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Now the pen has on its tongue

Zikr-i-Mir about the man and the poet

Now the pen has on its tongue

Mir Taqi Mir was, unquestionably, the greatest Urdu poet of the eighteenth century. He wrote his autobiography, Zikr-i-Mir, in Persian. Some years ago I had read Mohammad Taqi’s translation in Urdu, and found it to be a not very enlightening work. During my recent visit to the United States I was presented with C.M. Naim’s translation of the book into English and realised that Mr. Mohammad Taqi had ignored to translate the last section of the book in which Mir has recounted a series of ‘jokes’. It must have been a Victorian sense of prudery which led him to disregard this section because most of the ‘jokes’ are salacious and scatological.

Professor C.M. Naim who has many scholarly works to his credit was, until recently, the Head of Urdu studies at the University of Chicago. His study of Mir’s autobiography is one of the most meticulously researched works. It is worth reading if only because of his annotations and appendices; they give you not only a better insight into Mir’s life, but the times (1723-1810) in which Mir spent a largely unhappy life.

In his introduction, Professor Naim explains that the coarse language and the prurience of many of the tales should not surprise anyone who is familiar with Mir’s satires. Mir wished to share these tales with his readers because he offered them to us with a simple statement: “Now the pen has on its tongue some Lata’if (witty tales) which it lays out, for the friends’ sake.” The inclusion of jokes, he points out, was “in accord with the existing textual tradition concerning jokes in Persian in both Iran and India. The telling of jokes (no matter how obscene) was not only acceptable but almost quite integral to Islamicate social discourse.”

But why would a translator ignore such a tale as this:

“People asked a Sayyid from Barha

How long has it been since you

Sayyids settled in Barha? ‘Five

Thousand years’ he replied. They said,

‘But Sayyid-ness is traced from the

Prophet, peace be upon him, and the

whole world knows how long ago

He, the most select of men, lived.’

‘He was a Sayyid of one kind,’ the fellow

replied, ‘and we are of another’.”

Zikr-i-Mir has lengthy accounts of battles and skirmishes between Nawabs of different gradation and the intrigues which they generated to curry favour with the Governor General Bahadur. Many pages are devoted to the piety and spirituality of the dervishes and how their annoyance can be fatal to the insolent, the holiness of his father, and the manner in which he had followed the true Sufi path.

Mir gives us no personal details. There is hardly any mention of his two wives — or his mother. We glean no information about his love life. Professor Naim is to be credited by taking the right view that Mir’s specific purpose in mind when he wrote his Zikr was to claim a Sayyid lineage for himself and to prove that his father had been a Shia and not a Sunni like his ancestors.

The last sections of Zikr-i-Mir are full of the visit to Lucknow (in 1784) of the Governor General, the notorious Warren Hastings “which sent the city into a flutter”. The magnitude of the reception compelled Mir to wax lyrical about it.

“Velveteen carpets were spread out such as none had ever stepped on. Walls glistened with silver. Elegant pavilions were set up in the garden and decorated with screens and curtains. At night there were dances by women who were like fairies — nay who were like houris of Paradise.”

As for the bread at meal times:

“Nan-e-badam (almond bread) of utmost delicacy, Shirmaal and Baqar Khani (both coloured with saffron on the top) that would put the sun to shame. Nan-i-Jawan (youthful bread) of such a quality that I could fill a whole book with its praise; Nan-i-Zanjabeel (ginger bread) so flavourful that taste itself grows happy thinking of it. And the kababs that were laid out kebab-i-gul, kabab-i-Hindi, kabab-i-qandari stole every heart….”

“What a splendid host! What an exemplary guest! A guest so refined and elegant; a host sun-like in his munificence; a guest a man of perfect sagacity; the host an embodiment of hospitality; their like had never been seen by the eyes of ages; nor their likes heard of by ears of sages.”

Was Mir present at the banquets? He probably was. If so he doesn’t mention it. He certainly makes our mouths water. It is obvious that Mir wrote his account to please the Nawab. The lavish praise bestowed upon the host (and guest) must have moved the Nawab because a grant was bestowed upon him. Professor Naim points that there were two texts of this account. “Mir wrote the second account (having deleted some sentences from the first) which ended with “Ilahi to jahan bashi tu bashi” and presented it to the Nawab.

He also notes that contrary to Mir’s highly exaggerated account of the festivities, the actual situation may be gained from a letter that Warren Hastings wrote to his wife: “The streets and roads have been, for some months, covered with emaciated Wretches who have flocked from all quarters to the capital for subsistence. It pains me to go abroad to hear the cries and see such spectacles for human misery…”

In the last paragraph of his book Mir writes: “Now that old age has come upon me and I am sixty. I am frequently ill … in short the decline of my powers my loss of strength, despair and despondence — they tell me that the end is not far away. The times too are not fit to live in; it would behove one to withdraw and take leave…”

The end, however, was far away. Mir concluded his autobiography when he was sixty. He did not take leave of this world until he was eighty seven.

In Zikr he comes across as a dignified, gracious individual, humble and modest. There is none of the hauteur or misanthropy alluded to him. Other than giving vent to his long-standing grievance against his uncle, the poet, Sirajuddin Arzu, he shows no animosity towards his elders or his contemporaries. It is possible that all those anecdotes about Mir spurning the offers of help from the high and mighty, his refusal to talk to fellow passengers during a journey because their language was crude and unidiomatic, his defiance of Nawab Sa’adat Ali Khan etc., related to the last twenty seven years of his life.

Mir’s poetry is distinguished by its economy and the preciseness of language. There is no trace of it in his Zikr. Perhaps it is because he wrote his autobiography in Persian and not in Urdu.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

One comment

  • Thank you, Zia Saheb for this wonderful piece. I would like to bring to your notice a recent, brilliant article on the theme in The Medieval History Journal, 18:2, Oct 2015 (SAGE Publications, New Delhi, London, L A and Singapore) by a bright young scholar, Zahra Sabri, a student of C M Naim. In fact Naim Saheb suggested her name for the MHJ’s special issue on Autobiographical Writings in Pre-Modern Europe and Asia. She is based at the Instt of Islamic Studies, McGill Univ. Canada.

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