A new Pakistani film has just come out—Mah-i-Mir—invoking Mir’s name and his ‘lunacy.’ Some of its viewers may find interesting the following, included in my book Zikr-i Mir: The Autobiography of the Eighteenth Century Mughal Poet: Mir Muhammad Taqi ‘Mir’ (Oxford, India: 1999). It is, of course, quite prosaic, and in no way should be construed as a comment on the film written by Sarmad Sahbai, for whom I have nothing but respect. (Minor changes have been made in the text.)
‘We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.’ Wordsworth wrote those lines in 1802, eight years before Mir’s death, expressing the Romantic view of a creative life’s trajectory. In Mir’s case, both despondency and madness came early in his youth. And though he was cured of the ‘madness’ soon enough, despondency seems to have hounded him all his life. Madness or junun, however, remained Mir’s favourite literary theme, and he explored it in his ghazals as no one has since.
There was a hereditary strain of emotional and/or mental imbalance in Mir’s paternal line, affecting at least some of its males. We learn from Zikr-e Mir (henceforward ZM) that Mir’s grandfather, after reaching the age of fifty, experienced ‘instability of disposition’ (mizaj az i’tidal munharif shud), and that Mir’s only uncle was born with some mental problem (khalal-e dimagh), and died in his youth. Nothing is known about Mir’s only brother, Muhammad Razi, except for the brief mention in ZM. Mir gives no information about the exact number of his children, and mentions only one, Faiz Ali, in his writings. From other sources, however, we learn that late in his life Mir had one more son, Mir Hasan Askari Zar (a.k.a. Mir Kallu Arsh), from his second wife. Both sons are reported to have been rather strange in temperament, but neither is described as suffering from ‘insanity.’
Mir wore his ‘lunacy’ as a badge of honour, and has described it twice in some detail. Once in a masnavi entitled ‘Khvab-o-Khayal’ (‘Dream and Illusion’) written some time between 1752 and 1778, then again in ZM (ca. 1773). The following is a summary of the masnavi:
‘Blessed is he who doesn’t exist, for I know what existence brought me. Times kept me bewildered and distressed. I enjoyed not a day of peace in my hometown. People close to me turned into enemies the day I ‘raised my head.’ Friends and companions deserted me. Finally, with tearful eyes, I left home and somehow travelled from Akbarabad to Delhi. Here I suffered much hardship. And as I silently bore my burden I became mad. Sometimes I remained obsessed with some thought, other times I ran away from company. Still other times I foamed at the mouth and threw stones at people. My state continuously worsened. My madness reached up into the heavens: if I looked skyward and saw the moon I would become so terrified that I would faint. Eventually I began to see a lovely human shape in the moon, and I became obsessed with it. It remained in my sight no matter where I looked. Sometimes it would speak to me, other times it would be silently coquettish and playful. It would tease me and also comfort me. Sometimes it would lie down beside me, but when I would reach out to touch it there would be nothing. And in the morning it would hasten back to the moon. I turned pale and could hardly move from weakness. Someone brought an amulet to cure me; another summoned a spell-caster. Others brought physicians, who gave me potions that were against my natural disposition. My passion or madness increased. Then they started keeping me locked in a narrow room, and gave me little to eat or drink. One afternoon as I sat outside that dark cell they pounced upon me and had me cupped. I fainted, but next morning when I came to my senses, they started bleeding me again. This went on for a long time. I lost all strength. I fell into a stupor, and remained confined to my bed for many days. Gradually some strength began to return. I was able to open my eyes again, and that lovely figure returned to my sight. But now it would often stay away from me for hours. And when it would return, it would not look at me with that earlier feeling. Sometimes it would scold me, and accuse me of having been unfaithful to it. Other times, it would become disdainful and turn away from me. Then one day, it cast me a hopeless glance and returned to the moon, never to be seen again that vividly. For some time I could still see some shadow of its presence in the moon or catch a brief glimpse of it in some dream. Then that too stopped. It never appeared to my sight again, and that joyful intimacy faded into a long lost dream.’
As against the above, where Mir’s torturers are many and nameless, the account in ZM puts the entire blame on Sirajuddin Ali Khan ‘Arzu’, who, Mir alleges, was instigated by Mir’s step-brother, Muhammad Hasan, out of sheer malice. In the poem, the tragedy occurs not too long after Mir’s arrival in Delhi; in ZM, it happens after Mir has been with Arzu for some time and even studied a few books with him. Clearly, even by Mir’s own account, Arzu initially treated him decently enough—the alleged change occurred only after Muhammad Hasan’s letter arrived. So far no evidence other than Mir’s own words has been found to confirm the charge against Arzu.
The actual brief spell of emotional or mental imbalance cannot be denied. What is fascinating, however, is Mir’s obsession with the moon. He was literally ‘moonstruck’—a concept not too often invoked in the Islamicate world, but not exactly unknown either. Mir himself tells a revealing story in Faiz-e Mir about some dervish named Shah Madan, who used to live in a graveyard. Mir says he once spent a day in his company, then adds, ‘That night under moonlight his madness flared and he began to whirl and dance. By chance his foot hit a tombstone and broke. Before the night ended, he was dead.’ (However, there is no mah-zada or mah-zadagi in Persian, and mah-parast only means ‘a lover.’)
Mir states in ZM that his fascination with moon began quite early: ‘When I was a little child my nanny, as she would wash my face, would say to me, “[Look at the] Moon! [Look at the] Moon!” and I would look up in the sky—ever since that time I was fascinated by the moon.’ However, the significance of his remarks becomes dubious when we note that Mir has used here not only an obscure idiom from Arzu’s famous dictionary Charagh-e Hidayat, he has also expanded on it by using Arzu’s gloss. This is how Arzu explains the idiom, mah mah guftan: ‘It’s a common practice that when the mother or the nanny or some other person washes a child’s face and the child cries and remonstrates, that person points to the sky and says, “Moon. Moon.” It’s a subterfuge to divert the child and stop his crying.’ Mir’s fascination perhaps also grew out of the pleasure he must have derived from the exceptionally beautiful moonlit nights of Agra that he mentions in another anecdote in Faiz-e Mir.
In both accounts Mir’s lunacy ends after he is cupped or bled at the insistence of his well-wishers, though the description in ZM has an additional detail: the doctors also ‘irrigate’ his brain [through internal medicine]. Both are recommended treatments in the Greco-Arabic system of medicine for melancholia, which is understood to result from an excess of heat in the body created in turn by an excess of black bile. After the cure Mir, in the prose version, gets on with his life and nothing more is mentioned of that experience. In the versified version, there remains a lingering sense of remorse and longing, as if the brief spell with the ‘moon-person’ was the happiest time of Mir’s life, and what came later only disappointed him.
Also, in both accounts, the sexual identity of the fantasy figure is not clear. Persian, of course, has no grammatical gender. But even in the Urdu poem, the gender is governed by the word used to refer to the figure— where surat is used, the verbal endings are feminine, but where naqsh is used, the endings are grammatically masculine. Hence my use of ‘it’ in the above summary. Further, the brief section describing the figure’s beauty contains no word that explicitly suggests a particular sex.
As is plentifully evident in his poetry, Mir was obsessed with the theme of madness (junun), which in the tradition of Islamicate love poetry is the ultimate end of Passion (‘ishq), and the destiny—nay, the cherished goal—of all true lovers. The perfect lover in that tradition is Qais, the legendary lover of Laila, better known as Majnun (‘Affected by Madness’ or ‘Possessed by Jinns’). Mir returns again and again to the theme of junun and its ramifications—the tearing of garments, the running away from human habitations into some wilderness, the chains and fetters of asylums, and so forth. Madness, for him, becomes something sublime—a transforming force, the battle-cry of a free spirit, a challenge to conformity and authority and all that is wrong and corrupt in the world. In Urdu at least, no one before Mir, and none after him, has explored this theme with such profound effect. Mir’s celebration of this sublime madness set the model for all later poets, from Ghalib to Iqbal and down to the Progressives. Nisar Ahmad Faruqi, on the basis of Mir’s too frequent use of ‘moon-related’ words—such as mahtab, mahtabi, chandni, qamar, etc—speculates in his Talash-e Mir that Mir’s spell of ‘lunacy’ could have been caused by his falling in love with a girl whose name meant ‘moon’ and thus bringing upon himself the grievous disapprobation of his family members. What is equally, if not more, significant is that Mir, to my knowledge, never used any ‘lunar’ imagery in the context of junun—as if to underscore the difference between what he felt was simply affective and what he must have regarded as supremely poetic.