A unique quality of Urdu poetry

Delhi, India - November 17, 2011: The lovers of Urdu poetry are in for a rare treat with Urdu Heritage Festival in Delhi, India. The National School of Drama's (NSD) presents URDUl art.
A unique feature of urdu poetry is that the reader can give it a meaning which the poet could never have even imagined. I may give some examples :
1. Ghalib writes :
” Pinha tha daam-e-sakht qareeb aashiyan ke
  Udhne na paaye the ki giraftaar hum hue ”
I used this sher ( couplet ) in a judgment I gave in an order I passed in the Supreme Court in the case of Buddhadeb Karmaskar vs State of West Bengal, which related to a prostitute who had been murdered.
The word ‘pinha’ means ‘hidden’ or ‘concealed’, ‘daam’ means ‘net’, ‘sakht’ means ‘hard’ or ‘cruel’, ‘qareeb’ means ‘near’, ‘aashiyaan’ means ‘nest’, and ‘giraftaar’ means ‘caught’ or ‘arrested’.
The sher therefore means :
“Near the nest was the hidden cruel net (of a hunter)
Even before the chick could take its first flight it was caught”.
However I gave it a novel interpretration.
In India perhaps there are about 10-20 million sex workers (prostitutes). They have been driven into this profession not because they enjoy it but because of abject poverty. The massive poverty of about 80% of our population of 1400 million people is the real cause of exploitation of women. To fill their stomachs these poor girls have to sell their bodies. These girls should have had a life of happiness, but instead they get caught in the flesh trade because of their poverty at a very early age, and their lives are ruined.
I have compared these innocent young girls to the chick which is caught in the net of a cruel hunter in its very first flight.
Surely Ghalib, when he wrote the above couplet, never thought it could be applied to sex workers !
2. Faez Ahmad Faez writes :
” ” Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale
Chale bhi ao ki gulshan ka kaarobar chale “
The literal meaning of this sher is :
” Among the flowers, a morning breeze of the new spring full of colours is blowing
Come forward, so that the work of the garden can be done “
However, I have given it this interpretation :
” The objective situation in the country is ripe
Come forward patriots, the country needs you “
The word ‘ gulshan’ literally means a garden, but here it should be interpreted to mean the country.
Gul means a flower, gulon is its plural. Baad means the morning breeze. Naubahar means the new spring. Gulshan means garden. Kaarobar means work
4. Firaq Gorakhpuri writes :
” Har zarre par ek kaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai
Ai Saaqi-e- dauraan yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai ”
Whatever Firaq may have meant by this sher, my interpretation of it is this :
In a marvel of condensation this sher (couplet) reflects the transitional age through which India is passing, from the feudal to the modern age.
Zarra means particle, kaifiyat means condition, e means of, neem means half, and shab means night. So the first line in the couplet literally means
“Every particle is in a condition of half night”.
Urdu poetry is often to be understood figuratively, not literally. So my interpretration of this line is that in the transitional age everything is in flux, neither night nor day, neither the old order nor the new. Also, in the middle of the night if we get up we are dazed, in a state of mental confusion, and so are people in a transitional age.
In the second line, saaqi is the girl who fills the wine cup, but she is also the person to whom one can confide the innermost thoughts in one’s mind. The poet is imagining a girl, to whom he is describing the features of the transitional era.
‘Yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai’, i.e. it is the time of sin. In this transitional age it is a ‘gunahon ki ghadi’ from both points of view. From the point of view of people of the old, feudal order it is a sin to marry according to your choice, and particularly outside one’s caste or religion, it is a sin to give education to women, it is a sin to treat everyone as equal. At the same time, from the point of view of modern minded people the caste system is a sin, denying education to girls is a sin, and love marriage is quite acceptable. Thus old and new ideas are battling with each other in the transitional age.
5. Ghalib writes :
” Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki
Maut aati hai, par nahi aati ”
I used this in a judgment in the Supreme Court, Aruna Shanbaug vs Union of India, which related to the legality of euthanasia


6. When I decided to issue an appeal through my judgment to the Pakistan Government to release an Indian citizen, Gopal Das, who was undergoing a life sentence in Pakistan for espionage, and had been in Pakistani jails for 27 years I began with a couplet of Faiz :

” Qafas udas hai yaaron, saba se kuch to kaho

Kaheen to beher-e-khuda aaj zikr-e-yaar chale “

The sher had such a powerful impact on the Pakistani authorities that they announced that the Pakistan Government would honour the appeal made by the Indian Supreme Court. Gopal Das was released a few days thereafter and he came back to India and has got married.

This was unprecedented. Never perhaps in world judicial history was such an appeal made by any Court, and never was it so honoured.Such is the power of Urdu poetry.


7. In a judgment in the Supreme Court relating to custodial violence by the police, I began by quoting a sher by Faiz :

” Bane hain ahal-e-hawas muddai bhi munsif bhi

Kise vakeel karein kisse munsifi chaahen ? “


” When selfish people are both petitioners and judges

Whom should I make my lawyer ? From whom should I seek justice ? ”


I was informed by a lawyer friend who went to Pakistan soon after I gave the judgment quoting the above sher that printouts of my judgment were being distributed like hot cakes in Lahore, Karachi, etc. I was told by another friend that when one of my judgments was cited in a High Court in Pakistan, the Judge asked the lawyer ” Is he the same Indian Judge who quotes Faiz ? ”

8. And let me end this post by mentioning a mischief I did about 50 years ago, but which I have not revealed to anyone till now.

This incident happened in the year 1972 or 1973. I was then a very junior lawyer, aged about 26 or so, in Allahabad High Court.

It so happened that a very ‘dismissing judge ‘ ( if I may use a vulgar term ) came to the Allahabad High Court. He would dismiss all petitions and appeals. Some lawyers came to me and said ” Katju Saheb, bachaiye, yeh to hamein barbaad kar dega ” ( Katju Saheb, save us , this Judge will ruin us ” ). I told them not to worry.

That evening I wrote a leaflet with the heading ” High Court ya kasai ghar ? ‘ ( i.e. ‘ High Court or Slaughterhouse ?’ ).  Below that I quoted the sher of Faiz mentioned above ( Bane hai ahal-e-hawas muddai bhi munsif bhi, kise vakeel karein, kisse munsifi chaahen). I then wrote that ever since this Judge has come he has been dismissing all cases, making the High Court like a slaughterhouse, etc, etc.

This leaflet was secretly printed in some press, and the next morning long before the Court could assemble was distributed widely in the High Court premises. In each of the Courtrooms a copy was placed on the Judges’ desk, and in the front row where mostly the senior lawyers would sit. When the Judges came into their Courtrooms they saw the leaflet, read it, and there was an uproar. Many Judges retired to their chambers saying ” Yeh kya badtameezi hai ? ” ( What is this impertinence ? )

However, the leaflet had its effect, and the judge became a bit more liberal after that.

The credit again must go to the power of Urdu poetry !


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