Ghazal 32, Verse 1


nah thaa kuchh to ;xudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to ;xudaa hotaa
;Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa mai;N to kyaa hotaa

1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist
1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God

2a) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be?
2b) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be?
2c) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist?
2d) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would exist?
2e) 'being' drowned me; if I were not I, then so what?
2f) 'being' drowned me; if I did not exist, then so what?



In an entirely new manner he has given non-existence priority over existence, and through a strange expectation he has expressed a longing for complete nonexistence. The meaning of the first line is apparent. In the second line, apparently the thought is expressed, If I did not exist, then what harm would it be? But the speaker's intent is, If I did not exist, it would be worth seeing what thing I would be-- which means, I would be God. Because in the first line it has already been said, If I were nothing, then I would be God.
==Urdu text: p.121 in Hali, Yadgar-e Ghalib


He says that this Source, which is insubstantial, cannot become a substance. It is not manifest to the extent that the effects of power and contrivance and wisdom are manifest, perceptible, revealed. And for this reason we make distinctions between the ignorer and the ignored, the active and the passive. The author has composed this verse according to the the Sufistic view: that is, When I was nothing, I was God, and having become something, I became alienated from my origin, and to become separate from that benevolent origin turned out to be bad for me. (31)

== Nazm page 31

Bekhud Dihlavi:

With what excellence he's given nonexistence priority over existence-- it's beyond praise. He says that when the world had not been born, then there was only the Lord himself. If this world of possibilities had not been engendered, then too there would have been only the Lord himself. Thus my existence, as it manifested itself, established me as a separate body, and that other body, having taken shape, ruined me. If I had not been born, and did not exist, then just think, what would I have been! That is, I would have been God. (61-62)

Bekhud Mohani:

The poet has put in this verse such a capacious word as 'drowned'-- the commentary on which could fill volume upon volume.... He inquires from the hearers in a questioning tone, so that they themselves would say just what he is saying about himself. (77)


nah hotaa mai;N to kyaa hotaa has two meanings: 1) if I did not exist, then there'd be no loss, no harm; 2) if I did not exist, then I'd be God. (349)


This verse can be placed among the most famous verses of Urdu.... In the whole verse only one word derived from Persian ( ;xudaa ) has been used, and that too such a commonly used word that the thought of its being Persian doesn't even arise. [In addition to the usual interpretations] the verse also gestures toward the compulsions of life.... His existence or nonexistence has perhaps made no difference in the order of things, but man is forced to endure his coming into existence, and life, and death. [Another reading is,] if I had not come into existence, then what harm would that have done? (1989: 50-51) [2006: 67-68]



As Faruqi says, this is one of the most famous verses in Urdu, and honestly awe-inspiring in its tangle of complexities of meaning. Hindi/Urdu students can understand it after one year of study; yet it will repay any amount of thought. Can there be another example of so many meanings attained with so little effort? As Faruqi also observes, the vocabulary is simple and plain in the extreme.

This is another verse that can't be addressed to a human; for more on this see {20,10}. For another verse with the same apparently sacrilegious overtones, see {230,11}.

It also works as a sort of sophisticated 'mushairah verse', since the first line sets us up to expect an entirely theological theme; the presence of the 'I', and its possible insertion as an omitted subject into the first line, can't be known until we hear the second line. And the final kyaa hotaa is so brilliantly ptotrsn that it truly boggles the mind.

In case the bizarre multiplicity of meanings makes your head spin, there are several key operations that generate them in such profusion. Needless to say, the power of inshaa))iyah speech and the multivalence of kyaa are on display; for more on all this see {21,1}. Another point to remember is that the subject in Urdu can always be omitted if it's clearly understood, as it is in this case. So if you do or don't add in an implied subject, you generate twofold meanings for almost every phrase. And since the lover, God, and the abstract kuchh are all masculine singular, all these meanings work:

jab [ mai;N ] kuchh nah thaa to [ = tab ] [ mai;N ] ;xudaa thaa
agar [ mai;N ] kuchh nah hotaa to [ mai;N ] ;xudaa hotaa

hone ne mujh ko ;Duboyaa; agar mai;N [ mai;N ] nah hotaa to [ mai;N ] kyaa hotaa

There are six places at which mai;N may or may not be conjecturally inserted, with radical effects on the meaning. The only other special information you need is the knowledge that to kyaa hotaa colloquially means something like 'then so what?' or 'then who cares?' (It works so well that he promptly uses it again in {32,3}.)

Is this not a two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations? That's why I consider it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning generator'-- because of its radical undecideability. For other examples of such wildly proliferating 'generator' verses, see in this ghazal {32,3}; and also {21,1}, {45,3}, {101,5}, {202,4}, {214,10}, and the brilliantly simple {230,7}.

Along very similar lines, though ultimately less complex, are Mir's M{481,6} and M{1076,7}. And for Mir's own show of maximum possible permutations, see M{904,1}. My favorite of such 'Ghalibian' Mir verses, however, is M{1469,3}.