Creativity and mental disorder: Urdu poets and writers who committed suicide

Updated April 27, 2015


—Creative Commons
—Creative Commons

It is generally assumed that creative people have a marked tendency to suffer from mental disorders. Modern research supports the popular idea that connects mental illness with creativity.

A study carried out at Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005 concluded that writers and their close relatives, when compared with people having the similar educational background and similar IQ levels, had higher rates of mood disorders. Donald W. Goodwin, MD, in his Alcohol and the Writer wrote that out of 11 American Nobel Laureates, four (Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner) were “clearly alcoholics”. John Steinbeck, the fifth one, according to Goodwin, was “probably” alcoholic.

Researchers at Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Sweden, carried out a study based on the data representing about 1.2 million patients with problems such as Schizoaffective disorder, depression, alcohol abuse, suicidal tendencies etc., and found that creative persons, especially authors, were twice as likely to commit suicide.

Perhaps creativity has a price and an author has to pay it. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway (English), Sadiq Hidayat and Taqi Rifat (Persian), Allama I.I. Qazi (Sindhi) and Mishima Yukio (Japanese) are just a few of hundreds of authors who committed suicide. The list goes on and in fact Joumana Haddad, an Arab woman author, has published Death will come and it will have your eyes, an anthology of 150 poets who committed suicide. Though the topic is rather gloomy, someone could not refrain from commenting in the lighter vein that writers’ tendency to commit suicide should be included in “occupational hazards”.

Why do people kill themselves? The experts often cite depression, and the resultant hopelessness, as the reason. Without going into the details as to what causes depression, let us have a look at the authors of Urdu who committed suicide:

Shams Agha

Though not well-known, Shams Agha was a talented short story writer and novelist. Born in 1922, Agha was a sensitive child and as a result of separation between his parents, he was separated from his mother and siblings, which added to his restlessness. On Dec 3, 1945, he disappeared and never returned home. Vazeer Agha, a close friend and relative, believed that he had committed suicide, since Vazeer Agha had saved his life on one occasion when Shams had taken some tranquillisers. Shams had penned nine short stories and an unfinished novel. Before disappearing, he had handed over the incomplete manuscript of his novel to Maulana Salahuddin Ahmed.

Shakeb Jalali

Today considered one of the distinguished Urdu poets of post-independence era, Shakeb Jalali was mostly ignored by his contemporaries. Born Syed Hasan Rizvi in Jalal, a village near Aligarh, on Oct 1, 1934, Shakeb suffered from the painful memories of his mother’s tragic death. Shakeb’s father, suffering from some mental illness, had thrown Shakeb’s mother before an approaching train and Shakeb, 10, at that time, witnessed the devastating incident along with his siblings. This kept on haunting him all through his life and on Nov 12, 1966, he threw himself before a passing train near Sargodha. Roushni aye roushni, a collection of his poetry, appeared in 1972. Sang-e-Meel published his complete poetical works, Kulliyat-e-Shakeb Jalali, in 2004.

Sara Shugufta

Born on Oct 31, 1954, in Gujranwala, she wrote poetry in Urdu and Punjabi. Her personality was an enigma. Hailing from a poor and uneducated background, she wanted to rise socially through education but could not pass her matriculation. Her step mother, an early marriage and subsequent three more marriages (two of her husbands were poets) all added to her mental agonies. She was sent to mental asylum and after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, she threw herself before a passing train in Karachi on June 4, 1984.

Aanas Moin

A sensitive soul, Aanas Moin was born in Lahore on Nov 29, 1960. Coming from a deeply religious family, he had developed a keen interest in Sufism and it did not seem likely that he could commit suicide. But a Sufi friend of his once commented that the life after this life was so beautiful that if the people knew about it, half the population of the world would commit suicide. Yet another theory suggests that Aanas Moin wanted to marry a colleague, but his family disproved of it. Also, a fraud was committed at the bank where he worked and being the in charge of the bank, he felt it was his responsibility to prevent it. This led to his suicide on Feb 5, 1985, in Multan, when he threw himself before a train.

Sarvat Hussain

A poet of Urdu and Punjabi, Sarvat Hussain was born in Karachi on Nov 9, 1949. During his student days, Sarvat fell in love with a fellow girl student (who was later to become a renowned poet for her feministic sensibility). Sarvat was jobless but was selected as a lecturer after some struggle and taught Urdu at a college in Karachi. The fellow female poet shot to fame and began to ignore him. Later, his transfer to a college in a small town near Larkana created in him a deep sense of loneliness and being separated from his loved ones. In 1988, he was transferred to Hyderabad, but by then he had developed some psychological problems and was under treatment. In 1993, Sarvat tried to commit suicide by throwing himself before a passing train. Though saved, he lost his legs and was crippled. On Sept 9, 1996, he again tried to take his own life by falling before an oncoming train in Karachi and died.

What surprises one is the obsession of poets with train and choosing it as a means of suicide. Perhaps train’s journey has a romantic appeal and the tracks and train itself are metaphor for a long journey, the ultimate journey!

And now a few words about authors whose death is shrouded in mystery and the questions about their death remain unanswered:

Mustafa Zaidi

Born Syed Mustafa Husnain Zaidi, Mustafa Zaidi was a high-ranking civil servant. Born in Allahabad on Oct 10, 1930, Mustafa Zaidi died in Karachi on Oct 12, 1970, under mysterious circumstances. Some believed that he was murdered while others thought that he committed suicide.

Qamar Abbas Nadeem

Born in 1944, Qamar Abbas Nadeem was a medical doctor and an established short story writer. Many believe he did not commit suicide and died in a road accident. But a close friend of Qamar Abbas Nadeem’s had once disclosed to this writer that Nadeem had suicidal tendency and often talked about the “absurdity” of life. On May 29, 1981, he took tranquillisers and crashed his car against an electric pole. His sedating himself before crashing the car was perhaps a way of ascertaining the death. But his death was generally reported as an accident.

Dr Safia Ibaad in her book Rag rut, khwahish-e-marg, aur tanha phool, published a few years ago, has offered some insight into the lives of Urdu authors who committed suicide. Though it was helpful in writing this piece, the book lacks certain details.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2015

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