Iqbal and Atiya Begum

Zafar Anjum

Zafar Anjum is an Indian-born writer and journalist. He lives and works in Singapore. Iqbal and Atiya Begum is a chapter his book Iqbal : The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician (Random House; India)

Iqbal and Atiya BegumTen years after Iqbal is born in Sialkot in undivided India, a girl named Atiya is born thousands of miles away in Istanbul.  Just as Iqbal’s father ran a business in Sialkot, Atiya’s father Hasan Ali Fyzee (1827–1903) ran a business in that Turkish metropolis.

After a few years, the Fyzee family moves from Turkey to India for better business prospects.

In 1906, one year after Iqbal arrives in Europe, Atiya receives a scholarship to pursue higher studies in England. And that’s where these two great souls meet—in London.

The day they meet for the first time is April Fools’ Day—1 April, 1907. By that time Iqbal has spent nearly a year and a half in England and Atiya nearly a year.

They meet at a party in Miss Beck’s place in London. Miss Beck is the sister of Professor Theodore Beck (1859–1899), who was once the principal of M.A.O. College, Aligarh. A legendry academic, he was appointed to that position at the ripe young age of twenty four.

The occasion for Atiya’s meeting with Iqbal is provided by Miss Beck, who is the secretary of the National Indian Association in England, and as such, she attracts Indian students and visitors who gather at her house to meet other Indian students.

The meeting is not incidental. Miss Beck has primed Atiya for Iqbal. She had sent him a special invite to come to the gathering on April 1, asking her ‘to meet a very clever man by the name of Muhammad Iqbal, who was specially coming from Cambridge’ to see her. The invitation had amused Atiya. She has not even heard of him. At the same time, it does not rouse much curiosity in her because she was used to getting such invitations from various Indians in London. Not wanting to disobey Miss Beck, given her dedication to the welfare of Indian students in London and ‘the motherly care’ that she bestowed upon them,4 she decides to meet Iqbal.

 

The party is on when she reaches Miss Beck’s place. Soon, Iqbal too arrives at the scene. The tall, young mustachioed Punjabi man looks dashing in his suit that evening. His ‘deep-set eyes hide his feelings and mood, making him appear confident and invulnerable.’

Miss Beck introduces Iqbal to Atiya. They start talking at the dinner table. Though she finds the surroundings of Miss Beck’s place ‘prosaic and uninspiring’, she finds her conversations with Iqbal exhilarating.

As they carry on their discussion, she realizes the depth of Iqbal’s scholarship and the sharpness of his wit. While Iqbal is talking, she studies him like a subject. What she finds out about him impresses her even more: a scholar of Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit; ‘a ready wit, and ever alert in taking advantage of one’s weak point, and hurling cynical remarks at his audience.’

While she admires Iqbal’s scholarship and wit, Iqbal takes to her directness and straightforwardness as a person. The two are barely able to contain their liking for each other.

Atiya is curious to know why he particularly wanted to see her. When she enquires about this, he says: ‘You have become very famous in India and London through your travel diary and for this reason I was anxious to meet you.’5

‘Wow! Is that right?’ Atiya thinks, overjoyed with the compliment that the young scholar had just paid her. However, she is a bit skeptical. Is Iqbal being sarcastic?

‘I am not prepared to believe that you took the trouble to come all the way from Cambridge just to pay me this compliment, but apart from this jest, what is the real idea behind this meeting?’ she looks into his eyes.

That’s blunt, Iqbal thinks, but he does not let go of his composure. Eventually, he tells her the truth, embellished by his poetic sensibility. ‘I have come to invite you to Cambridge on behalf of Mr and Mrs Syed Ali Bilgrami as their guest, and my mission is to bring your acceptance without fail,’ he says, sounding ambassadorial. ‘If you refuse you will bring the stigma of failure on me, which I have never accepted, and if you accept the invitation, you will be honouring the hosts.’

As the conversation rolls on, she gets to know the young poet better. She further observes that Iqbal makes himself agreeable or disagreeable depending on his mood. Give him company and he will be vivacious and witty—’never at a loss for wit or compliment’. But most of the time, Iqbal behaves and speaks like a cynic.

When they talk about Hafiz, Atiya quotes many of his appropriate verses. Iqbal too is an admirer of this great Persian poet. ‘When I am in the mood for Hafiz,’ he quips, ‘his spirit enters my soul, and my personality merges with the poet’s and I myself become Hafiz.’

Iqbal is in the mood to have a discussion. He further opens up. ‘I admire another great Persian poet, Baba Fughani,’ he says. Fughani is not known in India. ‘You must read him at all costs,’ he exhorts. ‘Very few of his books are to be found in India, but they must be read as they reveal a different vision of the truth.’

The conversation rambles on and they lose track of time. It is late in the evening and Atiya has to return to her residence. Before departing, she accepts Iqbal’s invitation to visit the Bilgramis in Cambridge. A date is fixed. It is to be the twenty second of April.

** *

A few days pass. An invitation arrives from Iqbal inviting Atiya for supper. Iqbal has chosen a fashionable restaurant in London named Frascatis to host Atiya. He wants her to meet some German scholars with whom he has been working.

At the restaurant, the decor is thoughtful and the dinner arrangement delicate. ‘This is so nicely done,’ she remarks in appreciation.

‘I am two personalities in one,’ Iqbal replies, appreciating the praise. ‘The outer is practical and businesslike and the inner self is the dreamer, philosopher, and mystic.’

The dinner is delicious but the intellectual discussion that follows with the German philosophers is even more interesting. That is the real treat. As usual the discussion hovers around deeper matters of philosophy that scintillate her mind.

After the dinner date, now it is Atiya’s turn to return the courtesy. She arranges a little tea party for Iqbal on April 15.

For the party, she invites some of her scholarly friends. Miss Sylvester and Miss Levy are well-known in London as language and philosophy students. M. Mandel and Herr Metztroth are famous musicians. They all join the party to make it unforgettable. When Iqbal arrives at her place, it turns into a chirpy party with food, conversation, poetry, and music. ‘When Iqbal composed a humorous poem these ladies capped the verses in a similar manner, and the air crackled with intellectual fireworks from start to finish.’

As the evening drags on, a lively Iqbal is on a roll with his amusing verses. Atiya is so fascinated by his lines that she wants to note them down. When she starts scribbling her notes, he stops her. ‘These expressions are meant only for this particular occasion, and their mission has ended the moment they are uttered,’ he gently reprimands her. She respects Iqbal’s wish and stops writing.

Atiya’s musician friends play some classical music. The party goes on for three hours and becomes a memorable event for all of them. One week later, on April 21, 1907,7 Atiya leaves for Cambridge to keep her promise to visit the Bilgramis. It is to be a day-long trip.

Accompanying her are Iqbal and his friend Shaikh Abdul Qadir. At twelve noon the party reaches the residence of the Bilgramis. Iqbal plays a ceremonious courtier when he introduces Atiya to Syed Ali Bilgrami, who receives her graciously. ‘If ever I faced the prospect of courting a failure in life, it was with Miss Fyzee, who, out of sheer consideration for you, saved me by not declining your invitation,’ he says. He follows that ceremonious sentence by quoting a couplet of his own in Persian. As usual, there are other guests at the Bilgramis’ parlour that day. They all indulge themselves in conversations that Atiya finds brilliant and learned.  Atiya observes that Iqbal has a peculiar habit—sometimes during a conversation, he looks dull and tired, but that is not to be mistaken as a sign of withdrawal. He would rather be watching and waiting for any remark that can be responded to with a quick repartee. Once someone gives him this kind of an opportunity, he pounces on his prey with such a ‘lightening rapidity’ that it stuns his opponent for a moment.

He is like William Gladstone, Atiya thinks. The British prime minister is well-known for adopting a similar tactic in the House of Parliament.

In the evening Atiya returns to London.

For more than a month, they do not meet again. However, an opportunity to meet appears courtesy of Professor Arnold.

Arnold invites her to Cambridge for a picnic. Again it is a gathering of scholars but this time the location is scenic. The picnic has been arranged under a tree by the banks of a river. 

When the conversations ramble on in the spirit of relaxed picnicing, Arnold tries to give them some direction. He asks everyone to offer an opinion on life and death. This is a grave topic and when the arguments become hazy, Arnold turns to Iqbal to ask him his opinion on the topic. Iqbal has been silent until now, patiently listening to all the remarks being made. A cynical smile emerges on his face. ‘Life is the beginning of death, and death the beginning of life,’ he puts it coolly. 

This suitably brings the discussion to an end. 

Another week passes by. On June 9, 1907, Iqbal and Atiya meet again at Arnold’s place. Professor Arnold starts talking about a rare Arabic manuscript in Germany. It has been recently discovered and needs a scholar to decipher it. Instead of going to Germany himself, he opines that Iqbal go in his place. ‘Iqbal, I am going to send you there and you are the right man for the job,’ he says. 

Iqbal tries to excuse himself from this assignment. ‘I am only a novice, Sir,’ he pleads. ‘You are the expert for this job.’ 

‘Don’t worry, Iqbal,’ Prof. Arnold says, ‘In this case the student will surpass his teacher.’ 

 

Iqbal acquiesces but adopts a slightly cynical tone which is his trademark style, ‘If this is your conclusion, Sir, I accept my teacher’s idea, and obey his commands.’ 

The next day Iqbal goes to Atiya’s place with some German and Arabic books on philosophy. This time a German professor accompanies him. He reads out from those books and starts a discussion with Atiya. He is referring to Hafiz as a point of reference, comparing his thoughts with those of European philosophers. Atiya is already aware of Iqbal’s fascination with Hafiz from their first meeting. Now that Iqbal is arguing and comparing notes with others, Atiya is convinced that Iqbal believes in Hafiz more than any other Persian poet. He keeps on comparing the ideas and ideals of Hafiz with other philosophers. The discussion goes on for three hours. It is not a futile discussion but a method Iqbal adopts to sharpen his arguments. He acknowledges at one point that ‘by reading and discussing in this manner my ideas expand and convictions become firm.’ 

On June 23, 1907, Iqbal is invited by Atiya for a party at her place. The guests include both Indian and English notables. Atiya’s friends play some entertaining music which puts Iqbal in a good mood. He composes some extempore verses that are clever and witty ‘referring to almost every important guest present by making exaggerated remarks about their peculiarities’, sending the attendees into roars of laughter. 

*** 

A few days later, a German woman named Miss Sholey invites Atiya to an Indian dinner on June 27. It is not everyday that you get to have an Indian dinner in London, Atiya thinks. She gladly accepts the offer. When she goes over to her place, she finds Iqbal present and discovers that he is staying at Sholey’s and had requested her to invite Atiya. 

Atiya enjoys the meal which has a ‘real Indian touch and flavour’. Over dinner, Iqbal tells her that he can cook nearly any Indian dish. Dinner with Atiya is not all Iqbal wants from her. He wants to go over his thesis with her. Atiya sees no problem in this and Iqbal reads out his thesis in its entirety. Very clearly, his thesis demonstrates a vast and deep amount of research. After Iqbal finishes reading, he invites her to make comments on his work. Iqbal listens to her carefully and makes notes for improvement. 

As soon as they are done with their discussion, some of Iqbal’s friends walk in. A quick plan is chalked out and together they all march out to attend the annual party of the Imperial Institute. Iqbal is not very excited about attending this event but he accompanies his friends reluctantly. He does not want to be a spoil sport. 

Some members of the British royal family are also in attendance at the Institute, however, Iqbal looks bored. 

‘What a delightful waste of time,’ he keeps muttering throughout the evening. 

‘What?’ Atiya quips, ‘Not a very original observation!’ 

*** 

Barely two days have passed when Iqbal and Atiya bump into each other again. This time, the meeting happens at the house of Lady Elliotts, a society hostess. She has thrown a party, and frankly speaking, she does not expect Iqbal to be there. But he is in attendance and they both begin chatting. 

While they are having a conversation, Miss Sarojini Das8 rushes in, ‘dressed in the richest garments, outrageously bejewelled, and incongruously decked.’ Atiya sizes her up, remembering ‘this specimen of humanity’ who had travelled with her to England and ‘regarded herself as a paragon of all that is desirable’. Excited to see Iqbal, she ignores Atiya and everyone else and ‘bubbling with copious sentiments’ she takes Iqbal’s hand. ‘I only came to see you,’ she gushes. ‘This shock is so sudden that I shall be surprised if I am able to leave this room alive,’ Iqbal replies. 

This was original, Atiya thought. 

*** 

By July 4, 1907, Iqbal tells Atiya that he has finished writing the history of the world, a topic he undertook for his German examination. When he reads out the manuscript to her, she makes some comments on a few historical facts. ‘Each person has his own particular angle with which he approaches facts, and I see the history of the world in this particular light,’ he says. 

Atiya can hardly help but be impressed with Iqbal’s depth of knowledge and his remarkable memory, both of which could be gauged from the facts he had collected for his work. Miss Sholey offers her a delicious Indian lunch again, prepared under Iqbal’s guidance. 

Seeing her interest in philosophy, Iqbal proposes that Atiya and he hold two-hour long reading sessions on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of July. Iqbal and Atiya, along with Prof. Herr Schaccent, who had completed his doctorate in Germany, read and discuss poetry and higher philosophy on the assigned dates. 

During the discussions, Atiya observes that Iqbal had a very high regard for German knowledge. ‘If you wish to increase your understanding in any branch of learning, German should be your goal,’ he tells her. 

Iqbal also reveals to her one of his key methods of knowledge gathering: ‘By discussing with others, a new world opens, and it is with this method, that I acquired all that I know,’ he declares to her. 

The following day Iqbal presents her his original manuscript of Political Economy and also the thesis that secures him his degree.9 

Iqbal leaves for Heidelberg in July 1907. He moves to Heidelberg to learn German for the oral examinations of his dissertation in Munich University. 

By the end of July 1907, news reaches Atiya through a student named Parmeshwar Lal that Iqbal’s patriotic songs published in Makhzan have become so popular that they are being sung in the whole of northern India: ‘houses, streets, alleys resounded with Iqbal’s national songs, which created a feeling of nationalism unknown in India before.’ 

A delighted Atiya wants to share this good news with Iqbal but by now he is already in Germany. 

On August16, Atiya goes over to Wimbledon at the invitation of Prof. Arnold. She tells him that she is thinking of going back to India after wrapping up her work in London. Arnold pleads with her that she should spend a little time in Germany, especially Heidelberg, and that the experience there could broaden her intellectual horizons. She decides to visit Germany with her brother Dr Fyzee, who is conversant in German and is desirous of visiting Germany a second time. 

When Iqbal comes to know of her visit to Heidelberg, he starts collecting books for her to read. He duly informs her about this in a letter on August 6, 1907. Atiya, in turn, messages Iqbal that she will be visiting him in Germany on August 19, because by then, her responsibilities in London would be over.

Arnold invites her to Cambridge for a picnic. Again it is a gathering of scholars but this time the location is scenic. The picnic has been arranged under a tree by the banks of a river. 

When the conversations ramble on in the spirit of relaxed picnicing, Arnold tries to give them some direction. He asks everyone to offer an opinion on life and death. This is a grave topic and when the arguments become hazy, Arnold turns to Iqbal to ask him his opinion on the topic. Iqbal has been silent until now, patiently listening to all the remarks being made. A cynical smile emerges on his face. ‘Life is the beginning of death, and death the beginning of life,’ he puts it coolly. 

This suitably brings the discussion to an end. 

Another week passes by. On June 9, 1907, Iqbal and Atiya meet again at Arnold’s place. Professor Arnold starts talking about a rare Arabic manuscript in Germany. It has been recently discovered and needs a scholar to decipher it. Instead of going to Germany himself, he opines that Iqbal go in his place. ‘Iqbal, I am going to send you there and you are the right man for the job,’ he says. 

Iqbal tries to excuse himself from this assignment. ‘I am only a novice, Sir,’ he pleads. ‘You are the expert for this job.’ 

‘Don’t worry, Iqbal,’ Prof. Arnold says, ‘In this case the student will surpass his teacher.’ 

Iqbal acquiesces but adopts a slightly cynical tone which is his trademark style, ‘If this is your conclusion, Sir, I accept my teacher’s idea, and obey his commands.’ 

The next day Iqbal goes to Atiya’s place with some German and Arabic books on philosophy. This time a German professor accompanies him. He reads out from those books and starts a discussion with Atiya. He is referring to Hafiz as a point of reference, comparing his thoughts with those of European philosophers. Atiya is already aware of Iqbal’s fascination with Hafiz from their first meeting. Now that Iqbal is arguing and comparing notes with others, Atiya is convinced that Iqbal believes in Hafiz more than any other Persian poet. He keeps on comparing the ideas and ideals of Hafiz with other philosophers. The discussion goes on for three hours. It is not a futile discussion but a method Iqbal adopts to sharpen his arguments. He acknowledges at one point that ‘by reading and discussing in this manner my ideas expand and convictions become firm.’ 

On June 23, 1907, Iqbal is invited by Atiya for a party at her place. The guests include both Indian and English notables. Atiya’s friends play some entertaining music which puts Iqbal in a good mood. He composes some extempore verses that are clever and witty ‘referring to almost every important guest present by making exaggerated remarks about their peculiarities’, sending the attendees into roars of laughter. 

*** 

A few days later, a German woman named Miss Sholey invites Atiya to an Indian dinner on June 27. It is not everyday that you get to have an Indian dinner in London, Atiya thinks. She gladly accepts the offer. When she goes over to her place, she finds Iqbal present and discovers that he is staying at Sholey’s and had requested her to invite Atiya. 

Atiya enjoys the meal which has a ‘real Indian touch and flavour’. Over dinner, Iqbal tells her that he can cook nearly any Indian dish. Dinner with Atiya is not all Iqbal wants from her. He wants to go over his thesis with her. Atiya sees no problem in this and Iqbal reads out his thesis in its entirety. Very clearly, his thesis demonstrates a vast and deep amount of research. After Iqbal finishes reading, he invites her to make comments on his work. Iqbal listens to her carefully and makes notes for improvement. 

As soon as they are done with their discussion, some of Iqbal’s friends walk in. A quick plan is chalked out and together they all march out to attend the annual party of the Imperial Institute. Iqbal is not very excited about attending this event but he accompanies his friends reluctantly. He does not want to be a spoil sport. 

Some members of the British royal family are also in attendance at the Institute, however, Iqbal looks bored. 

‘What a delightful waste of time,’ he keeps muttering throughout the evening. 

‘What?’ Atiya quips, ‘Not a very original observation!’ 

*** 

Barely two days have passed when Iqbal and Atiya bump into each other again. This time, the meeting happens at the house of Lady Elliotts, a society hostess. She has thrown a party, and frankly speaking, she does not expect Iqbal to be there. But he is in attendance and they both begin chatting. 

While they are having a conversation, Miss Sarojini Das8 rushes in, ‘dressed in the richest garments, outrageously bejewelled, and incongruously decked.’ Atiya sizes her up, remembering ‘this specimen of humanity’ who had travelled with her to England and ‘regarded herself as a paragon of all that is desirable’. Excited to see Iqbal, she ignores Atiya and everyone else and ‘bubbling with copious sentiments’ she takes Iqbal’s hand. ‘I only came to see you,’ she gushes. ‘This shock is so sudden that I shall be surprised if I am able to leave this room alive,’ Iqbal replies. 

This was original, Atiya thought. 

*** 

By July 4, 1907, Iqbal tells Atiya that he has finished writing the history of the world, a topic he undertook for his German examination. When he reads out the manuscript to her, she makes some comments on a few historical facts. ‘Each person has his own particular angle with which he approaches facts, and I see the history of the world in this particular light,’ he says. 

Atiya can hardly help but be impressed with Iqbal’s depth of knowledge and his remarkable memory, both of which could be gauged from the facts he had collected for his work. Miss Sholey offers her a delicious Indian lunch again, prepared under Iqbal’s guidance. 

Seeing her interest in philosophy, Iqbal proposes that Atiya and he hold two-hour long reading sessions on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of July. Iqbal and Atiya, along with Prof. Herr Schaccent, who had completed his doctorate in Germany, read and discuss poetry and higher philosophy on the assigned dates. 

During the discussions, Atiya observes that Iqbal had a very high regard for German knowledge. ‘If you wish to increase your understanding in any branch of learning, German should be your goal,’ he tells her. 

Iqbal also reveals to her one of his key methods of knowledge gathering: ‘By discussing with others, a new world opens, and it is with this method, that I acquired all that I know,’ he declares to her. 

The following day Iqbal presents her his original manuscript of Political Economy and also the thesis that secures him his degree.9 

Iqbal leaves for Heidelberg in July 1907. He moves to Heidelberg to learn German for the oral examinations of his dissertation in Munich University. 

By the end of July 1907, news reaches Atiya through a student named Parmeshwar Lal that Iqbal’s patriotic songs published in Makhzan have become so popular that they are being sung in the whole of northern India: ‘houses, streets, alleys resounded with Iqbal’s national songs, which created a feeling of nationalism unknown in India before.’ 

A delighted Atiya wants to share this good news with Iqbal but by now he is already in Germany. 

On August16, Atiya goes over to Wimbledon at the invitation of Prof. Arnold. She tells him that she is thinking of going back to India after wrapping up her work in London. Arnold pleads with her that she should spend a little time in Germany, especially Heidelberg, and that the experience there could broaden her intellectual horizons. She decides to visit Germany with her brother Dr Fyzee, who is conversant in German and is desirous of visiting Germany a second time. 

When Iqbal comes to know of her visit to Heidelberg, he starts collecting books for her to read. He duly informs her about this in a letter on August 6, 1907. Atiya, in turn, messages Iqbal that she will be visiting him in Germany on August 19, because by then, her responsibilities in London would be over.

Muhammad Iqbal, one of India’s first patriotic poets whom Sarojini Naidu called the ‘Poet laureate of Asia’, is a controversial figure in the history of the Indian subcontinent.

Zafar Anjum is an Indian-born writer and journalist. He lives and works in Singapore. Iqbal and Atiya Begum is a chapter his book Iqbal : The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician (Random House; India)

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