A slim 47-page booklet forms the kernel of this book; the rest is mere padding in the form of introduction, appendices and notes. However, the 47 pages of Iqbal contain much that is illuminating and useful—not merely about one of the greatest poets of the Urdu language but also about his age and many of his peers. Equally important is the insight Iqbal provides into the mind of a remarkable young woman. Atiya Fyzee, daughter of Hasan Ali Effendi and Shareefunnisa Tayabali was born in Constantinople in 1877 with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. Unlike other well born women of her age and station, she chose to hitch her star to the great intellectual discourses of her time and used her wealth and status to broaden her horizon in a manner that had never been attempted before by any other Muslim woman in this part of the world. Educated in England and Germany, Atiya travelled and read extensively. She derived the benefits of the new western-style education yet deplored the loyalist overtones of its most vocal proponents. By far the most stylistically sophisticated poet of the twentieth century, Iqbal drew on the best resources of a liberal western education.
Upon graduating from the prestigious Government College, Lahore, in 1899, he worked as a lecturer in philosophy at the same College, went on to study philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge and in Heidelberg and Munich in Germany, eventually appearing for the Bar-at-Law from 1905-1908. While in his early poetry he had spoken of a united and free India where the Hindus and Muslims could coexist, this belief in syncretism and pluralism soon gave way to unitarianism and individualism. The Tarana-e-Hind (Ode to Hind) written in 1904 was followed by the Tarana-e-Milli (Ode to the Religious Community) in 1910 showing the progression from Hindi hain hum watan hai Hindostan hamara (We are the people of Hind and Hindustan is our homeland)to Muslim hain hum watan hai sarajahan hamara (We are Muslims and our homeland is the whole world). The ‘sweet madness’ (shireendivangi) of his early poetry gave way to a ‘divine madness’ (muqqadasdivangi). The simple lyricism and romantic nationalism of the early phase was replaced by a certain self-conscious prophetism tempered with a strong political and social undertone. Why this change happened and what in the poet’s personal life could have contributed to this change has been the subject of much debate among Iqbal scholars.
“Atiya’s tiny book which includes her own observations and eleven letters written by Iqbal to her during a span of five years—April 1907 to December 1911—not only gives us several clues but also shows us a side of the great poet that has seldom been revealed by others… Brief though it is and occasionally self-referential, Atiya’s Iqbal is a testament to a beautiful friendship between an unusual woman and a visionary poet.”
Atiya’s tiny book which includes her own observations and eleven letters written by Iqbal to her during a span of five years—April 1907 to December 1911—not only gives us several clues but also shows us a side of the great poet that has seldom been revealed by others. She met the poet for the first time on 1 April 1907 in London at the home of Miss Beck, the sister of Theodore Beck who as the principal of the MAO College at Aligarh was known to have great affection for Indian students. Miss Beck, then the secretary of the National Indian Association, often gathered the bright young men and women who came to Europe to study for literary soirees. Atiya’s book depicts Iqbal as a clever, witty, cynical young man, much in demand at literary get-togethers, gala dinners, picnics and high-society dos. Atiya observes Iqbal not only holding his own but being the life and soul of such events. She mentions a function at her home on 23 June 1907 where:
…the guests included both Indian and English notabilities [sic]. Dr Ansari entertained us with songs, Lord Sinha’s daughters, Komola and Romola, with music, and Iqbal with extempore compositions of clever and witty verses referring to almost every important guest present by making exaggerated remarks about their peculiarities, sending us all into roars of laughter.
Over the next few months, Iqbal gave Atiya German and Arabic books on philosophy, discussed the Persian poetry of Hafiz and invited her to read his thesis on political economy. In Germany, particularly in Heidelberg where Iqbal was studying, again they had several occasions to meet when Atiya travelled in the company of her brother and a group of Indian students in August 1907. Here, Atiya found Herr Professor Iqbal (as he was called) full of humility in contrast to his ‘egotistic cynicism’ of the London days. She also found him ‘intelligently interested’ in all that was required of a student at Heidelberg: apart from the rigorous studying, there was boating, classical music, singing, gardening, hiking, etc. This section of Atiya’s narrative contains several delightful vignettes: of Iqbal singing operatic songs ‘all out of tune and with no voice’, dancing clumsily to a folk tune with his tutor, the beautiful Frau Wegenast, coming last in a boat race, cooking an Indian dish, and so on. Atiya accompanied Iqbal and his teachers on some of their jaunts and describes the manifold ways in which he seemed to be imbibing knowledge from all around: ‘Picking knowledge from the trees that he passed by and the grass he trod.’ These years in Germany would be distilled somewhere deep in the press of his being and find expression in some of his most haunting verses. Atiya’s somewhat nonchalant account of those days adds another layer of meaning to the work of the serious scholar of Iqbaliyat (Iqbal studies).
Iqbal’s letters, given in their original form in the appendices and referred to also in Atiya’s narrative, completes the picture. In one letter he writes, ‘Thank you for all your scolding’; in another he appends unpublished poems for her comments, offers clarifications as to why he refused teaching jobs at Aligarh and Lahore, confides about intensely personal matters such as his arranged marriage and the grief it has caused him. Atiya’s book, first published in 1947, caused many scholars to assume that Atiya was the object of his affection (as well as of Shibli Nomani, the other great Islamist thinker of that age). To my mind, there seems an intellectual camaraderie and little else between these two people rather than a romantic —let alone physical—attraction. In one letter when Iqbal announces his decision to visit Hyderabad she voices her fears of him falling prey to ‘state temptations’. He affectionately acknowledges her reproach/reprimand (malamat) thus: ‘Thank you so much for your malamatnama which I enjoyed very much.’ He boasts of visiting the grave of Aurangzeb and writing ‘the most stirring poem that the readers of Urdu have ever read’. Elsewhere, he writes with an earnestness, wanting to clear himself in her eyes, seeking her good opinion, defending himself of her charge of becoming ‘mercenary and practical’, and claiming still to be a dreamer constrained though he is by circumstances and financial obligations.
In the last few pages of her booklet, Atiya traces, with a fine insight and perception, the leaching out of the lyrical and poignant, leaving him ‘strong and bitter, hurling questions even at the Creator to get his doubts answered.’ Astutely, she notes: ‘What answer he received is known from his life’s work, as the questioning continued without bringing him the necessary satisfaction.’ She is equally candid when she admits that the genius she saw in Europe was ‘suppressed instead of being developed, and India and the Indian conditions under which he had to live were responsible for this disaster’. She is brutally direct when she writes:
The social customs of India, though they have nothing to do with religion, are held paramount in Indian life, and one is forced to abide by the will, wishes and dictates of the family. This method has caused the ruin of a number of men and women of genius, and Iqbal’s instance is a most cruel tragedy, caused by such family obstinacy. Iqbal, as I knew him in Europe, was never the same personality in India, and those who did not have the advantage of coming across him in his early days, can never measure the standard of intelligence he was capable of displaying. In India his brilliance was blotted out, and as time went on this blot permeated his entire consciousness.
Brief though it is and occasionally self-referential, Atiya’s Iqbal is a testament to a beautiful friendship between an unusual woman and a visionary poet.