Herald Magazine

The arduous journey of Ameer Minai’s collection of books, letters and manuscripts

A vanishing world

By Dr Ali Gibran Siddiqui and Sameen Hayat Photos by Manal Khan

Faded and speckled with white paint, the thick black nast‘alīq script on the gate reminds visitors that this bungalow in Karachi is inhabited by Āl-e-Mīnā, or the descendants of a 15th century Siddiqui Sufi Shaykh, Makhdum Shah Mina. The Shaykh himself is buried more than a thousand kilometers east of this residence, in a Lucknow neighbourhood that was once known as Mina Bazaar — after him. Despite this physical divide, a heady mixture of nostalgia, memory and tradition connects the house of Āl-e-Mīnā with not just Lucknow, but also Rampur and Hyderabad of yore.

The custodian of these memories, and the main resident of this house, is Israil Ahmed Minai. At 94, he exhibits a photographic memory as he guides visitors through events spread over the whole of last century. The memories he received from his own parents take him even further back – before his own birth – to the mid-19th century. For Israil, it is a source of immense family pride that his grandfather was the scholar and poet Ameer Ahmed Minai. Despite living in the pre-Partition Subcontinent of Ghalib and Dagh Dehlvi, Ameer Minai’s diverse interests and works made him a singular talent — not of the stature of his esteemed contemporaries but comfortably commanding his own space and respect.

Ameer Minai was born into a family of Awadhi literati in Lucknow in 1829. He was raised and trained in the ways of tasawuf like his ancestor Shah Mina. “He could initiate people in all five of the tariqas (Sufi orders),” explains his grandson. Ameer Minai also remained intensely devoted to his own pīr (mentor), Mian Ameer Shah Sahib of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddadi tariqa, and often imagined their relationship like that between his namesake and ideal, Ameer Khusrau, and Nizamuddin Auliya.

A curious mind, with a keen eye for detail, Ameer Minai would take note of all that he experienced in Lucknow. The buildings, gardens, marketplaces, idioms, games and riddles — everything he heard, saw and experienced remained firmly etched in his memory.

The tale of Ameer Minai’s affection for his beloved city, like most tales of love, is tragic. During the tumultuous months of 1857, he saw his neighbourhood torn apart and set ablaze by British cannon fire. The fire raged through his house, leaving his precious library in cinders. The consequent downfall of the princely state of Awadh, which patronised poets and artists, forced Ameer Minai to look for employment elsewhere.

He left the gutted Mina Bazaar behind and soon found employment with Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan Bahadur of Rampur, a potentate ruling a British protectorate two hundred or so kilometres north-east of Delhi. The rulers of this relatively new Rohilla-Pashtun dynasty sought to legitimise their position through a method employed by Muslim rulers in India for centuries: they patronised poets. “Whenever Ghalib, who had spent all his money on drink and dice, sought to flee his creditors, he would find his way up north to Rampur. The Nawab would pay off the debts while Ghalib enjoyed the famous mangoes of Rampur. He also received the kingly sum of 200 rupees as a monthly stipend,” says Israil. “My grandfather, too, received patronage from Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan after he was left destitute in the aftermath of 1857.”

He recounts how his grandfather’s life in Rampur was one marked by prosperity and respect as he composed countless works of both poetry and prose. With the Nawab’s generous patronage, the Minai family, initially left behind in Lucknow, followed Ameer Minai’s footsteps and landed in Rampur. In their new place of residence, Āl-e-Mīnā, were able to enjoy half a century of financial and social stability. Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan’s generosity was continued by his successor, Nawab Kalb-e-Ali Khan.

Succeeding rulers were less generous than their predecessors but Ameer Minai benefitted from the regency of General Azeemuddin Khan who, in the 1890s, ensured that the first two volumes of his dictionary, Amīr al-lughāt, were published. Support for this project waned with Azeemuddin’s death and Ameer Minai felt he had to look for other sources of funding.

The ruler of the state of Hyderabad Deccan at that time, Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI, was known for his extravagant lifestyle that included a liberal patronage of the arts; he had already funded the publication of Farhang-e Āṣafīyya, now famous for being the first fully-published Urdu dictionary. Ameer Minai decided to appeal to the Nizam’s sense of pride in the Urdu language and headed to Deccan in 1900.

Ameer Minai would never make the journey back to Rampur where his family still lived. Deccani climate, his age and the pressing need for funding contributed to his death a mere month after his arrival in Hyderabad.

While he was buried in Hyderabad, most of his library remained in Rampur. The new rulers in the princely state were not pleased with his attempt to seek alternate means of patronage and funding and, in a moment of royal anger, cut off all stipends to Āl-e-Mīnā. With this new-found destitution, Ameer Minai’s children were forced to sell off their belongings – furniture, books and letters from his own collection – as scrap.

Eventually, Hakim Ajmal Khan, famous for founding the Jamia Millia University in Delhi, came to know of this turn of events and decided to intervene. He organised a mushāira, presided over by the Nawab of Rampur, where the superiority of Ameer Minai’s verse over that of his contemporaries was underscored repeatedly. The Nawab was also reminded how such sweet verse flowed freely under the patronage of his esteemed ancestors. Not wishing to be outdone by his departed predecessors, he offered employment to Muhammad Ahmed Minai, Ameer Minai’s son, as a poet. In was an ironic development since Muhammad Ahmed Minai considered poetry to be an intellectual and pecuniary waste.

After Muhammad Ahmed Minai’s death in 1933, his eldest son, and Israil’s eldest brother, Ismail Ahmed Minai, made his way to Hyderabad Deccan. One by one, the rest of the family, including Israil, followed him. Along with them also moved Ameer Minai’s collection of books and manuscripts. The whole family stayed in Hyderabad for around 10 years before gradually making their way to Karachi around 1947.

In the tumultuous times around the Partition of the Subcontinent, a tiny apartment provided refuge for the family and also for Ameer Minai’s collection. With the passage of time, as the various children of Āl-e-Mīnā were able to gain employment, the family moved out to more affluent neighbourhoods in Karachi. Over the next six decades or so, the collection travelled around the city with Israil’s elder brother Idris Ahmed Minai because he changed houses several times. It was last housed at his apartment in Clifton till he died in 2009.

Opposite: A cupboard in Israil Minai’s study where books by, and about, Ameer Minai are kept
Opposite: A cupboard in Israil Minai’s study where books by, and about, Ameer Minai are kept

Though a lawyer educated at Aligarh, Madras and eventually Harvard University, Israil looks back at his life and laments why he could not follow the footsteps of his famous grandfather as a poet. He remembers how poetry was looked down upon after his grandfather’s death in 1900 and blamed for the financial troubles that befell the family soon after.

“My father Muhammad Ahmed Minai, who used the pen-name ‘Sarīr’, deemed himself a follower of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and considered poetry about ‘gul-o-bulbul’ (the flower and the nightingale) wasteful and decadent. He often asked his own father [Ameer Minai] to leave poetry. He preferred a more ‘pragmatic’ profession.”

Israil’s connection to his grandfather does not end in memory alone. Ameer Minai’s collection, both in its original form and with many photocopy additions made over the years, has now passed on to him and is housed in his compact little study in Karachi’s Defence area. The four walls of the room are lined with desks and cupboards. Three of these cupboards were once the property of his late brother Idris — numbered lists informing visitors of the contents of each of them. They hold manuscripts and lithographs composed by Ameer Minai, books purchased by him in Lucknow and Rampur, countless letters and their spiral-bound facsimile copies.

A fourth cupboard contains books and papers either written by Ameer Minai or about him. One is an unpublished dissertation written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz on Ameer Minai and the Dabestan-e Rāmpūr (the Rampur School). The Urdu department of the university where Faiz submitted the dissertation denied him a PhD on the grounds that he did not have a masters in Urdu, says Israil.

Stacks of manila folders can be seen all around the room. These contain many documents with yellowed pages or bright white photocopies. “These are all letters from Ameer Minai’s collection. He wrote some and received the rest,” says Israil. A seldom-used computer monitor gathering dust in a corner shows three different iterations of a portrait of Ameer Minai: a black and white photograph and two coloured sketches somewhat faithful to the 19th century original.

Evidence of Israil’s own life can be found among his grandfather’s memorabilia. A younger Israil smiles in a black and white photo of his graduating class at Harvard; a postcard of the Peace Palace hints at the time he spent at The Hague.

A metal cupboard containing some of Ameer Minai’s works
A metal cupboard containing some of Ameer Minai’s works

Israil’s brother Idris, a banker, employed various techniques to care for their grandfather’s deteriorating manuscripts. Like a skilled librarian, he organised the collection by genre and theme. He also combined the crafts of a tailor, a book-binder and a chemist to restore damaged books and manuscripts as best as he could. The fabric covers on most books seem relatively recent, indicating that they have been rebound over the last century.

The strong smell of mothballs in each cupboard attests to Israil’s continued efforts. For a collection more than a century old, it is remarkably well preserved. None of the pages are brittle to the touch. There is no trace of black mould, the bane of both book pages and a librarian’s lungs. Some minor worm damage exists but has been clearly stopped at an early stage.

Yet, the physical condition of the collection reflects the experiences it shared with its human owners. Some of the books carry a swirling dark pattern accentuating their meandering shikasta nastʿalīq font. Israil points out that this is not an embellishment but rather smoke damage from the times when the Minai house in Rampur caught fire. Other books have dark brown stains. “Back then it was not uncommon for roofs to leak a bit here and a bit there; they just leaked a lot more when Ameer Minai’s family faced financial hardship,” he explains.

Given the significance of the books in the collections, they were often copied by hand by those who did not want to see them lost to the ravages of time. It is often difficult to determine when and who copied a book though there exist a few clues. One copy of Amīr al-lughāt, for instance, has been made on paper embossed with the seal of the State Bank of Pakistan, indicating that this is not the original manuscript from Rampur and must have been copied after 1948, the year the bank was founded. The maker of the copy could very well be Idris, who at the time worked at the bank.

Various materials from Ameer Minai’s literary collection
Various materials from Ameer Minai’s literary collection

The wide variety of books and manuscripts found in the collection reveal Ameer Minai’s polymath personality and his breadth of knowledge. Most of his works are in various genres of poetry. He not only wrote copious amounts of poetry himself but also trained and taught some famous poets like Abdul Halim Sharar and Ratan Nath Sarshar, both Lucknow natives. A significant portion of his oeuvre comprises na’ts that, barring one anthology published by Israil, are unknown to most people today. There are also several bound volumes of qasīdas (panegyrics) eulogising Rampur rulers Yusuf Ali Khan and Kalb-e Ali Khan.

Some of Ameer Minai’s poetry seems to be inspired by Ameer Khusrau. Just as Khusrau was known for his mastery over pahēlīs, or rhyming riddles, so was Ameer Minai. He composed several of these amusing, enigmatic little couplets. Far more interesting is his use of kehmukarnī, an Urdu combination of kehnā (to say) and mukarnā (to deny). It is a special type of pahēlī that deftly hides the answer in itself. Here is an example from Ameer Minai’s work:

“Na tau belā na chanbelī na jūhī bhī kyā, ham agar nām batā dain tau pahēlīphir kyā?” The answer, agar (the aromatic wood used in making incense), is hidden in the second line in the form of a homonym agar (if).

Some of Ameer Minai’s poetry sought to describe Rampur for people who had never visited the city. With the eye of a miniature artist, he effectively recreated the city with his words, describing each building, each garden and each street and narrating the stories that lay hidden in them. He also often allowed his readers to sit in on the many mehfils and mushāʿiras of the 19th century. To this end, he compiled biographies of various poets who were integral to the city’s cultural fabric, thus preserving his memories of Ghalib, Dagh and others by painting their elaborate portraits in both poetry and prose.

While Ameer Minai is primarily known as a poet, Israil insists he was much more. “Poetry may have been a source of fame for Dagh but Ameer’s renown was not limited to matters of verse.” As magazine advertisements from the 19th century, carefully filed by Israil, attest, Ameer Minai’s Urdu dictionary, Amīr al-lughāt,, was popular among the Urdu-speaking population of British India. It was intended to be the first complete Urdu dictionary — though it has never been published in full.

The reason for the composition of this voluminous work goes back to Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall’s contention during Ameer Minai’s early years at the Rampuri court. As a poet who also happened to be a British colonial administrator well versed in Hindustani languages, Lyall had once asked Kalb-e-Ali Khan why Urdu did not have a dictionary. Taken aback and quite embarrassed, the Nawab implored Ameer Minai to start composing one.

Assured of monetary and logistical support by the Nawab, Ameer Minai set up an office in Rampur to coordinate composition, compilation and publication efforts. Delegating work on each letter of the Urdu alphabet – from alif to yē – to a different person, he was able to create a multi-volume manuscript.

“There are letters from Shibli [Nomani] warning Ameer Minai that some people were jealous of the attention the Nawab paid him; they did not want to see his dictionary published,” says Israil. And sure enough, Ameer Minai’s position at the court of Rampur declined with the death of Kalb-e-Ali Khan in 1887.

Israil produces a large tome from the collection. It is an ornately filigreed lithograph displaying the date of publication as 1891. “Unfortunately, only two volumes of the dictionary were published in Ameer [Minai’s] lifetime with General Azimuddin Khan’s help on words starting with alif mamdūda and alif maqsūra. My brother was later able to publish two other volumes: on words starting with and jīm,” Israil says. No other volumes have been published since and Ameer Menai’s effort remains only partially realised.

Israil Minai explaining a document written by Ameer Minai
Israil Minai explaining a document written by Ameer Minai

Ameer Minai, forever nostalgic for Lucknow, also penned volume upon volume based on his observation of north-Indian Muslim culture. These volumes turn out to be uniquely insightful today. He preserved his early memories of Awadhi marketplaces by writing about the language and idioms used by women in the bazaars of Lucknow. In a nod to the ubiquitous pastime of pigeon-rearing, he wrote a Kabūtarnāma, describing the characteristics of several score breeds of pigeon. He also composed a work describing games and pastimes of the women of Rampur and Awadh’s secluded zanāna.

Ameer Minai’s scholarly interests extended to the mystical and the supernatural as well. Opening a volume, the Risala-e-Ramz-al-kavākib, Israil pores over a set of circular diagrams. “My grandfather was a master of the arts of jafr (numerology) and raml (geomancy) but he felt spiritually compelled to never use these arts for any worldly affairs,” says Israil. Only once did he capitulate to the demands of his wife who asked him to use his skills at jafr and raml to find a set of diamond bracelets lost by a guest visiting the Minai household. The bracelets were recovered from under a pāndān but Ameer Minai saw this as a blatant misuse. Israil frets that these arts may be forgotten one day and hopes for his grandfather’s books on them to be published soon.

Ameer Minai’s distinct place in the Indian subcontinent’s intellectual landscape can also be seen in the hundreds of letters held by Israil. In addition to having saved the letters, he has also retained their original envelopes, many addressed to ‘Rampur City, Rampur State, Rohilkhand’ and stamped with a profile of a young Queen Victoria. One of the letters, Israil’s favourite, contains a ghazal of Dagh’s with neatly numbered verses. The letter was clearly passed back and forth as Ameer Minai commented on the composition and a line in Dagh’s handwriting can be seen replying: “I did not understand what you refer to in this comment.” The close relationship between Dagh and Ameer Minai can further be seen in letters in which the former seeks the latter’s approval before presenting his verse to an audience, a mark of great trust and honour.

Some other letters include notes on vārdāt-e-qalbī i (spiritual experiences) that Ameer Minai sent to his Sufi murīds (followers). “He asked his disciples to describe their mystical experiences as they sat practising their spiritual exercises in complete seclusion. He would respond to their notes with letters of his own,” says Israil.

Sitting hunched among cupboards full of books, the elderly Israil looks quite worried. He is anxious about the future of all the history he has found himself in possession of — and responsible for. “At 94, life can be quite unpredictable and I do not know if we will even be able to meet tomorrow,” he says ominously. He gets enthusiastic when discussing the different options available for securing a safe abode for the collection — including a brand-new building, called Urdu Bagh, owned by Anjuman-e-Tarraqi-e-Urdu Pakistan in Karachi. It has a climate-controlled room that can keep the collection safe from heat and humidity.

But safekeeping is not the only worry. Israil considers the older tradition of stowing away family collections from public eyes to be quite abominable and prides himself in opening his grandfather’s collection up to whoever has been interested. He regards it as an asset for scholars and students of different disciplines. He will, therefore, prefer that it remains easily accessible to anyone who wishes to explore it. He even asks professors visiting from local universities to depute some of their students to study the collection. While some have already worked on Ameer Minai’s collection of qaṣīdas, Israil wishes more people do use the collection. “Students can write their PhD dissertations using these letters alone.”

Another issue pressing on his mind is the publication of all of Ameer Minai’s manuscripts to save them from the obscurity he fears they are facing now. Having retired as a lawyer five years ago and increasingly finding himself at home due to the limitations of old age, Israil has taken it upon himself to sift through and catalogue the various materials in his possession. Scattered across the room are neon yellow post-it notes that describe in neat, precise handwriting – sometimes in English and sometimes in Urdu – what is contained in a particular folder or cupboard. The labels range from ‘various articles in which there is a mention of Ameer Minai’ to ‘photocopies of his collection of Persian writing’. Yet, at his age, Israil feels that the task at hand is far bigger for him to shoulder alone.

Israil Minai examining a letter from Ameer Minai’s documents
Israil Minai examining a letter from Ameer Minai’s documents

There is a conspicuous reverence in Israil’s tone when he speaks about his grandfather. There is also regret when he reminisces about the times when Ameer Minai’s family did not treat his writings with due respect and appreciation after his death. Scholars allegedly discovered his letters in waste paper discarded by the Minai household. For Israil, preserving the collection is a way to make amends for those 100 years. While he sees himself as a rejuvenator and protector of a connection to Ameer Minai, he fears it may be lost forever after him.

His fear may be unfounded. There seems to be a clear and apparent thread running straight from Ameer Minai through generations all the way down to the youngest set of Āl-e-Mina today. It is obviously there in 24-year-old Sabeen Rizvi, Israil’s granddaughter, who is considering an MFA in poetry. She adopted her maternal grandfather’s last name, Minai, when she had some work published. “[Ameer Minai] is part of the reason why I write; the talent, or whatever [it is], has probably been transferred [to me] to an extent,” she muses. “I feel I should carry on his legacy in English if nothing else.”

It is also there in Idris Minai’s son Dr Ali Ahmed Minai who, although a PhD in electrical engineering and a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s electrical engineering and computer science department, has published not one but two collections of poetry: Khwab Aina and Khamoshi.

“He has kept the family tradition alive,” Israil acknowledges.

Perhaps Ameer Minai’s greatest influence, and lasting gift to his family, is a deep appreciation and celebration of language, poetry, oratory and argumentation that its existing members have developed while growing up. “Batbāzi, in which people compete to recite verses in a chain, was a regular feature in our family. We would sit down on, say, a holiday and the whole family would do batbāzi,” says Rishad Mehmood, a senior Karachi-based journalist, whose mother was Ameer Minai’s granddaughter and Israil’s sister. There is a strong sense of delight as he recounts tales from those large family gatherings.

A lot of the time Ameer Minai’s legacy has been quietly absorbed by the young Minai children, unaware at the time of just how formative those experiences would be in their lives. Israil’s son Mustafa describes the earliest influences that he imbibed through his conversations with his father and his father’s siblings on politics and poetry. “I remember sitting on the family couches and sofas while my feet did not touch the floor. I would just be entranced by the words that were coming out of those people’s mouths,” he recalls. That little boy, years later, would find his way to the University of Pennsylvania to teach Urdu there.

It is obvious that Āl-e-Mīnā, spread across the world, still carry with them traces of their famous poet ancestor’s talent and, in their own individual ways, are carrying his legacy forward. “When I read the letters or the old words, I get a very strong sense of continuity from the past to the future [and] I feel a responsibility to preserve these, and also work towards disseminating [them],” says Mustafa.

Yet Israil, who talks about his grandfather with remarkable specificity and detail, finds himself alone in his pursuit of preserving the family’s literary heritage. “What will happen to these things after I’m gone. The thought scares me.”

It is not that there is a lack of willingness in the family to do something. Their connection to Ameer Minai, although distant, is something they all feel the need to maintain and commemorate. But the compulsions of their individual lives, coupled with differing views on how best to maintain the collection, sometimes put them at odds with Israil’s desire that they spearhead the process of preservation. “We have suggested to Israil māmuṉ that we should open an Ameer Minai library so that it is accessible to everyone. He agrees to it but says someone from the family should sit at the library otherwise who will the people visiting it go to for a reference. He says there should be somebody who knows, someone who can give their full time to it. None of us are able to do that,” says Rishad Mahmood. He then goes on to list, as if to offer as evidence, different people in the family who are keen to do something but are hampered due to various personal limitations.

Mustafa, for example, believes digitisation is a must to give people better access to the collection. Also, he says, unless a sound and secure option presents itself in Pakistan, he prefers that he take at least the most vulnerable parts of the collection with him to the United States.

The very notion of the collection – or any part of it – going outside Pakistan is repugnant to Israil. He recounts how officials from the Library of Congress once volunteered to take over the cataloguing process and eventually transfer the books and manuscripts abroad. He has also been approached by other foreign libraries, including those attached to various American universities, with requests to donate the collection but he has refused them all. He wants to give over the collection to a Pakistani library that has a stable administration capable of taking care of it with the same passion that he has and that also promises to publish the unpublished manuscripts.

The Ameer Minai collection has traversed through time, withstood fires and rains, even survived the division of the Subcontinent. Israil is resolute that it also survives after him in a manner that benefits the people of Pakistan.

Dr Gibran Siddiqui is a historian of Central and South Asia. Sameen Hayat is a staffer at the Herald.

Why Ameer Minai?

By Dr Nomanul Haq

Talking about Ameer Minai is talking about a cosmos, a cultural cosmos with its vast horizons, its sun and the moon, and its stars and their constellations. Yes, these are lofty and almost romantic metaphors but these metaphors are soaked in realism. Indeed, we see so many manifestations and so many spectacles in Ameer Minai that it is impossible to describe him without a whole chain of attributive nouns — writer, linguist, lexicographer, astrologer, occultist, musicologist, legist, scholar, teacher and, of course, poet.

But then these are attributive wholes and have further sub-chambers. For example, if Ameer Minai is a poet, as he is universally known to be, then what kind of poet is he? We find him exercising his virtuosity in all classical Urdu poetic genres – qasīda, masnavī, ruba‘ī, tarkīb-band, tarjī‘-band – and, of course, ghazal. In substantive terms too, Ameer Minai’s poetic scope and its multifarious diversity is just mind-boggling — lyrical poetry, romantic poetry, erotic verse, didactic verse, lamentations, panegyrics and devotional poetry in honour of God’s apostle, the Holy Prophet, upon whom be peace. And this is not an exhaustive list. Then, he wrote also in Persian with equally masterful facility. In many of his Urdu and Persian works he served as his own scribe, writing them down in his own hand, a hand so skilled that it would arouse the envy of the best of calligraphers.

A label stating ‘books about Ameer Minai’ pasted on a shelf
A label stating ‘books about Ameer Minai’ pasted on a shelf

The merit of great poetry must ultimately remain a mystery, for one cannot explain this merit fully in concrete, logical terms. Only qualities that are themselves never exhaustively and definitively known, can account for it. Thus, for example, we speak about the charm, appeal and illumination of great poetry and we admire its creative spell, its music, its glow and glory and its sheer beauty — but these are all abstract qualities that constitute what we may call the overall magic of poetic expressions.

Evidently, there must have been some fascinating magic in Ameer Minai’s verse, so attractive that numerous top singers of South Asia sang his ghazals — from the legendary K L Saigal to the popular film singer Muhammad Rafi; from the virtuoso Mehdi Hasan to the redoubtable Farida Khanum; and from the blockbuster Jagjit Singh to the student of Begum Akhtar, the classically complex Bharati Vishwanathan. In fact, it was a ghazal of Ameer Minai that catapulted Jagjit into his wide and popular world, the ghazal with the refrain (slowly, ever so slowly). More than that, declamations and recitations of Ameer Minai’s devotional poetry remained a regular distinguishing feature of broadcasting channels, with the melodious voice of Nasir Jahan haunting us until this day from our cultural horizons. The question returns: can we explain this high order mass appeal, this magic?

Only partially. To begin with, let us recognise that Ameer Minai’s verse manifests itself in an ocean of literary and poetic legacies. Language with its approved usage and its standard idioms; conventional metres and their accepted variations; known symbolism; allusions that live deep in our historical consciousness; and Sufi ideas attended by Indic mythological mélanges. But, then, remaining within these legacies of conventions and moorings, our poet does novel things.

A list of contents pasted inside one of the cupboards in Israil Minai’s study
A list of contents pasted inside one of the cupboards in Israil Minai’s study

It is the exercise of innovations within restrictions that serves as the control which saves poetry from degenerating into solitary non-communicative babble. When Ghalib’s feet were chained, he made the chain’s short length a radius: the radius of a circle in which he kept moving endlessly round and round and round, so his motions did not cease even when his feet were constricted — “this is a wheel not a chain, for nothing can hinder my excursions!”

Rising from the ocean of traditions, then, we see Ameer Minai’s creative tide — his lyricism is fresh, his address is new and direct and his constructions are so flowing, so unintimidating, so friendly, so lucid and pure that many of these have become part of our everyday parlance. In this way, his personage lives integrated into the spirit of our age, our zeitgeist, and he lives fully naturalised. Thus, we do not even realise that often his words are invoked by us as standard everyday expressions, without our knowing that they had radiated from him: (what skies has the Earth devoured!), for example; or (as the tongue of the dagger is silent, the blood on the sleeve cries out); (human life is but a water bubble) is yet another instance.

A daring and paradoxical novelty in Ameer Minai’s verse is his unique eroticism. It is daring because standard ghazal rarely spoke about the physicality of feminine youth so openly; his expressions are almost explicit with bare allusions and indicators. So we find in a famous ghazal sung by Saigal:

O Gardener, give me light-coloured buds

They are going to a youngster …

Or, that graphic verse in another ghazal, the pride of Jagjit Singh:

Beginning to come of age, she veiled herself from us Modesty came suddenly, and youth — slowly, ever so slowly!

Even more graphically —

You show me your angry eyes, show me your rising youth my lady! The better merchandise you keep tied up separately.

Look at this delicate but suggestive symbolism – ‘light coloured buds’, ‘youth rising slowly, ever so slowly’, ‘better merchandise tied away’ – this is high craft of eroticism. Then the address ‘sahib’ in the environment of the last verse, a word rather inadequately rendered by me as ‘my lady’, at once expresses sweet taunt and the onlooker’s gentle mischief mixed with respect, wit and admiration. Indeed, the words in these random samples are so innovative and they are so fully constructed into the structure of Urdu idioms that they cannot be translated with complete justice without poetic and linguistic losses.

And why is it all paradoxical? It is paradoxical because this eroticism is flowing forth from the pen of a poet who in his real life was a model of strict and disciplined piety and mystical abstentions, performing his daily prayers and all his credal and family duties. The historical Ameer Minai was a thorough gentleman. This means that all of this is an exercise in tropes, a poetic creative exercise, not an experiential statement or an act of lewdness or frivolity or disrespect.

On the contrary, one can with full confidence declare Ameer Minai to be the king of devotional poetry in the whole history of Urdu literature. This poetry is the expression of an uncompromising love that throughout his life he harboured in his heart for God’s Prophet, upon whom be peace. He adorned and organised this personal devotion in verses of an elevated order, rising above the run-of-the-mill na‘t poems. Yes, he rules in this realm.

There is hardly any other poet who brings into devotional poetry the lyricism, the rich symbolism, sparkle and diction of the ghazal, what is called taghazzul. His na’ts are, then, ghazalesque. Indeed, if one plucks out Ameer Minai’s devotional verses from their overarching context, very many of them would read like ghazal verses — sometimes beseeching the beloved for an access into the chamber of desire; sometimes expressing lamentations of longings for the beloved; sometimes voicing the anguish and pain of separation from the beloved; here the lover is decrepit and undeserving, there he places his head at the threshold of the beloved’s resting abode. All this is the familiar environment of ghazal.

In a famous and haunting devotional poem, the poet presents himself as a wayfarer on his way to Medina. The whole classical ecology of this centuries-old travel attends the poem — the long route, the impatience of the pilgrim walking on his feet, the caravan, the dust, the sick traveler. In one verse, the poet tells us the he is so decrepit, so infirm, that he cannot even walk two steps — but he is still moving. How is he moving? “Is it I who is walking? No, it’s not I, it’s my passion that pulls me thither”:

The word I translate here as “passion” is shauq, a familiar word from the ghazal genre. Such style and diction and word selection is not typical of the ordinary na‘t. In isolation, this may well be considered a ghazal verse. And note the delightful craft: this poem is about a traveller and it has the clever refrain ‘I go’ (jātā hooṉ).

In Ameer Minai’s vast collections of devotional verse we find even the physical symbolisms, including those that describe the bodily characteristics of the beloved — the eyes, the eyelashes, the hair; then, the rose and the nightingale, the dew, the musical instrument (sāz) with its strings (tār) and plectrum (zakhma), the coquetry of the ‘beauties’ and the real lover and the rival (raqīb). What our sage did was to integrate the two genres of na‘at and ghazal so that the former is repositioned and reclaimed into the highest poetic realm, a realm of cosmic proportions. This is the achievement of a pioneer.

But Ameer Minai is more than a poet. The greatest of Urdu prose writers of his times, in fact the greatest of all times – such as Abdul Halim Sharar and Ratan Nath Sarshar – both sought his guidance and counsel and may well be considered his pupils. Ghalib spoke highly of him and Iqbal moaned his death in his Bāng-e Darā * (Call of the Bell), speaking of the lingering “intoxication of the wine of Ameer”. And more, in 1903, three years after the death of this personage, Iqbal wrote a long letter to the editor of the periodical *Panja-e-Faulād (the Iron Claws), Muhammad Din Fauq — an impassioned communication in which he expresses his deep anguish that no complete biography of Ameer Minai has been compiled. Iqbal calls him “the Master of Letters” and “the King of the Dominion of Poetry” and states that he intends to write a detailed article on the life and works of this “Master”, appealing for information from his close pupils. This article of his, Iqbal points out, is going to be written in English for an international audience so that they are made aware of the genius of Ameer Minai.

Ameer Minai’s oeuvre is massive: some 23 works of Urdu poetry, one whole collection of Persian poetry, 14 Urdu prose writings and 16 Persian prose treatises. Among his Urdu writings is his Urdu lexicon — Amīr al-lughāt, a superb work of lexicography, many volumes of it still remaining unpublished. Here it is to be admitted that lexicography is a difficult and exceedingly tedious and slow undertaking, placing a heavy linguistic and moral responsibility upon the one who decides to carry it out. Perhaps this is the reason why Ameer Minai reportedly could not complete it. After spending 42 years under the patronage of the rulers of the princely state of Rampur, where he started this daunting task, he travelled to the most affluent princely state of Deccan, harbouring the desire of publishing the complete lexicon — but he died soon after his arrival.

Again, we note that Ameer Minai is more than a poet. Just the Amīr al-lughāt is sufficient to place him in the ranks of top lexicographers of the world. But there is more to him. We find among his Persian writings works on the occult sciences too — on raml (geomancy), jafr (divination through animal bodies) and astrology. While today we consider these to be pseudo-sciences, this was not always the case. Certainly in the history of science some of the world’s colossal astronomers and mathematicians believed and practiced occult sciences. Isaac Newton’s largest body of papers belongs to alchemy.

The well-known poet Mirza Dagh Dehlavi, Iqbal’s early teacher, was a contemporary of Ameer Minai. See how he acknowledges the kaleidoscopic multiplicity of Ameer Minai’s persona:

In prose, poetry, prosody — unique.

In raml, jafr, astrology — all-knowing.

He is a scribe, a mufti, a legist, a writer.

Perfect in this epoch: Most perfect of his own times.

In sum — away O evil eye! —

Among us none other greater than him!

S]o why Ameer Minai?

Let me make a list:

Ameer Minai, because he is the epitome of world culture in its South Asian manifestation. He constitutes our human legacy. He helps us determine our historical coordinates. He brings us the beauty of language and its rhythms. He nourishes our imagination, a faculty that is our most precious human possession. His poetry is a repository of historical and mythic knowledge. And, pragmatically, he teaches us once again that human civilization is a convergence of many streams, and Urdu is a whole that contains Indic, Persian, Turkic, and Near Eastern elements and much of the local folklore — and so humanity in its plurality is indelibly connected. Once we realise all this, it is then that we begin to celebrate our diversity.

Why Ameer Minai for me?

Because his poetry gives me an inner joy which is beyond price. As a human being I have a right to this joy…

Opening image: Israil Minai opening a stack of Ameer Minai’s documents

The writer is a professor of comparative liberal studies at the Habib University, Karachi.

This article was originally published in the Herald's February 2019 issue under the headline 'A vanishing world'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.