Can Today’s Politically Correct Urdu Poet Embrace the ‘Sacrilegious’ Mai-Khana?

The mai-khana has remained the most enduring image of a space that is both forbidden and welcoming.

5 min read

Given the puritanism and political correctness that has so overtaken the Urdu poet, one looks back with a certain nostalgia to the glorification of all manner of vices and sins and the abundant references to drinking, straying from the straight and narrow and the frequent slips into all forms of heresies and sacrilege.

Questioning, probing, intent on investing new meanings into old, time-worn images and metaphors, the Urdu poet has traditionally enjoyed working within the time-honoured template of the ghazal and the compact brevity of the sher, reveling in the freedom of pouring new wine in old bottles. For instance, with each fresh catastrophe, the Urdu poet evolved a vocabulary to express his angst, clothing his sorrow in a time-honoured repertoire of images and metaphors. Some favourite synonyms for the Beloved — sitamgar, but, kafir, yaar — began to be used mockingly for the British in the decades after 1857, the First War of Independence.


Defying Norms & Expectations

Of the many such time-worn images that, with a bit of spit and polish, can acquire new uses, my personal favourite has been the mai-khana or the mai-kada, meaning tavern, bar, inn or a place that serves mai or sharaab (wine), but is used to mean many different things. It has remained the most enduring image of a forbidden space that is also, contrarily, welcoming and comforting. The contrariness or defiance of expectations, norms and rules of etiquette are best illustrated in this sher by Firaq Gorakhpuri:

Aaye thhe hanste khelte mai-khaane mein 'Firaaq'

Jab pii chuke sharaab to sanjiida ho gaye

(We had come to the mai-khana in great spirits

Having drunk the wine we became somber)

The mai-kada, literally meaning ‘house of wine’, can be a space where the pious and the good meet the impious who are, by extension, bad; the twain can meet in this volatile space that is brimful with possibilities.

The mai-khana is also a place where one can meet a motley group of characters, people outside the safety net of friends and family, and hence, the colourful dramatis personae in a mai-khana also offer plenty of grist to the poet’s mill.

The Mai-Khana Is A Cosmos in Itself

That the mai-khana is a cosmos outside the usual spaces of shareef (civilised) milieu is demonstrated in this sher by Bashir Badr:

Na tum hosh mein ho na hum hosh mein hain

Chalo mai-kade mein wahiin baat hogi

(Neither are you in your senses, nor am I

Let’s go to the mai-kada; we will talk there)

The mai-khana is also a place where subversive ideas are discussed, where rebellions are brewed, where dreams of revolts and uprisings hatched, often at great cost. Kamal Siddiqi alludes to the heady potent brew that life offers, making the mai-kada not a physical space but a realm of ideas:

Zindagi naam isi mauj-e-mai-e-nab ka hai

Mai-kade se jo uthe dar-o-rasan tak pahunche

(Life is the name of this pure, unmixed wine

That takes you from the bar to the gallows)

The mai-khana comes with its own template of images, such as the saqi (cup-bearer, or one who pours the wine), rind (drunkard or libertine), mina (decanter), jaam, saaghar or paimana (wine-goblet) in much the same way as the masjid (mosque) is a place associated with the vaaiz (preacher). Nobody presents this duality better than Ghalib, that old frequenter of the mai-khaana:

Kahan mai-khaane ka darvaza 'Ghalib' aur kahan vaaiz

Par itna jante hain kal woh jaata tha ki hum nikle

(There is the door to the tavern and then there is the preacher

But I do know that he was leaving it as I was entering it yesterday)


The Sweet Irreverence of ‘Maani’

Look at the irreverence and a cocking of the snook in this sher by Sulaiman Ahmad Maani, one that we would be hard-pressed to find in a contemporary poet constrained by the fear of outrage and hurt sensibilities:

'Maanii' mai-khaane ko masjid se chale kahte huwe

Thodii tabdiilii ko ho aate hain sajda kar ke

(‘Maani’ went towards the mai-khaana from the mosque, saying

Let me go there for a prostration, for a change, and I’ll be back)

And the thankfulness that there is such a place as a tavern, or else how long and tedious would the journey of life for Abdul Hamid Adam be:

Main mai-kade ki raah se ho kar nikal gaya

Warna safar hayat ka kaafi taviil thha

(I took the route through the mai-kada and came out Or else the journey of life was quite a long one)

This sher by Diwakar Rahi shows how the mai-khana can be a metaphor of anything one might want from life:

Ab to utni bhi mayassar nahin mai-khane mein

Jitni hum chhorh diya karte thhe paimane mein

(Now there isn’t even enough to be found in a tavern

As much as we used to leave in the bottom of our goblet)

As also this by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Mai-khana salamat hai to hum surkhi-e-mai se

Taziin-e-dar-o-baam-e-haram karte rahenge

(As long as the mai-khana is safe and secure we shall continue

To decorate the doors and walls of the mosque with the redness of wine)


On Sin & Indulgence

Like the mai-khana and its appropriation for multiple uses, there are several other words associated with mai-noshi (the enjoyment of wine), such as bekhudi, suroor, khumar, etc., which have proudly been taken as nom de plume by generations of poets. Here, Khumar Barabankvi plays on the binary of sin/repentance, indulgence/renunciation:

Guzre hain mai-kade se jo tauba ke baad hum

Kuchh duur adatan bhi qadam dagmagae hain

(When we went past the mai-kada after renunciation

Our steps faltered for a while out of sheer habit)

Note the effrontery of Ibrahim Zauq, the poet laureate of Delhi and ustaad to the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, as he declares:

'Zauq' jo madrase ke bigde huwe hain mulla

Un ko mai-khane mein le aao sanvar jaenge

(‘Zauq’ bring all wayward mullahs from madrasas

To the mai-khana; they will all be reformed here)

An effrontery that is to be found in Kaleem Ajis, among the last of the greats in the modern generation:

Mai-kade ki taraf chala zahid

Subh ka bhula shaam ghar aaya

(The devout went towards the mai-kada

Having lost his way in the morning he found it in the evening)

But will there be another Qayem Chandpuri, a prominent 18th-century poet and contemporary of Mir who could say:

Koi din aage bhi zahid ajab zamana thha

Har ik mohalle ki masjid sharaab-khana thha

(Once, O devout, there used to be a strange time

Every mosque in every neighbourhood was a tavern)

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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