An illustration published in the Journal Universel, Paris, 1857, of the Rumi Darwaza gateway in Lucknow, the city where Mir spent his last years. (Shutterstock)
An illustration published in the Journal Universel, Paris, 1857, of the Rumi Darwaza gateway in Lucknow, the city where Mir spent his last years. (Shutterstock)

Review: The Hidden Garden - Mir Taqi Mir by Gopi Chand Narang

The Hidden Garden, a new book on Mir Taqi Mir, looks at the Urdu poet’s thematic variations and affirms the multisensory appeal of his ghazals
By Shafey Kidwai
PUBLISHED ON APR 30, 2021 04:37 PM IST
224pp, ₹499; Penguin
224pp, ₹499; Penguin

The pre-colonial cultural synthesis, literary and lexical confluence, and religious symbiosis produced several gifted poets whose outpourings, seemingly wrapped in plain words, explored the human predicament in intriguing ways. This is vividly manifested in the evocative poetry of Mir Taqi Mir (1723- 1810), himself described in Urdu as Khudae Sukhan or the “God of poetry”. More than 300 years after his death, the poet continues to engage scholars, critics and literary historians; celebrated writers like Khushwant Singh have made him the subject of fiction. Mir is largely perceived as the poet of unrequited love and his poetry depicts the trials of a life of desire in an idiom that is easy to understand. However, the generalization about his poetry being simple and unfailingly transparent does not go down well with eminent scholar and literary theorist Gopi Chand Narang.

His new book, The Hidden Garden: Mir Taqi Mir seeks to delineate the creative dexterity of the great master poet of the eighteenth century. “There is an impression that simplicity of the syntactic structure equals simplicity of poetic meaning, which is not correct,” asserts Narang. “Mir speaks in a dialogic language that seems conversational but his simplicity is deceptive. His deceptive simplicity is, in fact, his multiplicity.” The arguments are plausible as Mir enlivens his verses with the immediacy of the spoken word and his poetry finds favour even with contemporary readers who often prefer virtual meetings to talking face to face. Narang initiates a perceptive debate on Mir’s poetry through the prism of his intriguing personality.

Divided into six chapters, The Hidden Garden turns the reader’s attention to Mir’s thematic variations and affirms that the semantic space created by his ghazals have a multisensory appeal. Here, a nagging sense of alienation stacks up against the celebration and enchantment of love which is intermittently rendered sensuous with traces of mystic experience.

Narang is withering when it comes to critical assumptions about the centrality and autonomy of the text. The statement “Nothing exists outside the text” prompts him to deliberate on Mir’s fascinatingly off-centre personality. The first chapter gives a graphic account of the poet’s personal life, which, the author believes is felicitously depicted in two of his masnavis. Mir is perhaps the only major poet who jotted down his autobiography in Persian. The first literary history of Urdu literature, Aab-e Hayat (1881), also provided some details about him. Narang has used these and other texts extensively to analyse Mir’s verses against the backdrop of the suffering and deprivation he endured. It is insightful but readers might not be fully at ease with the conclusions of such a personality-centric study.

Good poetry draws its sustenance from the ironical posturing and subversion of popular beliefs. Mir does this in evocative language but he can hardly be reckoned as just a poet of seventy-two lancets (nishtar, a poetic device that condenses elemental human wickedness into half scoff and half laugh)The discerning reader finds much more than agony and an unusual disdain for worldly affairs in his beguiling words. Indeed, it is the unprecedented loss of human values and rampant commercialization in the contemporary world that has created a new interest in Mir’s poetry. One agrees with the author’s assertion that the undercurrent of pain, anguish, despondency and suffering in Mir’s poetry thus found a new voice among poets of the younger generation in both India and Pakistan.

With a careful selection of 50 ghazals, Narang makes Mir’s layered poetry, that slowly exudes its meaning, accessible to readers who do not know Urdu. This trove showcases wide-ranging themes and a nuanced exposition of the human psyche, and is meticulously rendered into English by Surinder Deol. The translator puts a premium on explication rather than a laconic fluency. The first couplet of one of Mir’s famous ghazals bears testimony to this:

Dekh to dil k jaan se uth- ta hai Y duhaan sa kahaan se uth- ta hai (Look at the source: from where do the fumes arise? Is it from heart or the soul? Some thing for sure is smouldering. But from where does the smoke arise?

Gopi Chand Narang (Courtesy the author)
Gopi Chand Narang (Courtesy the author)

Here, the translator begins with an introductory phrase which renders it more plausible. A close look reveals an effort to strike a judicious balance between domestication and foreignness, though an occasional turgidity does surface.

The second part of the book, The Beauty of Mir’s Poetic Voice includes four insightful articles that locate Mir within the Indo-Persian literary tradition and the broader framework of Indian poetics. His image of being heartbroken in both love and life that still dominates Urdu books takes a severe beating.

Enumerating the aesthetic and creative dimensions of Mir’s vast and inventive oeuvre, Narang points out that his densely textured verses, which sometimes use ornate language, were suffused with mellowness. Critically examining Mir’s texts and those of Ghalib and Iqbal, he spells out the first poet’s fundamental stylistic attributes. Since Mir cannot be understood at the surface level, the reader has to decipher the various literary tropes that he frequently used. It is evident that a wide reading of eastern and western literary theories has resulted in this perspicuous critical appraisal. Narang is perhaps the first Urdu critic to have viewed Mir through the perspective of syncretic linguistic, socio-religious and literary practices and his effort to describe him as Urdu’s first complete poet certainly leaves the reader convinced. His critical assessment goes well beyond rhetorical flourish.

Shafey Kidwai is Chairman of the Department of Mass Communication at Aligarh Muslim University.

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