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Mehr Afshan Farooqi is Associate Professor of Urdu and South Asian literature at the University of Virginia. She is the  author of *Urdu Literary Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari*
Mehr Afshan Farooqi is Associate Professor of Urdu and South Asian literature at the University of Virginia. She is the author of *Urdu Literary Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari*

Sometimes a poet’s colourful personality and frustrations overshadow the work, or a painful, embarrassing life event seeps into the poetry, giving it another hue. In any case, Asrarul Haq Majaz (1911-1955) was one such tragic, strikingly talented poet whose reckless life and alcoholism led to his denouement, and an early, shocking death. It does not come as a surprise then that there are few studies of his work, although there was a time when his poems were on everyone’s lips, and their perfect, natural melodiousness charmed even the skeptics.

Majaz lived and wrote in times which were exceptionally vibrant for poetry; poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Fani Badayuni, Jazbi, Makhdoom and Ali Sardar Jafri were among his peers. They were not merely his contemporaries but closest friends. Others such as Josh and Firaq knew him well. His first diwan, Ahang, is dedicated to Faiz and Jazbi whom he calls his “dil-o-jigar,” and to Sardar Jafri and Makhdoom, who are “mere dast-o-bazu.” Faiz wrote a thoughtful dibacha to Ahang.

In the 1930s, the turmoil of the freedom movement stirred the passions of the young and the old, especially the youth in the universities who clamoured for change. The scene was ripe for a new kind of poetry. Indeed, there was experimentation in both the ghazal and nazm forms. The greatest of the “new poets,” Noon Meem Rashed, wrote about the mental anguish of colonised people. He examined the traditional theme of pining in love from fresh perspectives; it could be a creative not destructive force. Faiz was a poet of revolution who deployed classical metaphors but imbued new meanings in them. Firaq brought themes from Sanskrit poetry to Urdu. Josh, Sardar Jafri and Makhdoom established their distinctive styles as revolutionary poets. But Majaz was different, in fact, distinct from them in his poetic style. His verse had a disarming simplicity, an exuberance which made his compositions seem effortless. His style reminds one of a much older generation of poets who excelled in the craft of composing in meter, rhyme and end rhyme. But Majaz also brings subtle, delicate themes to the ghazal that are novel and charming. Below are a few verses from the first ghazal of his diwan:

hijr mein kaif –e iztirab na puchch khoon-e dil bhi sharab hona tha tere jalvon mein ghir gaya akhir zarre ko aftab hona tha kuchch tumhari nagah kafir thi kuchch mujhe bhi kharab hona tha

We read of tears turning into blood but the heart’s blood turning to wine because of restlessness in separation is captivating. In the second verse, the jalva (aura) of the beloved turns the lover, a mere speck of dust, into a shining sun. The third verse is saucy, blaming the beloved’s gaze to be corrupting. The mood of the ghazal is animated and spirited.

In composing nazms, Majaz’s voice was more melodious and seductive. “Andheri Raat ka Musafir,” “Awara” and “Raat aur Rail” are unforgettable poems:

fiza mein maut ke tareek saaye thar tharatey hain hava ke sard jhonkey qalb par khanjar chalatey hain guzashta ishraton ke khwab aina dikhatey hain magar main apni manzil ki tarf barhta hi jata hun (“Andheri Raat ka Musafir”)

shahr ki raat aur main nashad –o nakara phirun jagmagati jagti sarkon pe awara phirun ghair ki basti hai kab tak dar ba dar mara phirun ay gham-e dil kya karun ay vahshat-e dil kya karun (“Awara”)

In the above poems and many more Majaz, used the 3+1 line stanza to great effect. The tag line assumes a new colour with the mood of each stanza in captivating ways. One can recite it differently each time it occurs in the poem. A cursory reading of the verses quoted above communicates the despair and loneliness of the speaker in the poem. Majaz immersed himself in his experiences impetuously and what ensued in words was a shower of emotion that drenched his listeners and readers. Muhammad Hasan Askari, in his short essay published on the death of Majaz, makes two pointed remarks on his poetry: First that Majaz did not/could not find a distinct voice. He spoke in different tones, but did not attain maturity in any one because he did not persist in exploring the full depths or possibilities of experience in a voice. Second and more important is Askari’s observation that Majaz’s ghazal had the artistry, a pungency (teekhapan) that is rare in the “new poetry.” In my opinion, the artistry, tanginess and zest are the hallmarks of Majaz’s poetry.

Majaz’s life reads like a fictional memoir of an archetypical, unhappy poet, especially in the poignant retelling by his younger sister Hamida Salim, except that it is heartbreakingly true. He was born at Rudauli (near Lucknow), in a prosperous, landed family that valued education. He had the best of both worlds — traditional and modern — but could not use it to his advantage. A sibling had died two and half years before his birth; he was, in the words of psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar, a “replacement” child, adored by his mother and family members, but also perhaps carrying the guilt and responsibility for being that special child.

He was nine when his 18-year-old brother died in a freak accident, deepening his subconscious guilt and making him even more precious for his adoring mother. According to his sister, he was an intelligent, witty, fun loving, sensitive and kind hearted person who was very popular in school and had a special gift for mathematics. However, a close reading of her memoir shows that Majaz was a difficult child with somewhat erratic disposition (sanki), and a hearing disability. She also lovingly mentions that he got the alias Jaggan Bhaiyya because he stayed up nights and slept irregularly. With hindsight one could deduce that he had the marks of a bipolar mental disorder that became more pronounced as he grew older and his life began to fall apart.

Majaz’s flair for writing Urdu poetry became apparent when he befriended two poets, Fani Badayuni and Jazbi. They were his classmates in St. John’s College, Agra in 1929-1931. The years were productive for poetry but everything else for Majaz went awry. He failed his exams badly and acquired bad habits that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Worried about his academic performance, his father got him admission at Aligarh University where he switched from the science stream to arts.

The years at Aligarh were the best, most productive ones for Majaz. Even though he failed at exams, he charmed everyone with his poetry and was made the editor of the prestigious Aligarh University Magazine. He composed many of his famous poems there, including the spirited, sparkling, “Nazr-e Aligarh” (composed 1935/36), which was subsequently set to music and has been the tarana or the official song of Aligarh University ever since:

yeh mera chaman hai mera chaman/main apne chaman ka bulbul hun. Jo taq-e haram mein roshan hai, voh shama yahan bhi jalti hai Is dasht ke gosheh gosheh se ek ju-e hayat ubalti hai Yan husn ki barq chamakti hai, yan nur ki barish hoti hai Har aah yahan ek naghma hai, har ashk yahan ek moti hai

Eventually, our poet graduated and was offered a position as assistant editor of Awaaz, the newly-established journal of the All India Radio. The move from Aligarh to Delhi was not as favorable as it should have been. Majaz, who had such a large fan following of young female students at Aligarh, lost his heart to a married woman in Delhi who was his admirer. The lady in question belonged to a wealthy family and had no intentions of abandoning her well-connected husband for a penniless poet. But Majaz was hopelessly in love and he wrote some of his most beautiful, romantic poems in this phase of his life:

chalke teri ankhon se sharab aur ziyadah mahkein tere ariz ke gulab aur ziyadah Allah kare zor-e shabab aur ziyadah (“Unka Jashn-e Salgirah”)

The All-India Radio job lasted barely a year. He was dismissed supposedly for long absences from work. A distraught Majaz was brought back to Lucknow by his father after piteous stories of their son’s aimless, drunken wanderings reached the family. He was clearly in the throes of a nervous breakdown. A stay at the mental hospital in Ranchi followed and the manic phase abated. But the rising poet was now a tainted, broken man; a loser in popular parlance. He tried to make a living through poetry by reading at mushairahs and working with the group of Progressive writers in Mumbai, who had been his peers at Aligarh, but his mental health was precarious. Nervous breakdowns followed one setback after another and alcoholism relentlessly ate him up. The end, when it came in the winter of 1955, was very sad. He was found curled up dead on the terrace of a tavern after a night of heavy drinking.

A host of unanswered questions were left to be engaged with after his passing. His sister Hamida Salim, in her loving tribute Jaggan Bhaiyya (published in a later edition as Majaz Mera Bhai) asks why her brother practically threw away his life and if the talented poet could have been saved. Salman Akhtar (Majaz’s nephew) revisits this question decades later and comes up with an illuminating psychoanalysis of Majaz’s self destructive trajectory. Akhtar’s essay, “Majaz’s Tragic End, Some Psychoanalytic Speculations,” brings closure to the questions raised by his aunt Hamida Salim. In his relatively brief poetic career Majaz composed some unforgettable poems that have secured him a place in the canon of Urdu literature. His effortless style, artistry, effervescence and an uncanny awareness of the emotional states of mind and lingering melancholy produced a variegated but distinctive ahang.