In my current pre-occupations with the depressing state of world affairs, the arrival of a book, Firaq Gorakhpuri: The Poet of Pain and Ecstasy, for review, provided relief. The author, Ajai Mansingh claims to be a relative of Firaq. This intrigued me. Raghupati Sahai ‘Firaq’, was a straightforward Kayastha from a distinguished family of Urdu poets. It turns out that Mansingh claims descent from one of Firaq’s sisters.
Oddly, Mansingh has lived in Canada for over a decade teaching subjects unrelated to poetry. He then settled down in Jamaica which I associate with Rastafarians, Ocho Rios and the fast bowler, Michael Holding, not Firaq.
All information is not necessarily knowledge. Mansingh’s painstaking compilation of the great poet’s family and relatives does not shed even a shaft of light on a genius who spent his life in poetic gatherings, mushairas, intellectuals, artists, students and teachers of Allahabad University.
Instead, the book has triggered a procession of personal memories.
Once when I was visiting my cousin Mushtaq Naqvi in Allahabad, the great Urdu critic, Saiyyid Ehtesham Hussain dropped by. He had to meet Firaq sahib and asked me to accompany him. Firaq sahib held forth on a book by Prof. Aijaz Hussain, Head of the Urdu department and Firaq’s regular companion. Ehtesham sahib, a man of few words, was mesmerised. Returning home, Ehtesham sahib muttered mostly to himself about Firaq’s “incisive” mind, how he had shed light on aspects of the book only a genius can discover. This admission was significant because Ehtesham’s critique of the book had created waves in literary circles. Firaq’s observations were novel and fresh. Throughout the journey back home, Ehtesham kept shaking his head in silent admiration.
My cousin Mushtaq was close to Firaq on two counts. Firaq’s youngest brother, Yadhupati Sahai, was the head of department, English literature at Allahabad University where Mushtaq was a lecturer. Also, Musthaq’s maternal grandfather, Mir Wajid Ali, had been a much respected senior in Naini jail where Firaq too had spent a term during the freedom movement.
The day after Ehtesham sahib’s visit, Mushtaq visited Firaq.
“Ehtesham sahib was terribly excited about your fresh insights into Prof. Aijaz Hussain’s book.”
“Which book?” Firaq rolled his eyes mischievously. “I know Aijaz so well, I don’t need to read his book.”
This was just one example of Firaq’s perceptive, razor sharp mind. He had sent away the greatest critic in the land deeply impressed by his insights into a scholarly book he had not read. He had anticipated his friend Aijaz’s mind with stunning accuracy.
In his book, Ajai Mansingh expresses unhappiness with the way Firaq has been projected. Most of the writings on Firaq, he alleges, were based on gossip.
At the very outset the author lists four generations of Firaq’s family as sources for the book. In this list, the Mansinghs are prominently inserted. Firaq would have torn his hair. He was not a family man at all. One of the unhappiest events of his life was his marriage. The language he sometimes used to describe his wife is almost unprintable.
Firaq was one of Urdu’s greatest poets, but he was not what you would call a nice man. He says so himself.
Munh se hum pane bura to naheen kehte
Hai tera dost, magar aadmi achcha bhi
(I will not call him names because Firaq is your friend. But let me warn you, he is not a good man.)
He could be self-centred and insincere. Many flattering stories about himself were half truths. Firaq passed the ICS examination. Not true. He got into the provincial civil service but, under the spell of the Nehru family, joined the national movement. He was a professor in the English Department. Incorrect. He spent his life as a lecturer. Yes, he was one of the most popular teachers the university ever had.
He had all the contradictions great men are sometimes endowed with. In full flight of his imagination, he could, in one moment be with the stars, clouds, the milky way. In the next moment he touches deep emotions with rare delicacy. He is probably the most sensuous poet since Meer Taqi Meer.
Shab-e-wisaal ke baad aayina to
dekh ai dost
Tere jamal ki dosheezgi nikhar
(Look at the mirror after a night of love / You look more chaste and maidenly)
Woh tamam rooe nigar hai
Woh tamam bos o kanar hai
Woh hai ghuncha, ghuncha jo dekhiye
Woh hai choomiye to dahan, dahan.
(She is all beauty to behold / She is all entangled arms and lips
She is a rose bud for eyes to dwell on / In a kiss she is all mouth.)
Did Firaq dominate the literary scene even though contemporaries like Josh Malihabadi, Jigar Moradabadi and Yaas Yagana Changezi were also on the stage? Such an assertion would be fiercely challenged by partisans. Josh was unparalleled in the boom and vigour of his diction; Jigar in his unsurpassed lyricism; Yagana in the startling novelty of ideas.
Firaq derives his sensuousness from Behari as well as Keats. As a teacher of English literature, he had allowed the Romantic movement to influence him greatly. He was to that extent much more cosmopolitan than his contemporaries. A few decades down the line, Faiz Ahmad Faiz emerged as a poet with a mind truly in the modern idiom. His personal friendships extended from Edward Said to Louis MacNeice.
Faiz was quite considerably helped by the fact that he lived in Lahore, the liveliest cultural centre until 1947. Lucknow and Delhi never quite recovered their élan after 1857. Majaz possibly the finest talent of the century, languished in Lucknow’s decadence. His dozen or so ghazals and long poem, ‘Awara’, rank with the best in Urdu poetry.
It is in this galaxy that Firaq shines incomparably. He courted controversies, including the one which caused Oscar Wilde to be jailed by Victorian England. Like Wilde, Firaq was a scintillating conversationalist, whose company was sought by all ages.
Ajai Mansingh’s plaint is that most of the Firaq stories were “unethical, mischievous and libelous,” as they were based on “gossip”. He says all the writings were based on Firaq’s “last twenty five or thirty years when he had become mentally deranged and morally bankrupt.”
Here is a clear case of libeling the dead. Firaq attended Mushairas until the 70s. He died in 1982.
What a genius like Firaq needed was a Boswell, to record the public record of his wit and erudition, not a tedious compilation of relationships the great poet would have had difficulty recognising.