Ghazal 206, Verse 1


z-baskih mashq-e tamaashaa junuu;N-((alaamat hai
kushaad-o-bast-e mizhah siilii-e nadaamat hai

1) {to such an extent / although} the practice of spectacle[-viewing] is a madness-sign
2) the opening and shutting of the eyelids is a slap/moisture of shame/regret/repentance


((alaamat : 'A mark, sign, token, an indication, a symptom; an index, exponent; a characteristic; a cognizance, a badge, device, emblem, a coat of arms; —a flag, standard'. (Platts p.763)


siil : 'Wetness, moistness, dampness, moisture'. (Plats p.712)


siil : 'Disposition, character, nature; quality, tendency; good disposition; right conduct.... aa;Nkho;N me;N siil honaa , To be polite, or generous, &c.; to be quiet, or modest, or retiring'. (Platts p.712)


siilii : 'A blow with the edge of the open hand on the back of the neck; a slap, cuff'. (Platts p.712)


nadaamat : 'Repentance, penitence, contrition, regret; shame'. (Platts p.1126)


To remain absorbed in the spectacle of the world is a sign of madness, and a nonsensical act. For this reason, at the time of looking at a spectacle, the eyelids' opening and closing is the falling of a slap of shame. (232)

== Nazm page 232

Bekhud Dihlavi:

He says, 'To look at the spectacle of the wonders of this world is a sign of insanity. In the state of watching a spectacle, the opening and closing of the eyes is like slaps of humiliation.' The meaning is that this unstable world isn't worthy of having any heart-possessor become a spectator and waste his time, and have the result be shame and lowness. (290)

Bekhud Mohani:

When a person's eyes are open, then his eyelids blink. But the poet has shown that the spectacle of the world is a kind of madness; thus when we look at something, then the eyelashes' slap of shame falls on the eyes. (411)


GAZE: {10,12}
MADNESS: {14,3}
TAMASHA: {8,1}

The clever positioning of z-baskih in the first line gives us the two choices 'to such an extent, since' and 'although'; as usual with Ghalib, both open strange possibilities in the second line:

=It's such a characteristic of madness to 'practice spectacle-viewing' that in the speaker's madness he begrudges even the momentary involuntary eye-blinks that deprive him of a millisecond of the spectacle, so to him the blinks are like slaps that he uses to chasten himself for his brief inattention, and to sharpen his alertness.

=It's such a characteristic of madness to 'practice spectacle-viewing' that like many madmen, the speaker becomes fixated and entranced. He needs to be slapped and made to come out of it, and his case is so extreme that hid very eyelids become alarmed: they blink in order to slap him awake from his trance and bring him back, embarrassed, to reality. (A much less interesting reading, in my view, but the one on which the commentators generally agree.)

=Although it's a characteristic of madness to 'practice spectacle-viewing', even as the speaker practices it he hasn't entirely lost his grip on reason. He's constantly blinking, and those blinks are like little slaps from himself to himself, to chastise himself and try to shock himself into returning to the real world.

Certainly siilii means a slap or a blow, and the commentators generally present it as the only meaning that's invoked here. But siilnaa also means 'to become damp or moist', so that siil means 'wetness, moisture' (see the definitions above). From siil to siilii is not a long step, and 'wetness, moisture' is of course exactly what is provided by blinking. There's an enjoyable wordplay here that's felt by the reader, even though it may not be part of the primary meaning.

Somewhere in the general neighborhood-- though no doubt farther away-- there also lurks the siil that goes back to the Sanskrit shiila , and has the double sense of 'disposition' and 'good disposition'. A parallel: the English 'character' can be used either positively ('he has character') or neutrally ('he has a bad character'). And it turns out that in the case of siil there's actually an idiom well enough established to be in Platts: aa;Nkho;N me;N siil honaa means essentially 'to be well-behaved'. And in the present verse too we have a form of behavior in the eyes: bad behavior, shame, regret.

If these words hover around so closely that somebody like me could notice and enjoy them, how could Ghalib and the original audience not have done so?