ABOUT THE POEMS For Urdu and Persian speakers, the language of Ghalib’s verse is a miracle of music and meaning. The out-and-in structure of the shers of Ghalib’s preferred ghazal form seems to pierce the mysteries of existence, each new excursion of thought returning by a new path to the root rhyme established in the opening verse by the qafiya (a continuously rhyming syllable) and the radif (a word or phrase repeated at the end of each couplet without any change whatsoever).
But how can such a sophisticated linguistic, prosodic and rhythmical structure be brought over into a language as distant from Urdu as English? The easy (and established) answer has always been to say that it can’t; a more pragmatic one might hold that any English translator of Ghalib should be a poet in his or her own right, and pass Ghalib through self and self through Ghalib with a sense of both fidelity and freedom. In these new English versions of four ghazals, the American poet Andrew McCord gives us a Ghalib by turns expansive and melancholy, teasing and ruminative, passionate and paradoxical. Is it the speaker of the ghazals, or the ghazal itself as it reaches the end of its course, that exclaims “There are other masters of eloquence in this world,/ But it is said that Ghalib’s style is some other thing.” These are meant to be living English poems first, but they do let us through into the world and sound of that “some other thing”.
hai baske har ik un ke ishaare men nishaan aur
In her every gesture is a sign of some other thing,
As in her love transpires doubts of some other thing.
Lord, she has not and will not understand me talking.
Give her another heart or give me some other language.
Are those brows what propel that fetching gaze?
An arrow is fixed, but perhaps there is some other bow.
When you are in the city, what grief is there to us?
If we can make it to market, we can buy some other life.
Indeed we were dab hands breaking graven images,
But as we last, our way is blocked by some other stone.
Heart’s-blood boils and I would spill it completely
If to scatter the pure blood I had some many other eyes.
I die at that sound, my head would fly away from me,
But let me hear her tell my scourge, “Try some other blows.”
People are fooled that a world-burning sun rises
Each day as I air out some other hidden wound.
I would live a bit, if I gave not my heart to you.
If I die not, I would cry out here some other days.
A stream or a scream wells up when it finds no way.
If my nature is blocked, I find some other fluency.
There are other masters of eloquence in this world,
But it is said that Ghalib’s style is some other thing.
na gul-e-naghma hun na pardah-e-saaz
No flower of song, no fretting of a guitar,
I am the report of my own fracture.
There, you spread your twisting curls.
My doubts stretch out all the farther.
Boasts of dignity allure the simple hearted,
But what rends the breast is what we are.
I do have wings that have flight’s power
Yet am captured by affection for the fowler.
Let the day be, too, when I do not long for
But seize on the might of my tormentor.
There is no drop of heart’s-blood
Not happy to bleed from my eyes forever.
Your glance at one stroke excites me.
Your tyranny is as bold as war.
Blessed be that you be unveiled—
Forehead to floor, let flow a prayer.
There is no outrage if you ask after me.
I am strange and you kind to the stranger.
Asadullah Khan is perfected here:
A fool who played for beauty’s favor.
baazicha-e-atafaal hai duniya mere aage
A trifle for children is creation to me.
Night and day at the races: existence to me.
By my lights, Solomon’s throne is deception.
The healing breath of Jesus is just diction to me.
I know the face of the world only by name.
The reality of things is a notion to me.
Saharas are buried in the dust of my commotion.
A wave bends its head, brings ocean to me.
Don’t ask how I feel traipsing behind:
Look how you blush as audience to me.
I admire myself, as you say, and my embellishment
When facing a mirror of beauty pagan to me.
Look: rose petals of speech scatter stylishly,
If red wine is poured, the glass given to me.
Amid allegations of my disgrace, full of envy, too,
How say I still, “Hers is the name not to mention to me.”
Religion impedes me. Irreligion pulls me ahead.
The Kaaba is at my back. Her church is open to me.
I am in love and my business is to beguile you, love.
Of Majnun now Layla speaks aspersion to me.
It is wonderful but you don’t die in union like
When nights of separation petition to me.
A roiling Red Sea of blood—would it were so,
And you could see the flood of what will happen to me.
Though my hand has been stilled, my eyes still sparkle.
Leave the cup here a while, and a vessel winking to me.
We share the same secrets, work and persuasions—
But all your bad-mouthing of Ghalib is foreign to me.
baske dushvaar hai har kaam
Hard it is, for all tasks, to be easy.
For a man, too, it is not easy to be human.
What lamentation wills is ruin of my small house:
The doorjambs throb with wanting to be wilderness.
The madness of enthusiasm requires at every breath
That I go to it, as well as for my self to be confounded.
A veil taxes the gaze to want it dropped, as strongly
As scratches on a mirror will themselves to be eyelashes.
As at sight of the Eid moon, a never satisfied band rejoices
On the killing ground for the sword to be drawn.
In the dust we laid the scars of vigor we longed for—
Were you to be here, we would be gardens in bloom.
Joy for a botched heart is a feeling of laceration.
Like roasted liver, it relishes salt in its wounds.
On my slaughter, she swore off all violence,
As quick to shame as there was little to be sorry for.
It is an iniquitous lot for a hand’s breadth of cloth, Ghalib,
To be allotted as the rent collar on a lover’s robe.
Andrew McCord has a long association with India and has been working on translations of Ghalib since the late 1970s. He lives in New York, USA, with his wife and two daughters.