Long ago at Berkeley, when I was just learning to read the Urdu script, my teacher introduced the class to the poetry of Ghalib. It was much too hard for us. We spent a whole hour grappling with a single two-line verse. But then, as a reward, we heard it sung by Begam Akhtar-s-and I was hooked. These little verses were dense, tight, intricate structures, made of beauty and energy held in perfect balance. They resonated so well with my own inner life and my own sense of poetry that I loved them even before I understood them. I knew I wanted more.
In the library I found just the sort of book I had been looking for: Muhammad Sadiq's magisterial A History of Urdu Literature (1964), published by the Oxford University Press in India. East meets West, I thought, and here is the best of both worlds: a book in English, equipped with references, notes, index, diacritics in the Western scholarly style-by an author who comes from within the Urdu tradition, who in fact is a senior professor at a college in Lahore. Here is a much more knowledgeable ghazal lover who will interpret the tradition for me, and will share with me an insider's appreciation of the poetry.
Alas for my innocence. Professor Sadiq made it clear that I was wrong to value the ghazal so highly. For the ghazal has had a rotten streak from the beginning: it was "tainted with narrowness and artificiality at the very outset of its career." As a result, it has innumerable flaws. The ghazal "lacks freshness"; it "has no local colour"; its deficiency in '(truthfulness," "sincerity," and a "personal note" has made much of it into a "museum piece."Its imagery is "fixed and stereotyped"; it is "incapable of showing any feeling for nature"; it displays "fragmentariness" and is "a patchwork of disconnected and often contradictory thoughts and feelings." In fact it is generally held to be "the least poetic of all forms, because it least admits of inspiration," and there is "a large element of truth in the argument." It envisions love as "a torture, a disease," a" morbid and perverse passion" - a view that is a "legacy from Persia" and is "ultimately traceable to homo-sexual love which had taken deep root among the Persians and Persianized Arabs." Furthermore, over time the ghazal has gone from bad to worse. It has developed "wholly in the direction of fantasy and unreality": "facts give way to fancies," and the imagination explores "curious byways" as the ghazal evolves "in its downward career."
Although Professor Sadiq recognizes that the ghazal has "strong assets," he sees them as outweighed by even heavier liabilities. He sums it all up in a phrase that has lived in my mind ever since-and has goaded me into writing this book. The ghazal, Sadiq says, "stands very low in the hierarchy of literary forms.' This is so obviously an erroneous and wrongheaded statement that refuting it is not my main goal; the poetry itself is a more than sufficient refutation. Rather, I want to inquire how this judgment has come to be made. Even if there could be such a thing as "the" hierarchy of all genres (which there cannot be), and if anyone had the authority to define it (which no one does), why would anyone rank such a sophisticated, powerful genre as the ghazal, popular for over a millennium in many languages, near the bottom? And even more to the point, why would someone like Sadiq make such a harsh and hostile judgment? This poetry had, after all, been handed down for generations as one of the chief glories of his own cultural heritage, and he obviously valued his heritage enough to spend many years studying it and writing books about it. Why did he devote years of his life to this heritage-and then produce a sweeping denunciation of the genre that lay at the heart of it? Instead of providing a subtle, nuanced analysis of the ghazal, why did he attack it with a blunt instrument?
To my further surprise, I found that Sadiq was far from alone in his views. Classical Urdu literature has very commonly been presented in English either disdainfully or apologetically-or both. Of course, such modes of presentation not only irritate the serious student, but also discourage the newcomer from pursuing the subject further. The distinguished Urdu scholar Ralph Russell has recently expressed his own exasperation at this state of affairs in an article called "How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature" -an article replete with horrible (and humorous) examples and offering among its conclusions the polite advice, "If you don't think much of Urdu literature, please don't go to the trouble of writing a history of it."
In Urdu too, as I gradually realized, Sadiq's views were only a relatively complete inventory of attitudes many critics held in part. Disdain has sometimes been expressed not only openly but even extravagantly: according to one well-known critic, the ghazal is "a half-barbarous form of poetry." By contrast, defense of the ghazal has usually been halfhearted at best. Most apologists have freely conceded such fundamental defects as artificiality, lack of unity, and so on, and have then sought merely to reduce the charges by pointing out some mitigating circumstances and redeeming features." Or else they have sought to justify the ghazal not as poetry, but as a vehicle for conveying an alleged political or religious message. "Even today," as one perceptive critic recently put it, "we are ashamed of the greater part of our literary property-or we do not consider it worthy of esteem." The result is that "our tongues never tire of finding fault with our cultural possessions."
Why could I, knowing so much less Urdu, admire and appreciate Ghalib more than many of his cultural heirs? How far back did this critical intolerance toward the ghazal-and other traditional genres-go? I eventually traced the attitude straight back to the earliest (and still much the most important) history of Urdu poetry, Azad's Water of Life (1880), and found it reaffirmed and elaborated in the earliest (and still much the most important) work of modern Urdu literary criticism, Halis Introduction to Poetry and Poetics (1893). As I investigated the lives of Azad and Hali," I discovered that these two uniquely influential literary pioneers had shared certain formative experiences both in their youth and afterward. Gradually I came to understand why and how their views had developed. They who had inherited the mansion of classical poetry made a desperate resolve: to condemn large portions of the structure, in order to shore up and renovate the rest. Against the background of their lives, such a resolve made sense. But over the past century it has also done immense cultural harm-and this harm continues into the present. When I discovered that Muhammad Sadiq, my original bete noire, had in fact written his doctoral dissertation on Azad, I knew that the wheel had come full circle.
Nets of Awareness is a study of an episode in the cultural and literary history of late-nineteenth-century North India: a look at how the classical ghazal, which for centuries had been the pride and joy of Indo-Muslim culture, was abruptly dethroned and devalued within its own milieu, and by its own theorists. The break with tradition was so sharp that nowadays some aspects of the ghazal are obscure, and others even markedly distasteful, to most modern readers. I argue that the cause of this abrupt "paradigm shift" was not ultimately literary so much as political. The violent "Mutiny" of 1857, and the vengeful British reaction to it, destroyed the old world of the Indo-Muslim elite. After 1857, the victorious British had the only game in town: they were obviously, "naturally," superior, and they made sure everyone realized it. Azad himself, in another context, described the result: "The important thing is that the glory of the winners' ascendant fortune gives everything of theirs-even their dress, their gait, their conversation-a radiance that makes them desirable. And people do not merely adopt them, but are proud to adopt them. Then they bring forth, by means of intellectual arguments, many benefits of this."
Such adoption of a new culture may be a fine thing; certainly both Azad and Hali were officially and strongly committed to the benefits of Westernization. But however good a face they managed to put on it, the result was clear: after 1857 they found themselves having to perform radical surgery on their own culture, to enable it to survive in a world defined by the victors. Azad and Hali set out to replace their inherited Indo-Persian concept of poetry with what they understood to be the contemporary English one: a Wordsworth-like vision of "natural" poetry.
If Wordsworthian poetry was the touchstone of naturalness, however, the whole Indo-Muslim poetic -tradition was bound to appear "unnatural" in comparison-not just literarily decadent, artificial, and false, but morally suspect as well. And if, as many English writers argued, poetry was inevitably a mirror of society, then the cultural rot must go much deeper. The result was a sweeping, internally generated indictment with which Urdu speakers have been struggling ever since. A History of Urdu Literature was reprinted in 1984, shortly before its author's death, in an expanded second edition. Professor Sadiq added much new material; but he did not change a word of his harsh attack on the ghazal.
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