Mir Muhammad Taqi Mir (1723-1810) is a major Urdu poet with a vast corpus of poetry consisting of more than thirteen thousand couplets. Mainly a ghazal poet, his expertise at other subgenres of poetry such as the masnavi (a long poem in rhyming couplets), qasida (a kind of ode), and rubais ( a verse of four-line stanzas) was also remarkable.

Mir’s Kulliyaat (Collected Works) was published in 1811 by Fort William College, a year after his death. He is called Khuda-e-Sukhan, or god of Urdu poetry, for his versatility and the high esteem in which he is held by poets who came after him. However, intuitive judgments and subjective assessments apart, it is not always easy to pinpoint the reasons for Mir’s greatness.

Gopi Chand Narang’s short and sweet book titled The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir tries to identify these reasons by analysing his turns of phrase, his diction, and also his unique personality, which is reflected in his poetry. It must be mentioned, however, that the book treats these subjects somewhat sparsely, sometimes repeating a few points, especially the ones about Mir’s simplicity of language and its indigenous character.

Another major feature of Narang’s book is his selection of fifty of Mir’s greatest ghazals. To be fair, Narang admits the subjective nature of his selection, but he is sure that his choice “will make you stop and think. They will lift your spirits, prodding you to be aware of the entirety of your being and your potential to go beyond the typically exhausting and mundane concerns of life.”

Originally written in Urdu, Narang’s analytical prose has been translated very competently by Surinder Deol, a US based writer and translator of Urdu books. Deol’s translation of Mir’s ghazals selected by Narang, a very challenging task by any standards, also provides a fair idea of the poet’s distinctive qualities.

Goel follows the standard practice of keeping the original Urdu text in Roman script followed by its translation in English. However, as there is no one way of translating poetry, Deol’s English translation introduces punctuation where there was none in Urdu, and presents the two halves of a couplet in three, four and sometimes more lines. It may read well in English and may appear like English poetry, but since couplets in a ghazal are also unique visual structures, the English version interferes with that structure which readers of a ghazal carry in their minds. For instance:

Zulm hai qehr hai qayaamat hai
ghusse mein us ke zer-e lab ki baat

is translated as:

It is oppression
It is cruelty
It is doomsday.
When in anger,
She curses quietly
Under her breath.

But, to be fair to the translator, a translation usually does not target a bilingual reader.

Life and love

The selection of ghazals by Narang and a discussion of the unique characteristics of Mir’s poetry form two parts of the book. The selection of fifty ghazals and the short chapters, beautifully captioned and neatly divided into short sections, make for a racy reading. Before the reader reaches the first section, Narang provides a clear view of some important facts of the poet’s life, dwelling both on his moments of agony and ecstasy, in an introductory chapter titled “The Life of Mir Taqi Mir”.

Mir has also talked about aspects of himself in his autobiography Zikr-Mir, a source referred to by Narang. Thus the autobiography reveals that early on in his life Mir learnt important lessons from his father Ali Muttaqi, a man of Sufi leanings, about the role of love and beauty in life, ephemeral nature of the world and the need to be steadfast in the face of odds and vicissitudes in life. Mir also faced the hostility of his brother, who instigated Sirajuddin Ali Khane Arzu in whose house Mir had sought refuge when he left Agra and came to Delhi.

Mir also had many bouts of madness, but fortunately he recovered from them to produce poetry of the highest quality. His experiences are the subject matter of his masnavis Muaamlaat-e I’shq and Khwab o Khayaal, where “the speaking voice is none other than that of the poet himself.” The two masnavis complete the gaps in Mir’s autobiography. Thus Khwab o Khayaal has a description of Mir’s unhappy departure from Agra, his pain and suffering, and the bad effects of his painful love relationship.

Another very important source to know about various incidents in Mir’s life is Mohammad Husain Azad’s book Aab-e Hayat. Azad, a self-confessed votary of Mir’s poetry, dwells on a number of episodes in the poet’s life after he left Delhi for Lucknow. Azad discusses Mir’s utmost care to preserve the purity of his language and his love for his self-respect, which often caused offence to his patrons and some fellow poets, with some indulgence.

Mir was preeminently a poet of love. It was the dominant note of “sringara rasa” or romantic love that drew Firaq Gorakhpuri to Mir’s poetry. Narang credits Firaq Gorakhpuri for reviving an interest in Mir’s poetry before the Partition. The violence of the Partition and the mass uprooting of people had its parallel in Nadir Shah’s attack on Delhi in Mir’s time.

Hence Nasir Kazmi, an important contemporary poet, believed, as Narang writes, “that the night of Mir’s lifetime had stretched itself and had become one with the dark night of our time.” Narang further notes that “the undercurrent of deep pain, anguish, despondency, and suffering of Mir’s poetry thus found a new voice among poets of the younger generation in both India and Pakistan.”

Mir used conversational and colloquial language in his poetry, which contributed to his popularity. But Narang rightly warns us that Mir’s simplicity is deceptive. Mir has written: “koi saadah hi us ko saadah kahe / hamein to lage hai vo a’iyaar sa” (“Only a simpleton would call him simple / To me he looks like an ingenious sorcerer).

Oral tradition

In Part II of the book, Narang uses a “textual, objective, and scientific approach” to analyse different aspects of Mir’s poetry. Calling him a poet of countless delights, he finds Mir’s creativity distinctive, a view to which Mir would have given his ready nod.

Mir was writing at a time when Urdu was still evolving ( it was variously called Dakani, Hindavi, Hindustani, Hindi and Urdu). He made a perceptive classification of six categories of Rekhta (early form of Urdu), briefly discussed by Narang: (i) Persian in the first line and Hindavi in the second; (ii) two halves of a line in Persian and Hindavi each; (iii) a poetic line having Persian features; (iv) expressions in agreement with Rekhta; (v) the use of ihaam, meaning ambiguous expressions or two meanings of a word; and (vi) use of poetic devices like fasaahat (clarity and flow), balaaghat (artfulness, depth and ingenuity of meaning), tajniis (musicality), adabandi (intricate finesse) and khayaal ( developing linkages of themes), which make poetry beautiful.

Mir disapproved of the practice of writing a line in Rekhta which followed all Persian features. He also did not consider the use of puns a sign of creativity. He believed that “what is unsuitable and not in conformity with the genius of the soil should be discarded, based on the poet’s creative judgment.”

Narang argues that Mir’s simplicity of style and diction can be better termed his “multiplicity”, as he “used multiple lenses in his work.” He influenced many later poets, including Ghalib. Narang offers a quick comparison of Mir with Ghalib to bring out his distinctive qualities. Compared to Ghalib, Mir uses fewer nouns and verbal nodes, employs a long bahr (meter), and uses retroflex voices more liberally as his poetry has a distinctive indigenous touch. Mir also was partial to long vowels, which imparted a flow to his poetry.

Narang calls Mir the last master of the oral tradition. It is because Mir wrote at a time when books of poetry were not printed. Writing and the reception of Urdu poetry changed significantly after the introduction of print modernity in India. Mir knew that the “magic of his poetry lay in verbal transmission from one person to another”. The addressee in his poetry is not the reader of the text but a listener, an important reason why his poetry has such flow and smoothness. For instance:

Baatein hamaari yaad rahein phir baatein n aisi suniye ga
parhte kisi ko suniye ga to der talak sar dhuniye ga

Remember the words that I speak
you will not hear anyone else speak like this.
If you listen to it again at all,
you will be truly moved by its enchantment.

Narang also notes that Mir often uses informal and intimate forms of address like tum or tu rather than a more formal aap and also informal terms of endearment like miyaan, pyaare, arey, saahib. When addressing himself, he uses words like Mir Saahib or Mir ji. Thus:

Chala n uth ke vahiin chupke chupke phir tu Mir
abhi to us ki gali se pukaar laaya huun

Mir, you sneaked into her lane
once again without making a rustle.
My god!just a while ago I pulled you back
from there calling Mir, Mir!

Another distinctive quality of Mir’s poetry is its multimodal nature, which means that there are various points in a Mir’s couplet as against a usual couplet which consists of two nodes, a statement in the first line and its justification in the second. Mir’s conversational, dialogic and colloquial style, yet another of his distinctive quality, immediately connected him with his audience. As he writes:

Shaa’yir nahien jo dekha tu to hai koi saahir
do chaar she’r parh kar sab k rijha gaya hai

Not seen a poet like you
You are a magician.
You read a few couplets,
and everyone was moved.

It is often believed that there is an influence of Nawab Asif-ud Daula’s teacher Mohammad Meer Soz, better known as Soz Dehlvi on Mir’s conversational style of poetry. Mohammad Husain Azad rightly says that “Mir might have borrowed the conversational style from Soz, but the latter mainly dealt with the way people talked. Mir filled this talk with content and context and gave it depth and dignity and thus made it inventive for sharing it in an assembly.”

Narang also credits Mir for offering a“delightful synthesis of Persian and Rekhta”. He combined beautifully “Persian and Prakrit figures of speech.” For instance:

Chashm ho to aaiina-khaana hai dahr
munh nazar aata hai diivaaron ke biich

If you have eyes,
this world is like a house of mirrors.
You can see faces upon faces
in the walls.

Glittering spot

Mir also used Persian phraseology very skilfully, making many Persian phrases part of the nascent Urdu language. Critics like Waheeduddin Saleem have identified all such Persian phrases in his poetry which later became part of Urdu language. For Narang, “the highly creative absorption and naturalisation of Persian elements in standard Urdu is a glittering spot of Mir’s poetry.” Thus Mir could write:

Sehra-e mohabbat hai qadam dekh ke rakh Mir
y sair sar-e kuucha o bazaar n hove

This is the desert of love.
You should walk carefully Mir.
This is not like strolling in the streets and bazaars
with gay abandon.

Later Ghalib and other poets borrowed many Persian phrases from Mir.

Narang’s final assessment of Mir is to celebrate him as Urdu’s “first all inclusive complete poet” because of his all-round appeal and his use of an inclusive dialect. Mir’s poetry holds appeal for both lay readers as well as high-brow Urdu scholars.

As he lived in different places – Agra, Delhi, Lucknow – his Urdu diction offers a variety of India’s rich dialects. Words from Braj Bhasha like kabhu, kisu, kiijo, liijo ending in o and u sounds, and ordinary Braj words like sajan, birha, maati and many other impart beauty to his poetry. The influence of Delhi’s dialect Khari Boli , which became his language, is evident in his use of expressions like aave hai, jaave hai, khaave hai or ham paas. Though his poetic diction was already fully evolved by the time he came to Lucknow in his sixties, some influence of Awadhi can also be seen in his poetry.

Readers not familiar with Mir Taqi Mir can profitably read this short book, which contains his biography, his poetry and a brief analysis of his poetic genius, all in less than 250 pages.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University)

The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir

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