Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: The First Muslim - By Lesley Hazleton

The First Muslim - By Lesley Hazleton
"The fibers of  our secular hearts are bent and bowed beneath unaccustomed tempest."- Virginia Woolf- English Prose.

Ms. Woolf wrote the above sentence in some other context. I find it truer today than any day earlier. The fanatic fundamentalism is on rise, not in India, rather world-wide. Last week, we saw shooting in Orlando, which killed fifty people. The shooter, claimed allegiance to ISIS and asserted that he committed the act of terror as his service to Islam. In today's time, it is very difficult to be objective and to even mention the word without being ready to face a barrage of Bigot!, Islamophobe! and such, if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, you can, well, look forward to a bunch of gun-yielding crazy guys breaking into your place, hacking you to death. 

It is extremely courageous for Lesley Hazleton to chose to write about Muhammad, his life and his journey to the launch of the largest religion on the planet, in such times. The subject is intimidating, and Ms. Hazleton adroitly walks through the landscape full of landmines. She looks at the prophet with an objective lens, without ever being insulting or dishonestly respectful to the Muhammad. She analyzes his subject with the honesty of a psychologist. 

I am a secular with rightist bend of mind. I know it is an odd statement to make, but then, we find Liberals with leftist bend crowding the public discourse. I trust, this classification is as real. We have leftists, who are self-proclaimed atheists (like the JNU vice-president) sending notes on the feminism of Muhammad, then it would be absurd to negate my own Hindu leanings. It doesn't affect my objectivity or my secular sensitivity, so I would believe. In this regard, I can claim to be slightly better, more liberal than many of my Muslim friends who go silent on hacking of Hindu kids in Kerala or elsewhere and who would believe it is the question of human freedom to eat animals, contrary to religious faith of their neighbors, while writing eloquent essays on merits of vegetarianism on World Earth Day. They are the intellectuals and they guide and mold the thoughts of the world. The lesser mortals set their moral compass based on their words and when they say it is perfectly alright to sacrifice a goat and enjoy the beef as it is a sign of religious and intellectual freedom even if your next door neighbor is offended, the world believes them. They would suddenly go silent when Hari Kanzru was asked to be debarred from speaking at Jaipur Literature Fest for reviewing the book and Salman Rushdie banned from Jaipur and Hari and his writer friends be asked to leave Jaipur for reading the excerpts of The Satanic Verses.

They would often link world events of terror to the demolition of an outdated mosque in India, people believe them. They create outrage and then legitimize the violence arising out of it, while practicing Yoga to calm their nerves. They will tell us that Islam doesn't subscribe to violence and quote some of Muhammad's revelations from Quran. But then, the terrorists would also quote from the same holy book. A non-Muslim would stand confounded. That the history of Islam, the key articles of faith like Ka`aba are wrapped in mystery, does not help. 

This book unwraps those mysteries, untangles the web, with sincerity, respect and honesty. The First Muslim begins with the revelations  to middle-aged Muhammad on Mount Hira. There is a poetic expression to the principles of unity, equality and most significantly monotheism which comes about with the first revelation. The book delves into the ancestry, understanding the political and religious surroundings in which the founder of the newest religion tool shape. Muhammad belongs to the tribe of Quraysh, one out of the four families of Quaraysh, the Hashims, which controlled the polity and economy of Mecca. His grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, discovered  Zam-Zam, the only source of sweet water in Mecca, a priced property in the desert, and controlled access to it, for all the visitors and inhabitants. It wasn't surprising that his lone ownership was challenged by other Quraysh tribes and was answered with a vow by Abd al-Muttalib to sacrifice one of his ten sons. 

The sacrifice after much dithering and debate, fell on Abdullah, who was to sire Muhammad. Mecca at that time was polytheist state, Al-lah being the Higher God and His three daughters, being principle deities of the Quraysh. As Abdullah grew up and the time of sacrifice arrived, Abd al-Muttalib was advised to spare his son's life in return of blood money (sacrifice of 100 camels). Abdullah was married quickly and Muhammad was conceived. However, as fate would have it, Abdullah would soon die in Medina, and Muhammad would be doomed to a life of an orphan. Amina, his mother, hires Halima, a Beduin (vagabond) as his wet-nurse. This makes Muhammad, much open in his outlook, almost a Beduin in a highly fractured, orthodox society. It was only apt that he was troubled by the inequality among people in his society. 

Muhammad grew up. In the meantime, Ka`aba formed the center and backbone of the economy of desert state. Traders would the make pilgrims once back from trading expeditions, chanting labbayka allah-umma labbayka (here I am, O God of all people, here I am). The success of any religious cult, or faith lies in its accommodation of the conventional past. It needs to fit in, even with all the revolution it promises to bring in. The key position on which popular faith hinges must be maintained. This we see even today in many cult-gurus today. They may declare themselves as Gods, but they never negate the traditional Gods. That would be counter-productive. Not initially at least. Thus, while Muhammad brings in a new way of spirituality, he still worships the Ka`aba and draws his legitimacy from the hold. In fact, the initial revolution begins softly, calmly, in all humility as a reform of the sort. 

Raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, he, twenty-five year young man, seeks to marry his cousin, Fakhita- Abu Talib's daughter. Promptly refused, Muhammad goes on to marry, Khadija, his first wife and longest partner, who was around forty at the time of marriage. As fate would have it, in 605, Kaa`ba was destroyed in flash floods. It was rebuilt and a major crisis came up on who would do the honor of placing the Onyx back in its place of worship. Muhammad, coincidentally was the first man to enter the precinct and became the arbiter. He suggested that the stone be carried on a cloak and carried from each corner by each of the Quraysh family. They brought it to the place and eventually, Muhammad, picks the Onyx and places it for worship. Families did not mind it much, since Muhammad then was neutral and largely, inconsequential in political scheme of things. 

The first revelation came in lucid poetic format to Muhammad. He says it came from Gabriel. (I follow Thomas Paine in this matter. A revelation is revelation to the man to whom it is revealed, to any other person it is hearsay). Muhammad spent following days fearful and reeling in self-doubt. But Khadija believed in him, and said, "I hope that you may be the prophet of this people." Muhammad however, kept on claiming that he was- just a messenger, - just one of the people. He comes out with new, fresh, unconventional ideas, but he is totally non-confrontational. He is one of the people, he doesn't argue with those who do not agree with him. He invites his Hashim kinsmen to dinner, to share his verses (Aya) of revelations, including uncle, Abu-Talib and his cousin, Abu-Lahab. And then he recites his revelations, and Abu-Lahab walked out in fury. He asks them who all will join him, in his new journey. All held back except, Ali, the adolescent son of Abu-Talib. It makes Abu-Talib a subject of ridicule as the orphan, Muhammad, turns him into his own son, Ali's disciple. Still Muhammad remain non-confrontational. He does not propose a new God, he does not propose himself as a God. He continues asserting his allegiance to Al-lah, and maintains himself to be one of the other people. 

He takes only a thin diversion, a differentiation for his new religion. He declares the daughters of Al-lah, who were earlier worshiped as Goddesses, Uzza, Lat and Manat, as no longer divine, not worthy of worship. He brings in mono-theism, but to an older God. Abu-Talib refuses to denounce them stating that he cannot refute the way of his fathers. There the fault-lines appear. Denouncing the daughters of Al-lah as tribal gods, is denouncing the way of fathers,  continuing allegiance to Al-lah ( derived from Mesopotamian God El). It has no confrontation with any one, even Christianity.  Says Quran,"We believe in God and in that which has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaa , Jacob and the tribes of Israel; to Moses and Jesus and other prophets." There is no confrontation, no slaves, no free men, no men, no women in front of One God. Islam is the path to equality to a class-stricken Meccan society. And since there is no confrontation, easier to join in. It is the revelations from this period which is cited by liberal scholars of the world as the peaceful face of Islam. It comes from a period when it was weaker and still struggling to find its roots, in the face of opposition. 

Muhammad was still a small trouble to the Meccans of the time- a nobody followed by nobodies, like mushrooming cult ashrams in India. But then Abu Bakr, a Nobleman converts to Islam. Head of Makhzum clan reaches Abu Talib, asking Muhammad to be exiled. On his refusal, entire Hashim clan is boycotted. Hardships increased on those subscribing to Muhammad's ideas, Abu Bakr nearly saved an Ethiopian slave, Bilal who becomes the first Muezzin. Still his advise was of non-confrontation. "Turn away from them and wait. Ignore them; you are not to blame. Be tolerant and command what is right; pay no attention to the foolish." -is Mohammad's advise to his follower. He even accepts the three daughters of Al-lah, when he says- these are three great exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed. But then he has second revelation. He disowns the first one as having come through Satan, (thus Satanic Verses), and goes back to his initial position. We cannot know how muc of it was Gabriel and how much was the politics of keeping the now growing disciples happy. Eventually he is exiled and takes sanctuary in Medina. Positions are hardened though still non-confrontational- I will never server what you serve and you will never serve, what I serve. To you your religion, and to me mine. 

Things change in Medina. Medina (City of Prophet) at that time known as Yathrib in 621 AD was a place of incessant internal strife. When Muhammad was called into the city as a neutral arbiter between the tribes of Aws and Khazraj, he negotiates settlement for 200 of his exiled supporters. This is a marked change, he does not seek protection of a tribe, but is designating his tribe as independent. He gets his own tribe settled their, with allegiance to Islam, not to their forefathers. It is a new cult and new faith. Muhammad is no longer just a messenger, he is the head of a tribe- religio-political head. 

From here, the poetic and spiritual journey of romanticism turns to shrewd politics. This is the part after which extremists take over and the liberals Muslims cede the ground. It begins with Nakhla raids. It happened during the three holy months when fighting is prohibited (by laws of the forefather, which Muhammad, never fully negated). A raid by the follower of his newly established cult/tribe/faith ended up in the killing of Meccans. Murmurs of the discontent rose regarding the inconsistency between newly-found faith which said - "Fight in the way of God those who fight you, but do not begin hostilities, for God does not like the aggressors." and which sent out the followers to attack the caravans of the Meccan Merchants. Then came Muhammad's possibly first political revelation- "permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged...those who have been driven out from their houses because they said our God is our god." The author brilliantly puts it here when she writes- Offense was now sanctioned in the name of ex post factor defense. This was to be the narrative of extremists in the times to come. 

Battle of Badr was another such raid on Meccan caravan. This was serious, it was led by Muhammad, now as a Military commander, in addition to a spiritual and political one. He himself led an army of 300 followers to attack the caravan for two days. They successfully raided the caravan, defeated the Meccan contingent led by Abu-Jahl, Muhammad's most bitter critic and as Lesley would write, "The natural order of their world had been upended."

With strengthening of his military and political position, his relation to Jewish tribes was set to change. From his initial position where he advised his followers not to argue with Jews, except fairly and politely he kept on believing the two religions to have come from one source of monotheistic belief- Ibrahim. He was confounded with Jewish not joining Islam, while Jews clearly were happy with Jesus as the last prophet. The affair of Quaynuqa gave him an opportunity to demonstrate that he was losing patience. As the story goes, an Islamic follower quarreled with Jewish man of Quaynuqa tribe on the pretext of protecting the modesty of a Beduin woman. Jewish were original inhabitants of Mecca, and were close to the biggest tribe of Khazraj, and their leader, Abdullah ibn-Ubayy. Muhammad accused Qunuqua of disloyalty and ordered his followers to surround their villages. He was no longer a mere messenger, just one of the common man; he was a man not to be wronged. The seize ended up with the exile of the Jewish tribe. This was the first exile of non-believers, another would come soon. 

Muhammad second fight with Meccans, this time led by Aby Sufyan of Umayyad clan ended in loss for the Muslims. ibn-Ubayy and his force had abandoned Muhammad right before the battle. Muhammad called them munafigun or hypocrites- those he held beck. Absolutism was in the play. You are either with me or not. Their was no room for doubt or disagreement. Islam dug deeper than geographical loyalties. One of the Medinan confederate was asked to deliver the message of exile to Nadir, the second Jewish tribe to be exiled by Muhammad, and when questioned why, his response was- "Hearts have changed, and Islam has wiped out the old alliances.

Of all the claims of feminist equality, they ended up quickly becoming tools of polity, assets to be acquired and traded. Within three years of losing Khadija, Muhammad had three wives, and six more to come.  Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, first follower, was the youngest. As per her own account, she was betrothed at the age of 6 and marriage consummated at the age of 9. He was quite enamored  by her. And one of the oft-quoted infamous revelation, ironically was aimed to protect her. Once left behind in an expedition, she came back to Medina, rescued by a Medinan soldier, Safwan. Her necklace, the one given by Muhammad as wedding gift was lost and aspersions were cast. A revelation came at rescue, which meant a woman's crime of adultery cannot be established, unless four witnesses were to be produced. While this vindicated Aisha, it was later cited as necessary condition to prove grave crimes on the women. 

His marriages became a maze and it was a landmine to walk through them without the fear of offending someone or other. Lesley covers them sensitively and it also shows how, by this time, Muhammad was getting revelations, not in a broader sense directed at humanity, but to alleviate the complications in his own life. For instance, when Zayd, Muhammad's adopted son found him affected by his wife, Zaynab's beauty, he divorced her so Muhammad could marry her. Muhammad married and justified with revelation where he said the ban of father-in-law marrying daughter-in-law only applied to birth sons (the wives of your sons who sprang from your loins). Polygamy was initially granted to leaders only. It was also with means of discouragement stating, "you will never be able to deal equitably between many wives, so if you fear you cannot treat them equally, marry only the one."

We thus find that the spiritual messages that began, towards the end of Muhammad's life became getting twisted, political and self-serving. This best explains the contradictions that we hear when we listen to people talking about Islam. The same Gabriel who was passing on a message of co-existence when they were mocked and harassed in Mecca, now gave instruction to Muhammad with newly gained power, "To strike terror in the hearts of Qureyz." Suddenly the revelation was not spiritual, not even poetic. It was blunt, it was military, it was violent. I would suggest referring Thomas Paine again here. However, as the massacre approached, Aws (local tribe of Medina) approached Muhammad. He asked militant Saad Ibn-Muaad to decide in his stead, who was on his death bed. Under the pretext of honoring the dying words, massacre was ordered. Qureyz, the last Jewish tribe of Medina was massacred, with number varying between 400 to 900. It was not a battle. It was beheading. The rule of Islam was absolute in Medina where it had entered as migrant under exile. 629, Muhammad with his 2000 followers went on Pilgrimage to Mecca, and on January 11, 630 AD, Muhammad ruled Mecca. As Leskey writes, "for all the Quran's insistence that he was just a man, obedience to him was sworn in the same breath as obedience to God."  A new religion had breathed on the planet, which began with challenging the dogmas, supporting free thought, will end up opposing all that it represented at the birth.

It is a great book and is seriously recommended reading. Being late in coming than other religious figures and prophets, Muhammad had his life well documented. His life is an example of how a message that begins with political correctness quickly converts into a dangerously dogma driven life. This is also an example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely and how quickly the one who began with challenging orthodoxy and conventions, ended up founding the most orthodox and conventional religion we have, where a mere shred of doubt, a question, a deviant idea, is responded to most violently.  It also explains the concept of global Islam which at times supersedes regional/political/national identities (refer response by the Islamic messenger to Nadir above, their earlier compatriot and confederate). Pity that there are so many criticizing the religion, without knowing about it, and so many defending it, again, without knowing about it. No truth is beyond evaluation, not fact above scrutiny, nothing unchallenged. Please also remember, people are beyond religion. Humanity is the larger set we belong to, religion is but a sub-set. Read with rational minds, and without misgivings.  

Amazon Link for The First Muslim

(Lesley draws heavily from Ibn-Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah and Al-Tabari's Tarikh al-Rusul wa-al-Muluk)

My verdict: It is tiring and intimidating to review a book like that, but in search of knowledge, nothing should be out of bounds. Be brave and read the book.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ghalib - On Ephemeral Nature of Life


आह को चाहिए एक उम्र असर होने तक
कौन जीता है तेरी ज़ुल्फ़ के सर होने तक

दाम-ए-हर मौज में है हल्का-ए-सद काम-ए-निहंग
देखें क्या गुज़रे है क़तरे पे गुहर होने तक 

(दाम ए हर मौज- Maze of waves;  हल्का-ए-सद काम-ए-निहंग- Gaping mouths of Crocodiles; क़तरे- Droplet; गुहर- Pearl)

आशिक़ी सब्र तलब और तमन्ना बेताब
दिल का क्या रंग करून, खून ए जिगर होने तक

हमने माना के तग़ाफ़ुल न करोगे लेकिन
खाक़ हो जाएंगे हम तुमको ख़बर होने तक (तग़ाफ़ुल: ignore)

परतव-ए-खुर से है शबनम को फ़ना की तालीम
मैं भी हूँ एक इनायत की नज़र होने तक
(परतव-ए-खुर- The light of the Sun, तालीम- education. इनायत- Kindness, benefactor's glance)

यक नज़र बेश नहीं फुर्सत ए हस्ती ग़ाफ़िल
गर्मिये बज़्म है एक रक़्स-ए-शरर होने तक
(यक नज़र बेश - Not more than a moment, फुर्सत ए हस्ती- Spare time in life ग़ाफ़िल- ignorant, careless, गर्मिये बज़्म- Charm in life रक़्स-ए-शरर- A dancing spark)

ग़म ए हस्ती का 'असद' किस से हो जुज़ मर्ग इलाज़
शमा हर रंग में जलती है सहर होने तक.
(जुज़- Except for मर्ग- Death)

My translation:

A wail of desire, will need a lifetime to become something worthwhile,
Who will survive the spells of indifference till your love eventually smiles?

A sea of gaping alligators await, expectantly among the maze of sea waves
We will see what fate the droplet seeking to transform into a pearl, braves.

My love wants me to be patient, my passion is impatient, refuses waiting
Don't know which way my heart to be, till eventually it stops beating.

I do know you can't ignore the news of my demise,
alas, it will be too late by then and in ashes, I would rise.

In the scorching light of the sun, is dying lesson for the dew-drops
My spirit, similarly lives only till your wandering eyes on me as a blessing stops 

Not more than a careless moment is there in the interval of the lifetime,
It takes not more than a dancing spark to put an end to the life sublime. 

The tragedy of life has no solution till death comes our way
Like a candle of the night, we burn, until the arrival of the day. 


Ghalib is master of Ghazals, but what makes him a master-thinker is the fact that his writings rise above the standard definitions of a Ghazal (Verses of communication between lovers). He delves into the intricacies of the spiritual queries, and no one can dispute him when he writes about himself that had he not been taken to drinking, he would have been considered a philosopher and a sage. 

Couplet #1

Every sigh of despair, every wail of desire, needs whole lifetime to come real. In fact, turning it on its head, every desire, every wish, every emotion, goes along with us through our life. It is something of Richard Bach's contention couple of century later when he contends,  "This is a test to see if your mission in life is complete. If you are still alive, it isn't." in his book The Adventures of A Reluctant Messiah". Ghalib says the same thing here. You cannot rest and do nothing at any point. Every ambition of yours, every relationship needs constant work, which will go with you for all your life. To presume that you will some point in your relation, reach the end of it, is misplaced. You won't be alive till the time the love's hard work is finished. 

Couplet #2

This is one less known couplet of Ghalib, which draws from the belief that the pearls are formed out of dewdrop falling into the oyster on the moonlit night. This is a masterpiece of imagery. He says that the dewdrops fall onto the ocean and the maze of the waves on the sea is filled with gaping, hungry mouths of alligators. Who knows what the droplet will have to go through before it becomes a pearl? Love needs complete submission, try not to guide the ways of love, for you cannot. Surrender to the love, be love. One is as helpless as a falling droplet, and beneath you would be gaping crocodiles but that is the way of transformation from a droplet to a pearl. Another interpretation is that all the glory and success will be the outcome of total surrender to a dream, an idea, an ambition. We only look at the outcome, shining, bright in its glory, little do we know the moments of excruciating self-doubt and danger of perishing without a trace a droplet goes through before it becomes a pearl.

Couplet #4

This one is more popular of all the couplets here. It refers to the dilemma every lover is faced with. Here the object of love could be another person, an idea, a dream or a hope. Love, is subtle, patient and unhurried, but passion at the same time, is impatient, and wants to achieve, conquer and own. Both are so intermingled that it is an eternal dilemma as to which one to follow. All the while one knows that in the end only certainty it the heart that is left bleeding. Ghalib points to the futility of defeated wisdom which we at times use as crutches to bear the pain and sadness of life, to be patient, the set the one you love free kind of thought. On the other side of the spectrum is the virulent, audacious idea of conquering the love. Both, says Ghalib will end in the inevitable, loss of self and bleeding of heart. Saddening, but true. Every love will mean losing a little bit of your self. Not a bad bargain, but a sad truth, nevertheless. 

Couplet #5

This is another more popular couplet. Here the poet speaks of his beloved (it may  be taken as God), that I do know you cannot ignore the news of my death (no matter how you pretend indifference). But I will be already turned into charred ashes by the time you get to hear about me. The moment of love is now. You will lament my demise, but by then I'd be gone. It will be too late by then. Do not postpone love, thus Ghalib admonishes the beloved.

Couplet #6

"The world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.They have their exits and entrances." said Shakespeare.  This is one of the more philosophical couplet. The world is transitory. We are merely passing through it. And Ghalib says, every morning, this is the eternal lesson which the rays of Sun, impart to the dew-drop. But then as Ghalib often tends to be, he brings in another message in, which turns the mystical couplet into a multi-dimensional one. In the second line he says, I exist only till the time I am blessed with one benevolent glance. In the traditional sense of a love verse, one can say that the poet, in love, awaits the look of his beloved, which is the purpose of his life and his life ends with one look of love. But if you considered the layered truth in Ghalib's verses and his life, you will find he could have meant, that just as the beauty of dewdrop ends with one benevolent view of the Sun, an artist's vigor and liveliness of art withers and dies, once the power that may be loot at him with benevolence. An artist thrives on opposition, and lack of love. Artists lament not being understood and this sad indifference of the masses, but out of this pain and solitude the best of art emerges. The first glance of benevolence from the authority, the touch of luxury marks the end of creative life. That is the lesson. 

Couplet #7

One moment of careless ignorance in life is not possible, we say. And we keep on waiting for such a moment to arrive, until life is there no more. Life, which on the other hand doesn't play a fair hand, doesn't give us enough time, slips away slowly, while we keep on waiting for that one moment. And then suddenly, a swift dance of a speck of light, life is gone. 

Couplet #8

This search for a life without struggle and strife and pain is so futile. It is absolutely impossible. We go back to the Richard Bach's point. The life is constant learning, constant struggle, constant movement. It never ends. It is not meant to end before death. How can one find, says Asad (Ghalib), how can find a cure to the pain of life but in death. Even a candle lit at night, burns through the night, whatever might come its way. He doesn't hide away from the grief, the sadness, the pain which is a part of a sensitive life. He almost like Nietzsche's Zarathustra says, "Was that life? Well then, Once more." 

PS: These are my translations and interpretations. Will be happy to make amends if pointed out. The object is to share the wisdom of great poet, beyond the cursory. A brief Sketch of Ghalib by clicking here. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My Take on HRW Report

Human Rights Watch has published a scathing report titled "India: Stop Treating Critics As Criminals" (Click to read) on the the ways, it posits India handles dissent. When I objected to it on Twitter, Ms. Meenakshi Ganguly from HRW told me that this refers to the colonial laws and not to the current political dispensation and also is not particular about India but such reports are prepared for other countries (particularly colonial countries as she would say). I asked her that by the definition of colonial it would also include US and Pakistan and asked her links to report on these two countries, which is awaited. 

For some reason, there has been a tendency to broad-brush India as such of late. I saw particularly scathing, and largely unsubstantiated articles in newspapers like Guardian when Indian PM Narendra Modi was to travel to the UK. They would innocently appear when Modi was to interact with the west in International papers, and when there was an election in Indian media. Modi was asked in London about 2002 riots, which sad though it was, looking at deaths on either side of the divide unlike 1984, wasn't blatantly state supported. Still, what made the question to the visiting head of nation conspiratorial was the fact that a fortnight prior to Modi's visit, Chinese premier had visited UK and no one asked any question on human rights to him. It is just coincidental that Modi is to travel to US and address the US Congress soon (7th of June, if I am not wrong). 

I try to look at the article purely on merit, which I intend to do as a common Indian. Journalists who have a hegemony over the space of mass communication, have conceded now that news is subjective and are generally garrulous with their customer, the reader or news watchers, when objective reports are sought, and subjective interpretation is asked to be justified. 

The article begins with a generalized statement "The Indian authorities routinely use vaguely worded, overly broad laws as political tool to silence and harass critics." The Article quotes, don't smile with disdain, its own report. This is one interesting trend I observe in articles being put out in public domain. Quoting yourself as a proof of authenticity of your position. I have read one Sunday editorial by eminent historian, Ramchandra Guha, where he substantiated his position by quoting a paragraph from a book. Written by Ramchandra Guha. I don't know how many have read Nietzsche, but one gets a feeling he somehow saw intellectuals of today when he wrote, When they give themselves out as wise, then do their petty sayings and truths chill me: in their wisdom there is often an odour as if it came from the swamp; and verily, I have even heard the frog croak in it!

Coming back to this article, the premise if built at the beginning of the article. It does not deduce, it posits in the beginning and builds up to it. Ms. Meenakshi Ganguly writes then "India's abusive laws are the hallmark of repressive society, not a vibrant democracy." Thus she makes another assertion. India is not a vibrant democracy. It is somehow of small minds, with lesser intellect who contends that India is a vibrant democracy. I wonder, if she has seen a group of intellectuals and opposition parties shouting at the top of their lungs calling names to democratically elected head of state names and attributing shameful motives to appointment of ministers on national television in Indian channels. The laws we have truly are overly broad, unlike the concise, scathing provisions of Patriot Act of the US. US Patriot act happily covers terror attacks on mass transport (like Mumbai Local). It is hard to imagine an overgrown child of a film actor, settled for holding weapons to bring mass destruction in Mumbai, walking out and even being invited to an even of intellectual deliberation in US as he was in India. Probably such laws allow the US, the land of the free, where John Dayals of the country to complaining there own country, to details people endlessly and has resulted in highest number of the prisoners in the world. But then Patriot Act is Anti-terrorism act, equivalence to which was in POTA, which was repealed in India.

Let us look at Sedition act and treason for now. A quick search on Google tells us, as per historical data, the highest number of people charged under treason was from the US, around eleven with India having one person convicted for treason Ayyub Thakur. The article strangely also cites the case of Supreme Court upholding the charges of defamation law as a hindrance to Freedom of Expression. I beg to differ there. I would rather say this is actually supportive of the person wrongly charged of being anti-national. Although wrongly will be the key here. The article quotes the case of Kanhaiya Kumar, mentioning that the government acted on complaints of rival student faction. I do not know if such factual error could be on account of subjective or objective reporting of news. It ignores the fact that action against Kanhaiya was initiated on formal police compliant by a Member of Parliament. 

The article subsequently laments that the Home minister of the country warned that those who challenged India's sovereignty and integrity will not be tolerated.  I am not sure if the human rights body wanted the Home minister of a nation to make statement to the contrary, something like those who challenge the sovereignty and integrity of the nation shall be rewarded. The purpose of the state is to create a collective concept which should be able to defend the weakest who cannot defend themselves. A state which cannot defend itself cannot do its job. Citizens need the state to assure them that the state which collect taxes and obeisance from them is capable of providing not only food and basic necessity of life, but also security and a stable framework. A state which cannot guard its own sovereignty and is too willing to define and re-define its existence to satisfy a handful of people is not very assuring and is a ready ground for civil strife. In the situation of Civil Strife, I do not know which side Human Rights watch would stand. 

She writes that the Supreme court overturned the decision to hold those charged with treason in prison and interim bail was granted. The way the matter was handled and interim decision was given actually stands testimony to a free state, not a repressive one. She misses to see that Judiciary which bailed out Kanhaiya and comrades was a wing of state, not a body external to democracy of India. The fact that not only Judiciary, rather a whole spectrum of people from media and thinking elite came forward to defend Kanhaiya and Leftist comrades, who called for breaking the nation with the power of gun (okay, two of the videos were doctored, four weren't as per government forensic lab), without any clampdown of the state evidences that the gloomy picture painted in the beginning of the article is incorrect. Scores of pages were written, unsparing editorials flooded the newspapers. The truth is that the outrage on leftist, arsonist students getting beaten up without any serious injury was more than the horrifying murder of poor young man in Kerala. The government of the day is unabashedly right, but still could not move the media to move the opinion for the killed boy in kerala also proves that the demonic stature that the article tends to put the Indian government into and Indian people into, is grossly incorrect, if not devious. 

I respect her right to see India the way she looks at it. What is disturbing is the article in which she quotes her own study, will be quoted by vested interests. Those are the political parties who will gleefully accept this broad-brushing of India, their own nation as a hostile nation, without detailing and substantiation, because they look the nation equated with the government in power and take glee in the national pride going down. The article ends with simplistic solutions.

- Repeal or amend laws that criminalize peaceful expressions. - There are no such laws. Most laws come into force when public security and peace is impacted. Calling people to war against nation is not peaceful expression, calling for vulcanization of India is not peaceful expression. To my mind, no law exists in India preventing freedom of expression. If your view is not to respect the law of the land, you can't be left free to express it. It is juvenile approach. You can't indulge in shoplifting since you hate capitalist who runs the showroom and call it your freedom of expression.

- Withdraw investigation against those facing persecution for right to freedom of expression. -  Since there is no such law, I suppose there is no such legal action. Unless we are talking about a man who is rotting in the jail in UP for expressing his view, something similar to what media anchor called 'alternative reading'. I am sure HRW is not talking about that man, also not about the people in prison on Malegaon attack without chargesheets.

- Train the police- Police reform is very important and on this one point I totally agree. This will take away a big grudge from elite people who have spent their youth well protected in rich environments of metro cities, exploiting the state and use this leverage to use the young people are cannon fodder.

Here is my banal response to a banal article. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Brief Sketch of Ghalib- Greatest Urdu Poet of All Times

I am not a history scholar, not even an Urdu scholar. I have been running this blog writing on all things which come to my mind. Couple of months back, it occurred to me that while in a world of Whatsapp and Twitter, Urdu poetry has suddenly become popular, it still suffers with little attention. The tragedy of any language is to link it to a religious faith and elevate it to such a level, where it becomes obsolete. Every language is like a lovely butterfly, which needs to play, dance, float and fly in an open garden. Once it gets appropriated by elite, it loses its gait, its charm and eventually its life. This happened to Sanskrit, to Persian and now Urdu faces the same challenge. 

With this in my mind, I created a fresh page on my blog, dedicated to the work of greatest poet of Urdu, Ghalib (Ghalib himself disagreed when he wrote, referring to another stalwart of his times, Meer

रेख़ते के तुम्हीं नहीं हो उस्ताद ग़ालिब 
कहते हैं अगले ज़माने में कोई मीर भी था। 

You are not the only master of poetry Ghalib,
Some say there was much better Meer, in lost days.)

and try my humble attempts at translating and interpreting it. One can say, it is too audacious to be taken seriously; but then, that is the pleasure of leisure writing. I couldn't care much. Two posts went in. Strange reverts came, especially from overseas friends who although now share different origin, came from the same larger Hindustaniyat. A lovely young friend, quite creative in art and literature, quite active in cultural roots of Bangladesh, where she hails from asked me who was the poet for those lines. I replied 'Ghalib' and expected nothing beyond would be needed, and was surprised at the next question, "Is he a famous poet?" 

While the root of this question could be in the national boundaries re-drawn between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when British left India, I wanted to do my bit. We can not afford our heritage like Ghalib to fade away in the oblivion. Noted historian Rana Safvi (Her Blog: On Indian History and Culture)advised me to read Biography of Ghalib, by Pavan K. Verma. I dutifully did and I am forever indebted to her for directing me there. 

I read Ghalib first as engineering student, like all young people used to in those days of early 90s. I read many others, mostly writing in diary the couplets which stuck in my mind. While Sahir also stayed with me for long time, but Sahir and other poets were like the loving worshiper of Urdu, Ghalib was like one of the Gods of Urdu poetry. The sense of being ancient, the mysticism of poetry and the man himself and his life, gave him this stature to my young mind. 

Ghalib, Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan was born in 27th of December, 1797 in Agra. Most genius minds are plagued with there own insecurities and uncertainties of their own talent. Ghalib was very unlike them. He was at all times, very much aware of his own station in life. Although most of his life, he spent chasing the government, earlier, Mughals and later, the British for what he believed was his due, mostly on account his martial and aristocratic background, he was very much conscious of his literary and philosophical position.He presumed his position to hold in British view as respectable a position as it was to Mughal. However, Mughal sultanate was on a decline and the Emperor himself was a pensioner. In 1805, Akbar Shah II was committed a pension of INR 1500000 later, the company rescinded and reduced it to 1200000. The protests made by the Emperor to the court of director, did not yield any result.
Same fate came to Ghalib's request for justice on distribution of his father's pension. A timid soul, unsure of his talent could not have written couplet like:

हैं और भी दुनिया में सुख़नवर बहुत अच्छे 
 कहते हैं कि ग़ालिब का है अंदाज़-ए-बयाँ और|

(There are and will be great poets and writers,
They say the way Ghalib converses is different from anyone else)

His father a soldier, came to India in search of employment during the time of Mughal King Shah Aalam II, which was also the time when British obtained the decree for collection of taxes, still ostensibly under the Empire of Mughals. He worked with Alwar King, Nawab of Lucknow and eventually in Agra. Ghalib, however, was orphaned at a young age of five. He started writing by the age of Eight (Eight, my kid is eight and cannot speak with clearer diction). His biographer Hali writes that someone called Kanhaiyyalal had preserved a Masnavi (collection of 6 books) he wrote at the age of Nine. He initially wrote in Persian considering Urdu to be beneath him. He was a prolific writer. Hali writes that Ghalib often composed while drinking in the evening. Sitting alone, his fingers playing with a long sash, he would tie a knot, whenever he finished a verse. In the morning, he would untie the knots, recall the verses and write them down. 

He married at the age of 13 to Umrao Begam, a fanatically religious and pious woman, for a long life of companionship. Ghalib's sharp intellect stood at odds with religious dogmas and caused very interesting interaction between the husband and wife. Ghalib writes in a letter to friend Mirza Tufta, while expressing his inability to write introduction to a friend's collection of poem- "God has exempted me from Namaz and Roza (Fasting during Ramzaan), can't you exempt me of writing a Preface." He further says, I do observe Roza, but I keep Roza in good humour, a sip of water here, a smoke, a bite of bread (रोज़ा रखता हूँ लेकिन रोज़ा बहलाए रहता हूँ ). There is an interesting episode with Emperor Zafar, a pious, practicing Muslim. When asked by His Majesty if Ghalib was observing Roza, he responds, Not one Roza observed (which could be read as one not observer, or not one observed out of all the days). He further adds 

जिस पास रोज़ा खोल के खाने को कुछ न हो 
रोज़ा अगर न खाये तो नाचार क्या करे। 

(The poor who has nothing to eat for breaking the fast,
what would he do rather eat through the fasting)

He writes to his friend, that the emperor could do nothing but laugh at his quick wit and plain-speak. 

However, when he eventually moved to Delhi for prospects and recognition in Mughal courts, he began writing in Urdu. BahadurShah Zafar was Mughal Emperor and the anti-British revolt of 1857 was yet to happen. The emperor already had Zauq as his Ustaad or master of literature. His was the fate of any talented migrant. The talented poet had no one to vouch for him, no support system in the largely disinterested city, going through the period of political turmoil. The Emperor did not acknowledge Ghalib till 1850 when he was eventually offered the title of Nazmud-daula, Dabir ul-mulk, Nizam Zang (Star of the Realm, Scribe of the state, Marshal of war). Mughal Emperor was the ruler for namesake, while the real political power rested with the Governor General. Ghalib had an acute appreciation of his own aristocratic lineage and his own genius, which probably made him respond to disinterested Delhi with :

वोह हमसे पूछते हैं, ग़ालिब कौन है 
कोई हमें बतलाए के हम बतलाएँ क्या। 

(The ask me who Ghalib is,
Pray, someone tell me, what should I tell them)

Ghalib watched the politics and religious beliefs being put to test, and was one of the most progressive and liberal minds of his time. Writers and poets of those time were far ahead of our times in terms of challenging religious dictum, whether it be Ghalib's writing,

ईमाँ मुझे रोके है जो खींचे है मुझे कुफ़्र 
काबा मेरे पीछे है तो कलीसा मेरे आगे 

(My faith holds me back, while evil tempts me forward,
Ka'aba is behind me and the church is in front of me)

Or it be Momin, writing

उम्र गुज़री है तमाम इश्क़ ए बुतँ में मोमिन 
अब आखरी वक़्त में खाक़ मुसलमाँ होंगे। 

(Spent all my life worshiping idols, Momin
What purpose would becoming a pious muslim in the end serve?)

These were brave, illuminated souls, free in spirit. Ghalib attacked the hypocrisy mercilessly when he wrote couplets like 

कहाँ मयखाने का दरवाज़ा ग़ालिब और कहाँ वाइज़ 
पर इतना जानते हैं कल वो जाता था कि हम निकले। 

(How could the learned be near the tavern, Ghalib
But all I know, is that I saw him on the way in, as I departed)

Ghalib loved his drink, mostly french wine in the evening, which he always had in moderation, much to the annoyance of his wife. He was a man of joyous disposition and ready wit, but he was eaten away by the feeling that the world did not treat him with justice. His pension was withheld for long, and all his effort, to his king, the light of the world, and to the Governor General and the Queen, did nothing to increase his salary. While his biography mentions that he took it into stride as he wrote quasida (Panegyric) praising the Nawabs, Emperor and even the British while seeking the restoration of rightful pension, I would feel his conscience did not much agree with what he had to write. In fact, in his collection of Persian verses he wrote in the preface that he regretted that half his life was wasted in praising fools. I feel this reflected in 

हुआ  है शाह का नौकर फिरे है इतराता 
वगरना शहर में ग़ालिब की आबरू क्या है। 

(He roams around parading is false pride, being King's servant,
Else scant is Ghalib's respect among the citizens)

He is not sparing even with himself. 

I would even stick out my neck to say that while the city offered all it could in those times to Ghalib, with the empire breathing its last and impending failed rebellion which would see the definitive collapse of old days of living, with grace, poetry and literature, he was for a long time disenchanted soul. Recognition came late, respect even later as he wrote, 

हरेक बात पे कहते हो  तुम कि तू क्या है 
तुम्ही कहो की ये अंदाज़-ए-गुफ़्तगू  है। 

(You ask on every question, who are you?
Tell me what kind of graceful conversion this is.)
Although in 1850, he reached the royal court and eventually, was after the death of Zauq, became the Ustaad of emperor Zafar and eventually of his son, as he was last left in the triumvirate of poetic genius of Momin, Zauq and Ghalib. Ghalib was 57 by then and was not given Zauq's title of Malikush-Shuara (Poet Laureate)

Ghalib was told many times that his writings were quite complex and he should dilute his writing to make the comprehension easier. He refused to do so famously writing,"

ना सताइश की तमन्ना ना सिले की परवाह 
गर नहीं हैं मेरे अशआर  में मानी  सही। 

"Neither am I looking for praise, nor prize,
If there isn't any meaning in my verse, let there not be."

सताइश- Praise; अशआर - Verses मानी  - Meaning

An irreverent, audacious poet who refuses to bend down to commercial demands, but that is not all that is there to Ghalib. His deep intellectualism, Sufism in his verses, makes him some kind of visionary, a saint in his own right. 

Probably Ghalib was also aware of his spiritual position and understanding, when he wrote,

ये मसाएले तसव्वुफ़  ये  तेरा बयान ग़ालिब 
तुझे हम वली समझते जो ना बादा ख्वार होता  

(These complex matters of spirituality, and your explanation Ghalib,
We would have considered you a saint, had you not been a drunkard).

तसव्वुफ़- Spirituality; वली- Saint; बादा ख्वार- Alcohalic

He was not aloof and disinterested in getting his work read. He eventually started writing in Urdu publishing his first Urdu Diwan (Collection of poems) in 1821. Before publishing this, Ghalib did edit his work with a vengeance at the advise of Fazl-e-haq, discarding around two-third of all he had written. In a letter, he even confessed in his old age that most of his writing during the age of 15 to 25 was rubbish. He then torn off the Diwan, retaining merely 15 -20 of the verses. In 1828, he published a combined selection of Urdu and Persian verses- Gul-i-Rana. His Urdu Diwan was published in 1841 and sold out. It was republished in 1847. His collection of Persian verse was published in 1845.

I welcome you to the world of Ghalib. Ghalib, often terms as Eliot of East, is a source of inspiration not only to his readers, but also to other writers. In his life and reflections, I personally find him closer to Oscar Wilde. His life is an example of unyielding spirit of a true artist. Ghalib continuously had brushes with authority in spite of being court poet and a noble. He even ended up being jailed for three months, in spite of the intervention by the Emperor, His Majesty, The shadow of God. This was a rude shock to Ghalib, in terms of his own estimation of his worth as a noble and as a poet, and also in terms of the authority of the last Mughal (this was much before 1857, when the pretense was still alive). He always had friends among the British who were appreciative of his literary prowess, but it never helped him. As early as 1842, he was offered the job of Persian teacher in Delhi College. He went for the interview but declined as his interviewer, secretary to the Government of India, Thomson did not come out of his office to receive the poet. Ghalib took that as an affront and refused the job. This was customary in old ways of Delhi, and little did Ghalib know at that time that those days were just couple of decades away from end. Ghalib suffered much in long life, obscurity, ridicule and infamy, although he was for most of his long life a poet of masses. He probably referred to this aspect when he wrote

होगा कोई ऐसा भी कि ग़ालिब को ना जाने 
शायर तो वह अच्छा है पे बदनाम बहुत है। 

(Would there be anyone who would not know Ghalib,
He is a good poet, but is so very infamous.)

In his private life, he was always in debt, and lost all his kids. His brother died in the aftermath of 1857, when the whole city of Delhi was destroyed. Ghalib lived to see the city limping to life, but never regaining its earlier glory, before finally departing on 15th February 1869. He wrote his last Urdu verse in 1866 and last Persian ghazal in 1865. Before his death he saw the whole way of living destroyed, with Quila-e-Mualla (The red fort) converted to barracks, Mughal emperor exiled to Rangoon. The world of literature and poetry and art, gave way to marching soldiers on the streets of Delhi. He who counted Raja Bansidhar, Mushi Hargopal Tufta and such his friend and was so secular in his views, would have also seen with some sadness the changes as beef ban imposed by the Mughals being lifted by the British with little understanding of India, triggering first communal riot  in modern times. His wife died exactly one year after him.

(I hope you will enjoy reading my posts on Ghalib's poetry. I am no scholar, but am trying and therefore will appreciate your feedback and corrections. In words, we rise).