I spent last weekend at the MLA Convention in L.A. While the convention itself was great, my favorite part was staying with my “aunt” Pawan (actually my mom’s cousin and not quite two years older than me) and getting to know her husband Mahavir for the first time in a context other than a family wedding.
Friday night, Mahavir and stayed up irresponsibly late despite multiple reminders from Pawan that I had panels to attend early in the morning. We talked about economics, politics, family, life philosophy, film, and our experiences growing up.
At maybe 1:30 a.m., Mahavir was telling me about high school: how he and his friends were consistently bored in Punjabi literature classes, preferring to read John Grisham novels and considering Mario Puzo’s The Godfather the absolute height of literature. Strangely, though, he said, he now finds himself thinking far more often of the classical Punjabi and Urdu writers: his life experience will bring to mind couplets he read long ago. “Ghalib had it right about this” he’d tell me, and quote then translate a couplet. “Ghalib was right about that.”
The different roles Grisham and Ghalib have played in Mahavir’s life are a classic example of why we continue to search for distinctions between the popular and the literary: some authors seem to make for more exciting one-time reads, other authors say things that become important parts of how we describe our experiences to ourselves.
What is it about Ghalib, though, that makes him so important for my uncle? It’s certainly not that he worked harder than Grisham. The story goes that Ghalib often composed on nights when he was too drunk to use precious paper and ink to write: instead, he would recite his poems and tie a knot for each couplet, then untie the knots and write down the couplets in the morning when his handwriting improved. It’s hard to believe that a writer like John Grisham would ever employ a similarly haphazard method.
Many creative writing teachers would attribute the difference to Ghalib’s investment in language: authors like Grisham are known primarily for their plots and are judged by language usually only when it is bad enough to interfere with the story; Ghalib is described by South Asian critics as mushkil-pasand, meaning “difficulty-loving.” Perhaps it is the very difficulty of Ghalib’s verse that makes it memorable and literary? That explanation works well if you are trying to teach students how to devote greater attention to their language, but fails to explain why so many difficult texts get completely forgotten. If artful use of language alone made work return to our minds after years, wouldn’t more people be buying collections of contemporary poetry?
Maybe there are telling differences between the two not only in form, then, but also in content. Ghalib’s work, though nominally about love and God, is probably more about how to exist in an agonizing world. That’s a theme without a visible expiration date. On the other hand, Grisham’s work, though nominally about law and mystery, is…probably also more about how to exist in an agonizing world. Come to think of it, what else can great writing really be about?
Maybe Mahavir returns more to Ghalib than Grisham for cultural reasons. It’s probably not the case that Mahavir’s world, whether as a teenager in Punjab or an adult in Bakersfield and L.A., is closer to Ghalib’s in the last days of the Mughal Empire than to Grisham’s contemporary courtrooms and country. But it is true that no culture has developed the idea that Grisham has core insights into life, whereas Ghalib is certainly part of the canon in most of South Asia. Maybe the only difference between popular works and literary works is that we’ve been brainwashed into believing that certain writers have a special depth, which we then invariably find. Maybe any good book could be a Bible if we only believed it were so: maybe the way we approach a work is the only difference between a good read and a reality-mapping classic.
A day or two before I flew out to the MLA Convention, I read in the news about the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab state, who had spoken out against his country’s blasphemy law, a law easily abused to falsely accuse and persecute religious minorities. On the plane to L.A., I was reading through Agha Shahid Ali’s translations of poems by Faiz for maybe the hundredth time, but read one couplet as if for the first time: “Convoys of pain carrying cargoes of love must keep moving / but someone else must now wave them forward.” I don’t know much about Taseer, but I still thought: yes. Faiz was right. Faiz’s decades-old couplet is a map what happened two days ago.
In that couplet, Faiz speaks from his own particularity (as someone who’d been imprisoned under a possible death sentence for political commitments in the 1950s then spent another thirty years somewhere between commitment and exhaustion) but in metaphors which lend themselves relatively easily to other, related contexts. He seems to honor both specificity and its potential transcendence. Maybe the works we turn back to are marked by their passionate dual allegiance to the moment as a fixed point in time and the moment as a recurring reality, as a thread that helps weave the universe.