Freedom, or Waiting for Ghani in Kashmir

Prashant Keshavmurthy situates Ghani Kashmiri, the seventeenth century Persian language poet in the troubled contemporary Kashmir.

What does it mean for someone today to read a poet who wrote over three centuries ago, who is canonized in her social world as a classic, and to do so at a time when her ambient social world is rent by violence?

I, who am neither Kashmiri nor a resident of Kashmir, was compelled to put this question to myself during my first visit to Kashmir in late June of 2011 by a circle of young

Kashmiris when I spoke to them of my discovery and love of Ghani Kashmiri (d.1669), Kashmir’s most famous Persian language poet.
Once the language of state and one of the privileged languages for literature in Kashmir, Persian is little understood in Kashmir today, if remembered with distant admiration. Even more than in India where, too, Persian was similarly cultivated until the mid 19th century, Kashmir has been doubly estranged from its Persian literary heritage.

In Indian-occupied Kashmir, this heritage has fallen victim to Indian nationalism that, in covert and overt ways, is the same as Hindu majoritarianism, a nationalism that dismisses India’s Persian heritage as Muslim and knows nothing of the literary achievements of 17th and 18th century Persophone Hindus; that, like all nationalism in Ernest Gellner’s famous phrase, “gets its own history wrong”. Among the responses to Indian oppression has been an intensified emphasis on the Arab and Arabic elements of the piety traditionally practiced among Kashmir’s Muslims. Lost in these polemically framed ideological battles are the literary and philosophical heritages of Persian, Sanskrit and Kashmiri.

But surely, you might argue, such general social ideological trends do not account for or keep critical individuals from questioning and, to the extent they can, fighting their estrangement from their more complex pasts. Surely, you may ask, texts that survive such upheavals offer the diligent reader the possibility of retrieving something of the insights and pleasures of Kashmir’s multi-lingual literary culture before it was destroyed by nationalism?

But how, I ask in answer, could an individual driven to distraction by the suffering she variously shares with others in her milieu muster the attention any worthwhile text demands? This is how I understand the question I opened this essay by posing; the question I was asked by my Kashmiri friends. While I cannot undertake to suggest how one might accomplish this feat of a fragile reading focus under suffering, I can try and suggest what it might mean today in Kashmir to be able to do so.

Let me begin, perhaps appropriately for this occasion and venue, by quoting a distich by Ghani in apparent condemnation of Mughal India or Hindustan: dar namak-z?r-e sav?d-e hind sh?d?b? kam ast gar dar ?nj? sabze’? b?shad zi tukhm-e ?dam ast Rather than translate this distich right away, let me prepare you for my translations of it with the following prefatory remarks. This distich exemplifies the main trait for which Ghani’s poetry was famous in its own time and after, ih?m or paronomasia. This kind of pun was glossed in the earliest Persian manuals of rhetoric as a word or phrase bearing two meanings, one immediately apparent (the ma‘ni-e qar?b or ma‘ni-e nazd?k) and the other less immediately apparent (the ma‘ni-e ghar?b or ma‘ni-e ba‘?d) but privileged by the poet who variously signalled this privilege in his text. Arguably, no denser and more sophisticated practitioner of ih?m ever wrote in Persian than Ghani.

Polysemy, the phenomenon of a sign bearing more than one meaning, is in itself a banal fact of all language. Very few nouns convey only single meanings. For the pragmatic purposes of everyday linguistic communication we regulate this polysemy intrinsic to a word by checking it with other words in a sentence in order to ensure a uniform level of sense, an isotopy of meaning. Among the principle motivations underlying Ghani’s poetry was to pull out these sentential stops and checks on a word, unstoppering its intrinsic polysemy while retaining it within a grammatically acceptable sentence. His main instrument to this end was to combine a polysemic word with another or other polysemic words all or some of whose meanings supported each other, thus simultaneously generating two, three or more disparate isotopies. Each such isotopy almost always constituted an iteration of a mazm?n or trope long familiar in Persian poetry. Not only words, then, even syntax was paronomastic, as we will have occasion to observe ahead.

Finally, before I discuss the afore-quoted distich, I call your attention to yet another kind of paronomasia frequent in Ghani’s poetry in addition to the lexical and syntactical kinds: namely one of tone. This third kind, least apparent to us who only read Ghani silently on a printed page today, rests on intoning a line of poetry aloud both as an assertion and as a question, an ambivalence supported by the absence in classical Persian of question-marks, periods and other such orthographic markers.ih?m Here, to start with, is an explication of the distich’s paronomastic words and phrases, the immediately apparent meanings followed by the less immediate ones. The reader must bear in mind that these glosses work like a jigsaw puzzle, each fitting into and justified by the other rather than being derived straightforwardly from a modern dictionary:

Namak-z?r: ‘saltpan’; ‘charming’; ‘dark-skinned’ since the Persian namak or ‘salt’ connotes, in combination with the sense of ‘black’ in ‘Hind’, its Arabic- origin synonym mal?h or ‘salty’ that also means ‘charming’ and ‘dark-skinned’.

Sav?d-e hind: ‘land of India’; ‘eye-pupil of India’, ‘India’ or ‘Hind’ being cognate with ‘Hindu’ whose meaning of ‘black slave’ echoes the pupil-blackness of sav?d. The ocular references here reveal, on reflection, a connection with the latent Arabic synonym for the Persian chashm or ‘eye’, namely ‘ain which also means ‘wellspring’, a sense that will become active through the second hemistich’s “the principle of man”.

Sh?d?b?: ‘the quality of being well-watered and fertile’; ‘moisture’, this latter sense semantically activated by the ‘eye-pupil’ of sav?d with which it works to connote the salty film of moisture on an eye.

Tukhm-e ?dam: ‘the seed or sperm of man’; ‘the origin or principle of man’; ‘the eye-pupil’s manikin’.

This gloss of the various senses of the ih?m-words in this distich lets us translate it in these disparate ways among others:

Little grows in the saltpan of Hindustan.

Whatever sprouts there is from the seed of man.


A faintest salt-film covers Hindustan’s teeming pupil-blackness.

If anything sprouts there it’s from the eye’s manikin.


Little’s lush in Hindustan’s pupil-dark land.

Whatever sprouts there is from the principle of man.

Moreover, recalling the performative possibility included in the un-punctuated original, we could intone the first hemistich as a question rather than an assertion (in what classical rhetoric called “a questioning” or istifs?riya tone) thus converting the second hemistich into an answer to a rhetorical question that elicits its own negation, inferring senses opposite to the ones above. We could begin thus Does little grow in the saltpan of Hindustan?
Whatever sprouts there is from the seed of man. And invert by this questioning intonation the sense of each of the otherwise assertive statements in each of the interpretations the original allows us to infer.

Depending on which interpretation we prefer, the distich presents distinct iterations of at least two mazm?ns or tropes as old as Persian literature itself and recognizable as insights and attitudes to even those of us ignorant of Persian poetry: the first and more obvious trope consists in condemning a land for lacking a quality you seek or for possessing it only in ironic ways; the second and less obvious but therefore more privileged trope is the origin of artistic fame in the artist’s populous solitude; the simultaneously solitary and social quality of the imagination or takhy?l in an individual who contains the multitudes she creates through the solitary efforts of her mind’s eye.

But have we not failed to capture something by thus adumbrating with our commentary this distich’s multivalent density? The concurrently listed lexemic glosses above do not reveal the time it would take even a reader alert to the possibility of inferring disparate isotopies on the basis of paronomastic words to actually formulate these isotopies in an interpretation. Commentary, by its compression, elides the temporality of the text it explodes. It also elides, like the text it comments on, the centuries over which names accrue meaning in a community of interpreters. In this sense, late medieval poetry such as Ghani’s could only have been written when it was, inheriting a centuries-long practice of such lexemic enrichment.

The majority of distiches in Ghani’s Divan are as dense in their polysemy as the one I have tried to interpret. They have not received commentarial attention nearly equal to their density since or even in the copious marginalia of the earliest printed editions of the Divan from the mid 19th century. This lacuna places a two- fold condition on Ghani’s reader in Kashmir today. First, Ghani’s reader must wait with each distich with the expectation that it means more and otherwise than what it seems to mean. Second, she must wait by reading Ghani with one of the dictionaries of poetic phrases composed in Ghani’s period, ideally Tek Chand Bah?r’s Bah?r-e ‘ajam (1739) or, if this is unavailable, with the more recent but encyclopedically inclusive Loghatname of Dehkhoda on the internet. Reflecting on this two-fold condition returns me to my opening commitment to explicating the significance of reading Ghani as he demands to be read in Kashmir today.

Asking patience and philology, Ghani’s texts assume the reader is free to fathom their richness with undivided attention; that she is free to give them the intense focus they demand in return for no more than pleasure in how their abyssal play of meanings endlessly confirms something she had long known but forgotten she knew. This, surely, must be part of the meaning of the freedom Kashmiris are fighting for today.

(Prashant Keshavmurthy studied English literature in Delhi before writing his doctoral dissertation on ideas of literary authorship and fiction in pre-colonial or classical Persian and Urdu literature. He is currently Assistant Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University,Montreal)


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