The Enigma of Iqbal’s letters
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