In between slashes

In between slashes

A misnomer persists amongst the academics that after Allama Mohammed Iqbal was nominated the “the national poet of Pakistan”, he was relegated to pages of the sub-continent’s unwritten history and ignored in India.

While that may be true of his place of birth, it’s certainly untrue as he continues to be read, recited, referred to, and his poetry frequently quoted and musical compositions of many of his verses listened to reverentially.

And his role as the harbinger of Islamic revivalism debated. At the same time, any revival of his life, philosophy and politics is bound to raise questions, especially with regards to his relevance in the sub-continental life. Any attempt to relive the life of a controversial public figure is to raise doubts.

Being conscious of the fact that revisiting the life and times of Allama Iqbal, the author, Zafar Anjum, lays to rest any questions by stating in  the prologue Why Iqbal that the poet-philosopher had been “dead long before I was born. I’m not from Pakistan or the Punjab. I have never been across the border, not even to research this book.”

His answer itself raises several questions and throws open a debate: “I am attached to Iqbal by an umbilical cord that is both spiritual and intellectual.” That any revisit to the poet, with or without any metaphysical connect, has to draw almost wholly on available sources.”  That the author achieves with flying colours through lucidity of his prose, making every turn of page filled with anxiety. And in doing so, he recreates by converting a complex persona in a humane manner, beginning with his birth on November 9, 1877.

A musical instrument begins to play on its own the way the narrative describes the event and the circumstances where “a pair of leeches” changes the course of a newborn’s life.

Split into four distinct parts: Beginnings (1877-1905), Europe (1905-08), A lawyer in Lahore (1908-25), The Years in Politics (1926-38), the narrative has an epilogue — A Jewel in the Dust.

It systematically examines moments of growth, travels after boarding a boat from Bombay, expanding frontiers of knowledge but also his own art: first poetry, and then philosophy, and both, rather unnaturally, leading to an identity crisis, especially during the undivided nation’s struggle for independence that was to be, unfortunately, truncated and even 67 years later, daggers drawn, threatens to explode any time.

The singular achievement of this insightful book is the compassionate manner in which the author deals with the subject, leaving no arena untouched, including the contradictions that remained an indispensable part of his life, including the unrequited relationship with Atiya Faizi, and the German teacher, Emma Wegenast, despite the fact that he was already married thrice concurrently.

What also emerges from the book: “Even Iqbal didn’t know Iqbal” — an enigma of sorts, a pack of contradiction, a confused thinker, an Islamic thinker, a nationalist poet, a failed lawyer, an anti-imperialist, a misguided analyst, a poor ideologue, an amateur politician, but undoubtedly a great poet whose simplicity of expression, which at times dipped into philosophical thought, was/has been/will be capable of holding the reader or the listener spellbound.

Anjum, with an attempt bordering on devotion, if not worship, has believably overlooked some vicissitudes of Iqbal’s life, but that’s to be expected.

One should take recourse to V S Naipaul’s observations in the matter: “All the details of the life and the quirks and the friendships can be laid out for us, but the mystery of the writing will remain. No amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there. The biography of a writer — or even the autobiography — will always have this incompleteness.” Especially because absences preclude presences.

What, however, one misses out in Zafar Anjum’s laying bare the life of a deeply rooted thinking human being — in thought as well as in life — are insights into sources of Iqbal’s inspiration. Another interesting point about the book is that the author has neither tried to shy away nor ducked under dispassionate analysis and not through any narrow, chauvinistic paradox.

For try as one might, it’s difficult to separate his verse from his philosophy, which we many have subsequently sought to debunk, or even attempted to view in the context of a changed historical perspective. And, if his thought and work lie forgotten today, it is only in physical terms, and because everything that was sacrosanct once has become irrelevant today.

The book also contains elaborate notes and significant documents like the texts of Iqbal’s Presidential Address to All India Muslim League (December 1930), Two Letters from Iqbal to Jinnah (May 1937), The Hindu-Muslim Problem (1924) by Lala Lajpat Rai. Sadly, the samples of Iqbal’s verse and its translation that appear between pages leave a lot to be desired. None of them re-echo the brilliance of his thought, and when one finds one, it is in awful translation:

Dhoondta phirta hoon aye Iqbal apne aapko
Aap hi goya musafir, aap hi manzil hun mein


(I keep looking, oh Iqbal, for myself, As if I’m the traveller as well as the destination.)

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