jahaa;N sha:tranj-baazandah falak ham tum hai;N sab muhre
basaan-e shaa:tir-e nau ;zauq use muhro;N kii zad se hai

1) where the sky is a chess-player, we and you are all chess-pieces
2) like a novice player, its relish/taste is for loss/damage of the chess-pieces



baazandah : 'Playing; player'. (Platts p.122)


zad : 'Striking, beating; stroke, blow; damage, loss'. (Platts p.615)

S. R. Faruqi:

This verse's theme, its image, and its meaning are all so fresh and 'dramatic' that for praise or analysis, words fail us. Then, the viewpoint on which the verse is based is extremely realistic, and has been taken directly from everyday life. The inexperienced chess-player is recognized because he has a limitless ardor for capturing/'killing' chess-pieces. He has no strategy, no plan, and no understanding of the consequences of any move. He is just blindly eager to capture or be captured, even if the result would turn out to be ruinous. The inexperienced chess-player thinks that capturing pieces is the real game: however many of the opposing player's chess-pieces are captured, that's how powerful he himself will able to be.

Look at how beautifully and completely Mir has brought this viewpoint into the verse. Now it has become a metaphor for the whole human condition. Then, it should also be kept in mind that although a chessboard has only sixty-four squares, and when play begins there are chess-pieces on thirty-two of them, no two chess games are ever entirely identical to each other. In every game there's something new. This is the human condition as well-- that everyone's life is different from that of others.

The chessboard and the game of chess are human inventions. But once they have been invented, they are outside of human power. Now the player has no power to anticipate every move in the game; nor does he have perfect control over the outcome of the game. This is the situation of human life as well-- although a person certainly has control over his surroundings, he does not control every aspect, every element of his surroundings at every moment. Thus at one or another stage of life he falls prey to death.

The sky has no interest in playing according to any strategy, any plan. In this there can also be hidden the point that if the game would be finished, then the sky would no longer have occasion to keep on capturing pieces, appropriately and inappropriately. When the game ceases, then the chess-pieces that are lying on the chessboard are left lying there, as though the player no longer enjoys capturing them. Similarly, the sky doesn't finish its game with us-- it only blindly, randomly goes on cutting us down. If there would be some strategy or plan, then the game would be finished and this amusement of the sky's too-- which proves it to be an inexperienced chess-player-- would be over.

The complex metaphor and simile are excellently complete in this verse. Shakespeare, in 'King Lear', has said through the lips of Gloucester something that every schoolchild memorizes. And why should they not? He is the greatest poet of a great culture, while among us Urdu-lovers there are even a number of people who don't call Mir a great poet. Or again, they call him a great poet of Urdu, but don't consider him worthy of a seat in the gathering of world literature. In 'King Lear' the passage is (Act IV, Scene 1),

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods.
They kill us for their sport.

Shakespeare's simile is very fine. And to call the godlings (or the forces of nature) playful mischievous boys too is extremely superb. But Mir's metaphor and simile both are more meaningful, complex, and suitable for the situation And then, Mir's expression is nearer to the setting of everyday life. Above all, to declare the sky to be an inexperienced chess-player is extremely eloquent, because such a person can be wise and mature in other areas. Thus this simile has much more power than the 'wanton boys' one.

Khayyam composed a [Persian] quatrain with a theme that approximated those of Mir and Shakespeare:

'We are puppets, and the sky is a puppet-master.
This is not by way of a spiritual truth, nor a physical one.
On the game-board of existence we show our moves,
One by one we are put away in the box of nonexistence.'

In Khayyam's verse there's a melancholy and sorrowful nostalgia, but the stage on which Khayyam's game is shown to us is very small, and that cosmic melancholy does not drip from it that oozes to a greater degree from Mir's verse, and to a lesser degree from Shakespeare. Then, Mir's verse also has the addicional excellences of sarcasm, of a kind of contempt for the sky, and of a mutuality/inclusiveness in its address.

[See also {456,8}.]



Another way of reading the first line would be to take jahaa;N not as a relative pronoun, but as 'the world', so that the reading would be 'the world is a chess-player; the sky, we, and you are all chess-pieces'. There's nothing in the grammar of either line to forbid this reading. The only thing against it is that in the ghazal world as we know it, 'the sky' is a more probable locus of superior and hostile power than 'the world'. But it wouldn't be surprising if Mir had set up the ambiguity deliberately. For to cause the mushairah audience to be uncertain at first about what was the chess-player and what was the chess-piece, would further enhance the sinister sense of our human bewilderment and helplessness.

Note for translation fans: In Urdu chess-players 'strike, kill' [maarnaa] their opponent's chess-pieces; in English, they 'capture' them. Obviously the 'strike, kill' reading works much better metaphorically, since it's much more akin to the way the sky actually treats us. And the verse itself makes clear that the sky inflicts 'loss, damage' on the chess-pieces. So in translating one has to be careful to sustain the metaphor as much as possible. There's also a difference between a chess-game that simply 'stops' (by being abandoned at some point in the middle), and one that actually 'ends' or 'finishes' (by the achievement of check-mate). This kind of distinction too is something to which the translator must be sensitive, or else the reader (and the translator) may end up confused.

Compare Ghalib's even more sinister vision of us as the card-shuffling of the Card-player of Thought: