Book Review: The Life & Poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar by Aslam Parvez

By Najmul Hoda

shah zafarTitle: The Life & Poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar

Author: Aslam Parvez

Translated by: Ather Farouqui

Publisher: Hay House

Price: Rs 172

To buy

“Do gaz zameen bhi na mili…”: Bahadur Shah Zafar in the Time of Qabristan and Shamshan

Ather Farouqui has translated The Life & Poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar by Aslam Parvez. This is as good as translation gets. Textual integrity does not mar the flow of the narration.

I read this book in the Urdu original. Long back, in 1996, when in JNU. So, when I read Dalrymple’s bestseller, The Last Mughal, in 2006, there was a sense of having been there and done that, which made me wonder whether Dalrymple’s would still be such a roaring success if this one had already been available in English. This book is not only the spine and skeleton but also the muscle and sinews which Dalrymple fleshed out rather sumptuously in his book. He acknowledged as much. This, and Zaheer Dehlavi’s chronicles of the Great Uprising, and a slew of Urdu newspapers, published from Delhi, first sourced by Aslam Parvez, beside the elegies of the failed uprising such as Rashid ul-Khairi’s and Khwaja Hasan Nizami’s et al.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, above all, came to embody and symbolise the civilisational unity, cultural continuity and political integrity of India at her darkest hour. The moment when she refused to go gentle into that dark night, and raged, raged against the dying of the light. This is a requiem to what India was and a lamentation of what she could have been. Her aborted potential. It vividly captures the degeneration that had set in and the embers that still glowed under the heaps of ashes of the fire that was once the light and warmth of a vibrant civilisation. No wonder that the greatest cultural efflorescence since the age of Bhakti and Khusrau took place in the first half of the 19th century. Zafar presided over it, and Ghalib was its most luciferous star. Its sun. The greatest gift of the Indo-Islamic culture. The milky marbles of Taj Mahal may pale someday, but Ghalib will keep shining brighter with each passing day as humanity delve deeper into the depth of their soul and expand the horizons of their mind.

This book is not only about Bahadur Shah ii, the Emperor of India—titular, nominal, but Emperor nevertheless—de jure, legitimate, the source of legitimacy, the focus of national emotion, the trigger of imagination and the magnet for the centripetal impulses—all so vividly displayed in the swan song of the old order which was denied the opportunity to renew and regenerate itself. We see decay, degeneration, debilitation and decrepitude. It breaks the heart to see the Emperor of India grovelling before his servant, the Governor General, for a hike in his stipend. The palace machinations, as they always are, incite a sense of loathing.

But that’s not all. The book is also about Zafar, the poet. Every Mughal Emperor, from Babur to Zafar, had been a poet, litterateur and scholar. Polyglots and polymaths. Multi-lingual poets. Prof. Manager Pande’s book, Mughal Badshahoń ki Hindi Kavita, is a good testimony to that bright tradition. Even Aurangzeb, the prosaic and puritan, wrote commendably good poetry in both Persian and Braj. But the first and the last have been the best. If Babur Nama is a timeless classic, a memoir which ranks with The Confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, Zafar’s poetry, too, has stood the test of 150 years—time enough to qualify a piece of literature as a classic. Many of his couplets have been immortalised by their universal appeal, popularity and poignancy pertaining to the pathos of his life and situation.
For example,

“Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye;
Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-e yaar meiń”,
“Ya mujhe afsar-e shahana banaya hota;
Ya mera taj gadayana banaya hota”,
“Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi;
Jaisi ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi to na thi”.

And then, there is that heart wrenching ghazal which, though Muztar Khairabadi’s, is often ascribed to Zafar because of its uncanny pertinence to his situation,

“Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hooń, na kisi ke dil ka qarar hooń;
Jo kisi ke kaam na aa sake maiń wo ek musht-e ghubar hooń…”.

There is another. The reverse of this obverse,

Khuda ke waaste zahid utha na parda Kaabe ka;
Kahiń aisa na ho yań bhi wahi kafir sanam nikle”.

This is Zafar’s, but generally believed to be Ghalib’s. Maybe, because of its supremely high quality, and also because there is a very well-known ghazal by Ghalib in the same metre and rhyme,

“Hazaroń khwahisheń aisi ke har khwahish pe dum nikle;
Bahut nikle mere armaan lekin phir bhi kum nikle…”.

That a couplet of Zafar could be mistaken as Ghalib’s is the ultimate tribute to his oeuvre and virtuoso.

The greatest service that this book does to Zafar’s memory is to lay to rest the mendacious figment invented and propagated by Muhammad Hussain Azad, in Aab-e Hayat—a book which is neither a Tazkirah nor Tanqeed—that Zafar’s poetry was ghost written by Zauq, the poet about whom Ghalib said, “bana hai Shah ka masahib phire hai itrata“. Zafar had already published the first of his five divans before he employed Zauq as his ustad, more as a matter of literary convention than to actually improve upon his writings or, worse, to ghost-write for him.

After his defeat, capture and exile to Rangoon, Zafar never wrote a word. He was denied pen and paper. The poet that he was, he must have dipped his finger in his bleeding heart to write “junooń ki hikayaat-e khooń chakań.” But they were buried with his mortal remains, in 1862, in an unmarked grave, in a qabristan far away from his koo-e yaar.

The author is a high-ranking IPS officer. These are his personal views.