raah kii ko))ii suntaa nah thaa yaa;N raste me;N maanind-e jaras
shor saa karte jaate the ham baat kii kis ko :taaqat thii

1) [speech] of/about the road, no one [habitually] listened to, here, in the road, like a bell,
2) we [habitually] went along making something like a clamor-- who had the patience/strength/capability for speech?!



:taaqat : 'Ability to accomplish, capability; ability, power, energy, force, strength; ability to endure, power of endurance, endurance, patience'. (Platts p.750)

S. R. Faruqi:

The theme is entirely new, but its 'mood' and scene-evocation too are out of the ordinary. There's a great crowd who are entirely mindless, or devoid of intelligence-- they're just going along. Among them there's not even any meaningful conversation-- they speak not to each other, but over each other's heads. No one listens; if anyone listens, then he doesn't understand. To construe conversation as 'a clamor'-- or rather as 'something like a clamor'-- is to express the limit case of the failure of the human existence and the human spirit.

The theme of the solitude of the bell, Mir has composed several times; see


But here he has given it a corroborative character, and has made it attract attention in a different way. Between the bell and the caravan there's a 'blouse-and-skirt' [=essential] relationship. But the sound of the bell has no meaning for the people of the caravan. Its task is only to announce to all, near and far, that the caravan is on the move. If this 'semiotic' meaning does not exist, then the bell is only a noise.

The caravan that is mentioned in the verse (the caravan of life, the caravan of passion) is such that among its travelers too there is the same mutual unfamiliarity that exists between the travelers and the bell. That is, among the people of the caravan human qualities are very few. They are going along like machines, like machines they have voices emerging from their mouths. This whole affair is entirely inhuman, and describes the caravan of life. What can be a greater cause of despair than that the caravan is human, but its spirit is mechanical?

Now let's consider some subtle aspects of the meaning. The meaning of raah kii ko))ii suntaa nah thaa is that no one listened to raah kii baat (the things that are happening on the road). But it can also have another meaning: 'the road's speech' (what the road was saying through the 'tongue of its condition' [zabaan-e ;haal]). That is, the road itself wanted to inform the caravan people of something, or of several things, but here, who had the leisure? What did the road want to say? For this there can be several answers. For example, on the road the traces of past caravans can be the bearers of various kinds of lessons. From the condition of the road itself many things can be learned. The road is also a kind of guide, and so on.

Now, notice too that one meaning of baat kii kis ko :taaqat thii can also be that people had all picked up their own burdens and were so absorbed in carrying them that they didn't even have the strength for meaningful conversations with their companions.

For the 'people of the world' to be immersed in the affairs of the world, to be lost in their own pursuits-- lost not even in the world itself, but rather in striving to attain trivial, petty, foolish goals as in a 'rat race'; such a vision then appears in T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land':

'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.'

I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

Eliot's style of expression is his own invention, in which there's also the influence of some earlier French poets, and that of Ezra Pound. But Eliot's tension-filled language, his frightening image, are debts owed by the modern age. Mir has given to this very tension the force of a flood-- that there is no individual, but rather a flood that is being carried away by some other flood.

It's also possible that raah kii baat might mean the sound of footsteps, and the echo of the caravan's passage through mountain-passes and valleys. This theme Mir has composed like this in the third divan [{1278,7}]:

yaa;N baat raah kii to suntaa nahii;N hai ko))ii
jaate hai;N ham jaras se is qaafile me;N bakte

[here no one listens to the speech of the road
we go on babbling, like a bell, in this caravan]

In the second divan, he has turned the idea a bit, and well composed it [{809,7}]:

is qaafile me;N ko))ii dil-aashnaa nahii;N hai
;Tuk;Re gale ke apne naa-;haq nah ay jaras kar

[in this caravan there is no heart-acquainted one
don't tear your throat into fragments in vain, oh bell!]



There are several intriguing points of ambiguity in the verse. One is raah kii baat , speech 'of' the road, which can mean speech uttered by the road, or speech about the road, or speech that occurs while on the road. (As so often, the ka/ke/ki proves to be as flexible as an izafat.)

Another is the ambiguity of the speaker: the ham could be the speaker referring to himself alone, or it could be the whole group of caravan travelers among whom, in the first line, the speaker has so emphatically placed himself. And of course that caravan could well contain all human beings.

And one more very central ambiguity is contained in baat kis ko :taaqat thii , which thanks to the 'kya effect', combined with the range of :taaqat (see the definition above), has several possible readings. The indignant negative rhetorical question is only the most obvious:

='Who had the patience for speech?!' (Not 'us'-- 'we' were too preoccupied with personal affairs.)

='Who had the strength for speech?!' (Not 'us'-- 'we' were too overburdened by the travails of the journey.)

='Who had the capability for speech?!' (Not 'us'-- 'we' were simply unable to utter or understand speech at all.)

Here are three initial choices. But they are actually six, because in each case the 'we' could refer to either the speaker alone, or to everyone in the caravan. Technically, the six are then actually twelve, because each such negative rhetorical question could also be read as a genuine question-- as the speaker wonders if there might have been any exceptional person who actually was available for conversation.

Not all of these possible permutations are equally interesting, of course, but there are plenty of compelling ones for us readers to choose among. My own favorite point of back-and-forth reflection is the reason for the dearth of speech. If it was a lack of 'patience', then 'we' are at fault-- it's a moral culpability, and if the results are bad then 'we' have no right to complain. If it was a lack of 'strength', then it's a function of the rigors of the journey; perhaps when the caravan halts for the night, 'we' do converse. If it was a lack of 'capability', then it's a terrible, inherent deficiency that can never be overcome, and that calls into question our very humanity.

The yaa;N is technically a 'midpoints' case: it can be read either with the clause before it or with the clause after it. In this verse it doesn't make much interpretive difference, but it does somehow feel especially immersive: the speaker is definitely 'here'. Mir has a great many of such unobtrusive 'midpoints' cases.

That 'like a bell' is an intriguing little phrase in its own right. Presumably it carries over to the second line, and applies to the 'clamor' that 'we' were making. Would this bell-like clamor be meant to warn the travelers that the caravan was about to move on?