This Too Shall Pass

Zaffar Ahmed Khan, my maternal uncle, was the most erudite Kashmiri I have met in my life. A self-confessed anglophile, he looked the part of the perfect gentleman in his natty tweed blazers.

I owe my love of books and nature to Zaffar Saheb. An insatiable appetite for reading was stimulated by our conversations and sustained by his extensive library. Zaffar Saheb would take us kids (Hero, Riju, Javid, and me) for rambling walks, long drives for the sake of driving and not just to get from one place to another, and clambers up hillsides to experience and observe nature. The fact that my ‘nanihal’ on the Boulevard was a stone’s throw from both a lake and a hill meant that one could and did experience these impromptu outings at whim.

Solving the Times crossword puzzle was our pastime of choice and occasionally I would let myself get carried away by my youthful enthusiasm. Once when I was being particularly boastful he put forth an unusual challenge. I had to seek out a single Persian word that expressed the adage ‘This too shall pass.’ Having studied Hindi in school, it was an almost impossible task and anyway by that time I was drifting towards the ‘husn-e-farang ki bahaar‘ forbidden by Iqbal and so the challenge passed gently into the depths of my memory.

That is until a life-changing era dawned – the Age of Information. The superpowers of Google combined with the digitization of even the most obscure bits of human knowledge into instantly searchable databases has given ordinary folks possession of the power of Jamshed’s fabled chalice. The provenance of ‘This too shall pass‘ lies revealed by these weapons of ‘mass dissemination’.

The phrase seems to have originated in the writings of medieval Persian Sufi poets, and was often attached to a fable of a great king who is humbled by the simple words. The Sufi master Attar of Nishapur added the detail that ‘This too shall pass‘ was inscribed on a ring, which had the ability to make the happy man sad and the sad man happy.

In ‘Polonius: A Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances‘ published in 1852, the English poet Edward Fitzgerald describes a sultan requesting of King Solomon a sentence that would always be true in good times or bad; Solomon responds, ‘This too will pass away‘.

The story became popular and in 1859, Abraham Lincoln presented the expression in an address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

Now that Google had helped me to establish the etymology, I moved on to the single (Persian) word substitution challenge. Another Google session revealed that A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings by James Hinton Knowles could provide some answers. But I was supposed to seek out a Persian word, wasn’t I? Apparently well-to-do Kashmiris could read, write and converse in Persian in bygone times.

Flashback: In later years of the past century, the proprietor of the erstwhile Raina’s Book Store would roll his eyes at the approach of a civil engineer and a schoolboy. The duo would clamber up the rickety stairs to his dusty storeroom and spend hours rummaging through the oldest titles in the collection.

The schoolboy would pop down like clockwork to pester the owner with a single endlessly repeated question ‘Do you have so-and-so edition of so-and-so book?’ ‘Whatever I have is already upstairs‘ he would reply with infinite patience and the cycle would go on and on.

One one of these jaunts we picked up a copy of ‘A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings‘ which Zaffar Saheb presented to me.

Looking back it was probably a typically understated clue-cum-reproach for my waning interest in the world of books. I failed to pick up the clue and the book remained unread (but for a few cursory page flips), till the 2014 flood wiped away my library.

But, hey, never say die. One of the greatest treasures of the internet is undoubtedly Archive.org which has millions of scanned machine-readable copies of rare and antique books. So rather belatedly I tracked down a digital copy of ‘A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings‘ and present to you the entry for ‘Suh tih dohá Nasaro.’

‘Suh tih dohá Nasaro’
‘that day also passed, O Nasar’

A quotation from a list of conversation between Sheikh Nur-ud-din and his favourite disciple Nasar. Conversation between these two saints often took the form of poetry according as they were inspired. Here is the piece of poetry : –

maidán wawas tsakuj nani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro.
tun wugarah tah seni pani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,
nishi rani tah wurani khani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,
wurah batah tah gádah gani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,

when the back was bare upon the bleak plains ; that day also passed, O Nasar,
when we had wet rice and dry vegetables only to eat ; that day too, has gone, O Nasar,
when the wife was near one and warm clothing covered the body ; that day, too, went by, O Nasar,
when boiled rice and sliced fish were provided for us ; that day also passed, O Nasar.

A Persian (edit – now we are getting somewhere!) saying from another unknown source is frequently quoted by the Persian-speaking Kashmiri : –

Shab e samur guzashto ;
Shab e tanur guzasht.

That night, when we had fur to cover us, has gone ;
That night, when we had fire to warm us, has gone.

There is something similar to this in Persian, but who is the author of it, or where it is to be found, is not known :

Munam ki kabáb mekhorad :
Megusrad,
War báda i náb mekhorad ;
Megusrad.
Daryozah ha kashkol i gadái nán rá,
Tar kardah ba áb mekhorad;
Megusrad.

The wealthy man eats roasted flesh :
Passing away.
Should he drink pure wine ;
Passing away.
The beggar eats the alms-bread,
After having soaked it in water ;
Passing away.

These lines were probably known in the days of Akbar, for when that monarch asked his favourite minister Birbal to do something for him, which would be a source of happiness to him in time of adversity as well in the time of prosperity, Birbal replied by sending to the emperor a few days afterwards a beautiful ringstone upon which he had caused to be engraved in Persian character the word ‘Meguzrad’ ; he also sent a nice letter with it advising the king to look upon the ring whenever he was tempted to be over-elated by prosperity, or over-depressed by misfortune.

So finally, one word to rule them all: Meguzrad!

P.S: The commonly used phrases to express the thought behind ‘This too shall pass‘ in Persian and Arabic are:
Persian: In niz bogzarad
Arabic: La shay’ yadum (lit. Nothing lasts)