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By Mehr Afshan Farooqi

This is a marvellous verse, opaque and ambiguous, loaded with Persian izafat [genitive]. One can speculate that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib ‘rejected’ it for these reasons. Yet, this is among the handful of verses from the so-called rejected corpus that has made it into the mainstream.


What struck me when I read it is the unique idea of “being the bulbul of a garden that has not been created or is yet to be created.” Is Ghalib referring to audiences or readers that will appreciate his passionate, but abstract song? Is he envisioning a future garden where he will be the luminary bulbul whose captivating song will melt hearts? If so, why remove this verse from those published and shared with a wider audience? In fact, he took out the entire ghazal to which this verse belongs.

The key phrase in this verse is ‘gulshan-i-na afridah’ or uncreated garden which, in Sufic-Islamic terminology, is God’s realm. God’s manifestations bring the uncreated into creation; nonexistence into existence. Ghalib plays with being and non-being in a famous, oft-quoted verse: “Na tha kuchh to khuda tha, kuchh na hota to khuda hota/ Duboya mujh ko hone ne, na hota main to kya hota”

[God was before there was nothing; if there was nothing God would still be/ My being was my undoing, if I hadn’t been what would it matter?]

My purpose in beginning this column with the gulshan-i-na afridah is to show the extent to which Ghalib’s imagination soared and also bring attention to the gems among the rejected verses that have been forgotten because Ghalib excluded them from his Urdu Divan. One of my favourites is the opening verse from the ghazal that has at least three more verses loaded with possibilities of meaning, but was excluded: “Vahshat kahan ke be khudi insha kare koi/ Hasti ko lafz-i-ma’ni anqa kare koi”
[There isn’t enough madness in me to enter upon the state of senselessness/ And thus produce the word-signifier for the abstract idea of anqa]

Anqa is an imaginary bird or animal that does not exist, but is perceived as ubiquitous — the being that is but which doesn’t exist; for English speakers it means the phoenix.

The verse is both complicated and difficult and seems meaningless unless one understands the second line properly. The key phrase is lafz-i-ma’ni anqa, that is the word which stands for, or is the verbal embodiment of a meaning which is only the idea of a nonexistent being — a being which is but which is not. The anqa is such a being. Everyone believes that there’s a thing, bird or beast called anqa but everyone knows that it doesn’t exist. So, there is an idea that equals meaning in need of a word. And the word is anqa.

Ghalib is delivering in a nutshell two theories of meaning, or of existence. The most common theory is that each word denotes a thing. When you say the word ‘apple’ you are actually naming a thing which you regard as a fruit and which you eat. In other words, the word ‘apple’ and the thing ‘apple’ are one and the same.

The other and more sophisticated theory, known since Plato and then imparted by the Arabs, is that a word doesn’t denote a thing. A word denotes only the idea of a particular thing. We have an idea of a fruit which has certain qualities and does not have certain other qualities. We give the name ‘apple’ to the idea. In Arabic, the name of the fruit is tuffah; Iranis call it seb; Sanskrit speakers call it sev; the French call it pomme. And so on. None of these words are actually an apple: they represent the idea of an apple. These are words which mean or signify ‘apple.’

If we give hasti or existence a name, we are limiting it. Ghalib is, of course, going beyond that. He suggests that ‘existence’ is the word whose meaning, or idea, is anqa. The anqa, as I have glossed above, is something non-existent. If hasti equals anqa, that means existence is equal to non-existence. One does have to have sufficient madness to reach a state of travelling out of and away from one’s own self when existence becomes non-existence. This is an extremely erudite theme, expressed in near perfect language.

The second verse is more perplexing: “Jo kuchh hai

mahv-i-shokhi-i-abru-i-yar hai/ Ankhon ko rakh ke taaq pe dekha kare koi”

[All that exists is lost in observing the beauty of the beloved’s arched eyebrows/ One must put the eyes in a niche and go on gazing]

The niche was always designed like an arch, complete with a point joining the two half-arches. In pre-modern times, it was considered a mark of special beauty if the eyebrows joined together, making a continuous arch. The eyebrow is often a simile for a niche, and since candles or lamps were often placed in niches, the eye is ipso facto a lamp placed in the niche.

Mahv means ‘lost’, ‘absorbed’, ‘erased’. It can also mean the state where something is contained inside something. Thus, the phrase jo kuchh assumes another dimension:

whatever there is, is subsumed in the saucy beauty of the arched eyebrows. There is nothing outside that beauty. So should it be possible to put one’s eyes in a niche and imagine the arch shape of the niche to be the eyebrows of the beloved? This is a very subtle idea and extremely interesting. But in any case, the poet should have specified about the eyes: whose eyes are being talked about? This vagueness leaves a sense of dissatisfaction, though the second misra [verse] is extremely dramatic, with an arresting image.

Taaq par rakhna literally means to put something in a niche; metaphorically, it means putting something out of one’s mind. This verse is full of possibilities of meaning. The first line makes a big claim: all that exists is smitten by the beloved’s arched eyebrows. The second line suggests that one should therefore put their eyes in a niche (taaq) and then gaze at them. This may mean several things: that removing the eyes would blind the lover and then he could focus with his mind’s eye alone; or putting eyes in a niche would create something like the eye-eyebrow configuration of the beloved. Lastly, if all that exists is lost in contemplating the beloved’s eyebrows, why bother about it at all? Try forgetting about it. There is a beautiful play between eye, eyebrows and niche.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia