29 March 2010

Pitch perfect: A couple of lines from Faiz

A friend of mine recently reacquainted me with a couplet by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-84):

nahiin nigah mein manzil to justajuu hii sahii
nahiin visaal muyassar to aarzuu hii sahii

If I can't get a glance [of my beloved] then at least I have the search itself,
If union [with my beloved] is impossible then at least I have desire itself.

The Urdu ghazal (lyric) tradition that this poem comes out of takes a lot of explanation, but what you really need to know is that much of its aesthetic punch comes from the ambiguity of the beloved's identity. The beloved can either be a person or it can be God (because God, like a coquettish person, is unattainable and yet we long for "union" [visaal] with Him), and the ghazal poets never let us decide one way or the other. Every statement can either be taken as a profound musing on man's relationship to Divinity or as a thoroughly profane expression of desire.

It's hard to explain why good poetry in a language that works nothing like English is good, but here goes:

These two lines by Faiz are a tour de force because of their balanced structure. Each is built around the same four simple words: "nahiin... to... hii sahii."
  • Nahiin means "not" in Urdu so each line begins with emphatic negation. 
  • The hinge of the line is the word to, which can either be a filler word like "so" in English or  imply a contrast ("then"). It's a very innocent word that does so much here because it's the barrier between failure and success, between goal and process. 
  • Like to, hii is a word that has many uses, but primarily it just intensifies the preceding word (I opted for "itself" in the translation, but it's not that clunky in Urdu). Finally, sahii is an inspired choice because it means "so be it" and "indeed" on its own but it often forms expressions with to, so it refers back to the middle of the line by becoming to...sahii. This implies resignation on the part of the speaker, but sahii is also a homonym of the word sahih, which means "true," so another interpretation of the couplet is that the search and the desire are true in themselves, that you don't need the goal.
The other words in the poem are some of the keywords of the poetic tradition. The speaker always looks for a glance [nigah] of (or from) his beloved, and even better for union [visaal] with his beloved--but of course he never attains either. The search [justajuu] and the desire [aarzuu] are traditional for a lover. This constellation of terms binds the poem to the classical Urdu tradition, but like so much of Faiz's work, the poem's sentiment feels modern even as it engages the tradition.

The great Pakistani songstress Abida Parveen has rendered it beautifully (you can watch it online).

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