… It was at such a time that she came into my life, my brothers. I only saw her eyes at first. And the moment I did, Mir sahib’s ghazal began humming in my head:
Jee mein kya kya hai apne ai humdum
Par sukhan ta balava nahin aata.
There’s so much in my heart, my soulmate
But not a single word reaches my lips
I had drunk a great deal that evening. I couldn’t go back home after leaving the kotha and fell asleep on it verandah. Someone awoke me from the depths of sleep. I saw only her eye, the line of her kohl, and silken tears.
– Mirza sahib.
A voice engulfed me like a wind on a wintry night. I gazed only into her eyes and hundreds of birds were flying in it, as though it was dawn, the first dawn of my life, in her eyes. As though the painter Behzad’s brush had painted a pair of eyes on a body made of air.
– Mirza sahib…
– Who are you? Kaun ho tum?
– Why didn’t you go back home?
– Home? I chuckled. – Where is it?
– Next to Habas Khan’s gate.
– But my home isn’t there.
She was quiet for the longest time. Then she said, ‘Come, let me take you home.’
– You mustn’t languish here on the streets, Mirza sahib.
– Why not?
– Because you’re a poet without peer.
– Withour peer?
– Truly, yes.
– Say it again.
– You’re a poet without peer. You’re benazir.
I grasped her hand. How warm it was, how hot. I held it against my mouth, I sucked on its flesh. She was dark as the night. And because of this, she dazzled in the darkness.
– Let me go, janab.
But I was entering her darkness. I wouldn’t be satisfied till I had clasped her to my breast. She allowed herself to be taken, without resisting. For the first time I got the scent of moist earth in a woman’s body, Manto-bhai. The scent that the base of the tree gives out after it has rained. This was not the fragrance of ittar in the bodies of the courtesans in the kothas, this was the dark smell of a moist, ancient earth.
I was entranced by this smell, Manto-bhai. She was no famous courtesan from a brothel. She was an ordinary domni. You do know what domnis did for a living, don’t you? They aang and danced at weddings to earn money, and they slept with men as well; but no refined Mirza would ever touch a domni. Their behaviour and speech belonged to the gutter. But Munira – Munirabai was different from the rest of them.
Munirabai gave me shelter in her room from that day on. She sang nobody’s ghazals but mine. When Munirabai sang, the glow of vermilion clouds would spread on her darkling face.
– Where did you hear my ghazals?
Munirabai would smile. ‘They fell from the heavens.’
– From the sky?
– Where is that sky, those stars?
– Here. Munira would smile, her hand on her heart. ‘They’re in my breasts, janab.’
The sky was inside her breasts and my ghazals had dropped from this sky – nobody had ever described it like this before. Only Munirabai could put it this way. She had no monetary relationship with my ghazals. I clasped her to my breast. She disrobed behind the shield of my body. I seemed to be holding a black, moisture-laden cloud. Begam Falak Ara was a sunlit day in my life, Manto-bhai, and Munira was like torrential rain, continuous. New green leaves sprang up on my body; believe me, when I sat in front of Munira, it was only her eyes that I saw, as swift as a doe, but still every now and then. In those still eyes I could see fear, like a running deer stopping abruptly in its tracks.
They heaped calumny on me, Manto-bhai. You’re Mirza Ghalib, very well, you may visit a kotha, you may even spend the night with a courtesan, but that doesn’t mean you can live with a domni in her house. Are you forgetting your position? What is one’s position, Manto-bhai? When I was humiliated at the mushairas, she was the only one I could go to. She never said anything, she only sang my ghazals:
Dil-e-nadaan tujhey hua kya hai?
Akhir is dard ki dawaa kya hai?
What’s wrong with your innocent heart?
What’s the cure for this illness?
Deliverance lies where there is sanctuary. So I didn’t pay any heed to all the mud flung at me. Why should I tuck my tail between my legs and run away just because a commoner was throwing stones at me? I was never one to do that. I may not have gone to battle like my ancestors, but my life had become nothing but a battlefield, where I had to fight all by myself. To hell with what people said. When I was in bed with Munira I forgot all the humiliation heaped upon me, Munia made me forget it all, and I clung to her more and more with every passing day. As I heard her sing my ghazals one after the other, it occurred me that for all their jibes at the mushairas, at least one woman was keeping my ghazals alive through her voice. I wanted to have Munira all by myself, I wouldn’t let her perform anywhere else. I wouldn’t let anyone visit her either. I took on the responsibility for her maintenance. Not that I was particularly well-off – all I had was the monthly pension of sixty-two rupees and fifty paise from the British. It was used to run the household, pay for my drinking and gambling, and now, for Munira’s expenses too. But then my mother’s sister used to send some money every month, as did Ahmed Bux Khan from Loharu now and then; even my mother used to send me some money sometimes from Agra. But given my profligate ways, this was never enough. So I had to borrow. Back then, of course, people like Mathura Das or Darbari Mal or Khoobchand never turned down my requests for loans. All told, my days were passing quite enjoyably. And a hundred ghazals were being born around Munira.
Jaan tum par nisar karta hoon
Main nahi jaanta dua kya hai.
I am charitable to you, my love
I do not know what prayer is.
But one day some people stormed Munira’s house, beating her up and breaking things. Do you know why? So that she didn’t let me in anymore. But still I want, for I was adamant. Munira only wept, holding my hand. ‘Go away, Mirza sahib. If they see you…’
– What will they do? Will they beat me up?
– I don’t want your name to be besmirched.
– Do you also want me not to visit you anymore?
Drawing my head to the seclusion of her breast, she continued weeping and said, ‘I cannot live without you, Mirza sahib, you are my love. But still…’
I couldn’t imagine living without her either, Manto-bhai. I was drawn to Munira as the moth to the flame. My life was incomplete without her beauty. Do you know how I felt? As though someone would steal her from me any moment. I didn’t even go into the garden for a stroll with her, for I used to fear that the narcissus would forget its own beauty when it saw her and assume its real form to run to her. The more I explored Munirabai’s depths, the more I felt that I did not have her in all her fullness.
Yeh na thi hamari kismat ke wisal-i-yaar hota
Agar aur jeete rehte yehi intezaar hota.
That was exactly how I felt. Complete union with her was not in my destiny. The longer I lived, the longer I would wait for her. Only once in my life was I able to love like this, Manto-bhai. Firdousi among poets, Hasan Basri among sages and Majnu among lovers – these were the three beacons of the world. If you cannot love like Majnu I don’t call it love. I had dreamt of it, but I could not love like Majnu, Manto-bhai. It was too arduous a path for me. How many of us can train our body and soul to forget ourselves? I could not.
I was extremely hurt at first, so I cut down on my visits to Munirabai. Gradually the hurt was erased. And so was she. Mughal blood is very cruel, Manto-bhai; the same blood ran in my veins too. Do you know what this blood does? It kills the one it loves. I succeeded in forgetting her and getting involved with life in new ways. But Munira had locked herself up within me, no new paths opened up for her. Women are like that. Once they love someone, they cannot escape from the cage of this passion; even if they waste away and die they will confine themselves to the cage. Once upon a time I used to consider their world too narrow for my liking. But someone who can even die out of her love for a man has actually embarked on the ultimate journey, an endeavour to reach beyond the self and lose oneself in another. God did not give this life of noble pursuit to the male, Manto-bhai. We are like moths, and they are like flames – they burn and destroy themselves to give out light. This is the love you will see in Meerabai’s songs, Manto-bhai. Without Giridhari, Meera’s life was dark. Kaise jiyun re mai, Hari bine kaise jiyun. How will I live without Krishna, how will I live?
One day I heard that Munirabai had died. With her death, this maddening love, this bekhudi mohabbat, left me too. But her eyes didn’t leave me. Those eyes, just like the ones painted on a peacock’s tail, kept coming back to me. When death finally appeared to take my hand, I realized that I had indeed wanted to love Munira like Majnu did, or else she would not have appeared to me in my final moments.
Muddat Huee Hai Yaar Ko Mehmaan Kiye Hue
Josh-E-Qadah Se Bazm Chiraaghaan Kiye Hue
Karta Hoon Jama’a Fir Jigar-E-Lakht-Lakht Ko
Arsa Hua Hai Daawat-E-Mizhgaan Kiye Hue
Fir Waza-E-Ehtiyaat Se Rukane Laga Hai Dam
Barson Hue Hain Chaak Girebaan Kiye Hue…
Maange Hai Fir Kisee Ko Lab-E-Baam Par Hawas
Zulf-E-Siyaah Rukh Pe Pareshaan Kiye Hue…
Ik Nau Bahaar-E-Naaz Ko Taaqe Hai Fir Nigaah
Chehra Furogh-E-Mai Se Gulistaan Kiye Hue
Jee Dhoondta Hai Fir Wohee Fursat Ke Raat Din
Baithe Rahain Tasavvur-E-Jaanaan Kiye Hue
It’s been long since my love was my guest
Long since the the wine warmed the parlour
All these rigid rules choke my breath
I long to wear my torn clothes once more
Will my bleeding heart be mended, asks love
They’re just waiting to rub salt in my wounds
I want to be at my beloved’s doorstep again
Pleading with the doorman to let me in
My heart again seeks those easygoing days
When hours were spent in thoughts of my love
Don’t disturb me, Ghalib, my passion drives me on
I am waiting now with stormy, reckless will.
Munirabai was gone. The miserable days became even more miserable, Manto-bhai. Begum Falak Ara was a bolt of lightning in the sky of my existence, and Munirabai was the star whose light falls on our courtyard even millions of years after its death.
Night after night I gazed at the darkness of her death, reciting Mir sahib’s sher:
Sarsari tum jahan se guzre
Baranh har ja jahan-e digar tha
Munirabai, my love, you left the world carelessly, you did not notice that every spot here held a new world.