Literary Notes: Urdu’s five best couplets of Haqqee’s choice
SOME 50 years ago, a publisher in India began publishing selections from Urdu poetry. Each selection consisted of 100 best couplets of an individual poet. Many such selections were published and it was planned to select 100 best couplets out of those selections. Thus began a trend to select 100 best Urdu couplets of one’s own choice.
Such was the atmosphere in those days that in India and Pakistan many intellectuals began compiling selections of 100 best Urdu couplets. Mumtaz Hasan — a civil servant, writer and intellectual — began compiling his own list of the 100 best couplets from memory alone and it overshot the limit of 100, wrote Shanul Haq Haqqee in one of his articles. Then Majeed Malik, a writer and friend of Haqqee, asked him to prepare a list of his five favourite couplets of Urdu and explain the reasons for his preference. Haqqee wrote an article and with five couplets of his choice he gave the reasons as well as some explanation of the thought expressed in the couplet. Later the article was included in his book Nukta-i-raaz (Karachi, 1972).
Here are those five couplets of Haqqee’s choice and a bit of what he said about them. But, as Haqqee put it, such selections are based on personal preferences and one cannot say for sure what has made them favourite. They, perhaps, remind one of the personal experiences or reflect one’s own feelings, which may not be necessarily shared by others. Therefore, the selection of the ‘best’ is almost always debatable. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the maxim goes. But the purpose of this piece is to introduce readers to some of the outstanding Urdu couplets, if not the best. The couplets have been roughly translated by this writer and are not meant to be beautiful but just faithful, though they are not verbatim either.
(What a pity, the garden has been ravaged by the autumn,
Our acquaintance there too was but a patch of greenery.)
Haqqee wrote that it is a tragedy itself that among the big tragic events little tragedies are forgotten. Mir Dard, the poet, is wistful that everyone is mourning the ruining of the garden, the tall and lovely trees, but the little grass is forgotten. It is a unique thought and whenever some big calamities hit, this couplet would remind us of the little tragedies that are ignored. It is a brief history of how the world’s great tragedies are remembered and small ones are forgotten. The couplet is as simple as the elegiac thought of remembering what is seemingly unimportant.
(The colour and fragrance of the flower may vanish any moment
What a caravan is about to leave! If you want to join in!)
Apparently, says Haqqee, this couplet of Mir Taqi Mir favours the idea of dying out and extinction, but in fact it emphasises the beauty of death and extinction since the place these lovely things, the colour and the fragrance, are headed to must be a destination much desirable. The idea of accompanying lovely things makes the travel to non-existence bearable. Also, adds Haqqee, referring to ‘in a moment’ reminds one that everybody has to go and maybe you will have to depart sooner than later. So if one has to go anyhow, why not accompany the lovely ones!
(When the ship has anchored to the shore
Why complain to God about the cruelty and tyranny of the boatman.)
It is a common experience that those who matter or have power over us do show high-handedness, says Haqqee. But Ghalib in this couplet is inclined not to complain but be playful. Ghalib does not question where God was when I was in trouble because he knows it is useless. He rather satirically mentions God’s ‘indifference’ over his troubles and he does so very subtly.
(The quest is for better than the best
Let us see where the gaze stops)
Haqqee says a fine thought has been expressed in such a simple way. Hali in this couplet shows not only his own quest for beauty and delicacy but also the human beings’ quest for perfection. The second line shows surprise and Hali must have pointed to the Almighty because human beings’ greatest quest in this world is for the Ultimate Truth. This quest goes on generation after generation and human endeavours know no limits, so it might never end and eyes may not stop anywhere.
(The house of heart must have a room empty all the time
For some guest may arrive to stay in from somewhere)
The golden principle delineated in this couplet of Iqbal’s exhorts to be open-hearted so as to welcome new thoughts and ways and refrain from narrow-mindedness and bigotry. According to Haqqee, the couplet is a life principle to adopt. A basic element necessary for human progress has been described extemporaneously by Iqbal. Locking out the house of heart or brain is tantamount to emotional death and open-mindedness is more required than biases for the betterment of society.
In the end Haqqee Sahib asked the readers to select their own best or favourite five couplets and include any of these couplets if they liked.