The Enigma of Iqbal’s let­ters

Southasia - - Book review -

Ti­tle: Iqbal

Author: Atiya Begum Edited & An­no­tated by: Rauf Parekh

Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (Fe­bru­ary 2011)

Pages: 152, Hard­back

Price: PKR. 495 ISBN: 9780195477146

Atiya Fyzee’s ‘Iqbal’ of­fers a shrewd char­ac­ter sketch of the em­i­nent poet and philoso­pher, Muham­mad Iqbal. It presents a net­work of anec­dotes and ob­ser­va­tions that por­tray Iqbal dur­ing his stu­dent days in Europe and in the ini­tial years af­ter his re­turn to In­dia. Based on the author’s friend­ship with Iqbal that be­gan in Europe and was sus­tained through an in­ti­mate cor­re­spon­dence, Fyzee’s out­look comes across as can­did and in­trigu­ing. She uses a com­pelling range of let­ters and po­ems that Iqbal wrote to her to pro­vide a de­tailed scrutiny of the events and cir­cum­stances that shaped his world­view.

Although the book was com­piled as a re­source for schol­ars in­ter­ested in Iqbal, it has gained recog­ni­tion for pro­vid­ing a glimpse into the per­sonal life of an im­por­tant fig­ure in the his­tory of the sub­con­ti­nent. The fact that it has been pub­lished once again is wel­come proof of its pop­u­lar­ity and time­less ap­peal.

The lat­est ver­sion of the book rec­ti­fies some of the flaws in­her­ent in all pre­vi­ous edi­tions. It com­prises tran­scripts and fac­sim­i­les of the eleven let­ters that were pub­lished in the first edi­tion and in­cludes a range of use­ful ap­pen­dices, ex­plana­tory notes and re­vi­sions to make the book ac­cu­rate, en­gag­ing and cur­rent for the modern reader.

Since it was first pub­lished in 1947, ‘Iqbal’ has sat­is­fied count­less cu­riosi­ties sur­round­ing the poet’s friend­ship with Atiya Fyzee. In­ter­est­ingly, most read­ers have mis­con­strued the deeply ex­pres­sive na­ture of these let­ters and con­cluded that they were hav­ing an af­fair. It is dis­ap­point­ing to note that a book which pro­vides an il­lu­mi­nat­ing por­trait of a dy­namic scholar has fallen prey to such spec­u­la­tions.

This edi­tion aims to negate a whole spec­trum of doubts about the fa­mous friend­ship. Through a thought-pro­vok­ing in­tro­duc­tion writ­ten by Pro­fes­sor Fateh Muham­mad Ma­lik, a range of im­por­tant facts about Iqbal’s friend­ship with Atiya Fyzee have been high­lighted. Valid ref­er­ences have been used to ef­fec­tively dis­prove ru­mors of a ro­man­tic in­cli­na­tion be­tween the two. Pro­fes­sor Ma­lik sug­gests that due to dif­fer­ences in cul­tural and so­cial back­grounds, any ro­man­tic con­nec­tion be­tween Iqbal and Fyzee was un­ac­cept­able. While this clears many doubts about the na­ture of this friend­ship, it rel­e­gates these much-ro­man­ti­cized let­ters into con­ver­sa­tions be­tween two peo­ple who stood at op­po­site ends of the so­cial spec­trum. But Pro­fes­sor Ma­lik’s piece breathes new life into this de­bate by al­lud­ing to Iqbal’s let­ters to Emma We­ge­nast, a close friend from his stu­dent days in Ger­many. These have added a new di­men­sion to the enigma sur­round­ing this friend­ship.

De­spite this con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion, the strongly sub­jec­tive na­ture of Fyzee’s nar­ra­tive adds fuel to fire. While she has re­vealed var­i­ous fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails about their friend­ship, some aspects have been de­lib­er­ately with­held. For in­stance, Fyzee has not in­cluded her own re­sponses to these emo­tion­ally charged and en­gag­ing let­ters. In­stead she has pro­vided brief notes on the con­text of each let­ter and given the ac­count a rich anec­do­tal qual­ity. Although this tech­nique makes the nar­ra­tive com­pelling, it presents only one side of the story and leaves the reader in a co­nun­drum. It be­comes in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for them to gauge the na­ture of their friend­ship and there­fore sus­tains the doubts as­so­ci­ated with it.

But such anom­alies have not com­pro­mised the ap­peal of this book. ‘Iqbal’ still comes across as a can­did por­trayal of a lead­ing in­tel­lec­tual and dis­tin­guished Urdu poet. It of­fers a painstak­ing ac­count of the places, peo­ple and con­straints that moulded him into the

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