In an example of prudishness forcing critical insight, literary critic Farman Fatehpuri makes an interesting point in Urdu Ki Manzoom Daastaanein [Urdu Daastaans in Verse], while wagging his finger at 19th century Lucknow’s promiscuous society.
He writes that it gave rise to a poetic sensibility vastly different from the one engendered by Delhi society, where a meeting between lovers was fraught with difficulties. As an example, he quotes the works of Delhi masters Mir Taqi Mir and Momin Khan Momin, where we witness the lover leading a tortured existence, mostly spurned by, and pining away for a glimpse of, the beloved.
Fatehpuri remarks that, in the Lucknow school of poetry, on the other hand, the beloved herself expressed eagerness for union with the lover, with ample opportunities existing for the trysts. As an example, he mentions the risqué masnavis of Mirza Shauq Lakhnavi.
According to Fatehpuri, easy access to the love’s object, and opportunities for fulfilling one’s passion, made the lovers oblivious to their staple: the delights of separation and the joys of suffering. Generously forgiving both men and women for their sinful behaviour, he castigates instead Lucknow society for encouraging such a life of turpitude.
His preamble and fulminations done, Fatehpuri goes on to discuss Mirza Shauq Lakhnavi’s most famous masnavi, Zehr-i-Ishq [Love’s Poison, 1862], which elicited such powerful emotional responses from society — including a series of suicide attempts following its presentation on stage — that its publication was banned in the interests of public safety.
The masnavi features the poet Shauq in the character of the lover, and narrates the story of his affair with a merchant’s beautiful daughter who lived in his neighbourhood.
One day, the poet was on his rooftop, when she appeared on hers. They saw each other and fell in love, and found it difficult to live without consummating their passion. She sent a note to the poet and expressed her wish to meet again. The two secretly met a number of times before rumours of their affair reached the girl’s parents, who put an end to the meetings.
For two months, the lovers could not see each other and the girl’s parents decided to send their daughter away from Lucknow, to put a stop to the scandal.
Unable to withstand the prospect of separation from her lover, and powerless to challenge her parents’ decision, the girl visited her lover and, in a passage titled ‘Rukhsat-o-Wasiyat’ [The Farewell and Will], informed him that she had decided to take her own life, rather than live in separation from him.
At dawn, she returned to her house. Shortly afterwards, cries and wailing arose from the merchant’s house and the poet learned that she had carried out her plan by taking poison.
The inconsolable parents follow the bier, lamenting her youthful death. The lover, too, joined the funeral procession and, upon returning home, took poison to join his beloved in death. He lay unconscious for three days from the poison, before being found and saved.
The simply worded and moving verses, their representation of love and grief, and Shauq’s ability to evoke the tragic situation made Zehr-i-Ishq an instant success, and its popularity overshadowed Urdu’s most celebrated masnavis — the Sihr al-Bayaan [The Spell of Eloquence] and Gulzar-i-Nasim [The Garden of Nasim].
To capitalise on Zehr-i-Ishq’s popularity, other presses brought out their own hastily produced editions. There were also fraudulent masnavis published by other poets under Shauq’s name, mimicking his style. Of the latter, one was titled Khanjar-i-Ishq [Love’s Dagger], presented as a part of Zehr-i-Ishq, which was published together with Shauq’s original work for a period of time. All these texts were feverishly consumed by readers eager to have more from the poet.
Sometime after the masnavi’s publication, a theatre company arrived in Lucknow to present a dramatic rendering of Zehr-i-Ishq. It is said that when the funeral procession of the girl was staged, with the mourning parents fainting with grief, the audience broke into tears and wails, and the whole theatre hall became a house of lamentations. A few also attempted to put an end to their lives from grief.
Upon news of this reaction to the play, the authorities stopped the show and further publication of the book was banned. But it did not stop people from copying the masnavi by hand to read in manuscript.
Within a short time, a large number of such manuscripts were produced. Many of these hurriedly made copies were erroneous; some had verses missing and others had additions made by the copyists and scribes. The ban on the masnavi’s publication was finally lifted decades later, in 1919.
It would be instructive for those who pass a verdict of perversion and turpitude on the late 19th century Lucknow society, to study the historical evidence of the reception of Zehr-i Ishq.
Mirza Shauq Lakhnavi, whose real name was Tasadduq Husain Khan, died in 1871. Author and critic Abdul Majid Daryabadi, a profoundly learned, deeply religious man who was widely read in world literature, wrote the following epitaph for Mirza Shauq Lakhnavi in his essay, Urdu Ka Aik Badnaam Shaair Ya Gunahgar Shareefzaadi [One of Urdu’s Infamous Poets or The Iniquitous Noble Girl]:
“Farewell, disreputable bard of the East, Urdu’s infamous poet! Because you possessed a compassionate heart, your memory shall remain alive in benevolent bosoms. Because you commemorated death in your life, it shall not cast its shadow on your glory.
“Perchance you sang tales of sin and iniquity, relying on the Lord’s boundless mercy; but you moved the sinners and iniquitous to tears too, by thoughts of death and the end, from the awe of the Lord’s majesty.
“It will be of little wonder if the Forgiving God, the Concealer of sins and the Pardoner of the unrighteous, gathered all your slips and errors in the shadow of his clemency, and bestowed on your work the power of its poignant words, in the measure of His bounty, in the degree of His munificence!” [Translation by the columnist]
The columnist is a novelist, author and translator.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2022