The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir
By Gopi Chand Narang
Translated by Surinder Deol
Viking, India
ISBN: 978-0670095001 233pp.

Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810), known by the mononym ‘Mir’, remains a towering figure in Urdu literature and distinguished scholar Gopi Chand Narang, who passed away on June 15, considers him “Urdu’s first complete poet.”

The complexity of Mir’s poetry and the linguistic, critical and historical significance of the early Urdu verse he created, together with a glimpse of his life and times, are brought together for the Anglophone reader in The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir, which is Surinder Deol’s English translation of Narang’s book Usloobiyat-i-Mir.

In the preface, Narang points out that Mir “has been called Khuda-i-Sukhan [the god of poetry]” and praised by the likes of Muhammad Husain Azad, Imam Bakhsh Nasikh and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, among others. Narang describes Mir as “a poet of love and torment … a poet of agony and suffering as well as courage and audacity.”

Narang sets out to look for “Mir’s creative signatures and how to identify the roots of his work and the directions they led.” The book also explores the skill with which Mir developed ‘Rekhta’, “an evolving and imperfect medium of the time”, into a “gem-like literary and gushing language of ghazal — highly aesthetic, skilful and rich with inventive meanings.”

Gopi Chand Narang’s gem of a critical analysis of ‘Urdu’s first complete poet’ is translated into English for the first time

The early Urdu poetry Mir created with his synthesis of Rekhta with Persian went on to develop its own identity. Narang quotes Ghalib:

“Rekhte ke tum hi ustaad nahin ho, Ghalib
Kehtay hain aglay zamaanay mein koi Mir bhi tha”

[You are not the sole virtuoso of the craft of Rekhta, Ghalib
People say that, in times gone by, there was a poet called Mir]

Narang draws parallels between the horrors Mir saw in 18th century Delhi — during the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali — with the city’s sufferings in 1857 as witnessed by Ghalib, and examines the relevance of Mir’s poetry during and after the traumas of 1947’s Partition. He also comments on the importance of understanding “key events” in Mir’s life, both public and personal, to comprehend the emotions that impelled Mir’s verse.

The Hidden Garden begins with the essay ‘The Life of Mir Taqi Mir: The Agony and the Ecstasy’ to give context to its two sections; one consists of 50 ghazals and the other is a critical assessment of Mir and his significance.

The biographical essay covers Mir’s family life in Akbarabad (now Agra); the influence and death of his father, a Sufi dervish; family conflicts and the poet’s relocation to Mughal Delhi as described in his autobiography Zikr-i-Mir. Narang also comments on the glaring elision in Mir’s account, the reasons for the poet’s obsession with a beautiful woman he ‘saw’ in the moon and his collapse into madness.

Narang finds the answers in two of Mir’s strongly autobiographical masnavis — ‘Muaamlaat-i-Ishq’ [Matters of Love] and ‘Khwaab-o-Khayaal’ [Dreams and Thoughts] — which he reproduces in his book. The former, which tells of the lovers’ growing intimacy, followed by separation and sorrow, begins:

“Ek sahib se jee laga mera/ Uss ke ashvon ne dil tthaga mera”

[I fell in love with someone irresistible
Her coquetry robbed me of my heart]

The second masnavi reveals the poet’s broken heart in a few lines:

“Nazar raat ko chaand par gar parri/ To goya ke bijli si dil par parri
Nazar aaee ek shakal mahtaab mein/ Kami aaee jis se khur-o-khwaab mein”

[At night, I looked at the moon, and I was struck/ It was like some lightning that hit me/ I had a new kind of dream/ I saw her wherever my eyes turned]

Apparently, an almost 18-year-old Mir had fallen in love with a married woman in his family. Their secret, forbidden and aborted relationship resulted in great suffering. Narang writes that “Mir carried with him the wound all his life”, transposing it into rich, magnificent, complex poems “filled with a celebration of love, its joy, pain and enchantment.”

Mir’s life and his poetry were also shaped by Delhi, the city he loved, and the devastating wars that impelled his migration to Lucknow in 1782. His pride, honour, dignity and sense of self as an outstanding poet and “superior Dilliwalla” often placed him at odds with Lucknow’s poets and, sometimes, his own patrons — the nawabs of Awadh.

Narang draws extensively on Azad’s book Aab-i-Hayat [The Water of Life] for insights into Mir’s Lucknow years, including his arrival — incognito — into the city under straitened circumstances, and the immortal verses he recited at a mushaira [poetry gathering]:

“Kya buud aur baash poochho ho poorab ke saakino/ Hum ko ghareeb jaan ke hans hans se pukaar ke/ Dilli jo ek shahr tha aa’lem mein intikhaab”

[How can I tell you my whereabouts, o residents of the East?/ You consider me as an alien as you laughingly enquire about my whereabouts/ Delhi was once considered one of the finest cities in the world]

These wordy translations embody the difficulties and complexities of transmuting poetry, especially tight, disciplined couplets, into a different language. The book’s 50 ghazals, conveying the many different aspects of Mir’s poetry, are transmuted into English verses of different lengths and, it must be said, the poetic quality of the translations varies. It is also a great pity that the poems are not reproduced in the book in the Arabic script, alongside the Romanised Urdu and the English translations.

The second part of the book, ‘The Beauty of Mir’s Poetic Voice’, is an incisive and critical appraisal of the poet. The first chapter, ‘A Poet of Countless Delights’, gives interesting comparisons between Mir and his contemporary Mirza Rafi Sauda.

Sauda was considered superior to Mir according to many tazkirahs [discourses] and Narang considers this a “gross injustice.” Narang’s analysis reveals that, from the very beginning, Mir was forging his own distinct voice. Ahead of his time, he employed “an effortless verbal structure” that included colloquial words.

Narang asserts that Mir “was the first great Indian poet who used multiple lenses in his work. His deceptive simplicity was, in fact, his ‘multiplicity’.” The “multiple streams coming from different traditions” in Mir’s poetry resulted in “a creative confluence that has not been seen in any other poet.”

He writes of Mir’s influence on Ghalib, and subsequently Ghalib’s on Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Mir was also the “last master of the oral tradition” since most of his life predated the printing press and his “voice was aimed at the listener, not the reader of a book.”

Narang constantly challenges the limited critical assessments by most 19th and 20th century writers, who harp on Mir’s “simplicity and flow” while ignoring the deeper, multidimensional aspects. In the chapter ‘A Deceptive Simplicity’, the author looks at how Mir overcame the literary limitations of Rekhta, which was the “spoken language of the time” and “turned it into an art form.” His exploration of “deep structures” includes Mir’s metaphorical comment on nature, life and living in the famous couplet:

“Kaha main ne kitna hai gul ka sabaat
Kali ne yeh sun kar tabassum kiya”

[I asked the rosebud, ‘how long is the life of a flower?’
The bud listened and smiled]

The discussion on Mir’s fluidity, depth, craft, style and imagery is illuminated by more poems. In ‘A Delightful Synthesis of Persian and Rekhta’, Narang writes about Mir’s skilled use of language(s): “The charm of his couplets rested on the hybrid amalgamation of Persian words and the syncretic and colloquial structures of Rekhta. Whenever and wherever Mir confronted cataclysms and misfortunes, he went deeper into his self, or he dived into metaphysics and talked about the mystery of existence, or he drowned himself into the wonders of contemplation.”

The chapter ‘Urdu’s First Complete Poet’ discusses how Mir picked up colloquial Urdu mixed with Braj Bhasha in Agra, where he grew up. He then grafted this early language into the more refined, Persianised Delhi language known as ‘Kharri Boli’ — this became part of his early poetic expression.

Mir was in his late 60s when he moved to Lucknow. He found it difficult as a writer to “make a compromise based on local [literary] practices”, but he did “unconsciously absorb some Awadh influences … and this is how he became the first complete poet in Urdu.”

Narang adds that the language Mir uses in his poetry is “Urdu pure and simple, spoken Urdu with naturalised dialectical influences of the heartland of India, Agra, Delhi and Lucknow.” The timeless beauty of Mir’s lyrical verse includes the “free flow and freshness of the spoken language today” and Narang refers to its influence on many modern poets, including Nasir Kazmi (1925-1972), stating: “The magic of Mir was felt in all time-periods of Urdu’s growth and development … The beauty of his tone and sensitivity to love and the courage to face human suffering will never diminish.”

The Hidden Garden is truly fascinating, a work of inspiration manifested by the poetic quality of Narang’s prose, which brings the significance of Mir and his poetry to a wider audience. My one quibble: I hope the next edition includes an index!

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2022

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