"The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence..." observes a character in Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair". This sentiment was already known to Urdu 'shayars' right from Mir, with their poetry bearing discernible undercurrents of melancholy and despondency till it reached an epitome with this 20th century practitioner whose entire corpus is unvarnished pessimism at a transient but painful existence, and the closest you can find existential nihilism in this poetic tradition.
"Ik muamma hai samajhne ka na samjhane ka/Zindagi kahe ko hai, khwaab hai deewaane ka" goes one of his best-known couplets. This actually begins a ghazal, which then goes: "Zindagi bhi to pasheman hai yahan laake mujhe/Dhoondti koi heela mere mar jaane ka" and ends: "Har nafs umr-e-guzashta ki hai maiyyat, 'Fani'/Zindagi naam hai mar mar ke jiye jaane ka". Another in this vein is: "Na-muraadi hadd se guzri haal-e 'Fani' kuch na pooch/Har nafs hai ek janazah aah-e-betaseer ka".
Searching for gleanings of positivity in the oeuvre of Shaukat Ali Khan 'Fani Badayuni' (1879-1941) would be in vain, for he was fittingly known as "Mayusi ka shayar" and "Sahaab-e-gham". Influenced by both Mir and Ghalib, he however seemed to have assumed all the pathos they often but not overwhelmingly depicted as his sole outlook, but in his own distinct style. Perhaps his unfortunate life might be the reason.
Born in Badaun district in a zamindar's family reduced in circumstances after property confiscations in the aftermath of the 1857 Revolt, Fani started writing poetry - despite strong parental disapproval - when quite young, briefly using his own given name as his 'takhallus' before plumping for 'Fani'.
Having done law from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), he tried to practise in Bareilly, Lucknow, Aligarh and Agra, but he had a poet's heart and he couldn't make much headway in the legal profession. He started an Urdu magazine but he was no better in business too, and had to close it down after losses. Embroiled in property disputes and having to sell his inheritance at a fraction of its value, and abandoned by 'friends', Fani moved to Nizam's Hyderabad in 1932.
His patron there was one of India's most helpful friend of litterateurs but one whose contribution has largely been forgotten- Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad (1864-1940), twice prime minister of Hyderabad State (1901-1912; 1926-1937), extolled as Yamin us-Sultanat (right hand of the realm) and a poet himself. Fani was offered a judge's position but declined as it would have meant leaving the city and instead took a job as a school headmaster. He was not temperamentally inclined to courtly life, and late nights at the court of the Nizam's son Moazzam Jah took a toll on him, affecting his job from which he was eventually removed.
Dying barely a year after his benefactor, Fani summed up the last phase of his life in bitter terms - in a ghazal beginning "Shauq se nakaami ki badaulat, kuchae dil hi chooth gaya/Saari umeeden toot gayein, dil baith gaya, ji chooth gaya" and ending "Fani ham to jeete ji voh maiyyat hai be-gor-o-kafan/Ghurbat jis ko raas na aayi, aur vatan bhi chooth gaya".
As per his poetry at least, he didn't set much store from life or existence. One of his celebrated ghazals begins: "Duniya meri bala jaane, mehengi hain ya sasti hain/Muft mile to maut na loon, Hasti ki kya hasti hain".
'Hasti', or say, a consciousness of existence, was a motif, like some contemporaries, but his treatment was different. While Syed Ali Mohammad 'Shad Azimabadi' said: "Suni hikayat-e-hasti to darmiyan se suni/Na ibtida ki khabar hai na inteha maloom", and Asghar Hussain 'Asghar Gondvi': "Sunta hoon bade ghaur se afsaana-e-hasti/Kuch khvab hai kuch asal kuch andaz-e-bayan hai", Fani went: "Na ibtida ki khabar hai nan inteha maaloom/Raha yeh vahm ke ham hain so voh bhi kya maloom".
His poetry, collected in two modest-sized volumes "Baqiyat-e-Fani" and "Irfaniyat-e-Fani", could be quite trenchantly bleak: "Fani davay-e-dard-e-jigar zahhar to nahi/Kyun haath kaanpta hai mere charah-saaz ka" or "Dam bhi Fani kisi ke gham tak hai/Dam na hoga agar yeh gham na hoga", or "Hashr ka din bhi dhal gaya Fani/Dil ki rudaad mukhtsar na hui". Even love received short shrift: "Aap ne anjaam dekha ishq ka/Aapne Fani ki turbat dekh li" or "Dil hi nahi hai jis mein na ho dard ishq ka/Voh dard hi nahi hai jo har dam siva na ho".
Despite his gloom, Fani is most readable, for he does not take himself too seriously. One ghazal ends: "Yaad hai Fani tujhe koi kahani aur bhi/Khatam kar afsana gham, dil pareshan ho gaya".
It could be his own exit cue too!
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)