- on the one hand it is an imitation of what the dead Awlia or Saint is doing in the barzakh which, in a sense, is transforming the Universe- on the other hand it is neither life nor resurrection but that oblivion which lies between.
In the Indo-Islamic context, perhaps, syncretic traditions highlighting constructible, experiential, mental states where access is gained to supernatural powers, thus creating links in the chain between mortal creation and the all powerful creator, modified the reception of Arabi's barzakh on an anaology with the Yogi's samadhi.  (The belief being that a Yogi who has achieved this highest of states can come back to life at will- which is why he is buried rather than cremated)
If this was the case then perhaps a plethora of these apparently constructible objects  became part and parcel of an intuitionistic praxis guarding a refinement in philosophy- of obvious instrumental value- such that antinomianism is avoided and the refinement of polysemy does not tip into schizoid pansemy.  A parallel development, arising out of homogenizing and consolidating maneuvers by Legal, Administrative and Diplomatic practitioners, might have reinforced this Mannerist trend.

In contrast, the sloughing off of the intuitionistic aspect of Kant- we may even speak of the abandonment of what we might now term Cognitive Science as having a regulatory role as the phenomenological project was undermined by suspicions about its philosophical origins- could lead to the reappearance of logic puzzles and futile antinomies in discourse which, in any case, gained a fresh lease of life from the notion that perhaps Language uttered Man, or that he was conditioned in some other way by the Society to which he belonged- in which case intuitionism founded on rigorous constructivism would be an intensification of cognitive activity as futile- from the point of view of significance- as the relentless buzzing of a bee, or a monkey attacking the bars of its cage.
An example is Deriddan 'differAnce' which introduces an infinite operator into what can only be a finite activity- viz. reading. The consequence is that, so to speak, the continuum between minds gets clogged up by paradoxes generated for no good reason and the capacity of the language user to signify is pronounced diminished by a spectral Alienist utterly alien to the Heimat of Human Agency.
By contrast, Ibn al Arabi's concept of barzakh- as a dimensionless divider/unifier not fixed but impelled by a wind (actually self generated by its own imaginal activity)- could in some sense underpin a notion of iterative reading such that the meaning received ought never to be the same thing twice but, somehow,  illumine more and more.

A further point about the manner in which insistence on intuitionistic imaginal constructivity might yield grounds for the belief that the consciousness is not trapped like a fly in amber, follows from the fact that the affirmation that, for example, mathematics is a languageless activity utterly short circuits the argument from conditioning, linguistic or otherwise, and restores 'Meaning production' to the field of Human volition and cognitive freedom.
Thus close reading, intense mental application to reduplicate the cognitive processes of the producer of the text, has a paradoxical result- it shows how poetry, at its best, too is a languageless activity. The juxtaposition of images and their mutual dialectic is something that can be separated out from other important aspects of the poem- for example its sound pattern, its 'mood', the philosophical questions it raises and so on.
No doubt, the bad poet- like the bad craftsman, or bad entrepreneur- is surrendering to that which a novel instrumentality makes facile- be that instrumentality linguistic or technological or arising out of colonial or other contact with a different culture. Here, indeed, we might say behavior is determined by the tool it has grasped. Experimentation, it may be, is constrained along facile paths. The obverse, using the new in an old way- for e.g. a laptop as paperweight- points again to a heteronomy arising from the cognitive failure to merge horizons. Indeed, bad poetry has both these qualities. Why? One way to frame an answer  is to say that the continuum- in this case between a new tool and an old mode of production- has not been properly grasped by the foundational  intuition of 'two-ity'. There is here a failure of thought.
The question however remains, without recourse to the authority of some genius's intuition or a Mystic's illumination, why is it difficult to establish a continuum  between objects apprehended as a 'two-ity'? The Stoics were already aware of this problem which is linked to the Sorites paradox and arises out of the danger of applying infinite operators to what can but be apprehended vaguely. The result is to undermine the principle of Identity based on non contradiction. It can engender an extreme reaction. If there is confusion as to where to draw the dividing line perhaps we need to retreat to one pole or the other, burning our bridges so as to kill off all those laggard in the stampede thus occasioned. That way, surely, there will be clear blue water between us and those clustering around the other pole of the two-ity. Thus by a razing of the continuum, Identity at each pole is safeguarded.
But what then is to prevent, the splitting up of the continuum into more and more separate parts- whose most benign possible result would be a doctrine that everything is true and no two truths are commensurable or connected in any useful way?

Great piety, as that of Mulla Sadr and Ibn Arabi, might be one way out. In the shadow of the Saints, anxiety about Identity might be stilled. A doctrine of two truths, one fundamental the other merely instrumental or hueristic in nature, night be seen as linked by a continuum of sublation that actually, by the operation of Grace, works like an escalator.
However, since it is by no means clear that Ghalib- at least in his poetic practice- accepted this view, the problem remains of finding the right point to cut his meaning out of the continuum of its echoing associations. What makes the task poignant is the notion that Ghalib may have seen himself as mediating every word he wrote precisely as this 2 sided barzakh- both the grave's oblivion and its posited imaginal leavening power- except he was uniting the 2 notions without the assuarance that the Gravitational pull, so to speak, of the Awlia Saints would raise him up to a position where the result was not a bitter futility.

It appears quite suggestive to me that Brouwer hoped to repair the continuum by choice sequences- something produced by free choice rather than a mere algorithm- but is this the barzakh?- and perhaps we might say that the school of Prof. S.R Faruqi, exercising free choice rather than blindly following an ideology, are doing just that thus permitting the ordinary man access not just to Ghalib's melody but his meaning.

Is there a danger in Prof. Faruqi's method?
What meta-semantic commitments, if any, are involved in the Professor's literary praxis? At first glance we might say that meaning must be constrained by the historical facts as given and literary traditions as received. Thus, to take the example of 'Naqsh fariyaadi'- a reader such as myself might immediately jump to the conclusion that 'khagazi pairahan' refers to the Book of Job- which I imagine to be the earliest source of the image. In this case the entire meaning of the verse, not to mention its significance for Universal Culture is utterly changed.
Indeed, given that his Divan begins with this matla, our perception of Ghalib's entire ouevre might be altered.
But did Ghalib know the story of Job? The evidence weighed up by Faruqi & Pritchett suggests that for Ghalib this was a Persian idiom with no connection to the story of Job- who, in Islam, is a symbol for patience and forbearance rather than the utterer of the most passionate complaint against God in ancient literature.
But what if someone finds a line in some book Ghalib is known to have read which links the phrase khagazi pairahan to the story of Job? What if the diary of some Nineteenth Century Missionary is discovered which shows Ghalib had read a translation of the book?
But, once one starts on the path of counter-factuals where is one to end? Perhaps, Ghalib as a boy in Agra met a garrulous Jain grocer-a Banarsidas wannabe- who explains syadvad logic and the distinction between countable and uncountable and so on to the young Ghalib? Indeed, what can one actually rule out? Perhaps Ghalib really did correspond with Karl Marx!

A different approach, one compatible with Prof. Faruqi's commitment to close reading, would consist of taking up 'khagazi pairahan' as a symbol and to imaginatively enter into why it appealed both to the author of  the Book of Job and to Ghalib. In this case, though less can be predicated of Ghalib the man, the meaning of the poetry is enhanced. The trade off here is really between tendentious mythologizing about a hero and gaining a better appreciation of his acknowledged achievements.

In this context, I may mention that I have had the privilege to read 2 essays by Satyanarayan Hegde which focus precisely on the Borgesian task of tracing metaphorical images, such as the 'paper clad plaintiff', through the literatures of West and East. This approach,, requiring immense erudition, is one all can profit by but few pursue.

What is Prof. Faruqi's unique contribution to our appreciation of Ghalib?
The application of exacting intelligence, scholarship and professional integrity to the study of a professional poet who possessed precisely those qualities dispelled a rather foolish notion of Ghalib- or the poet in general- as being like a human juke-box, pour in some wine, present the image of some long eye'd one- and out comes a melody.
Guru Dutt's film, employing a simplified version of Sahir Ludhianvi's lyrics, was meant to satirize this situation. But, somehow the audience drew the reverse conclusion and even 20 years later little had changed. The tragic tale of Shiv Kumar Batalvi is still remembered here in London.
This was bad for poets, bad for literature, but a catastrophe for people's ability to think rationally, or indeed think at all. In an era of scarcity, itself the product of bad planning, the signifier had come to stand for the signified- advertisements for impossible objects had created their own cargo cult- mention of wine was a potent intoxication when potable water itself was in short supply.

The danger was that, precisely because of its earlier precision, Indian poetry was becoming degeneratively performative, self deafeningly dialogic, in obedience to some notion that Democracy demanded it, Socialism was predicated on it.
Perhaps, it was necessary for the country to suffer every cultural refinement, productive as it might be of social distinction, to be pitilessly erased. Perhaps, now lacking foreign masters, the Indians had to forget their own system of heremeneutic/poeisis and redact their languages  on Orwellian lines.
Here, Prof. Faruqi's erudition and cogency of thought helped reverse a calamitous situation. The close connection between his ideas and method of exposition and those sciences and industries based on mathematical logic have given his view of Ghalib a compelling interest to a new type of middle class which draws its income from Knowledge based industries.
However, whereas it may be that little will change in our picture of Ghalib's historicity and literary sources, there are new developments everyday in logic and the manner in which fundamental concepts are envisioned and applied.
In this sense, it is from mathematics perhaps-rather than Politics or Subaltern Studies or post-queer Colonial theory- that something like Ibn Arabi's iterative reading,- an Apoorvata in meaning reception- will become possible as a project for the fan of Ghalib. That is, of course, if courageous critics, like Prof. Faruqi, and selfless scholars, like Prof. Pritchett, continue to pave and illumine the way.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Wendy Doniger's 'the bed trick'

This is an easy read with an engagingly retro naughty-but-nice fan dance of literary and mythological references which, coyly stopping short of revealing what all the fuss is about, also prohibits- like the bed-trick itself- any sort of legitimate conception.
The great paradox of lust is that it cheats itself of its object precisely by its self-calcifying pursuit of it. Love, on the other hand, exists by an inter-change of identities. There is an old joke in the Rg Veda- the honeymoon couple are woken up by the clanging of the watch-man's alarm- thieves are abroad in the village. Quickly, the young couple rise and, in darkness, dress themselves. However, by accident, the bride puts on the groom's clothes and vice versa. Once they have emerged from the house, they see- by the light of the villagers' flambeaus- their own costume. The bride, thinking herself to be the groom, pushes herself forward in manly fashion crying out for sword and horse. The groom, glimpsing his flowery attire, thinking himself the bride, shrinks back with a fainting cry.
Actually, the villagers had arranged the whole thing as a prank.
The poetic idea here is that, in love, the two lovers loose their socially constructed identities, they exchange their very selves.
Prof. Doniger, however, would see this cute little Vedic jeu d' esprit in a very different- hilariously 1960's- way, mixing naive anthropology-as-magic with a crude Feminist gender essentialism uneasily co-existing with a recursive, Cybernetic, notion of Identity as a Social Construct.
This doesn't really get anyone anywhere.
But there will always be a market for books by Academics- at least, in fields not germane to our own proper interest- that flatter our intelligence while, for the duration of our reading, relieving us of the necessity to think- indeed, permitting us to forget that thought is necessary to life.
In Indian hermeneutics, apoorvata- novelty, something paradigm changing- is a necessary condition for meaning.
 It is here, not in point of spriteliness of style or irreverence of approach, that Prof. Doniger disappoints.
Or perhaps, I should say, runs true to form. Mircea Eliade, too, Gandhian Nazi, sham Scholar, sham Shaman and vaunted exegete of his own coprolalia- buggered by his own bedtrick, his successor might say- was quite unintentionally hilarious.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Reserved seats for Women

The argument for reserved seats, in the Indian context, is based on the doctrine of natural inferiority. Furthermore, natural superiority is held to always lead to the oppression and exploitation of the inferior.
The following groups claim natural inferiority
1) Muslims- that Hindus are naturally superior in Modern Education and Muslims would fall behind unless given reserved seats in Parliament and the Civil Service. No evidence for this exists.
2) 'Backward' Castes- Educationally backward castes are naturally inferior to 'forward' castes by definition. Once again no evidence for this exists.
3) Women- naturally inferior, despite recent successes in Crime and Hooliganism. No evidence what so ever.
4) Everybody else.

Society did impose an inferior status (nothing natural about it) upon certain groups. However, reservations for such groups should have a 'sunset clause' if for no other reason then to concentrate its beneficiaries' minds on tackling the underlying problem in a timely manner.

Are reservations a good idea? Absolutely. Is the doctrine of natural inferiority true? Sure.
The one is a necessary and sufficient condition for the other.

In the field of Indglish literature, we have the example of Indrani Aikath Gyaltsen, awarded glowing reviews by Paul Kafka on the basis of 'aesthetic affirmative action'.

I predict a further plummeting in the gender ratio.

The mayavadi nightmare of the British Raj

At first glance, nothing could seem more pragmatic and orderly than the British Raj in India. Yet, it seems to me, this great Empire, too, like its predecessors on Indian soil, came to be haunted by the fear that the world it had created, the panoply it had erected, was as but a bubble, an illusion, a vanity and that at any moment, for a reason no Western mind could grasp, the native population seized as it were by a Panic, a convulsion produced by a Great God whose very name was unknown to the Orientalist scholar, might simply forget the British, cease to see the railways and roads and courts and offices they had created and thus render British rule a nullity.
What then? Well, for a while, things might go on with a semblance of 'normalcy'. Perhaps the army would be called in from the cantonment to guard the civil lines. Morale might be kept up with polo matches. But, for how long? Sooner of later, the 'women and children' question would be mooted. Safer to evacuate them to the ports, surely? But. perhaps, the men had better accompany the women. A skeleton staff could be left behind. Except that word 'skeleton' somehow strikes the wrong note. Let no more be said about it.
Thus begins the great evacuation. The British have all to themselves- the roads they have built, the bridges they have constructed, even an occasional train on the tracks they have laid- in the distance can be seen great crowds of natives marching to some unknown purpose along routes long lost to the memory of man.
Ultimately the British have to evacuate because the Western mind can not live with what it can not understand, what would destroy it if understood.
The great Civilizations of the past, on Indian soil, had concluded that the Universe was an illusion, more empty than a dream. True, it was a world where hard work paid off, rationality paid off,  character building and integrity paid off- but since the fruit- be it wealth, or honor or sensual pleasure- was empty perhaps the tree, nay the forest!, too was unreal.
True, there was another tree, an upside down tree whose roots were in Heaven and whose leaves were the Vedas. But that tree, too, Lord Krishna says, must be cut down with the axe of non-attachment.
For the British, however, it was not the fruit which was unreal, but the entire rationalist project of understanding the East, of schooling it to emulate the West, which lacked roots in Indian soil.
 The Olympian, or Himalayan, heights from which the Viceroy ruled were as clouds that could, by a strong wind, be utterly swept away. Great Pan might again rule the people and of Pan's purposes nothing can be known save by the contagion of panic- which destroys all knowledge, all painstakingly garnered wisdom- everything wiped clean.
Churchill and Kipling and Saki, all of whom left India, never to return, while still young, could believe in the solidity and permanence of what the British had achieved. True, for Kipling, it was the Indian Gods who had grudgingly granted this permission. But it was a different story for older men- E.M Foster in Passage to India- or Viceroy Wavell telling Churchill that there was now nothing for it but a general evacuation- there were no 'ring-leaders' to be hunted down, no secret societies to be disrupted, India had simply become ungovernable.
Was the British Raj's mayavadi nightmare a nightmare and nothing more? Surely, they built better than they knew? Solid Nineteenth virtues characterize the administration of Dr. Manmohan Singh. In the year 2010, Parliament looks set to pass a bill granting 33% reservation of seats for Women. It seems the 'Oriental mind' has, indeed, changed.
But does no danger still lurk? We have gotten used to being patted down and having our briefcase X rayed getting on the Metro, entering Government offices, and- even more intrusive checks going to see 'My name is Khan' at the Cinema.
Jihadis and Naxals we know about. But is there something bigger, as yet nameless, out there against which even x rays and metal detectors are powerless?
Might everything, even now, be suddenly swept away?
Or has it already happened? And how would we come to know? Which channel would carry the news sandwiched between advertisements for Kaspersky internet security and the cute lass from the Madhya Pradesh tourist board?
The older mayavadi philosophy still pointed to a Reality that was not illusion- a Reality to be found in the forest, on the mountain peak, in the desert. But, British mayavaad points to no alternative buy evacuation, emigration, abandonment and oblivion.
Once again, the question arises- has it already happened? Is ours a virtual reality bubble whose magic irridescence is a manic protest against its own impermanence?
Sustainability was the mantra of the handloom clad eco-feminist of a decade ago- but that rhetoric proved unsustainable.
Reality, perhaps should be the new watchword- "Is it real? Can it be real? If so, how?"
Mayavaadi philosophy points to a Reality freer of contradictions than that within which effort yields futility- British mayaavad, on the other hand, offers no such consolation.
This Panic then we must abide, that rational organization building its paths into the darkness, prods into fretful wakefulness a God whose nature is nightmare.