You would think an aging person unanimously chosen, nay forced, to lead several factions from various regions, cultures and even agonistic religions in an underdog war against the might of the Empire, in its full glory, would be the stuff of legends, considering how many Star Wars and superhero spinoffs permeate our waking moments these days. And yet hardly anyone remembers Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India.
And yet I am not here to correct the annals of history (William Dalrymple has already done the world that favour) but rather to speak about Bahadur, the man, Zafar, the poet. So you didn’t know he was a poet, you don’t say!
Zafar lived in the times of Ghalib and Zauq, two of the biggest names in Urdu Shayari which, of course, Zafar himself was instrumental in promoting. But despite living in the shadow of giants (a theme with his life, it seems), he was no mean pen-pusher himself (being trained by Zauq, the court poet himself) and tackled and improved upon some of the hottest themes and images in ghazals of the time:
kyA hogA rafu-gar se rafu merA garebAn ae dast-e-junoon tu ne nahin tAr bhi chhoDA
Pining lovers tearing their clothes off in a fit of passion and jealousy was a common theme. Zafar hits the hyperbole out of the park by saying he has ripped his to such shreds that there’s not even a thread left to stitch.
marg hi sehat hae us ki marg hi us kA ilAj ishq kA bimAr kyA jAne davA kyA cheez hae
While Ghalib famously said that pain beyond limit becomes its own medicine, Zafar is beyond the point of caring for medicine and recommends slow sweet death as panacea! What was most striking for me when I read Zafar for the first time, however, was the softness of his sorrow. In a field (led by Ghalib again, who else!) where chest thumping, self-patting and gore was the order of the day in romantic ghazals, Zafar comes across as a breath of soothing air, a balm on lovers’ rent chests!
What king, let alone the Emperor of the greatest of all kingdoms, India, would speak with this humility to the woman of his dreams, begging for his daily wages of insults!
gAliyA tankhvAh thahri hae agar baT jAegi Ashiqo ke ghar miThAi lab shakar baT jAegi
Zafar was an unwilling emperor, the crown thrust on his sensitive head! Before his accession, he lived like a pauper, unlike his three royal brothers. In 1828, a decade before he succeeded the throne, Major Archer had this to say of Zafar – “His appearance is that of an indigent munshi or teacher of languages”.
itnA miliye khAk me jo khAk me DhunDe koi khAksAri khAk ki gar KhAk sAri rah gai
In the words of the simple king himself, be so humble that if someone searches for your ashes in the dust, let them find only dust! So in a way, it is fitting then, that the victorious Emperor (Zafar means victor) is lost to time.