Allama Iqbal: As M D Taseer remembered him

And in whatever he uttered, right or wrong, he was unmistakably sincere. There was no deliberate display of intellec­tual fireworks, no attempt at stage effects, no argument for the sake of argument. With all his great learning, he was very tolerant of counter-argument, and was always open to conviction.

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(Following is the text of a talk by M. D. Taseer broadcasted on Radio from Lahore, a few hours after the death of Mohammad Iqbal (Allama Iqbal) was reported in April 1938. Taseer was husband of Chritobel George, later Bilquis Taseer, whose other sister Alys married Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Taseer’s nikah-nama was drafted by Allama Iqbal. Taseer was a prominent Progressive writer of Urdu like Faiz. His son Salman Taseer was a Governor in Pakistan and assassinated in 2011. Salman fathered a son, Aatish Taseer, with Indian columnist Tavleen Singh. )

When  I met Iqbal for the first time, I was just a kid. The seniors who were taking me with them tried hard to make me realise the greatness of the occasion. ‘You are going to be presented to Iqbal,’ said one in an awe-struck whisper. Not that I was particularly unpresentable. But you know the ways of seniors. How they try to patronise and generally fail. But in my case they almost succeeded in making me run away from the ordeal. There were so many don’ts, so many things which I might possibly do and shouldn’t.

But the house — an upper-story flat in Anarkali Street, Lahore — did not look at all terrifying. Our house was bigger. And was this Iqbal ? Well, the headmaster of my school was certainly more awe-inspiring. Iqbal was sitting on a charpai, legs doubled up, and the tube of a hubble-bubble in his hand. And when he spoke, he spoke in Punjabi, not in English like my headmaster, not even in Urdu like my Persian teacher. I was at once put at ease. Iqbal, I decided, was one of those rare creatures amongst seniors — a human being. His conversation was completely disarming. He talked to all of us as equals. Even I was included in the conversation.


Learning that I had some supposed predilections towards poetry he at once started a discussion on contemporary poetry. I could not believe it. He was not trying to talk down to me. He had none of the patronising tricks of seniors. He seemed to be really anxious to know my opinion. ‘Which contemporary poets do you like best ?’ he asked me—yes, me, and not the others. I said ‘Akbar’, and waited for a big flare-up. For Akbar Allahabadi was supposed to be Iqbal’s great rival. And in our school there were two parties, two rival factions, Iqbalites and Akbarites who had, sometimes, quite serious fights over these two poets. Only a week previously I had received a black eye from a follower of Iqbal. But Iqbal seemed to be pleased at my reply. He was genuinely pleased, for there was no humbug about him. He said, ‘I am glad you like Akbar. He is, undoubtedly, the greatest of contemporary poets — the contemporary poet indeed. For he is a true representative of this period of transition.’ And Iqbal expressed himself so simply, so vigorously, that I seemed to understand and feel all that he wanted to convey. I felt it was a personal message for me. And this always remained a great secret of Iqbal’s conversational power. He always talked to you directly, took your personal problems and opinions seriously, and out of the material that he made you yield, he built up a superstructure of thought which was very unlike your own and very much like Iqbal’s. And it was generally a remarkable superstructure. And you, somehow or other, felt that you were a co-builder, a collaborator of Iqbal. You felt you had contributed something important to Iqbal’s conversation. This was not a clever trick of his. He was too genuine to employ any deliberate tricks. It was an unusual degree of modesty which made his conversation so impressive. ‘Silence and modesty’, writes Montaigne, ‘are very valuable qualities in conversation.’ And Iqbal possessed both. Even when the discussion of a serious problem was at its highest and hottest, he had cool flashes of silence which would always save the discussion from becoming too wilful and wordy, and make it a serious search after truth. His silences were always noticeable. It is true that the people who went to visit him were generally so much full of hero-worship and consequently tongue-tied, that Iqbal had to talk on as if forever; but when you heard him you wished him to talk on forever. And yet he never went on in a monologue. He provoked both thought and talk. He did not stun you with scholarship, or dazzle you with brilliance. It was not as Gay said, ‘With thee conversing I forget the way’, but as Milton said:‘With thee conversing I forget all time.’ And even when the conversation was about time and space and relativity, he talked so interestingly that the heaviness of the subject did not weigh upon the listeners. Not that he talked indiscriminately to everyone about abstruse subjects and nothing else. He was a true democrat in social intercourse. Everyone was welcome to his house at any time. And he would talk, not talk down, according to the interests and intelligence of the listeners.


People would come to him seeking advice about almost anything. That he was once awakened in the small hours of the morning by the anxious relatives of a sick man who could not be made to understand that the famous doctor was not a doctor of medicine — is a well-known anecdote. But people came with requests no less preposterous. And almost always they returned with some bit of hope in their hearts, a sparkle of optimism in their eyes. I remember a shoemaker of Lahore who wanted to know from Iqbal how he could have a child. ‘I have married twice,’ he wailed, ‘ but the tree of my life is as dry as ever.’ Iqbal quite patiently and pleasantly listened to his tale of woe, talked to him knowledgeably about his trade, how the advent of English shoes had affected it and how the different styles of Indian shoes from Peshawar to Delhi reflected the charac­teristic qualities of the people who wore them. And then he told him a story about himself. ‘ I myself he said, ‘ did not have a child for about twenty years, though I, too, had married twice. And one day a wounded pigeon fluttered into the courtyard of our house. The two women in the house nursed it so diligently that in a few days it was able to fly freely. ‘Now you will get a child’, I said to them, because you have proved to Nature that you are fit to bring up children.’ I said it and forgot it, but later. I found that my prophecy had come true. This Javed – Javed — come here — is my son. The other son died with his mother. So you should not lose patience. Remember a loving husband and wife have a greater chance of having children than those who are always quarrelling.’ The shoemaker went away happily and I am sure that for a week or two at least he did his best to avoid unnecessary quarrels. 


It was not merely the personal anecdote which did the trick. Though it did establish a sort of personal contact between Iqbal and the shoemaker. But the gentle tone in which he spoke, the serious way in which he listened to the poor man’s story, the simplicity of the surroundings (the great philosopher-poet sitting on the charpai with the eternal huqa in his hand, talking gravely in Punjabi about the shoe trade), all this combined to create the atmosphere which made Iqbal’s residence the rendezvous of all and sundry. It was truly a cosmopolitan gathering. Revolutionaries and spies, religious fanatics and atheists, traders and mystics, people of all professions and creeds gathered around him, and dipped their cups into the sparkling stream of his conversation and took away the nectar according to the measure of their cups. As he himself said in Persian: 

It is a tavern and all are welcome here 

Your share of wine depends upon the measure of your cup. 

And sometimes he had very strange visitors. It was late on a winter’s night and Iqbal was in a light-hearted mood. We were reciting the pick of rather risky verses of old Persian masters. It was a very intimate scene. All of us were squatting on a thick Persian carpet, with pistachio nuts and almonds before us. And in came a wild looking young man who, after greeting all of us, but staring at Iqbal all the time, sat down a little removed from us. We went on talk­ing in the same strain as before. For Iqbal would never even pretend to maintain the dual role of public and private life. He was so expressive that he kept no secrets, his or others’. And he never posed before the public. So the recitation of risky verses went on and the young man sat silently. Iqbal did not ask him who he was and why he had come. He very seldom did. He left it to the other party to approach the subject, at leisure. An hour after, Iqbal inquired whether he wanted any food. The young man said he would take it if he were allowed to have it where he was sitting. We left at about two in the morning and the young man at about three, when Iqbal retired to his bedroom. All the time he did not speak more than a word or two. Nobody knew who he was and why he had come. He was all the time looking at Iqbal and said nothing. He had come to see Iqbal and having seen him, he went his way. Iqbal knew very well that silence is sometimes more eloquent than words. This is a favourite theme of his in his Persian lyrics. And just as all of his poetry is not full of intense emotion, or deep philosophical thought, just as many of his quatrains and odes are full of witty epigrams as well as lyricism, in the same manner even his most serious conversation sparkled with witticism. But the victim of his witticism would have been the last to resent it. For Iqbal would never let resentment take root in his soul. And his satire was corrective, not destruc­tive. Extravagant though his banter some­times became, there was not the slightest desire to injure or hurt. Once when he learnt that he had inadvertently hurt the feelings of somebody, he was so sincerely apologetic that it was he who appeared to be the injured party. But he was uncompromising in exposing the humbug of the big bosses. There his righteous anger overcame his good humour. He could never compromise with tyranny.


It was said of Goethe that he was as great a conversationalist as a poet. It was no less true of Iqbal. But unfortunately he had no Eckennann, no Boswell. I have never listened to conversation so varied, so vital, so stimulating. Up to his last days he discussed world problems with all the zest of youth and the depth of ripened age. I have an ever-haunting image before my eyes. It was a few days before he died. He looked physically finished: face battered by pain, deeply hollowed cheeks, rings of wrinkles around the eyes, and swollen feet. The doctors had given their final verdict. But his eyes burnt bright with the full fervour of life. And every now and then a smile would steal up from his tightly compressed lips to his eyes and would spread all over his face. And his talk was all about the future: the coming world war, the future of the Con­gress, his coming publications. He was more alive, in the real sense of the term, than you and me and thousands like us are who eat and breathe and sleep and go on just existing. Suddenly a paroxysm of asthmatic coughing held him in its grip. His whole body was doubled up. His head bent for­ward and rested on a pillow. And from thence darted forth an eager question: ‘What do you think of this Anschluss, this German putsch over Austria? Don’t you think the barbaric principle of Fascism is in ascendancy these days?’ He was keenly alive to world conditions and his analysis of the political situation was as penetrating as ever. And in whatever he uttered, right or wrong, he was unmistakably sincere. There was no deliberate display of intellec­tual fireworks, no attempt at stage effects, no argument for the sake of argument. With all his great learning, he was very tolerant of counter-argument, and was always open to conviction. I sometimes think that quite often I, in expressing a difference of opinion, became too vehement. But he was, as ever, indulgent and encouraging. And he never lost his sense of humour. 

His talk was like a stream which runs 

With rapid change from rocks to roses 

It slipped from politics to puns 

It passed from Mahomet to Moses. 

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