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Hope and the Imagination

By Tabish Khair 

When I think of hope and the imagination, two poems – in two of my four languages – come unbidden to mind. Both are poems by major poets of their respective languages of English and Urdu, and both are among their best known, and often-quoted, poems. On the surface, they appear to be entirely different from each other.

For Emily Dickinson, hope is, as you may know, ‘a thing with feathers | that perches in the soul … and sings the tune without the words … and never stops – at all’. It is a ‘bird’ that keeps ‘so many warm’ and never, no matter in what ‘extremity’, does it ask for ‘a crumb’ in return. This image of the hope-bird is grossly deceptive, as we shall see, and it is deceptive in the manner of Dickinson’s engagement with poetry. It seems to be a safe and soft image, maybe even a ‘feminine’ one (if I am allowed to repeat the prejudices of the time). Similarly, Dickinson’s poems can seem to consist of lilting, ‘feminine’ lyrics of the kind that might appear on greeting cards today. But we know that they were not, and are not.

The other poem, or ghazal, is by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Ghalib’s life coincided with the final collapse of the Mughal heritage in Delhi, with the last Mughal emperor being forced by circumstances to join the uprising against the East India Company,  and then packed off to die in Rangoon by the victorious British. This also meant a great diminishment of literature and tahzeeb (culture or etiquette) in Urdu and Persian, the two languages Ghalib wrote in. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that Ghalib has a seemingly different take on hope (‘umeed’) to Dickinson.

His ghazal starts with a commonly quoted couplet, which my pragmatic father, a doctor, disliked for its dark pessimism: ‘Koi umeed bar nahin aati | Koi surat nazar nahin aati.’ (No hope gleams in the night | No face (or option) is in sight.) Then it plunges deeper into gloom, noting, in the next couplet, that the day of death is fixed, and asking, ‘Why, then, can’t I sleep at night?’ This stresses the sheer restlessness of Ghalib’s hopelessness, suggesting that the lack of hope is deceptive. If you have no hope, as in knowing that your day of death is fixed, then why should you not be able to sleep at night? The seeming certainty of hopelessness is deceptive: there is always something else that makes one toss and turn in the night. 

It is already obvious that Ghalib’s engagement with ‘hope’ is very different from the English language poet’s. At first (deceptive) glance, Dickinson’s hope is figured on a bird singing. The bird is not singing in a sunny world – there is darkness too; there are storms all around it – and yet the bird keeps singing, without asking for anything in return.

Meanwhile, Ghalib’s poem is not about hope, but its lack. The sustaining image in it is not a bird, which is a presence, but various kinds of absences. Such lack deprives you of sleep; it removes not just your ability to laugh at your own travails, but even to laugh in general, as the next couplet puts it.

Despite all this, though, Ghalib’s speaker cannot just reach out and grab hope, as offered by society: he confesses that he knows ‘the benefits of restraint and prayer’, but he is not tempted to embrace them. In short, he is not just unable but actually unwilling to relinquish this dark place where he can see no possibility gleaming on the horizon for a societal space where there might, perhaps, be some hope.

Why? He says it is not as if he cannot answer, but there is a reason for his silence. Even death, he goes on to claim, comes to him and draws back. Even death, which one might assume to be the culmination of such stubborn hopelessness, is lacking. It is an absence. He has reached a place so far out that, he avers, he no longer gets even news of himself. The ghazal concludes with this couplet, which appears ambiguous only if one has not focused on the intricate evasions of the previous couplets:

kaaba kis muñh se jāoge ‘ġhālib’

sharm tum ko magar nahīñ aatī.

(With what face/mouth will you go to Kaaba, Ghalib,

But nevertheless/still you remain unashamed.) 

Ghalib’s hope – or, actually, its absence – is a deeply personal thing. He cannot grasp it through society or religion. In truth, he has no wish to grasp it through such externally sanctioned options. Ghalib knows that this is not the way things are supposed to be in society. Equally, he is not ashamed of his inability to embrace the ordinary options that make people ‘hope’.

It is in this obduracy that the thought of Ghalib’s ghazal about hope – or its lack – intersects with Dickinson’s poem about hope, and its precarious but also indestructible presence. The hope-bird in her poem is to be looked at more closely: her feathered figuration of hope exists outside society in its very non-human otherness. This thing with feathers even exists outside humanity, but nevertheless, it sustains the human.

Dickinson’s idea, despite its superficial difference, is essentially similar to Ghalib’s refusal to grasp the societal or sanctioned possibilities of ‘hope’ – restraint, prayer – and his inability even to be ashamed of his sacrilegious failure to do so. In Dickinson’s poem, it is a bird that perches in the soul: the otherness of this non-human ‘hope’ is located, not in society, not even on a bough outside a house, but in the human soul. Both Dickinson and Ghalib put hope outside social structures, even outside the notion of a collective, pre-defined humanity. They place it deep inside the human, a human living on earth, with other humans and non-humans, but also a human tossing and turning in the night and hearing a singing in the soul. Hope is not a public act in both these poems. These poets would not be able to write self-help manuals.

Writing from different spaces (in cultural, gendered and other terms), and using a very different set of images and thoughts, both Dickinson and Ghalib locate hope solely in the individual human’s capacity to imagine outside given formats. Hope, for both, is the result of a deep engagement with human and non-human existence, not an easy recourse to social, religious and other platitudes. Dickinson’s bird makes it clear enough: not only does this bird have to be imagined; it is also, as an image, entirely outside the human, though not divorced from it. Ghalib, in his bleak despair, is saying the same thing. He is lamenting the absence of hope, but he is also refusing to accept the crutches of ‘hope’ thrust at him by society and religion, and he is not ashamed of this refusal.

A clear suggestion is advanced by both that if hope has potential – hope as cure and not just anodyne – it has to be a deeply personal thing, one that the human beings discover on their own and at the edges of existential limits.

What is it that one needs in order to discover this essential hope? Both these great poets, in different ways, suggest that it is the individual imagination. This imagination is seen, by both, as part of a larger existence, one that cannot be reduced to community expectations or religious platitudes. 

It would be very easy to trim this imagination to some convenient notion of ‘alienation’, but that is not what the poems say. Instead, what they claim for the imagining of hope is the ability to go beyond the narrowly civilizational, the narrowly ‘human’.

Neither of the poems really gives up on hope. Dickinson’s bird never stops singing. And the speaker in Ghalib’s ghazal neither dies nor repents. Right at the start he imagines even his failure to imagine but begins writing the ghazal regardless. 

Perhaps one of the reasons why death comes and does not come to Ghalib is that he keeps writing the ghazal. For surely any kind of exercise of the imagination is always the persistence of hope. Even in his very first couplet, Ghalib is still trying, if failing, to imagine a face or an option.

Hope, it appears, is a synonym for the imagination. And in that sense it is never, can never be, a matter of societal expectations – or self-help manuals. That, finally, is also why I think my father was wrong: there is more possibility of hope in Ghalib’s bleak ghazal than in all the advertisements of our capitalist world.