Queer. If it is translated into Urdu the word gazes in two directions. It loiters, almost insouciantly, between ajiib and paagal saa. Strange, anomalous, something that provokes curiosity, marvelous, as in to marvel at, magical, pushing and shoving the edges of the everyday: these come from ajab, to wonder. When one points out someone or something as ajiib in a passing comment, they might imply peculiar, a touch mad, foolish or silly, or just a tiny bit odd, flouting conventions slightly: as in paagal saa. Queer then is both; poised daintily, perhaps even deftly, between ajiib and paagal saa, while not lingering for very long in either. Lounging here, it stands, a little off-center, a touch terhaa, looking askance in both directions, between the Arabic root and a common word perhaps taken from Sanskrit in a lineage that has long faded from view.

I decided to take my cue from my friend and colleague Mehr Farooqi’s book on the Urdu critic Muhammad Hasan Askari and do what I have never done before — queer Miraji. Lay Miraji the poet, essayist and reader out as an odd assortment, literally, like sweets on a plate that one looks at longingly, to taste. To offer an incitement to conversation.

People often ask me what I work on. I tell them I have worked on Miraji; they assume I am talking about Mirabai and like many well brought-up South Asians fully attuned to the nuances of deference, I am appending the ‘ji’ to her name to signal my reverence. I have written about this particular mistake, a double take, a name taken in two ways, in my book on Miraji. I bring it up again because that slip, which I first met over 20 years ago, lingers on.

Just the other day, talking to a group of enthusiastic students in Delhi I found myself offering the usual synoptic C.V. of Miraji — where he lived, died, what he wrote, who he was to Urdu poetics, why they might not know of him, what the stories that explain his name might be. What the entanglements with Mirabai, the bhakti poet, were, because in some important ways, the sliding across names suggests a kind of intimacy with Mirabai, an intimacy that Miraji pursued in his writing. So the mistaken name continues to be odd in a somewhat useful way, to be sort of queer. And, as always, to provide a space to open up the questions of gender in many different keys.

So what opening does this missed take offer us? Why do I allude to Urdu modernism in my title, suggesting, by bringing queer and modernism together, that they may be related in some ajiib, paagal way? When I say queer I mean something quite specific: the lineaments, the flesh, sinews and muscles of a field that has come to be called queer theory. Many popular perceptions of queer theory imagine that it attends to identities in the present or the past — and it opens those identities up to include subjects who stretch the frame beyond gay and lesbian, and of course, beyond heterosexuality. Is queer theory, then, about sifting through archives of the present, unravelling moments from the past to find instances of various practices and figures such as these? Yes, but that is not just what it does.

Anthropologists such as Kath Weston, who have written on sexuality, call this mode of investigation salvage anthropology: traipsing off to ancient and contemporary sites in a literal and not so obvious fashion to salvage objects that recuperate people who had complex desires, or to pursue stories that bring non-heterosexual desires to view. The inclinations of this sort of quest are to show that there really were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender etc. folk and narratives in the past and that these figurations offer that past to embolden lives in the present. But newer analyses that take their cue from queer theory, such as Weston’s and those by South Asian scholars such as Anjali Arondekar, or by Lauren Berlant, Jose Munoz, David Eng and Andrea Smith, who are among an enormous roster that furnish contemporary accounts in the home of queer theory, style queer theory through practices of reading, rendering narratives, poetics, politics, lyric tender, vulnerable, fierce so that in feeling them this way other ways of being might flower into sight. Readings that do not find their ease in one place and incline instead towards crookedness, vakrokti, terhaa, paichiida, twisted, turned, playful. From this sense of queer we get crossing over, crossing gender, cross-dressing, playing with what one is or what one does, playing against the grain of easily settled readings, whether they be of poetry, person, maahaul or world. From this sense of queer we get the openings pursued that embrace the volatilities they might engender.

Queer, then, is not a mode that brings to light, illuminates in a transparent fashion. Queer readings celebrate the unfinished. They keep alive the possibility that when something is deciphered some small piece will escape or evade clarity, will remain obscure. Using language from philosophers and critics such as Jacques Derrida, when we queer something we invoke the undecidable, the supplement which lives between sated fulfillment and hungry impoverishment. If we turn to Miraji’s own words to describe lyric, queer for him might be found when lyric torques, finds its flesh in the language of passing conversations that seem to stage everyday lucidity even as verse reaches for the ambiguous or the elliptical, ibhaam and mubham. So that something is left unsaid, left behind, left to be sought again, left to twirl towards what yet remains adhuraa, namukkamal.

Saare rind aubash jahaan ke tujh se sujuud main rahte hain Baanke terhay tirche tiikhe sab kaa tujhe imaam kiyaa

All the skeptics, reprobates, libertines, rakes, blackguards, mobs, live prostrated before you Cunning and fraudulent, crooked, bent and awry, perverse yet foolish, piquant. You’ve been anointed to lead them all.

Mir Taqi Mir’s verse is so apt a description of Miraji; one that so many critics writing about Urdu might resort to, however obliquely, when they talk about his life and his lyric. And that commonplace sense of who Miraji was lends itself to considering him through queerness. View Miraji as the Imaam of the rind, aubash, baanke, terhay, tirche, and one might glimpse things a different way, askew as it were, if one does so. Perhaps appreciate gender, and even women, in a perverse key.

The now well-rehearsed afsaneh and hikayat that draw portraits of Miraji blur because they superimpose impossibly contrary photographic negatives. You get Saadat Hasan Manto’s dialectic, kash-ma-kash, pull and tug between the faqir, the wandering Sufi bhakt on a safar which never arrives at stillness, and the contemporary avara soaked in the nightly liquor Miraji consumed so copiously. You get a figure crowned in a jat, garlanded in a mala, speaking the voice of nazm. While by the poet’s own account, in the aptly named namukkamal self-portrait, he was pulled willy-nilly into poetry through desire coursing through skin. Three incidents in that piece stage a paagal-saa sexual deviant in the medical terminology so many of his compatriots used to describe him. All three invoke the tender, curious vulnerable gaze of a young boy absorbing scenes soaked in desire and that allude to the angles Miraji’s poetry will take; they map a few chosen moments along its journey. Monsoon rivulets chalking Pavagahh in Halol, begetting the sinuous temptation of a snake and Adam and Eve’s craving to mind. A young girl peeing, a moment that brings nature into focus as moral ambivalence: the moment is tucked into a game of hunting, with Bhils flushing animals out towards a child playing at British hunters. A dream in the half-woken light shadowing the tender nubile outline of a child: a stolen vision that Miraji says inhabits his poetry as clothing, as fetish. Unseemly, baanke and queer. Not an adult desire, but a child’s — and in this, reminiscent of what Ismat Chughtai also explored, in an oblique conversation with Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality. Masuum longing birthing lyric in three literalised allegories. In other words, utterly queer. Here truth is not what is at stake, and the problem with Miraji was that he always eluded the impossible call to find out the real truth. But self-fashioning is. Because his essay never culminates in a fully fashioned portrayal it remains adhura, refusing the comfort of convention.

But then, to lay against the quite explicitly young boy’s gaze that Miraji gives himself in his self-portrait, there was the paradoxical question of his name. Miraji was born Sanaullah Daar. A takhallus, a poetic name, is as all Urduwalas know, quite an ordinary thing. Poets take names under which they compose, they sing, they recite, they write. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib changed his name from Asad to Ghalib. Alam Muzaffarnagari (1901-1969), born as Muhammad Ishaaq, took his name from the city of his birth. So, at least some poets who changed their names for their poetry seemed to have a reason that could be discerned if one gave the matter a little thought. Their poetic name of choice seemed to make some kind of commonplace sense. Miraji was unusual in that his name changes provoked stories recited by friends who, despite every biographical tale they might have produced, struggled to make sense of the routes Miraji travelled to arrive at his nom de plume.

Miraji’s first penname was Saahiri, one that he took when he was a young man in Lahore finding his way as a poet. Its meanings — enchantment, magic, sorcery, necromancy, from saahir, from the root s-h-r, which in its turn means turn from its course — suggest an ontological and epistemological magic trick, a sleight of hand, a world of wonder (he called his room saahir khaana, the enchanted room, the sorcerer’s abode).

Something different, perhaps queer. And something reminiscent of the magical moves in dastaans. A name that might provoke an unusual tale. And one that I have never tracked down — though there might be people in my audience, readers and listeners who can stage its dastaan, perform a daastaan-e-Saahiri.

Miraji, his second name, under which he lived after he began to use it, also incites stories that attempt to unravel the mystery of ‘why?’ He began to live under a woman’s name, not just to write in it. And in following the spoor of the names, the stories of how Miraji came by his name, I track between two narratives in my book on him. One story turns to the young woman, Mira Sen, whom he caught glimpses of in Lahore as a very young man, and was supposed to be madly in love with and whose name he absorbed. The other suggests the poet Mirabai as an inspiration. As with everything else about Miraji, the story of ‘how he got his name’ never resolved itself. And the incompleteness of the mystery hangs there, awaiting for a reader to come and decide for themselves. Queer Miraji?

Composing as Mira, living as Mira? Rife with stories of ‘composing as,’ Mira’s corpus is filled in so effusively over time by singers that scholars struggle to sort out what was actually sung by someone who might have been the historical figure of the mad-for-Krishna dancing, singing queen, married into the royal house of Chittor.

Epistemology, ontology, politics. So composing as Mira is an utterly familiar act. Taking on the position / place of a woman, singing in the lyrical musical voice of a gopi, of Radha, Krishna’s lover, of Radha’s sakhis or friends allows many poets pathways into sringaara rasa, the vehicles or routes to live the wrenching sorrow of unfaithful love, to flesh the wilful dancing joy of meeting a lover surreptitiously in a dense moon-lit forest landscape of aesthetic composition. Singers translate themselves into another voice, without forsaking their own. In other words, men, women and transgender singers become women as they sing. And Miraji, translating love lyric from Bangla, from the poet Vidyapati, is familiar with the practices of living as a woman, especially if one is lost in a frenzied longing for Krishna. And of course there is rekhtii, another vehicle into Urdu, love sung in a woman’s voice to another woman, often in voluptuously erotic phrasings; 18th and 19th century poets such as Sa’adat Yar Khan ‘Rangin’ and Insha Allah Khan ‘Insha’ are familiar exponents. In lineages of lyric composition, then one is not born a woman, but enters into being one. And this is queer. Not the simple voicing as another, even living as another, but noticing what those instances of becoming something else might entail. Something familiar looked at askance, in a terhaa, ajiib way. Another passage to knowing something: an alterior epistemology through ontology as a coming into being. It suggests glimpses of other ways of looking or curving through gender, other passages into gender.

All I have in my possession of Miraji’s translations of Mirabai’s poetry is the frontispiece of the book in his own hand — he called the book Miranjali. Anjali as in offering, gifted by Miraji as Mira, for Mira, to Mira, by Mira. Miranjali cusps the closure between the name and the noun, suggesting water poured out from hands: an appropriate title not just for these translations but how translated voices figure in his lyric.

Gender as an aesthetic device has another valence in the last stages of colonialism; it becomes a political proxy through which writers from the Progressive Writers’ Association are expected to compose. In other words, the rhetoric of the PWA follows a long lineage, which begins with South Asian responses to 19th century British critiques of South Asia, of imagining new futures for decolonisation where those futures are committed to better lives for communities that have come to be understood as fated to violence, mired in histories of containment and deprivation. Women are centrally featured, as are workers, villagers, farmers. The rhetorical, epistemological and aesthetic intent is ensconced in graphic literary compositions and mirror or illustrate the depredations of failed lives as pathways to understanding them; their betterment, their taraqqi, is yoked to the project of building a nation that attends to those lives in a meaningful way.

Miraji, spoke to gender as a device, by suggesting that modes of representation that were the bulwark of a taraqqi pasand adab, representations wedded to mirroring or ainaa daari, miscarried. For him, a writer who occupies, even takes over, voices from these communities to compose a story, succeeds in closing them off precisely because the thread of representational possibilities is shot through with the shades of colonial representations. Speaking only of violence and deprivation is a foreclosure bound into a long history in British appraisals of South Asian treatment of women. Many of Miraji’s projects of translation are inaugurated here, as overtures in tightly orchestrated scorings of representational possibilities for gender. Translations for him were auguries from other modulations for composition: Japanese women writers, Korean women writers, to Sappho and contemporary women poets from Europe. And Miraji took his cue from the armature of prior inclinations of composition by writing as a woman, writing the gendered gaze, writing for a gendered gaze. These, then, placed Miraji quite securely in the aesthetic politics of his time. The way he dwelled in his landscapes, however, established his foundational differences. This is why one could see him as terhaa, a bit off, a bit queer, somewhat at odds with his own time. Inhabiting perhaps another politics: one might call what flowed from Miraji’s pen, the anjali of political jadidiyaat, political modernism, the queer politics of modernism.

So what was Miraji’s own andaz-e bayan? Part two of this series will speak to Miraji’s poetics; show how Miraji composed his gendered lyrical landscapes.

Geeta Patel is associate professor, Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures and Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. She has authored Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry