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Syed Mehdi Imam: Barrister turned Bihar’s First English Dramatist

Four Generations of Eminence in Law and Academia

Mr. Syed Mehdi Imam was born in Neora (district Patna), on 18 February 1902. For four generations his family was renowned in professions of law and academia. Khan Bahadur Shamsh-ul-ulema Wahiduddin was Mr. Mehdi Imam’s great grandfather, an extremely competent and well known Sessions District Judge. He was very well respected by the government. Examining the pages of the Journal “Moore’s Indian Appeals” we find that the majority of Mr. Wahidduddin’s judgment decisions were upheld by the High Court, and of those of his rulings overturned by the High Court most were subsequently upheld on appeals.

Mehdi Imam’s grandfather Nawab Shamshul Ulema Imdad Imam had also acquired a degree in law, but never adopted law as a profession. Mehdi Imam’s father Mr. Syed Hasan Imam and his uncle Sir Syed Ali Imam were both renowned for their legal expertise and both are listed among the elite barristers of the era. It is sad that such personalities have since become rare amongst the Muslims.

An Oxford Professor with 4 Imam family members, all of them Barristers. Sir Ali imam, his sons Naqui and Reza Imam from Cambridge and his nephew Mehdi Imam from Oxford University.
An Oxford Professor with 4 Imam family members, all of them Barristers. Sir Ali imam, his sons Naqui and Reza Imam from Cambridge and his nephew Mehdi Imam from Oxford University.

From Oxford to Legal Eminence in India

At a young age Mehdi Iman was sent by his father Hasan Imam to England for his education. He began his early education at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford. When he was eight years old he began to learn Greek. With the benefit of this language he now had the opportunity to study Classical Greek Literature. After Greek he began to study Latin, in which he quickly became proficient. Completing his forms (classes) in 1915 he was admitted to the famous Harrod’s Public School.

He then went on to the Oriel College, Oxford University from where he graduated with a BA degree with high honors. Because of his deep interest and proficiency in the Greek and Latin languages he achieved the “Literae Humaniores” grade in the subject of Humanities; which is the highest academic grade awarded to scholars of these languages; an honor that has been granted to only a few Indians by the Oxford University.

Proficiency in Law was a family tradition inherited by Mehdi Imam. During that era a law degree was an established bench mark of higher education. So he busied himself in studying law and completing his studies becoming a barrister in 1925. From 1925 to 1957 Mehdi Imam practiced law in the Patna High Court. Thus he was engaged for quite a while in this profession and became renowned in it. His strength of character was exemplary and he never took up the case of a client who lied or was otherwise apparently dubious. Mr. Mehdi Imam was appointed the legal counsel to the Bihar Government, a position he relinquished in 1946 when the movement for national independence was at its peak.

Syed Abdul Aziz in the Public Life of Patna, From 1885 to 1948

Loss of a Promising Son in Mehdi Imam’s Life

Mr. Mehdi Imam was married to the daughter of Justice Sir Syed Fazal Ali. She bore him two children; a girl and a boy. The boy was intelligent, well mannered and a good student. On his return from England after getting his barrister’s degree at a young age, he died under very tragic circumstances (see translator’s note 1). His grief over this loss was one which Mehdi Imam could never overcome for the rest of his life. The boy’s mother too was extremely affected over this tragedy. I never had the courage to ever express my own condolences to Mehdi Imam over his young son’s loss.

Syed Mehdi Imam with uncle Syed Ali Imam
Syed Mehdi Imam with uncle, Sir Syed Ali Imam

A long time afterwards when Mehdi Imam himself began to talk longingly about his son, then I said to him that if the “Persecuted Imam” could bear the death of his infant son as he lay cradled on his own lap, then he too should bear this great catastrophe as per “acceptance of Fate”. After hearing my comment Mehdi Imam became silent for a while. On another occasion I observed Mehdi Imam going into a similar state of grief so I recited to him this couplet from Ghalib:

“Begangee-e-Khalq se be dil na ho Ghalib
Koyee nahin tera, to meri Jaan! Khuda hai”

Do not despair over the strangeness of the world
Even though no one is there for you, there is God, my beloved!

He asked me to translate the couplet into English and then he said that keeping in mind these thoughts from Ghalib, he would write a poem in English. I do not know if he was ever able to write his poem. I am very sad to state that Mehdi Imam’s writings and documents were mostly lost.

Literary Pursuits

Mehdi Imam had translated all 30 sections (paras) of the Quran into a poetry form in English. Every now and again he would recite these to me in his very special way. Because it was his passion that the English translation be as accurate as possible to the original Arabic, he would take his manuscripts to Dr. Syed Sadruddin, the Professor of Arabic in Patna College for review. Mehdi advised Dr. Syed Sadruddin of extreme diligence to ensure that the translation was as close as possible to the original Quran. Dr. Syed Sadruddin simply kept the manuscript with him, and after a while passed away. This way a valuable literary asset was lost.

Mehdi Imam performed the Pilgrimage to Mecca in 1965, and also visited the city of Medina. On his return to India he wrote a book in English, “Flight to Mecca”. This book adequately explains his religious sentiments. Love of God and His Messenger is evident in all his writings. Mehdi Imam read out portions of his book to me. To this day, I am unable to fathom how this priceless manuscript vanished. Even his wife could tell me nothing about this.

Syed Hasan Imam, President of Indian National Congress who represented India at the League Of Nations

“Poetry of the Invisible”

For a long time very few people knew that Mehdi Imam had a deep interest in language and literature and was very fond of English poetry. In 1937 he published his collection of poems which comprised both poetry as well as philosophy. The collection was named “Poetry of the Invisible”.

His poems have elements of Sufi philosophy and the language is so compelling that one wants to read these over and over again. Some portions of this collection were written during his sojourn in Kashmir. His secretary, Babu Harihar Parshad Singh, who was with him during his tour of Kashmir, recounts that Mehdi Imam would often be awake all night writing this book. It amazed me as to how he had the capacity to put in such an effort. Babu Harihar was an acquaintance of mine and he went away to live in England a long time ago, and I am not even sure if he is still in the realm of the living.

Philosopher, Patriot, and Spiritual Seeker

The second book written by Mehdi Imam and published in English, was “Scenes from Indian Mythology”. This book revealed his deep knowledge of Indian Mythology. Everyone was astounded how a person who spent most of his life alienated from the Indian milieu could write a book like this. When most regions of the world were engulfed in the fire of the Second World War, his second book “The Drama of Prince Arjun” was published in English . In this book Mehdi Imam has expounded the vital aspects of the philosophy of the Bhagwad Gita very well. From his writings it is very evident that he was fully acquainted with the philosophy of the Bhagwad Gita.

In his youth Syed Mehdi Imam lived in an era when positive viewpoints were all very explicit and adopted. The quest for knowledge, spirituality, nationalism, patriotism, all such emotions were widespread in the nation and were becoming very influential (on the generation). The whole world was becoming aware of the new movements in India. Mehdi Imam’s personality was also consistently progressive. He was not only a scholar, but also a patriot. In 1957, when he gave up his practice at the Patna High Court, a very novel aspect of his personality came to light. He went to stay at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The yearning for the true dedication of life; an aspect of his personality concealed till that time was now evident. As long as he was a resident at the Shri Aurobindo Ashram, he was oblivious to the tumult of the world around him.

Shakespearean Inspiration

Syed Mehdi Imam was also deeply influenced by Shakespeare’s plays. He even visited Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of this great poet and playwright and it was from here that he started his journey on his most important work; the series named “Savitri” comprising of five volumes. The first volume of Savitri was published in 1980. In this work (Savitri) Mehdi Imam touched the very pinnacle of literary and philosophical excellence.

There is much deep thought in these works because Savitri is not merely a fictional character but the vision and ideal of Sri Aurobindo. It is the Light of Righteousness and a philosophy which means that one must allow the divine illumination to enter one’s mind and allow it to change one’s self. Nonetheless Mehdi Imam’s human values were not superficial but an expression of his beliefs. His writings describe a way of life for the future generations, which will emerge as their own brightest Truth.

Syed Mahmud – A Great Nationalist

In the latter period of his life Mehdi Imam travelled to a number of countries. Wherever he went he lectured on Indian poetry and philosophy. In this stage of his life he confined himself (to his writings) and retreated to his own world of spirituality and philosophy. This was the world surrounded by piles of books, where he sought refuge, and it was these books that were his solace from his grief. He was a one-of-a-kind intellectual whom society did not fully understand, and whose recognition was beyond the ability of the average person.

Final Days and Literary Legacy

His last days were fraught with ill health and other troubles. Only his faithful valet, Faqir Mohammed, remained with him till the very last. When his illness became severe he was admitted to the Patna Hospital where he died on March 19, 1987. He was interned in the premises of his own house Nasheman.

Most of Mehdi Imam’s other writings were never printed, and exist only as references in many of his other books. One of his essays worthy of mention and close analysis is “Secrets of the Gita and the Vedas”. This exceptional document was present in his personal library. Apart from this there are many other books on various topics which are fine examples of his literary talent and his profound intellect. Whenever I would pass by “Nasheman” (see translator’s note 2), I would recall the fond memory of Syed Mehdi Imam and all his qualities. With my heart refreshed I would wish him ‘Salam Alaikum’ as I moved on .

Grave of Syed Mehdi Imam
Grave of Syed Mehdi Imam
Translator’s Note:

1. Faizy died when jumping off a diving board in the Bankipur Club swimming pool. It is unclear why he did not surface after his dive. It is believed that the pool end was too shallow for a vertical high dive and he hit his head on the swimming pool floor. This knocked him out and he drowned. There was a pool side party going on and nobody noticed he did not surface until it was too late.
2. Mehdi Imam’s house “ Nasheman” no longer exists. The building was demolished around 1998. Mehdi Imam’s grave was dug up to make way for a mall that now exists over the premises.

(From the book “Yeh Dastan Meri..” by Dr. Iqbal Husain
Translated by Reza Sami, great grandson of Syed Hasan Imam)

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