Yesterday, on the roadside, I was startled to see a billboard carrying Elizabeth Browning’s line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, in bold letters. It transpired that it was an advertisement for some commodity or other.

I recalled that, long ago, I happened to mention this line to a colleague from the Foreign Office, who had interest in literature. He commented somewhat disdainfully that it was helpful to any teenager writing his first love letter. Granted. But what is so pointless about a love letter, even of a teenager?

After all, it is in that period of life that girls, who had seemed so unnecessary until then, begin to look attractive.

“Sotay jadoo jaganay walay din hain,

Umron ki hadein milanay walay din hain,

Kanniya ab kamni hai

honay wali,

Ankhhon ko nain bananay walay din hain.”

– Firaq     

Or

“Padmavat”

“Gharaz ban thann kay vo gharat-gar-e-dil,

Rukh aiinay say karti thhi muqabil,

Nigah kar kay vaheen

husn-e-nau aiin,

Ashiq hui vo apnay aap

khud mein.”

– Ziauddin Ibrat &

Ghulam Ali Ishrat

Whatever the other uses of Elizabeth Browning’s line, its use to sell some box-like object was wrong. And in bad taste, which is worse.

Poetry has the merit of saying much in few words. This becomes possible by, firstly, replacing thought with feeling and, then, discarding all the words except the essential ones. For example, Firaq again:

“Kab talak wada-i-mauhoom ki tafseel Firaq,

“Shab-e-furqat kaheen kat-ti hai in afsanon mein.”

(Yes, she had said “yes”, but in a vague sort of way. Vague or not vague, it was clearly in the affirmative. Anyway, les dames ne disent pas “oui”. When it was clear enough for me to take it as a promise, she could not just back out and leave me here despondent. Unforeseen obstacles may have arisen.......Or they might not have. Maybe she is just teasing me. Or she meant to come, but fell asleep. But why speculate ceaselessly?)

Mental tiredness brings one to the rational conclusion in the second line of the couplet above.

Firaq himself acknowledges that the beloved of our classical poetry has all obligations and no rights. Drawn from the pre-bourgeois society, she could not be different. It is now, when the women of the class from which the beloved of our classical poetry were drawn, have started going to work that the woman descends from the pedestal to become her man’s comrade. In liberating herself from the bonds of primitive social relations, she contributes to the liberation of the man too, indeed, to the liberation of the whole society. As Firaq himself calls:

“Kioon husn-o-mohabbat say na oonchay uth kay,

Donon ek doosray ko chahein aye dost.”

Yes, there is change. The time flows. But what the human knows is the brief “edge of razor” moment in which he exists, for this body which we, until now, regard as the most complicated machine in the Universe, is with us, is felt, only during that moment, which passes before we can perceive it.

“Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui,

Va-t-il nous dechirer avec un coup d’aile ivre,”

– Mallarme

(This pure, vibrant and beautiful day. Will it tear us apart with a blow of its drunken wing?)

Yes, we both own the moment and confront it.

The writer is a retired ambassador.  Email: abul_f@hotmail.com