Adjust Font Size
t was for the first time in my life that I had seen a room ‘built’ with books. A man was sitting cross-legged in the middle of it, surrounded by his prized collection. He had become the ‘Smiling Buddha’ of my imagination. His name was Khalil-ur-Rahman Dawoodi and he was known for selling illustrated and illuminated oriental manuscripts. I had requested him to teach me the art of deciphering the cryptic calligraphic style called Shikasta, which was frequently employed by Mughal scribes. Dawoodi sahib knew all the styles of Persian calligraphy and I felt fortunate when he accepted me as his student.
On that day in the book-filled room, I pointed out that there was no heating arrangement and yet the room was warm (it was freezing cold outside). He quipped: “The heat of paper keeps our blood boiling like a cauldron.” I was young and could not resist saying: “The way the seething passion of Majnun kept him warm in the wilderness!” The Buddha figure smiled at this parallel and said, “What you have said reminds me of a verse of Zebunnisa:
‘Four things enchant my heart, what are those four things? Wine and greenery, flowing water, and the countenance of the beloved.’”
“Zebunnissa!” I said. “The one who built Chauburji?”
“Well, great controversy rages over this issue. We will talk about it in detail some other time. Where we are sitting at the moment [it was Gulshan-e-Ravi] was once the bed of the Ravi river, before it changed its course and drifted a couple of miles away to the west. The Ravi irrigated the garden of Princess Zebunnisa. She was a great patron of the arts, especially calligraphy, and was imprisoned by her father Aurangzeb Alamgir for writing affectionate letters to her brother Prince Akbar, who had rebelled against their father.” At the end of this conversation, Dawoodi gave me a photocopied set of Zebunnisa’s Diwan-i-Makhfi. (We discussed at length the controversy about the authorship of this Diwan, but I’ll tell that story some other time.)
I liked the verse so much that I kept reading it aloud on my way home. I thought that I had memorised it, so I did not commit it to my biaz or personal selection of favourite poems. When after a couple of days I tried to recall the verse, I started having doubts about a word or two in the first line and tried consulting her Diwan, but the verse was not there. This was strange.
In my next meeting with Dawoodi sahib, I recounted to him the whole episode. The Buddha figure smiled again and quoted Urdu verse: “What we have uttered is authentic!”
He asked me to fetch him a book with buff binding from the frontal wall of books. It had on it beautiful floral decorative designs. Its title read: Baharistan-i-Naz, A biographical dictionary of women poets, by Hakim Fasihuddin Ranj
Dawoodi sahib had edited and published this unique biographical dictionary. He explained its significance to me in detail. It was the first ever biographical account of women poets in Urdu and the compiler Hakim Ranj was a champion of women’s rights in 19th century British India. He widely campaigned for the provision of basic health facilities for rich and poor women alike.
Here is his entry on Makhfi from Baharistan-i-Naz, or the Vernal-garden of Coquetry:
“Makhfi was the nom de plume of Zebunnisa Begum, elder daughter of Emperor Alamgir. She was matchless in her chastity [here, with a play on words, Ranj suggests her seclusion under guard]. The brilliance of her mind reminds us of Khaqani [this comparison is striking, since Khaqani, a 12th century Persian poet, was most renowned for his prison-poems]. She was exceptional in the use of rhetorical flourishes and figures of speech. She was physically beautiful and spiritually closer to the men with an insightful heart.
Her heart was always passionate for letters and poetry and the access of her mind was par-excellence and the flight of her imagination was metaphysical. She was warm-hearted and quick-witted. In poetical battles, indeed this lady was unique among the men of her age. In poetry recitals, she would baffle the poets with her innovative disposition and cheerful imagination. She would spend her night in poetic fancy and her morning in composing verses.
Once she was strolling by flower-beds in her garden and her disposition was naturally inclined towards poetry. Emperor Alamgir happened to pass by that side and upon hearing his daughter reciting poetry, he forbade her from reading it aloud. At the same moment, a bulbul’s call caught their attention. She instantly composed an extemporaneous verse:
O ignorant nightingale! hold tight your breath in your throat
The delicate disposition of kings cannot bear poetic composition
The Emperor smiled at this verse and allowed her to continue with the poetic recitation.
Another incident: the Emperor was sitting in a baradari of his daughter’s garden with the curtains half drawn, when Zebunnisa came there for a stroll without being aware of the presence of her father. The bank of the canal, the clean water gushing from the cascades and the lush green grass inspired her poetic imagination and she instantly mused:
Four things enchant my heart, what are those four things?
Wine and greenery, flowing water, and the countenance of the beloved
When the emperor overheard her singing, he enquired her to repeat the verse before him. She instantly changed the second line and presented this modified version to the pious King:
Four things enchant my heart, what are they?
Prayers and fasts, rosary and repentance!
One day, a thought was hidden in her heart and she was repeatedly reciting this revealing line:
“My lips also do not part due to the sweetness” Then she presented this line to her contemporary poets and asked them to compose a second line complementing hers. No one could take up the challenge except Nasir Ali, who composed the following line: “As if my lip had reached the lip of Zebunnisa.”
Delighted in her heart by this matchless line, Zebunnisa pretended to have been offended by it. Showing extreme anger, she wrote this verse back to Nasir Ali: “Nasir Ali! You have sought refuge in the name of Ali, Otherwise, with Ali’s double-edged sword, I’d have cut your head.”
Over the years I have explored the primary sources for details about the love life of Zebunnisa and have never found any credibility in them. At times, scholars seem to have confused her with her aunt Raushan Ara. But at least there are hints that she had a liking for Nemat Khan Aali, whom she patronised for his poetic skills. But strangely no one has ever mentioned Aali in her list of lovers. Aali was a man of high ambitions and considerable artistic talent. Renowned for the manliness of his physical beauty and attractive features, which he owed to his native Shiraz - the legendary land of verse, wine and vineyards - Aali composed many amorous lyrics of exceptional beauty.
Once Zenunnisa expressed the desire to buy an ornament to be worn in her turban. Aali sent her the jewel from his own turban. When for a long time he did not receive reward or remuneration from the princess, he wrote the following candid verses in an epistle:
“Being in your service is the fortune of my stars
My jewel has been shown to your ladyship
You say that you want to buy this jewel from me;
If you would not buy it from me, then strike it on my head.”
There is a metaphorical play here on the meaning of jewel (it could be Aali boasting about his poetic talent, or something else). The princess immediately sent him five thousand rupees - a high price in those days for a jewel in a turban!
At Lahore once the Princess commissioned a tent made from talc for herself. When Nemat Khan Aali saw this tent, he presented her with a poem of six verses. The last line of this poem commemorated the year of the tent’s construction as 1668.
“For the date of this talcum-tent the fortune said:
Mirror-house has removed the rust of my heart.”
The second line of this verse delivers a deeper message in the garb of idiomatic play, as it could mean that the semi-transparent talcum-tent has rejoiced the poet’s heart by gratifying his desire for his beloved princess.
Sohaib Arshad lives in Lahore and Multan