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A meeting with Allama Iqbal

In Hindustan Times dated 13th October - 2007, Grand Old man Khushwant Singh, in his weekly column “With Malice Towards One and All…” wonders about religious belief of men like APJ Abdul Kalam, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Sir Mohammad Iqbal, regarding Heaven and Hell, in a piece titled Dreaming of Paradise. A line by Iqbal surprises the prolific columnist. Khushwant Singh writes:

What came as a surprise to me was poet Sir Mohammad Iqbal: He was a devout Muslim and never questioned Islamic beliefs. How do you explain these lines?

“Koi ab tak na yeh samjha keh insaan, kahaan jaata hai, aata hai kaha say?” ( No one has yet understood where man goes to after he dies and from where he comes).

Will some knowledgeable reader please enlighten me?

No, I can’t enlightening him about these lines. But, his questioning reminded me of my little tryst with Iqbal in a little room of a shanty basti at the outer periphery of a big city.

Some years ago in Nagpur, a friend of mine invited me to meet someone who he called his “chacha”. The last time I accepted his invitation, it turned out to be one of my most memorable cultural adventure. So, I accepted his offer immediately. I got on the back of his bike and during the short drive, he told me about his chacha. He didn’t actually explain how he was related to the man but he did fill in some of the details. He told me that his chacha hailed from the city of Bhopal and that in his time he used to be a rich man who owned many industrial units. My friend told me that his chacha gave it all up and, after a Hajj to Mecca settled for a meager life in the city of Nagpur. My friend parked his bike in front of a newly constructed basti with blue polythene sheets on some houses and freshly whitewashed walls, a basti that seemed to have cropped around a newly constructed green mosque. I knew that on Fridays, my friend and some other Muslim students from my college used to go to a nearby mosque to offer jumma nimaz. I found myself in front of the basti that surrounded the mosque — identifiable from its high minaret. It is a very common phenomena in India, a mosque is built and soon the community, with it high minaret and its sound of periodical azan, becomes visible to others. If there is a temple nearby, then expect a little bit competition in making the sound reach the faithful and the God/gods. Technological tools like Loudspeakers, Amplifiers, Magnetic tapes and Optical CDs, are deployed to ping the respective heavenly servers and crash the systems of unbelievers and faithful late risers.

Anyway, that is the place where I found myself on that mild winter afternoon. My friend told me that his chacha is quite a scholar on Islam and is an authority on Iqbal. Suddenly, I realized the significance of the invitation. My frequent questioning about Islam, my smartness at answering my own questions, my bragging about knowledge of Islamic history and quipping of some famous lines of Iqbal in middle of normal talks,, had finally made my friend do something about it. Since, I made my friend believe that he could not answer my question, he decided to take me to meet someone, who would explain the deep stuff.

I didn’t know what to do. Growing up I had known a lot of Muslim kids…I had recently read some books on Islam. Iqbal — I certainly knew about “Saarey Jahan se acha Hindustan Hamara” everyone knows the lines. More recently, I knew Iqbal from songs of the Pakistani Sufi rock band — Junoon. I knew Iqbal’s “Khudi ko kar buland itna”, I also knew Iqbal’s and the band’s lesser known work “Zamane Ke Andaz”. I also remembered an old article, which I read in a local newspaper of Jammu region, about Kashmiri Pandit origins of Iqbal. Finally I remembered, “Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri Zindgi shama ki surat ho Khudaya meri”, the school prayer of my father, a prayer that my father and his old friends still recount when they get together and talk about old times.

Armed with this minimum armory I entered the newly built basti. The entrance to the basti was narrow again a feature common to Muslim shanty mini townships and bastis. Protection during rioting, being one possible reason for the constricted entrance to their world. Young men were loafing around and girls were moving with their head covered in bright colored chunis. I didn’t have to walk much distance, his chacha’s house was in one of the outer cemented lanes.
As, we entered the house negotiating our way pass an old bike that stood at it’s entrance, a young man dressed in pyjamas and vest came out of the house on the inquiring call “Kaha hai sab?” of my friend. Both of them exchanged alaikum (sound crashing into my ears was walaykum) and as-salaamu alaikum. I just nodded my head and he replied with a nod. My friend introduced me as his friend from Kashmir. I again nodded my head and he nodded back. The young man asked my friend in jocular way, what happened to their deal. Why doesn’t he fix something for him? My friend replied that he would first ask chacha about the issue and proceed only after his approval. Laughing the boy went out of the house. I noticed that the room we had entered was low ceiling and dimly lit with no furniture to talk of. In Indian housing terminology popular in India, it was the Drawing Room. I was trying to figure out if the place would be cold or if it would be hot in brutal Nagpur summer, when the temperature reaches 49 degree Celsius. I couldn’t figure out, as my friend had already started speaking, “ He wants to join politics, wants to start something in this area and wants my help. I have to convince his father and then finally talk to my father to take him in. Idiot!”
My friend’s father is a minor political figure in one of the major state political party. But, he is one of the members representing the cities Muslim minority community. I had been to my friends place a few times and seen his fathers mini court sessions in progress. People coming in with complaints and ringing phones.

As we went deeper in to the house, I found his uncle, dressed in a lungi with suare prints and a hole ridden by white vest, seated on a wooden cot with a book in hand. My friend exchanged greetings alaikum and as-salaamu alaikum. I muttered out an Aadab. My friend introduced me saying, “ Aap ko bataya thana iskay baray may. Wohi hai ye. Bahut janta hai…aur jaanna Chahta hai. Iqbal...”
His uncle didn’t say anything. He picked up a thin book from a stack of books lying by his side on the cot. He opened the book, turned a few pages and began giving a feeble reading of lines written by Iqbal. At times, he would stop to explain the meaning and significance of words. At times, my friend would explain a word of Urdu that he thought I would not understand, but I kept telling him that I understood the word but I didn’t ask him to give he meaning of words that I did not understand. I was sure that we both understood the same bunch of words and not understood the same bunch of words. After a brief reading, his Uncle told us that the work of Iqbal that he was reading right now, was the one foe which Iqbal was changed with a fatawa of kufr (unbelief). I didn’t know this and was quite surprised that Iqbal could be changed with unbelief. I think the work that my friend’s uncle read out was: SHIKWA (Complaint).

He then proceeded to read Iqbal’s response to the charges titled: JAWAB-e-SHIKWA.
Questioning and Answering, I thought was not part of Islam.
After, the reading session, Chacha called aloud his “aspiring politician” son to get something to eat. While snacks were on the way, line about my Kashmir origin was repeated with me feeling a bit out of place again, and my friend and his uncle exchanged some family news. Soon my friend and me had our hands in cold samosas brought packaged in pages of old newspaper and some dried rasgullas, bought in a hurry from the nukkad ki shop. I gobbled by two samosas and two rasgullas. Rasgullas still in mouth, I rubbed fingers on my jeans to get rid of the sweet stickiness. Chacha noticed this, with a gentle gesture asked me to rinse my hands in the little bowl that earlier had rasgullas in it. He tipped a stainless steel glass held in his hand to pour water over my fingers while I had my right hand over the small stainless steel bowl.

We bid our farewells and salaams and on the way out, Chacha’s son reminded my friend of the deal. I got on my friends bike and was on my way out of that place.


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