Friday, October 30, 2009


Consensus. It seems to have a magic of its own, but even if we don't discuss that right now, the minimum that humanity needs today, especially Pakistan for its survival, is that everyone should be willing to modify their views in order to accomodate others'.

We might be amazed to see that none of the so-called progressive ideologies and so-called perfect democracies have this on their agenda. They have created myths of "commitment", "conviction", etc, all nice words to hide the fact that no political party, ideology or "ism" today is willing to say, "I may be wrong as well, and I will know this from your response."

This is what we need to change. What do u think?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Presidential Award for my book

News: my book Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006) has won the Presidential Iqbal Award. Some details about the book can be found on my website.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Who's afraid of Charlotte Bronte?

My interest in Jane Eyre revived when I realized that it could be incorporated into the system of symbols which Iqbal had used to interpret the world literature in order to decipher the ambitions which societies nurture in their hearts often without knowing it themselves. Hence I do not claim that the interpretation which I am offering was also known to Charlotte Bronte when she published her book in 1847 (although I have a few interesting observations on that matter as well).

I see Jane Eyre as the spirit of Christianity (which makes her the same as "the spirit of all human beings" described by Syed Ahmad Khan quite independently in his short story 'Time Bygone' in 1873). In that case, Rochester becomes the embodiment of Western civilization and the body politics of Europe. Its dark secret is the fruits of colonialism which it is trying to hide in the attic because that is a bargain that went wrong: the marriage with the mad woman took place in Jamaica (a colony), and it has only brought anguish.

However, Jane is a moral phantom like destiny itself, who cannot be diverted. Her principles do not bend any more than a force of Nature. Hence she leaves Rochester (the spirit of Christianity leaves the body politics of Europe). She does not find solace in the company of puritans either (just as Christianity is no more content with monasticism and is yearning to become a guiding force for civilization again).

The mad woman does not represent the colonized nations. She represents no individual. She is an epitome of that moral weakness in Rochester himself which led him to seek fortune abroad. It is that same moral weakness, now personified in the shape of this woman, which brings doom to his estate: she puts fire in which she burns herself as well as the estate of Rochester, and he loses his eyesight temporarily.

Uncanny, that this is exactly how Iqbal prophecied the end of colonialism in his seminal poem 'March 1907': "Your civilization will commit suicide with its own dagger." I do not mean to suggest that Iqbal was deliberating over the matrimonial problems of a 19th Century governess when he wrote this climactic poem about destinies of nations, yet it is extremely interesting to note that a particular interpretation of Jane Eyre brings out an embedded message completely identical to that of Iqbal.

Is it my personal interpretation? Well, I belong to a tradition where every writer since Nezami Ganjavi in the 12th Century (and including Rumi, Jami, Bhittai, Sir Syed and Iqbal) has used the metaphor of the beloved to mean the spirit of a society, identical to "the spirit of all human beings." It is only natural for me to interpret Jane Eyre in this manner.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jane Eyre (1847)

“Reader, I married him.” Who is the reader, and who married whom? Of course, the prudish Jane Eyre married the single-again Rochester and this has to be the first line of the last chapter of the famous novel by Charlotte Bronte.

At least this is how “reader” has been understanding it since 1847, and “reader” could be anyone from billions of people who, in every region of the world, have become familiar with this story in original or through abridgement, translation or adaptation. Its popularity across cultures is mind-boggling: the video here shows Zeba as Jane Eyre rescuing Waheed Murad as Rochester in the partially inspired Armaan (1966), while another famous song “Abhi dhoondh hi rahi thhi, tumhien yeh nazar hamari” comes from yet another version, and there was at least one more.

Of course, the most enduring loan from Jane Eyre has been the wonderful announcement in Chapter 26: “The marriage cannot go on.” It has been repeated countless times on Indian and Pakistani screen in its Urdu variation, “Yeh shadi nahi ho sakti.” You didn't know that this quotable quote was from English literature?).

Apart from popular culture, Jane Eyre has never ceased to be taught in schools, colleges and universities. Such global adoration is usually reserved for some scriptures, Rumi and Shakespeare. How did a nineteenth century forerunner of Mills & Boons conquer an empire that was bigger than Queen Victoria’s, and more lasting?

I had posted this far when I received the comment (see below), "Talking about Bronte, I think she always wrote for pleasure or love. I didnt find any purpose or a desire to change the world in her novels yet I have the widest collection..." Precisely, that's how I used to think when I started building my personal collection of works by and about the Bronte sisters.

Until I realized that probably Charlotte Bronte is one of the few who can change the world. TODAY.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Iqbal and Cowper

If we compare Cowper and Iqbal, we find that almost the entire work of the English poet is paralleled by the Poet of the East, but invariably the latter seeks to draw out a stronger basis for certainty. Consider the following proverbially famous passage from ‘Lines Shining Out of Darkness’ in the Olney Hymns (1799):
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

It is unlikely that Iqbal never pondered over this hymn before writing his famous Persian poem in Zuboor-i-Ajam (1927), opening with lines that can be translated as:

We are separated from God, and He is looking for us;
Like us, He is in love and is yearning with desire.
At times writing His message on the petal of a flower;
Lamenting inside the breasts of singing birds at times.

Here, Iqbal draw us into an intimacy with the very nature of the Divine while Cowper was content with just pointing at it. The Western critic relegated the English poet to the back row after the First World War, but in the East where Iqbal is venerated as one of the greatest of all times, Cowper is bound to be rediscovered once his close affinity with the works of Iqbal becomes known. This is the second implication of the glowworm illuminating the dark night of the nightingale: Iqbal has salvaged the work of Cowper from those dungeons of oblivion into which it has been thrown by current literary trends in the West.

There is also a third implication. In Cowper’s poem ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm’, the bird is about to eat the worm when the latter gives a message of love and unity. Hence, when Iqbal’s glowworm offers to illuminate the night, it is a victim offering help to predator and letting bygones be bygones. This is relevant because Cowper’s nation had enslaved the country of Iqbal – “flying around and feeding” is how the nightingale spent his day, but what did he feed on? Glowworms! This “flying around and feeding” is that very act of colonization which led the Western civilization astray from the message of Jesus. Hence “darkness has descended on everything.”

Cowper’s fear of damnation may not have been strictly personal. Unconsciously, the mystical poet may have trembled at what was to come out of the various activities of his civilization, be they territorial conquests or evangelical conversions of weaker nations. In his poem ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm,’ where a glowworm preaches love and unity to the predator, Cowper concludes by drawing the following moral:

Hence jarring sectaries may learn
Their real interest to discern;
That brother should not war with brother,
And worry and devour each other;
But sing and shine by sweet consent,
Till life’s poor transient night is spent,
Respecting in each other’s case
The gifts of nature and of grace.
Those Christians best deserve the name
Who studiously make peace their aim;
Peace both the duty and the prize
Of him that creeps and him that flies.

Cowper and Rumi

It was suggested in the previous post that Iqbal’s poem ‘Hamdardi’ (‘Sympathy’) is not adapted from William Cowper’s poem but is the story of his life. "Cowper suffered from severe manic depression,” says Wikipedia entry about the poet. “And although he found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and feared that he was doomed to eternal damnation.” This is reminiscent of the nightingale as described in the opening lines of ‘Sympathy’ (but not in Cowper’s own poem):

Alone on the branch of a tree
Was a nightingale perched in sadness.
He was saying, “The night has drawn near
I passed the day in flying around and feeding
How can I reach up to the nest?
Darkness has descended on everything!”

Regardless of what Iqbal had in mind, the setting is a perfect analogy for the dark night of a soul. The nightingale’s fear that he may never reach “the nest” represents the harrowing thoughts which troubled Cowper all his life.

Who is the glowworm? Iqbal's Persian anthology Payam-i-Mashriq (1923) contains a poem ‘Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’ comprising entirely of a fable about a bird pricked by thorn and cursing the garden, and another bird removing the thorn. If this is Iqbal’s way of demonstrating the relationship between the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, then can we not understand the relationship between him and Cowper through a similar parable? If Cowper is the nightingale calling for help, then Iqbal is the glowworm responding to that call in more ways than one.

Firstly, whenever Iqbal picks up an idea from Cowper, he reworks it to show a deeper message of faith, certainty and hope embedded in the original but inaccessible there due to the English poet's personal gloom and sadness. The finest example is ‘Parinday ki Faryad’ adapted from Cowper’s ‘On a Goldfinch Starved in his Cage’. Unlike Cowper, Iqbal’s bird is alive and calling for help. Moreover, the last stanza introduces translations from Rumi and the entire poem ends on a moral drawn from a parable of Rumi to the effect that our physical existence is like a cage to our soul.

Hence Iqbal leads Cowper to the threshold of Rumi. This is one of the ways in which the glowworm illuminates the dark night of the nightingale: thanks to Iqbal, the messages of Cowper and Rumi have become inseparable in the collective consciousness of the Urdu-speaking world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The return of William Cowper

‘Hamdardi’ (Sympathy) is one of the most well-known of the seven poems which Iqbal wrote for children. In eight couplets, it is a parable about a nightingale worrying about reaching its nest after dark and a glowworm offering its light to show the way.

In his anthology Baang-i-Dara (1924), Iqbal captioned the poem as “Makhooz az William Cowper” (adapted from William Cowper), and that is the problem. Scholars have not found anything in the work of Cowper to be identified as source. The closest is ‘The Nightingale and the Glowworm’ but there the nightingale is about to eat the glowworm when the worm asks the bird to remember that the garden needs both of them.

It is safe to presume that Iqbal captioned his own poem as “adapted from William Cowper” because characters were similar even if he had altered the story. As soon as we presume this, as some scholars have, we face another problem. Iqbal’s anthology contains a separate and more faithful translation of Cowper’s poem by the title ‘Aik Parinda aur Jugno’ (literally ‘A Nightingale and A Glowworm’), where characters as well as the story are exactly the same as Cowper’s, but that poem is not marked as an adaptation at all (although it was sub-titled “az Angrayzi,” i.e. "from English" when first printed in a magazine several years before the anthology).

How come that Iqbal is willing to attribute his more original poem to Cowper but seems to be stingy about giving him acknowledgement where it is due? This brings us to the third problem: Iqbal’s poem ‘Parinday ki Faryad’ (The Lament of a Bird) is the only one of his seven poems for children which is not marked as an adaptation, and again, it turns out to be adapted from a poem by Cowper, ‘On a Goldfinch Starved to Death in His Cage’!

This is a bit too complicated to pass either as mere carelessness or plagiarism. Throughout his works, Iqbal is careful to indicate when something is an adaptation. Why would he make the borrowings from Cowper to be the only exceptions? If so, why name Cowper as the source poet of ‘Sympathy', a piece which could genuinely be treated as an original?

One possible solution to this riddle sounds wild and outlandish but it is also the most satisfactory. Indeed, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall in place if we only suppose that ‘Sympathy’ is not adapted from a poem by William Cowper but from the story of his life. The nightingale of Iqbal’s poem is none other than Cowper himself.

To be continued.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Iqbal: a new perspective on the West

The six poets covered in the recent posts are those from whom Iqbal took seven poems captioned “for children” in his anthology Baang-i-Dara (1924). He has clearly marked six of these as “abridged” but unfortunately our educators drop that significant detail when they include the poems in textbooks. Hence, while the poems are known to almost everyone in Pakistan and the Urdu speaking world, very few people know that these are adaptations from foreign literature.

Thus we ignore a bridge between civilizations. We also fail to realize that practically all Pakistanis who have gone to school, and some who haven’t, have become familiar with such an amazing range of foreign writers through adaptations in our own language. From the birth of William Cowper in 1731 to the death of Matilda Betham-Edwards in 1919, these poets cover the two best centuries of the West when the Western civilization was moving forward.

Why did Iqbal choose these six poets, dropping some others (such as William Blake, whose “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” could have been such a good candidate)? We cannot answer this question without facing a mystery about a strange connection between Iqbal and one of these poets – someone who was long dead by the time Iqbal was born, but it seems that death was not the end of all in this case.

Next: The return of William Cowper

Friday, October 16, 2009

Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919)

Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919), English poet, novelist and Francophile is being rediscovered through such works as a recent biography by Joan Rees, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Birmingham. 'A Child's Hymn' by her, which begins, "God make my life a little light" is enormously popular in the West (its traditional melody is offered at Cyberhymnal), and it happens to be equally popular, perhaps more, in Pakistan where its Urdu adaptation by Iqbal has been the most popular recital at schools for four generations: "Lab pay aati hai dua bun kay tamanna meri."

A Child’s Hymn

God make my life a little light,
within the world to glow,
A little flame that burneth bright,
wherever I may go.

God make my life a little flower
that giveth joy to all,
Content to bloom in native bower,
although the place be small.

God make my life a little song,
that comforteth the sad,
That helpeth others to be strong,
and maketh the singer glad.

God make my life a little staff,
whereon the weak may rest,
That so what health and strength I have,
may serve my neighbours best.

God make my life a little hymn
of tenderness and praise,
Of faith that never waneth dim,
in all his wondrous ways.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American essayist, poet and philosopher needs no introduction (complete works available online). In Pakistan, the poem ‘Fable,’ included in his anthology Poems, stands out as the best known work of Emerson due to its Urdu adaptation 'Aik Pahar Aur Gulehri' by Iqbal.


The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel,
And the former called the latter 'Little Prig;'
Bun replied,
'You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together,
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.'

William Barnes (1801-1886)

William Barnes, British writer, poet, cleric and philologist is best remembered for his poems in Dorset dialect. In Pakistan, of course, his best-known work is 'A Mother's Dream' in Urdu adaptation by Iqbal.

The Mother’s Dream

I’d a dream to-night
As I fell asleep,
Oh! the touching sight
Makes me still to weep;
Of my little lad,
Gone to leave me sad,
Aye, the child I had,
But was not to keep.
As in heaven high,
I my child did seek,
There, in train, came by
Children fair and meek.
Each in lily white,
With a lamp alight;
Each was clear to sight,
But they did not speak.
Then, a little sad,
Came my child in turn,
But the lamp he had,
Oh! it did not burn;
He, to clear my doubt,
Said, half-burned about,
“Your tears put it out;
Mother, never mourn.”

Picture of Barnes' grave in Dorset, UK, is from Poets' Graves

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mary Howitt (1799-1888)

Mary Howitt (1799-1888), an eminent English poet is best known for her book The Spider and the Fly (Wikipedia page on the poet shows former first lady of US, Laura Bush, reading from it). The title poem of the book is equally (or perhaps more) well-known in Pakistan and the Urdu speaking world through translation by Iqbal as 'Aik Makra Aur Makhi'.

The Spider and the Fly

"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly; "'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high.
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the spider to the fly.
"There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest a while, I'll snugly tuck you in!"
"Oh no, no," said the little fly, "for I've often heard it said,
They never, never wake again who sleep upon your bed!"

Said the cunning spider to the fly: "Dear friend, what can I do
To prove the warm affection I've always felt for you?
I have within my pantry good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome - will you please to take a slice?"
"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "kind sir, that cannot be:
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!"

"Sweet creature!" said the spider, "you're witty and you're wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings; how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf;
If you'd step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you're pleased to say,
And, bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."

The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly;
Then came out to his door again and merrily did sing:
"Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple; there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer grew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes and green and purple hue,
Thinking only of her crested head. Poor, foolish thing! at last
Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast;
He dragged her up his winding stair, into the dismal den –
Within his little parlor - but she ne'er came out again!

And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne'er give heed;
Unto an evil counselor close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the spider and the fly.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Jane Taylor (1783-1824)

Jane Taylor, English poet and novelist whose most famous poem has turned out to be “Twinkle, twinkle, little star" also wrote 'The Cow and the Ass' which was adapted in Urdu by Iqbal as 'Aik Gaye Aur Bakri' (thus converting the ass into a goat). Hence, to many in Pakistan and India, the last lines of Taylor's poem, "I'm determined I'll benefit by 't/ For I really believe the fellow is right" have been familiar through their famous Urdu version, "Yun tuo chhoti hai zaat bakri ki/ Dil ko lagti hai baat bakri ki".

The Cow and the Ass

Hard by a green meadow a stream used to flow,
So clear, one might see the white pebbles below;
To this cooling stream the warm cattle would stray,
To stand in the shade on a hot summer's day.

A cow, quite oppressed with the heat of the sun,
Come here to refresh, as she often had done;
And standing stock still, leaning over the stream,
Was musing, perhaps, or perhaps she might dream.

But soon a brown ass, of respectable look
Came trotting up also to taste of the brook,
And to nibble a few of the daisies and grass;
"How d' ye do?" said the cow; "How d' ye do?" said the ass.

"Take a seat," cried the cow, gently waving her hand;
"By no means, dear madam," said he, "while you stand;"
Then stooping to drink, with a complaisant bow,
"Ma'am, your health," said the ass; "thank you, sir," said the cow.

When a few of these compliments more had been past,
They laid themselves down on the herbage at last;
And, waiting politely, as gentlemen must,
The ass held his tongue, that the cow might speak first.

Then with a deep sigh, she directly began,
"Don't you think, Mr. Ass, we're injured by man?
'Tis a subject that lays with a weight on my mind:
We certainly are much oppressed by mankind.

"Now what is the reason (I see none at all)
That I always must go when Suke chooses to call;
Whatever I'm doing ('t is certainly hard)
At once I must go to be milked in the yard.

"I've no will of my own, but must do as they please,
And give them my milk to make butter and cheese:
I've often a vast mind to knock down the pail.
Or give Suke a box on the ear with my tail."

"But, ma'am," said the ass, "not presuming to teach—
Oh dear, I beg pardon—pray finish your speech;
I thought you had done, ma'am, indeed," said the swain,
"Go on, and I'll not interrupt you again."

"Why, sir, I was only a going to observe,
I'm resolved that these tyrants no longer I'll serve:
But leave them forever to do as they please,
And look somewhere else for their butter and cheese."

Ass waited a moment, to see if she'd done,
And then, "not presuming to teach," he began;
"With submission, dear madam, to your better wit,
I own I am not quite convinced of it yet.

"That you're of great service to them is quite true,
But surely they are of some service to you;
'T is their nice green pasture in which you regale,
They feed you in winter when grass and weeds fail.

'T is under their shelter you snugly repose,
When without it, dear ma'am, you perhaps might be froze.
For my part, I know, I receive much from man,
And for him, in return, I do all that I can."

The cow upon this cast her eye on the grass,
Not pleased at thus being reproved by an ass;
Yet, thought she, "I'm determined I'll benefit by 't,
For I really believe the fellow is right."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

William Cowper (1731-1800)

William Cowper (1731-1800), the renowned English poet whom Romantics like Coleridge and Wordsworth liked for his spiritual poetry, is now best known in the West for such famous quotes as "God made the country, and man made the town" and "I am monarch of all I survey." An average Pakistani, even if one cannot read or write, is familiar with at least one line from Cowper, and that is "Time was when I was free as air." Of course, they know it in translation from Iqbal: "Aata hai yad mujko guzra hua zamana..."

On a Golfinch Starved to Death in His Cage

Time was when I was free as air,
The thistle’s downy seed my fare,
My drink the morning dew;
I perch’d at will on every spray,
My form genteel, my plumage gay,
My strains for ever new.

But gaudy plumage, sprightly strain,
And form genteel were all in vain,
And of a transient date;
For, caught and caged, and starved to death,
In dying sighs my little breath
Soon pass’d the wiry grate.

Thanks, gentle swain, for all my woes,
And thanks for this effectual close
And cure of every ill!
More cruelty could none express;
And I, if you had shown me less,
Had been your prisoner still.