In the late 19th century, the worn tapestries of Mughal glories still told their tales to the subcontinent’s Muslims.
There existed then such a thing as a Secretariat of Poetry, run by Nawab Mirza Khan Dagh, and blessed by the beneficence of the then Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan.
The poet was a master, and the secretariat was run so that he could effectively carry out his correspondence with the blossoming words of the poets of the land. They wrote to him and he sent them careful corrections; a writer of ghazals, a master, he took seriously the task before him — the creation of the poetic narrative of his age.
It was to him that the young Muhammad Iqbal, the son of an ordinary man but the bearer of extraordinary ambition, sent his first lyrics. It was a short correspondence; Dagh soon informed his student that his poetry needed little correction and there was little he could suggest in terms of improvement.
The existence of a Secretariat of Poetry suggests, in the famine-struck present of our poet-less age, an age when the lyricism of language and the labour of those who strung it together were quite dear to the world.
Muhammad Iqbal, the great national poet, could be imagined to exist in such an age, cared for and coddled and encouraged and celebrated. Indeed, perhaps it would have been so if Iqbal had remained a young poet, touched only by those portions of the culture that cared and comforted his art, untranslated yet into constraints.
Also read: Iqbal — The man, and the existential quest
Those arrived soon, and fast and with fervour. In 1892, the year of Iqbal’s high school graduation, he was married by his parents to Karim Bibi, the daughter of an affluent physician.
In the epic saga of middle class marriage, the choice of partner was one that involved the betterment of many, enabling the upward ascent of several rungs of middle class mobility. It did not take into consideration the questions of compatibility, the preservation of freedom, the refusal of responsibilities.
In the making of marriage, the qualms of a poet had no place.
The shackles were not accidental; the burden of a brood would keep the poet in check, the ethics of paternal care to temper any rebelliousness of vision.
The construction of compromise would have been possible were it not for the introduction of the possibility of choice.
Karim Bibi and Muhammad Iqbal were said to have lived in relative harmony for nearly two decades, wound together by the skeins of a suffering and sick child, roped together by the relatives who had decided their union was best for all.
So it would have been, if the poet he was and the philosopher he wished to be and the lawyer he would become had stayed in the periphery of Empire that was the India of his day. On the eve of his departure, Muhammad Iqbal chided both the Hindus and the Muslims of India for the narrowness of their vision. And then, in 1905, he left for Europe.
Atiya Faizi would be Iqbal’s dilemma. Educated, modern, unveiled, she was the realisation of what was, in the subcontinent, still just a theory — a literate and literary woman.
At the time that they met, her travelogue, written while she studied at a Teacher’s Training College in London, had already been published. Iqbal had read her work and he went to see her.
In the cold winters of Cambridge and then Heidelberg, they talked and walked and developed an intellectual affinity that Iqbal had never before known. In the companionship of Atiya Faizee, there was for Iqbal, a lifting of the sense of alienation that had haunted him from one continent to another, from periphery to metropole and from Sialkot to Cambridge.
Accustomed only to compromise, he experienced compatibility, a meeting of the minds, and a beginning of love.
Europe was not forever, but the vision of an elsewhere transformed Iqbal forever. In 1908, he returned to India and felt acutely the chasm separating himself and Karim Bibi, the wife who had been waiting for him.
Also read: Finding Iqbal in Germany
The conflict between duty and desire was never more evident when he wrote to Atiya, “I have written to my father that he had no right to arrange my marriage, especially when I had refused to enter an alliance of that sort; I am quite willing to support her, but I am not prepared to make my life miserable by keeping her with me.”
In another letter it is evident that his feelings for Atiya awaken very different emotions. He writes,
My Dear Miss Atiya: I am totally grateful for the letter I have just received. Today, since morning, my temperament has been uncommonly joyful. Therefore, if you perceive, the sweetness of jocularity in this missive, consider it a compulsion.
So, suspended between one woman and another, misery and joy, India and England, Iqbal remained.
“As a human being I have a right to happiness,” he wrote, but as a man, he remained unable to choose it. He began to live separately from his wife, but he never proposed to Atiya, was never able to make a life with her.
Atiya Faizi was not the silent woman of veiled times and silently borne burdens; she saw the situation plainly; the Muslim men of her time were both beguiled by freedom and tormented by it, creatures of the strictures and yet, choked by them.
Writing in 1947, nearly 10 years after the death of Iqbal, she wrote a prescient comment on the state of cultural constraints and artistic achievement. In India, she wrote, “an individual is obligated to bow before the wishes and orders of his family. In view of this, many men and women, though endowed with extraordinary intellectual abilities have ruined their lives.”
Judged by these measures, she pronounced Iqbal’s life “a cruel tragedy,” whose turns and twists developed as a result of his family’s intransigence.
Forced to separate his love and his life, the Iqbal she knew, the unfettered Iqbal of a few scant years, had been sacrificed on the altar of duty and expectation. Writing about this intellectual waste, the desolation of a man who knew he had been thwarted, the woman he loved appealed in his name to the country borne of his vision.
“Be aware of this danger,” she said, and “before you interfere in the lives of young people,” consider that the fulfillment of a nation cannot be, unless there is room for the fulfillment of its people.
Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher of Pakistan Hafeez Malik Editor Columbia University Press 1971.
Note: This blog was first published on Dawn.com in 2013.