THERE seems no dearth of books written about Iqbal but in that ever-expanding book rack, Iqbal by Atiya Begum, in the words of poet and critic Edith Sitwell, stands out like an electric eel in a pool of flat-fish. This book owes its interest not to any remarkable display of critical acumen or fresh insights into the world of Iqbal’s poetry, but to the remarkable personality of the woman who wrote the book and her personal knowledge of the subject.

Iqbal, and likewise the book on Iqbal, came at a later stage in the life of this extraordinary and vivacious woman. She entered the annals of Urdu literature in the company of Shibli Nomani when she served as a muse of sorts and inspired the aged author of Sherul Ajam and Seeratul Nabi to produce emotionally-charged poetry in Persian. But then Atiya Begum, or Atiya Fyzee as she became known after her marriage to the no less fascinating Jewish legal expert, was a woman who could well inspire much poetry. Independent and liberated, cultured and educated, she represented a new image of Muslim women in India, emerging to claim her own place in the world.

Not too long after her book on Iqbal was written and published, Atiya and her husband moved to Pakistan at the personal invitation of Jinnah but ended up becoming tragic figures when their property and art collection were taken over by the state in a very peculiar manner, neither fully explained nor resolved to this day.

For some strange reason, Atiya’s rich and varied life doesn’t merit even a brief mention in the otherwise learned introduction and prefatory material of this new edition of Iqbal. Could it be that Atiya and what she came to represent is still not acceptable to some of the very people who are interested in her book? Granted that Atiya’s life and times merit at least a book length study, but a more complete picture was called for here so that readers can better understand her views on the poet.

The picture Atiya paints of Iqbal is that of a learned and witty young man, and alternatively, a brooding and tormented soul.

Her view is based on her observations and exchange of confidences, including some very interesting letters. She quotes the letters at length and fills in the gaps with background information. The letters include a number of poems and we are left with an unforgettable image of Iqbal asking for a piece of paper while visiting her residence, Aiwan-i-Rif’at, in Bombay in 1931 and inscribing on it the couplet: “Kahiey kya hukm hai? Diwana banoon ya na banoon,” (What is your command? Should I go mad [or stay sane]?) as if diwangi was polite enough to ask whether it should continue. Whatever meanings one may read into this animated and spirited exchange, Iqbal laid bare his heart to her on a number of occasions. In a letter written from Lahore in 1910, he says: “Perhaps I am a mystery (even to myself) as you would like to put it; but this mystery is known to everybody…”

Atiya Fyzee’s small and very personal book serves to deepen a sense of that mystery, known to the world, but which does not make much of an effort to unravel it. At least the heart of the mystery which she represents seems incomplete and not fully satisfying to me. Without taking into consideration the great poetry written after his return from Heidelberg, Atiya paints Iqbal as a tragic figure who is wronged by society and tradition. In fact, she cites his writings as evidence of what he could have been: “From facts given here, one is able to infer correctly if Iqbal’s early activities and efforts to widen his range of knowledge have been completely fruitful, or if he has missed being what he might have been. It can also be assumed that certain incidents in his life may have caused him to become that which we find in his writings.”

It is strange to see Iqbal being talked about in terms of what might have been. Atiya regards this as “Iqbal’s tragedy” and brings her brief book to a conclusion by chiding the “social customs of India” for having caused this tragedy. It may seem simplistic to explain Iqbal in such terms. Surely there is much more to his life than disappointment in marriage which Atiya is pointing towards. A writer like Nietzsche, whom Iqbal admired, would term such tragedy and suffering as necessary for the artist who thrives on his own suffering. “It does not seem possible to be an artist and not to be sick,” wrote Nietzsche, oblivious to the fact that Atiya Begum would not have agreed!

In his interesting introduction, Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik acknowledges the book as “the only authentic source” not only on Iqbal’s days in Germany but on the transformation “from a territorial nationalist into an uncompromising humanist” without commenting on whether this was the downfall Atiya had in mind.

Atiya’s book stops short of naming many a thing. It consists of just 47 pages in the present volume, while the same length is taken up by a facsimile of Iqbal’s letters in his own handwriting. The latter are primarily interesting to experts only while the book itself has a much wider appeal. It should also trigger a reassessment of not only the circumstances of Iqbal’s life which she hints at, but also of the life and times of Atiya Begum.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer

Iqbal (MEMOIRS) By Atiya Begum Edited and annotated by Rauf Parekh Introduction by Fateh Muhammad Malik Oxford University Press, Karachi ISBN 9780195477146 125pp. Rs495

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