Before he died, Mir’s father sent for Mir and his stepbrother, Hafiz Muhammad Hasan, who was not very friendly towards Mir. The father gave Hafiz three hundred books telling him that as a fakir he had no other possession. But then he turned his face towards Mir and told him, “Son, I owe three hundred rupees to the people in the market. You have to pay this debt.”

Mir asked him, “How will I do that? I have no money.” His father replied, “Do not worry. God will take care.” A messenger came a few hours later carrying five hundred rupees from one of Sayyid’s disciples. The debt was paid, and the remaining funds were used by Mir to give his father a decent funeral.

Putting his younger brother, Muhammad Razi, in charge of the family, Mir made his first trip to Delhi and luckily received an allowance of one rupee a day from a nawab who was one of his father’s admirers. But that arrangement did not last long because Nadir Shah invaded and pillaged Delhi in 1739.

Thousands were killed in the course of one night. In the morning, Nadir’s warrior chief appeared and read a verse that all men in Delhi worth killing had been killed. This carnage changed the fate of almost all nawabs and nobles overnight. Mir went to Agra, but he was disappointed to find that the people who had professed care for his father and the family turned away. Mir was left with no option but to return to Delhi.

It was on this trip that he sought refuge in the home of Sirajuddin Ali Khane Arzu, a learned scholar of Dilli who was highly respected by writers of the time. Khane Arzu was the maternal uncle of his stepbrother Hafiz. Initially, he was friendly towards Mir, but after receiving a letter from Hafiz, his attitude changed overnight.

The letter advised Khane Arzu to treat Mir “like a snake in the grass; do not show him any courtesy; in fact, it would be good to have him killed”. Khane Arzu did many things to harm Mir. He wrote in Zikr-e Mir, “If I am asked to write about Khane Arzu’s enmity in detail, it would require a separate volume.”

But what was Mir hiding? What did his stepbrother write privately, which turned Khane Arzu against Mir overnight? Why did he have to leave his house? What Mir concealed in Zikr-e Mir, he revealed in two short masnavis (poems), after he had moved to the safety of Lucknow, which is quite revealing.

It was around that time that Mir started to have a very strange experience. From his early childhood, Mir was in the habit of looking at the moon at night when he was alone – a habit reinforced by one of his mother-like caretakers. Following his rift with Khane Arzu, Mir moved to a small room where he lived alone. At night, when he looked at the moon, he began to perceive a lovely feminine figure inside it.

With time, the figure became lovelier; it appeared more like a fairy or a houri than an ordinary human being. Mir developed symptoms of madness. People felt unsafe in his company. This madness reached a point when people around him started to think about placing him in confinement, chained, and left alone to die. The wife of one of his father’s disciples saw the miserable condition in which Mir lived. Out of compassion, she spent a great deal of money on his treatment.

He took a few months to recover. The madness vanished, his ravings stopped, his brain gradually started to work again, he was able to sleep, and once again, he started to write poetry.

Why did this madness start? What was the trigger? Two of Mir’s masnavis provide hints that while Mir was about eighteen years old, he fell in love with a girl. She was married, but because she was part of the family, she did not observe purdah from him. This love affair caused a great deal of suffering to both lovers.

Mir did not talk about it in his book Zikr-e Mir or to anyone. Repressing it ripped his heart apart, and he carried with him all his life the wound of unrequited love and whatever psychological effect the madness left behind. We see the imprint of this tragic affair in all his poetic work.

What a surprise that you have come
to visit me today in my home,
but I don’t know what I can offer you.
I want to hold you in my arms
and express my love for a long time.

I was reduced to dust and ruined.
I was trampled underfoot and
my being was destroyed.
How else I could have endured
the hardships that my love gave me!

Faced with utter desperation,
I have become indifferent to things.
I wish I knew how to confront
her haughtiness a little bit,
then I would bow before her
a hundred times.

I am a mendicant
and my worth is no more than a pile of dust.
I come and sit here if it is your pleasure.
If your dignity is hurt in such situations,
feel free to tell me so.

Every leaf in the garden knows my state of mind.
Who should I tell my condition, O rose,
if not the greenery of this garden?

Mir is the one who comes to meet me,
but what can I tell him about my pain?
Even if he hears a little bit of what I have to say,
he will broadcast my tale of love in some detail.

Love is in the earth and the sky.
All four directions are full of love.
Sir, I am a humble servant,
i’shq for me is no different than god.

Visible and invisible, first and last,
below and above –
there is nothing else except i’shq.
Light and darkness, hidden and manifest –
i’shq embraces everything.

On one side Gabriel comes,
on the other he brings the Book.
On one side love is hidden in the hearts,
on the other it is manifest and seen by all.

Earth, wind, water, and fire.
They are all complete in themselves.
Love above all is the love of the beloved.
Now, how can we say what is love?

Mir says he is not caught up
in the commotion of love!
I can’t control myself.
Not my fault actually
because I’m a new victim of love.

When man felt empowered,
he could not control his ego.
Next thing, he made the skies
bow to the earth.

The moon, the sun, clouds,
and the wind.
They are all deeply in love,
and they wander madly
struck with awe.

I am amazed watching him
how he behaves.
Egocentric, self-absorbed,
and domineering.

Humble Mir, lost in the love of god,
is no more than a handful of dust,
Who infused him with greatness?

Do remember carefully what I have to say.
You won’t hear such talk again.
If you hear someone recite like this,
you will be overwhelmed and wonderstruck
by the sheer ecstasy of my words.

You will make much effort and you will try
many ways to say in this style.
You will seek the company of learned folks
to read and learn my form of expression.

When you will not be satisfied
with your exchanges with friends,
the fire of grief will overpower you.
Your body will burn and you will scorch
and roast too in this fire.

Mir’s verse is so charged with fire
that it would fill your inner self
with marks that are dark and deep.
Showing your pale countenance,
you will wander in the city and its lanes
but will not find the roses of your choice.

The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir

Excerpted with permission from The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir, Gopi Chand Narang, translated from the Urdu by Surinder Deol, Penguin India.