Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Allama Iqbal

The three poems chosen for this essay reflect three different styles of Iqbal’s poetry. ‘Maa ka Khwaab’ (A Mother’s Dream) is from Iqbal’s first published collection of Urdu poems, ‘Bang-i-Dara’ or ‘The Caravan Bell’ written before 1905 (he was born in 1877). This includes many poems written specifically for children in a simple style including ‘Himalaya’, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, ‘The Cow and the Goat’ etc. While all of his ‘children’s poems’ talk about simple themes they all have subtexts rich with meaning. For example, one of Iqbal’s most enduring children’s poems, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, still sung by children in schools today, is a prayer by a child to ‘shine like a beacon and light up the darkness in the world’. At another point, the child sings ‘let me be the voice of the poor, a lover of the old and infirm and those in pain’.
The first poem in this essay, while on the surface a simple description of a mother’s dream fearing for her child’s safety, is a profound explanation of a core concept in child development, that of ‘Separation-Individuation’, the process by which a child grows psychologically and develops the capacity for tolerating prolonged periods of separation from its mother (or other parental figure) on its way to becoming an adult.
‘Khizr-e-Rah’ or ‘Khizr the Guide’ is from a different era and showcases Iqbal’s full poetic talent. It was written in the aftermath of the First World War with the once magnificent Muslim Ottoman Empire which had ruled over large parts of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa for more than 600 years in terminal decline and soon to be abolished by Turkish Nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal ‘Ata-Turk’. On April 13, 1919 came the trauma of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar when over 1500 innocent men, women and children celebrating the Punjabi New Year were massacred in cold blood by British Indian Army troops under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. It was a time of near universal despondency amongst the Muslims of India. The poem describes Iqbal’s dialogue with the mythical ‘Khizr’, revered as a spiritual guide in many belief systems, including Islam. One could think of all manner of things one could ask such a figure but Iqbal concentrates on matters that weigh heavily on his heart. This includes the meaning of life, governance or kingship, the struggle between ‘labor and capital’ and the reason for Khizr’s wandering ways. Since this poem was composed sometime after 1919, at least one of the questions was surely inspired by the recent example of the first worker’s government in history, the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917 which abolished the monarchy in Russia and gave birth to the first socialist government in history led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party. Iqbal devotes more of his energy to this subject in later works as well including a poem entitled ‘Lenin in the presence of God’. Due to its length and the breadth of its subject matter, this essay will focus on Khizr’s explanation of the meaning of life.
The third poem illustrates Iqbal’s love of Persian, a language more ancient than Iqbal’s native Urdu and thus richer in poetic similes and metaphors. In fact, of Iqbal’s 12000 verses, 7000 are in Persian including his masterpiece, ‘Javid Nama’ or ‘Book of Eternity’ inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. The poem, ‘Muhawara ma bain Khuda-o-Insaan’ or ‘Dialogue between God and Man’ also demonstrates one of Iqbal’s favorite themes, conversations between celestial and earthly figures, in this case between God and Man (representing all of humanity). This style is also present in one of Iqbal’s famous Urdu poems ‘Shikwah’ or ‘Reproach’, in which Man addresses God with a long list of complaints specifically about God’s treatment of Muslims. That poem created quite a stir when first presented in public and would still be considered politically incorrect, if not outright blasphemous, in many Islamic societies today. In fact, some time later, Iqbal felt compelled to write ‘Jawab-e-Shikwah’ or ‘Reply to Reproach’ whereby God rebukes Muslims for daring to complain about their condition in light of their own less than stellar conduct in the past.
Maa ka Khwaab (A Mother’s Dream):
On the surface this poem is simply a description of a mother’s dream about her young son who is lost somewhere. Some commentators have described it as a lament by a mother whose child has died. However, there is a more life affirming explanation which makes more sense psychologically.
The poem starts out simply enough. It is in the first person with a mother describing her dream:
‘Main soey jo ik shab toe dekha yeh khwaab
Badha aur jis say meraa iztiraab
Yeh dekha kay main jaa rahi hoon kahin
Andhera hai aur raah milti nahin
Larazta tha darr say mera baal baal
Qadam kaa tha dehshat say uthnaa muhaal’
‘As I slept one night I dreamt
A dream that heightened my discontent
I saw myself going somewhere
Unable to find my way in the gloom
Trembling, drowning in my terror’
It should be noted that simply being conversant in a language does not mean that one is able to appreciate its poetry. Iqbal’s poetry with its dense metaphysical and philosophical themes is even more of a challenge for the casual reader. This poem, however, is written in a simpler style.
The poet continues:
‘Jo kuch hauslaa paa kay agay badhi
Toe dekha qataar aik larkon kee thi
Zamurrad see poshaak pehnay huay
Diyay unkay haathon main jaltay huay
Woh chup chaap thay aagay peechay rawaan
Khuda jaanay jaana tha unko kahan’
‘As I kept on I saw
Boys walking in line
Wearing emerald hued coats, carrying lamps,
Silently they walked
God knows where to’
The use of the color ‘emerald’ or green is interesting. Why green? This might be one key to unlocking the life affirming message of the poem. In many cultures, green symbolizes hope and growth. The most common associations, however, are found in its ties to nature. For example, Islam venerates the color, as it expects paradise to be full of lush greenery. In many folklores and literatures, green has traditionally been used to symbolize nature and its embodied attributes, namely those of life, fertility, and rebirth. Green was symbolic of resurrection and immortality in Ancient Egypt; the god Osiris was depicted as green-skinned. It is often used to describe foliage and the sea, and has become a symbol of environmentalism. In short, the use of the emerald or green color seems to represent life and vibrancy.
The poet continues:
‘Issi soch mai thi kay mera pisar
Mujhe uss jamaat main aaya nazar
Woh peechay tha aur taiz chaltaa naa tha
Diya uske haathon main jaltaa naa tha’
‘As I stood lost in thought
There I saw, my son
Walking forlornly in the back
Carrying an extinguished lamp’
Here is a glimpse of the central theme of the poem, a lamp, used to light up one’s way, dark and useless, unable to show its bearer the way forward.
‘Kaha main nay pehchan kar meri jaan
Mujhe chor kar aa gaye tum kahan?
Judaai main rehti hoon main beqaraar
Parotee hoon har roz ashkon kay haar
Na parwaa hamari zara tum nay kee
Gaye chor acchee wafa tum nay kee’
‘Recognizing him, I cried, ‘my love’
Why have you forsaken me?
I pine for you; and everyday weave a necklace of tears
Not once did you think of me
Alone and abandoned’
Even though the translation does not do justice to the power of Iqbal’s words, it is hard not to be moved by the setting of the poem; darkness, a dream world, figures with emerald coats and a mother, lost and tearful.
‘Jo bachay nay dekha mera pech-o-taab
Diya uss nay munh phair kar yun jawaab
Rulaati hai tujh ko judaai meri
Nahin iss main kuch bhi bhalaai meri
Yeh keh kar who kuch dair tak chup raha
Diya phir dikha kay yeh kehnay laga
Samajhti hai tu hoe gaya kya issay?
Tere aansoo-on nay bujhaaya issay’
‘The child seeing my agony derisively replied
Your tears do me no favors;
Silent then for a moment
He showed me the lamp
‘Do you wonder what happened to it?’
Your tears put it out’
Here we come to the central message of the poem, a mother’s grief and agony at letting go of her child as it grows, matures and becomes more independent, inevitably, in the process moving away from her. Iqbal arrives at a profound psychological insight, perhaps from his own experience with his mother, perhaps through his observations as a sensitive artist. As a child grows, the mother, who has learnt to cater to its every need and whim, must now teach herself to allow a child to stumble out of her grasp, perhaps to fall, make mistakes and get hurt. She must accept that those hurts are an inevitable part of growing and changing into an adult. Interestingly, the poet makes no mention of a father anywhere in the dream, a figure that can help moderate the intensity of the emotions involved.
Also, this pattern of intense attachment to the child by the mother and the child’s resultant feeling of  perhaps being smothered would be quite typical in a feudal, non-industrial culture like British India where Iqbal was born, raised and lived most of his life.
In the end, Iqbal is pleading both sides of the case. The mother describes her suffering to the child (and to us) and it is proof of her love. The child does not reject it but points out to her the consequence of excessive attachment, his difficulty finding his way, in the dream (and presumably in life) because of the effect of his mother’s tears and grief.