Thursday, December 31, 2020

Poetry… What Does It Mean to Me?

Poetry means something to everyone, ranging from nothing to everything. I fall somewhere in between, depending on the type of poetry. Let me get this off my chest first: Free-verse poetry means nothing to me. If a poem does not even have a single pair of rhyming words in it, then it has no reason to be calling itself a poem. Get it the hell out of my syllabus. Sorry about that, childhood memories came flooding in. But having said that, the last poem of my class X’s Hindi poetry book was a free-verse poem titled “लोहे का स्वाद (Taste of Iron)” by सुदामा पाण्डेय ‘धूमिल’ (Sudaama Paandey ‘Dhoomil’), which is considered to be his last poem. I just couldn’t stop laughing at this poem, every time I read it during the course of that year. It said something so stupid, yet so deep (after our Hindi teacher explained the hidden meaning behind the words) that I just fell in love with the way words could be structured to arouse different emotions in the reader. And to this day, that is the only free-verse poem I (pretend to) understand and (definitely) like maybe because, even though it doesn’t have any rhyme in it, it is short and has a certain rhythm to it. Other free-verses can stop bothering me.

Let me also clarify that I am only talking about Hindi poetry, not English poetry. This is because I’m a theoretical physicist and before I understand any topic, I don’t just need a working example but a working theory to go along with it. In fact, I could do away with the example if the theory is well-worked out in the first place. So how is this related to poetry, one might ask. The relation is till class VIII no one taught us the “theory” of poetry, neither in English grammar nor in Hindi. By “theory” of poetry, I mean answers to questions like, what makes the poems what they are? What are the ingredients that go in them? How are they constructed or structured or conjured? What makes one poem good, others mediocre and the rest bad? I couldn’t bother finding answers to these out myself because I didn’t have such questions then. Why? Because I was not good at languages (partly because we were told that if you are interested in Science or Maths, you don’t have to focus too much on languages; that turned out to be a dum-bass advice as I figured out after all these years when I can’t talk to people without pretending to be an introverted / thoughtful person or without appearing as a tactless / horrible person) so a poem was just another chapter in the book about which certain questions were to be answered in the exams. Oh, and this was also a chapter that needed to be memorized because there would always be a question demanding one to write a poem from memory. (Maybe I will show-off my memory in a future post as I still remember one of those poems from class X.)

However, in class IX & X, things changed when Hindi grammar syllabus introduced us to this “theory” in the form of अलंकार (alankaar) & रस (rasa) or “Figures of Speech” (not “Parts of Speech”) & “Genre / Mood / Emotion” (not sure what the exact linguistic term is in English). They are the ingredients that make poetry what it is. They give the words their beauty, the meanings their depth and the whole enterprise its grandiosity. And even though I can apply this theory to English poems to some extent, it is not the same. There is a certain disconnect because having not got the theory first-hand in school when I was being fed all those English poems without the “theory”, the time to appreciate them has gone. But I am thankful that अलंकार & रस were taught at the last moment and so at least, I can say I get Hindi poetry, in a way I can never get English poetry. I won’t talk about this “theory” here but may in some other future post. But they are definitely the reason I was able to bootstrap myself out of my indifference to poetry and actively seek it out and enjoy it while doing so. That has also led me to a form of poetry called ग़ज़ल (Ghazal) that I love the most because to my theoretical physicist brain it is a format that has so much going on and yet can be described theoretically in a few rules that govern its beginning, rhyming structure, physical structure, and (if the poet feels like it) the end. The simplicity of those rules is just marvellous and the resulting gems have been showcased a lot on this blog along with my English translations, which are not supposed to do the originals any justice whatsoever. These translations are just an attempt to keep some non-Hindi speaking readers on this blog a little longer. So let’s talk about ग़ज़ल.

Colours of 2020!

ग़ज़ल (Ghazal): I will define it in a mathematical way but before we get to it, we need to go through half a dozen other definitions as is usual to understand any well-respected mathematical term like homotopy, homomorphism, homology, check-the-RAM cohomology, Heck Man! Dust-Me-Not Detriment and so on.

Definition. A शेर (sher) is a couplet, i.e., a composition of two lines: S=(L₁;L₂).

Definition. A मतला (matla) is a शेर with both lines ending with the same (set of) word(s): M=(L₁=⋯R;L₂=⋯R).

Definition. रदीफ़ (radif) [refrain] refers to the above-mentioned (set of) repeating word(s): R.

Definition. क़ाफ़िया (qaafiya) refers to the rhyming pattern (not words but the sounds) before the रदीफ़, i.e., L=⋯qR.

Definition. बहर (bahar) refers to the metre of a शेर, or number of syllables in it, or simply put, its “length”: B(S).

Definition. A मक़ता (maqta) is a शेर that contains poet’s तख़ल्लुस (taKhallus) [pen-name]: Mq.

Finally, the definition we were waiting for:

Definition. A ग़ज़ल (ghazal) G is a set of four or more shers, G=[S¹;S²;⋯;Sⁿ] with n≥4, which satisfy the following properties:

1. {S¹,⋯,Sm}∈M with m≥1. (A ghazal must begin with at least one मतला (matla).)

2. {Sm+1,⋯,Sⁿ|L₂=⋯R}. (The second line of rest of the shers must have the same रदीफ़ (radif).)

3. {S¹,⋯,Sⁿ|∀ R, ∃ qR}. (All shers should have the same क़ाफ़िया (kaafiya).)

4. B(S¹)=B(S²)=⋯=B(Sⁿ). (All shers should have the same बहर (bahar).)

5. Sⁿ∈Mq [Optional]. (The last sher may be a मक़ता (maqta).)

Corollary. If n=4, I feel cheated. I mean, come on, just one more! It can’t be that hard to write one more if you’ve already written four shers down, right? Come on!

Theorem. Ghazals are Great.

Proof. Follow the well-known strategy of proof by intimidation. QED□

Example. Let us see the above definition in action for a ghazal that I translated years ago and tried very hard to make the translation a ghazal too. I was reminded of it lately because someone commented on that post! I will obviously not repeat the whole thing here; just a few shers by नवाज़ देवबन्दी (Nawaaz Deobandi) to illustrate the above-mentioned rules.

तुम नज़र से नज़र मिलाते तो
बात करते न मुस्कुराते तो

Tum nazar se nazar milaate to
Baat karte na muskuraate to

Had you looked into my eyes then
Spent not a word, just a smile then

This is obviously the matla of the ghazal with radif being ‘तो (to)’ in Hindi and ‘then’ in English and qaafiya being ‘-आते (-aate)’ in Hindi and the sound of ‘-ile’ in English. Sorry, not really as the first line has ‘eyes’ before ‘then’. As mentioned in my old post, I tried to wedge in ‘beguile’ in the first line to really make the translated sher a matla! Anyway, having decided against that, my translation doesn’t strictly qualify as a ghazal but all the following shers have something that sound like ‘-ile’ in their respective second lines (of course, everything also works in Hindi).

इख्तलाफ़ात होते रहते हैं
आना जाना था आते जाते तो

Ikhtalaafaat hote rahte hain
Aana jaana tha aate jaate to

Differences do pop up once in a while
As in the past, visit once in a while then

दोस्ती में अना नहीं चलती
खुद न आते कभी बुलाते तो

Dosti mein ana nahin chalti
Khud na aate kabhi bulaate to

Arrogance doesn’t go far in friendship
If you refuse to visit, maybe I’ll then

Ah! saved by the ‘I’ll’ which has the sound of ‘-ile’ as one may confirm.

भूलते शौक से हमें लेकिन
भूलने का हुनर बताते तो

Bhoolte shauk se hamein lekin
Bhoolne ka hunar bataate to

Feel free forgetting me but
Teach me this life style then

Again, the sound of ‘-yle’ matches the sound of ‘-ile’ and we are good here too. There are a few more shers in this ghazal for which you’ll have to visit the old post linked above and have to watch the video linked in that post to hear the full ghazal. Well, let me embed the video here just in case you don't want to leave this page:

This ghazal also has a great maqta but somehow I didn’t translate it in my old post; no idea why. Rectifying that mistake here and now, so do enjoy the end of this “comic” ghazal:

बज़्म में दिल-‘नवाज़’ हो जाते
तुम मेरे शेर गुनगुनाते तो

Bazm mein dil-‘Nawaaz’ ho jaate
Tum mere sher gungunaate to

This venue would’ve considered you kind-to-‘Nawaaz’
You should have murmured my shers as a trial then

It is clear this sher is a maqta in Hindi with an exemplary usage of the word ‘दिल-नवाज़ (dil-nawaaz)’ which means ‘kind’ but since the latter half is also the poet’s name, it provides an outstanding example of श्लेष अलंकार (shlesh alankaar) [pun]. However, in my translation I just lazily appended ‘-to-Nawaaz’ to ‘kind’ to make the translated sher a maqta too. In addition, the two lines are just too long so this sher doesn’t have the same bahar as the preceding ones and I also shoe-horned the word ‘trial’ to make up the qaafiya of ‘-ile’. I have to admit none of this imparts any beauty to the translated sher that the original sher has. Anyway, talking about the poet’s pen-name, thinking about the meaning of Nawaaz as ‘cherish / reward’, one may be able to impart some depth to the translation too but that would be very much out of my depth. Hehe... see what I did there? I used ‘depth’ in two places with two different meanings, providing us – as you are well aware – an example of यमक अलंकार (yamak alankaar) [homonym].

And with that, we end this “great” year 2020. I will leave you with another attempt of mine at translating a ghazal into a Ghazal. I feel this one is quite good; you’d agree too,



  1. the theory of ghazals worth it without the examples?

    1. I think it has some worth as does any other "theory" regardless of how many examples it can support. Just like QFT has worth regardless of the Standard Model's existence. :)

  2. Totally loved the definitions part!
    Made me realise how long it has been since I read Walter Rudin!

    1. Great... Never thought someone reading a post on poetry here would be interested in its mathematical analysis! :)