By Asif Farrukhi
Their birth centenaries falling in the same year has bracketed Saadat Hasan Manto and Miraji together, but otherwise they make strange bedfellows. Strange because they were writers of the first order in their own, different ways even though they were close contemporaries and in contact with each other in the various cities they lived — Lahore, Delhi, Bombay. But differences in temperament notwithstanding, both were rebels and asserted their creative freedom by going against the grain. Looking back on the parallel trajectories of their lives and works, it is interesting to speculate that each offered a subject to the other. I am not aware if any comment from Miraji’s side is available about Manto, but Manto not only wrote the introduction to one of Miraji’s translations, but also devoted an entire essay to him, “Teen Golay”. Not one of his best pieces in the mode of writing, “Teen Golay” is nevertheless bristling with unresolved tension, as if the subject made Manto uncomfortable in spite of himself. Manto does not pass any judgement on Miraji’s life but he does pronounce almost a verdict on his poetry, comparing it to dead and decaying leaves and regarding it as “manure for future”. Forward looking, certainly, but fertiliser, nevertheless, “a jigsaw puzzle”. Irked by the various manifestations of his eccentricity, Manto also pronounced Miraji a “fraud” and I wonder if he regarded Miraji’s get-up a pose to keep bourgeois respectability at bay?
The impression Miraji left on his contemporaries can be gauged from a brief and unusual piece written by another close contemporary, Muhammad Hasan Askari. Critic and short story writer but above all an iconoclast, Askari also recorded his uneasiness with Miraji and the different phases in their friendship. His conclusion is no less moving. He recalls seeing Miraji after some unexplained accident or probably a self-inflicted injury and regards this as the face of the modern artist. Probably the most remarkable pen portrait of Miraji comes from Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi, the editor of Saqi and a friend and publisher of Manto and Askari as well as of Miraji. Written in his vivacious style, the essay seems to capture the enigmatic personality of Miraji and the kind of effect he must have produced on his contemporaries. However, it closes with a vision of Miraji, as described by a friend, reaching a high and pure state after his death. Everybody is, of course, entitled to their visions, but I wonder at this need to wash and cleanse Miraji, to sprinkle holy water on him? Is it an effort to win him back towards respectability? Soiled and dirty, Miraji is one of the most respect-worthy figures in modern Urdu literature, and a hero for me.
Years after his death, Miraji continues to fascinate many. Those who could have recorded their impressions about him have long gone, but others have stepped in to record their imagination of his life. Short story writer Anwar (who later signed his stories Commander Anwar or Syed Anwar) wrote a fictional account with the enigmatic Mira Sen as a character. Khan Fazlur Rahman penned an entire novel with Miraji as the central character and more recently Julien Columeau trans-created his French novel into Urdu which revolves around Miraji. One can debate whether these books contribute anything towards a better understanding of Miraji or simply serve to deepen the mystery surrounding him, but it is hard to think of any other poet who has inspired in such a manner. Woven with elements of fiction and poetry is an essay which the internationally renowned scholar and critic Ijaz Ahmad wrote early in his career and which Urdu critics still refer to. Well-known Urdu short story writer Rashid Amjad also wrote a study of Miraji’s life and works while Geeta Patel’s book, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings, is the most detailed work produced on Miraji to date and includes English translations of some of his poems. One may not agree with certain elements of her analysis, but she has brought a fresh perspective to her subject, one which needs to be explored further.
The fascination which Miraji’s life and work continued to exert upon others can also be gauged from the fact that three of his posthumous collections were published by well-known poets. Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi published the collections Teen Rang and Paband Nazmain from Pakistan and Akhtarul Iman brought out Seh Atisha from India. A monumental feat was accomplished when Dr Jameel Jalibi brought out Miraji’s Kulliyat, the collected poems. However, still more material was identified by Sheema Majeed who published the Baqiyat from the Kulliyat and later on an amended and expanded volume of the collected poems came out in 1996, an impressive tome of more than 1,200 pages.
While Miraji’s poetry was derided as obscure and ambiguous by some of his contemporaries, Faiz Ahmed Faiz praised his prose for its clarity and lucidity. Miraji was known to be a voracious reader, and he wrote introductory essays and translations of the many poets he encountered in the course of his “adventures in reading”. Published posthumously as Mashriq-o-Maghrib Ke Naghmain, the volume makes it clear that Miraji possessed the gift of engaging his readers in his discovery of poetry in such a way that his enthusiasm becomes infectious, inviting readers to start their own journeys. As a critic and commentator, Miraji should also be credited for starting the trend of tajzia of individual poems. These were collected and published as Is Nazm Main by Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi in Miraji’s lifetime. This book is, to my mind, the sharpest expression of Miraji’s fine critical sensibility and one of the most important works of modern literary criticism. I am not happy with Miraji’s method of reconstructing events which must have inspired the poet, but I nevertheless regard it as important. Years before the advent of New Criticism or the insistence that “a poem should not mean, but be,” Miraji pioneered a way of emphasising the textuality of the poem, its “isness”. Modern poetry had found its seminal critical moment in the hands of Miraji.
Miraji’s distinction as a critic gains credence from his stature as a poet. A few years back, I read through the bulky volume of his collected verse in order to make a small volume of selections. It is relatively easy to recognise the poems which stand out, but I was struck by the consistency of quality and the variety of moods and styles. I was not surprised to read leading critic Shamsur Rahman Farooqi’s comments in a recent essay, that at his best Miraji was peerless and that some of his poems have no match. I also recall that poet and critic Hameed Nasim once remarked that Miraji got only 12 to 15 years of writing life, while Rashid and Faiz lived and wrote for almost half a century. Yet, Miraji showed remarkable development and maturity of style. He distanced himself from the tassawuf laden Indo-Persian tradition and shifted his orientation towards Indian lyricism. But his stance is different from the stilted and contrived style of minor poets like Azmatullah Khan. For nazm, Miraji drew upon his existential self in a manner which opened up new possibilities in Urdu poetry. Although he moved away from the ghazal towards the geet, his few ghazals show him to be competent and original in this form too. Miraji greatly admired the French poet Charles Baudelaire for the formal perfection of his work and his conscious decision to make the pursuit of perfection the sole objective of his life. Like Baudelaire he can also be said to have earned the title of poete maudit. A legend and at the same time a great poet, Miraji lived and wrote heroically, and on the occasion of his centenary I would like to offer my tribute to him. Salam, Miraji!
The writer is a critic and author and has edited Intikhab-i-Kalam: Miraji