Ghalib, the peacock and us

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Mehr Afshan Farooqi

Dasht se basti mein aya ek mor From wilderness a peacock came to our abode — Mir Taqi Mir

NO bird can carry the weight of a gorgeous train of iridescent, patterned plumage and an overload of myth but the peacock. Blamed for being proud, relished for the meat, idolised for his scintillating courtship dance, venerated for his ability to ingest poison, sanctified for being the vehicle of gods, revered for having earned a place in the garden of paradise, but, did anyone love the peacock?

We as a family loved our peacock. I forget who exactly presented my father with a couple of brownish-grey chicks on a winter afternoon in Lucknow. Their drab appearance surprised but did not deter us from welcoming them to our home. My sister and I got busy collecting squirming, squiggly earthworms from the garden and serving them quite mercilessly to the new arrivals. Our cook, who grumbled whenever a guest showed up, took a keen interest in feeding the baby birds. Boiled eggs for breakfast, a mixture of insects and crumbled rotis for lunch.

All day long the free-roaming chicks pecked at whatever caught their fancy. They loved the warm winter sunshine, sunbathed with one eye closed, and grew fast to the stage when the distinctive decorative antennae-like crown began to emerge on the top of their head. Their plumage now had glints of green. I can’t remember if we had given the chicks names at this point; probably not. One chick grew sluggish and died; its crown was half grown, we did not know if it was a peahen or a peacock. The remaining one was named Mirza ji as it had begun to show indications of being male. As Mirza ji grew bigger it was difficult to keep him at the rented house in Lucknow. He was transported to our Allahabad home where he joined a medley of birds and pet animals.

I should have asked my father why our young peacock was named Mirza ji. Mirza ji was the moniker he used to refer to Ghalib, the great 19th-century Urdu poet. Perhaps the gravitas of the young peacock Mirza ji resonated with Ghalib. Or, the splendour of Mirza ji’s plumage reminded one of Ghalib’s brilliance. I think it was both. Those who have read Ghalib would know how abstract his poetry can be; the dizzy flights of imagination that he accomplishes through a string of metaphors are unparalleled in Urdu. In Ghalib’s poetry’s garden, the peacock dances unconstrained.

The peacock is symbolic of colourfulness; although I must add that being colourful has many connotations. Besides, how could Ghalib let go of a subject as fascinating as a peacock without adding new colours to it? The peacock’s iridescent plumage inspired Ghalib to illustrate his favourite theme of nairang. Nairang has a slew of meanings: fascination, bewitchment, deception, illusion, wonder. Ghalib played with illusion and deception because the peacock’s shimmering plumage could be adapted to the verbal game of hide and seek that he relished. He pictured the green-blue colors hiding, even merging with the wild, green, grassy meadows. The grass attracts the peacock, it makes him captive. But Ghalib also loved to subvert themes. The two verses below show how one illusion can lead to more illusions:

Shokhi-e nairang saed-o vahshat-e ta’us hai Dam sabze mein hai parvaz-e-chaman taskhir ka Vividness of illusion makes the peacock restless and captive Greenery is a net that captivates, curtailing flight across the world’s garden

Note that shokhi or vividness is also a quality of the peacock; thus vividness is intensified twice. A vivid illusion of greenness/greenery captivates the peacock. Greenery is also a snare (nets by the way are also green coloured for camouflage), it holds the peacock from flying away.

Dam gar sabze mein pinhan kijeye ta’us ho Josh-e nairang-e bahar-e arz-e sahra dadah se If one pins a net in greenery, it would become a peacock From the ebullience of spring’s illusion created by the expanse of wilderness

The expanse of wilderness creates an illusion of spring. This illusion is brilliant like a peacock. The joy of the illusion causes one to see a peacock where there is only a net.

Our Mirza ji, the peacock in Allahabad, had a captive audience. News of his residency had spread in the neighbourhood carried by the stridency of his vocal cords. Bereft of a bevy of peahens to admire his wonderful feathers, he responded to the trill of our doorbell with a full-throated call that reverberated like a gong. As for dancing, he performed whenever he felt the need. There was a great demand for his tail feathers. Each shimmering feather was patterned with an eye motif. Let us hear what Ghalib has to say on feathers:

Par-e taus tamasha nazar aya hai mujhe Ek dil tha keh ba sad rang dikhaya hai mujhe The peacock’s plumage looks like a spectacle to me It is the one heart that displays a hundred colours

To Ghalib the pattern on the plumage usually described as eyes appears like bruises. He compares the blue, green, black and yellow spots on the tail feathers to a lover’s heart that is studded with bruises. Since bruises change colours it becomes a show, a spectacle. What an intriguing image of a peacock. The shair is truly as dramatic as the bird. The phrase sad rang which means a 100 colours, could have more than one interpretation especially when we tie it to tamasha or spectacle. The heart showing its 100 colours is undoubtedly spectacular. It is a dizzying image. I urge readers to explore more of Ghalib’s usage of tamasha.

A friend with whom I discussed this shair remarked on my interpretation of sad rang dil as a ‘bruise-studded heart’. Hearts are usually scarred or wounded she said; bruises can heal. My response is that bruises are replaced with more bruises but I can see that a heart can also send out sparks in myriad colours. The ghazal from which I have quoted this verse begins with yet another enchanting image of the bird:

Shakl-e ta’us giriftar banaya hai mujhe Hun voh guldam keh sabze mein chupaya hai mujhe You have captured me in the form of a peacock I am the snare hidden in [my own] greenery

Here Ghalib imagines the patterns on a peacock’s tail to be like a fish net. The peacock is captured in its own net, so is the poet-protagonist. The protagonist’s being is his own snare. Guldam, a net made of flowers or a net for catching flowers, is hidden in the grass. The verse is a little obscure but the images are startling. In the world of illusions, how far does a peacock go? Did Mirza ji, our peacock have a long happy life or was it all just a dream from which I woke up? Talking of dreams, Ghalib says that if you stuff your pillow with peacock’s feathers your dreams will be dazzling:

Tha khvab mein kya jalvah paristar-e Zuleikha Hai balish-e dil sokhtagan mein par-e ta’us In dreams Zuleikha’s beauty dazzled her admirers, The burned lover’s pillows were stuffed with peacock feathers

Ghalib’s poetry bridges the world of illusion and the world of perception almost like theoretical physics. The wonder of creation is as mystifying and colourful as the peacock’s feathers. Our perplexity is manifested in so many colours through language. Next time you see a peacock, think of Ghalib.

Citation
Mehr Afshan Farooqi , “Ghalib, the peacock and us,” in Dawn, May 11, 2015. Accessed on May 11, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1181136/column-ghalib-the-peacock-and-us

Disclaimer
The item above written by Mehr Afshan Farooqi and published in Dawn on May 11, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 11, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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