Here is a ghazal by the Urdu poet Jaun Eliya. You can read it in Hindi, Urdu and English in the original words here, with word meanings on highlight. Additionally, if you want to follow the pauses and the breaks that the poet himself makes while reciting it, you can check out this video of a mushaira in Dubai.
I have been thinking about these lines for a while now. Below, I have done a translation of the ghazal in English, couplet-wise. Along with that there are some thoughts and deliberations that I have typed down. There are five couplets in total, if you’re worried about reading too much.
बे-दिली क्या यूँही दिन गुज़र जाएँगे
बे-दिली क्या यूँही दिन गुज़र जाएँगे
सिर्फ़ ज़िंदा रहे हम तो मर जाएँगे
Dejected, is this how the days would pass?
If I just remain alive, death would follow.
The very brief second line seems to be left open for the listener to interpret. One meaning is that he would choose death rather than living through the painful feeling of having been forsaken. The meaning that I feel fits more considering the nihilist theme of the rest of the poem is that the poet wants to say that death is an obstinate and non-negotiable reality that will follow if one just remains alive.
I think this is suggested also by the pause he takes (which corresponds to the comma in the translation) in the poet’s own recital. Also, the irony of death following from just simply remaining alive is conveyed by the choice of using overly simplistic and plain words for living and dying.
रक़्स है रंग पर रंग हम-रक़्स हैं
सब बिछड़ जाएँगे सब बिखर जाएँगे
Dance is the ambience, but the mood longs for a partner
Everyone would be separated, everyone would be broken apart.
Jaun Eliya’s poetry often plays the trick of repeating the same word in either two different contexts, or just for emphasis. The repetition of the words creates very satisfying phonaesthetics.
There is a lot of such repetition here in the two lines. The words रंग (rang), which although commonly means colour, and रक़्स (raks), which means dance, both appear twice. A literal translation of the first line could be: Dance is the colour, but the colour is of a “dance-partner”.
The poet, through the imagery of dance, probably wants to convey a feeling of organized chaos. In the next line, again with beautiful repetition of plain words, the poet declares the eventual nullification of the romantic aspect of dancing with a loved one by claiming that it follows separation and distancing eventually.
It also makes me ponder over the dance of society, and that of a movement. Our lives are entangled by constant displacements that we make ourselves go through while acting upon our individual desires. In this, we are caught between many pulls of our different personas and it gets very difficult to align it all together. Of course, eventually all relations break apart because of death and therefore separation is inevitable. It’s all like an organized chaos, like a dance!
सुब्ह होते ही सब काम पर जाएँगे
All the tavern-dwellers who put their intellect at stake
The next day they would go back to work.
I had to struggle to find the meaning of the first line. I’m still not sure entirely about it. This Reddit question asked by some random stranger was a help. If you can find a better translation, please let me know in the comments.
There is a trick that I have seen being used often in shayari: verbose segments are contrasted and ended with plain language words to drive down the message. As we all all know, Urdu is a mixed language that emerged mainly in the last three or four centuries. The verbose parts are derived from Farsi (Persian), which was the language that the elite spoke for a long period in northern India. In a sher such as this one, often the first line would be more verbose but the concluding second line is much simpler.
And what a second line it is! The ones who like to spend their evenings over-intellectualizing things and drinking, the poet hits all those people with reality. All of those drunk ramblings about philosophy, poetry, history, politics, romance, shayari is often done by working-class people who have jobs to do the next day. Little of what they speak is any of any consequence, and instead dutifully the next day they do things that have more consequences to them.
कितनी दिलकश हो तुम कितना दिल-जू हूँ मैं
क्या सितम है कि हम लोग मर जाएँगे
So irresistible you are, so heartbroken I am,
What a tragedy it is that we are mortals.
O what a splendid sher this is! Note the poetic use of repetition in the first line.
The theme of nakaam aashiqui (unrequited love) is a very common sight in all of Urdu poetry. The poet sets the mood for this in the first line, but breaks away from the usual with a tragic reminder of our own mortality. The second line is a loud declaration of nihilism, by reminding that the real tragedy is not that of having a broken lover wishing for his love. The real tragedy is that this unrequited love is doomed to wither away with the deaths of those involved.
है ग़नीमत कि असरार-ए-हस्ती से हम
बे-ख़बर आए हैं बे-ख़बर जाएँगे
What we may take away is that the secrets of existence,
were never revealed to us, and will never be.
The word ग़नीमत (ganimat), although means loot of a war, is often used to mean the “silver lining” of something. The irony is that the lines are about what one cannot really obtain, and therefore this word is very cleverly placed.
The poem ends, again expressing emphasis through repetition, with the lesson that the real “take-away” is that the quench for understanding one’s place in this universe will not be answered. Jaun Eliya was a philosopher who was obsessed with trying to find these answers in spirituality, logic and religion. An expert in many schools of philosophy, this line expresses his pessimism at not being able to find a meaningful resolution to these existential concerns. Indeed, many commentators speaking on Jaun have mentioned about his constant obsessions and frustrations with soul-seeking.
Overall, Jaun Eliya captures beautifully the pointlessness of life through his beautiful words. His poetry here gently pokes at and makes fun of overly passionate people, by reminding them of grim realities like that life and death and their jobs. Romantic problems and worldly ramblings here are belittled here, and instead the listener is pushed towards trying to find meaning in hopelessness and emptiness.
The third and the fourth sher seem the most memorable ones here. It will be difficult to forget them for a while.