Ghazal 172, Verse 1


paa bah daaman ho rahaa huu;N baskih mai;N .sa;hraa-navard
;xaar-e paa hai;N jauhar-e aa))iinah-e zaanuu mujhe

1a) I, the desert-wanderer, am becoming to such an extent {reclusive / passive / 'foot-with-garment-hem'}
1b) although I, the desert-wanderer, am becoming {reclusive / passive/ 'foot-with-garment-hem'}

2a) the thorns of the feet are polish-marks of the mirror of the knees, to me
2b) the polish-marks of the mirror of the knees are thorns of the feet, to me


paa bah daaman kardan : 'To court retirement; to bear patiently; to be contented'. (Steingass p.228)


That is, when the feet are brought close to the knees, the thorns that are lodged in the feet have become the polish-marks of the mirror of the knees. In this verse too, except for the simile, there's no pleasure in the meaning. (192)

== Nazm page 192

Bekhud Mohani:

A lover of desert-wandering is, because thorns have lodged in his feet, deprived of desert-wandering. Having placed his feet on his knees, he looks at the thorns lodged in his feet and says, because of these wretched things a desert-wanderer like me is sitting here with curled-up feet! He looks at them and is irritated.

[Or:] My practice was desert-wandering. Now that I have abandoned desert-wandering and remain ensnared in my thoughts, these very thoughts have become thorns for my feet. That is, the way that when thorns are lodged a person cannot walk, in the same way, in the incompleteness of these thoughts I am deprived of desert-wandering.

[Disputing Nazm:] The meaning that has been mentioned [by him] is reversed. Now there remains the pleasure of the meaning: about this I have to say that to people who are mad for work, sitting on the ground is torture. Mirza has captured a picture of such an individual: {149,1}. (336)


The meanings of paa bah daaman kardan are: (1) to withdraw into seclusion; (2) to endure something with patience; (3) to content oneself with something (Steingass). [Other similar citations are provided.] Thus the meaning of paa bah daaman honaa is to abandon coming and going, to adopt seclusion. ho rahaa huu;N has two meanings: (1) ho kar rah gayaa huu;N , that is, now there's no expection of changing this state; and (2) ho gayaa huu;N , that is, formerly there was one state, now there's another state. This change could be deliberate, or involuntary....

'Mirror of the knees' actually means 'kneecap' (Steingass).... This meaning is so rare that I've only seen it in two other places: [a verse by Nasikh, and Tilism-e Hoshruba]....

He's called the kneecap the 'mirror of the knees', then assumed the mirror to be a mirror in which the face is seen. Now when from being bone it has reached the stage of being a mirror, then he has assumed polish-marks in the mirror as well....

In the light of the above discussion, the interpretation of the verse becomes this: I was a desert-wanderer. Desert-wandering is a cause of madness. In such a state, when I was wandering aimlessly around, who had the leisure or opportunity to look at his face in a mirror, and ascertain his condition? Now I've renounced desert-wandering, and I sit leaning my head on my knees. The reason for the renunciation of desert-wandering can be anything at all-- a lack of madness, weariness, despair, etc. I sit leaning my head on my knees, as though I am looking at my face in the mirror of the kneecaps. The excellence of a mirror is in its polish-marks. They often give for the polish-marks of a mirror the simile of thorns. Ghalib himself has a verse: {56,2}.

Now when I look at the mirror of the knees, I feel that the thorns that lodged in my feet in the state of desert-wandering are the polish-marks on this mirror. That is, this mirror has become worthy of being looked into because thorns had lodged in my feet. Now neither do thorns lodge in my feet, nor do I sit like this with my feet curled up and my head leaning on my knees because I'm able to see my face in the mirror of the knees. Because of desert-wandering, the mirror of my knees became polish-marked. And now, when desert-wandering has been renounced, even then the thorns are showing their qualities [jauhar]. It's a verse in Ghalib's special style. (1989: 302-04) [2006: 325-29]


DESERT: {3,1}
MIRROR: {8,3}

This verse makes good use of the complex possibilities of baskih , which can mean either 'to such an extent' or 'although'; needless to say (this being Ghalib), both senses work excellently with the second line. On the first reading, I am so inactive now that even the thorns lodged in my feet from my old desert-wandering days have now become polish-marks on a mirror-- and my knees, which I no longer use for any other purpose, have become the mirror itself (1a). On the second reading, even though I'm now inactive and reclusive, I still have my souvenirs of the old days of desert-wandering-- but now I make use of the thorns and my knees in new ways, to serve new purposes (1b).

Why are the knees like a mirror? Because as I sit passively in a corner, my downcast, lowered gaze is always fixed on them, the way one might gaze into a mirror-- as I contemplate the nature of life, death, madness, and wandering. Why are the thorns like polish-marks? Because they are short lines, violently incised into or embedded in a surface, and because they both create and testify to the proper functioning of that surface: the thorns verify that the mad lover has wandered barefoot in the desert; the polish-marks verify that the mirror has been scraped free of verdigris and highly polished.

And then, in a kind of 'symmetry', there are also two readings of the second line. We can read 'A is B', 'thorns are polish-marks', as everybody does; but we can equally well read 'B is A', 'polish-marks are thorns': even though (or else because) I've given up desert-wandering and sit staring at the 'mirror' of my knees and feet, I still feel and remember, like thorns in my feet, the ordeals and sufferings and wild madness of the road. Perhaps I'm now so frail that even looking down at my knees is as painful as wandering barefoot over thorns; or perhaps I'm such an incurable desert-wanderer that even when sitting helplessly in a corner I still imagine myself to be traversing a thorny road.

As Faruqi points out, it's not clear whether the abandonment of desert-wandering was deliberate (I no longer wish to practice it) or took place under some kind of compulsion (I'm too worn out for it). And beyond that, we don't know whether the verse exults in this new condition (I now seek inner insight instead of mere outer vistas), grieves over it (alas, I can no longer wander, and I'm stuck with nothing to contemplate but my own face), or simply reports it neutrally, as another development in life.

Then, the 'to me' at the end calls the whole thing into question-- would anybody else agree with me? Or am I simply making up a fantasy of some kind, to console myself or rationalize my behavior?

There's also an aspect of sheer exaggerated depiction of the sitting/squatting position of the speaker. (For more on the role of the knees [zaanuu] in sitting (on the ground), see {32,2}.) The speaker is now so helplessly immobile and despairing that his head and eyes are always cast down to the maximum degree possible. His knees are thus in such close proximity to his feet that they are joined or assimilated with them, since the thorns in the feet appear as polish-marks in the mirror of the knees. And his gaze is so fixed downward that he stares fixedly at his knees the way people look into a mirror. In fact the position depicted is the same as the hunched-over one also imagined-- equally extravagantly-- in {171,1}.

Note for grammar fans: Faruqi observes, in effect, that what looks to be the present progressive '[I] am becoming' [ho rahaa huu;N] could also be read as '[I] became, and have remained' [ho kar rahaa huu;N , with the kar colloquially omitted], though he explains these forms in other idiomatic terms. He then discusses the somewhat different implications of the two readings. For more on this idiomatic pattern, including examples, see {58,7}. Certainly the present progressive reading is so completely obvious and natural that the possibility (or desirability?) of another reading never even occurred to me until I read Faruqi's commentary. In any case, in this verse it doesn't really seem to make much difference.