Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review- The Diwan of Zeb-Un-Nissa

Book Review -          The Diwan of Zeb-Un-Nissa (1913)
Author-                      Princess Zebunnissa 
Translation-               Magan lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook

My last read was definitely a memorable one, for it was authored by none other than princess Zebunnissa, the erudite but hapless daughter of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. This book, a collection of 50 selected poems, was translated from Persian into English in 1913. The translation itself is in verse and is quite good. Given her father’s disgust with arts and poetry, she acquired a pen name ‘Makhfi’ that means ‘hidden’ in Persian. The original book, ‘Diwan-e-Makhfi’ was an anthology of 400 of her poems which came to light 50 years after her demise.

Princess Zebunnissa was born in 1637 to King Aurangzeb and his intellectual Persian queen Dilras Bano. However, she was exactly opposite to him in nature and temperament. While the princess was well versed in various languages, astronomy, mathematics and was an ardent lover of art and poetry, her tyrannical father had a deep disdain for such things. He famously remarked once ‘mousiqui ke murde to itna gehra gaadh do ki phir kabhi ser na utha sake’ (the corpse of music be buried so deep that it may not raise its evil hood again). How ironical! This disparity only gave her a slow and lonely death, but also some really memorable poems to the world to read and wonder about the poetic prowess of the princess for centuries to come.

She did assist her father in decisions regarding state and politics but her dark period began when her brother Akbar rebelled against Aurangzeb in 1681. Aurangzeb here played a true male-chauvinist and hypocrite; he forgave the his rebel son but jailed Zebunnissa for keeping in touch with Akbar during that period, for he considered this as a betrayal on her part. The princess was imprisoned in a Delhi fort where she spent the last years of her single life in painful solitude.

Not much is known about her romantic life but she was said to be very fond of a maid named ‘Miyan Bai’ to whom she even gifted the ‘Chauburji Gardens’, now situated in Lahore. This relationship was not only a subject of gossip but in her poems too, that affection peeps through in some verses. Sample this one:

The love of Thee the bulbul sings,
The moth that burns its silken wings
Thy love has drawn into the fire
And, see, the wine of Thy desire—
On every goblet's lip it clings.

Another paragraph of the same poem:
Thou, Makhfi, in the burning fire
Of love and unassuaged desire
Tossing in wild remorse, shalt dwell;
Love's secrets weakly didst thou tell,
So thou shalt pay with penance dire.

And see this one from another poem:
Long is my bitter tale of grief, of separation
    from my Friend,
Unfinished is it even yet, although my life has
    reached its end.

Rest of the poems, I feel, are completely devoted to Sufism and spiritual concepts like the Day- Of- Judgement, liberation, sins and repentance. Most of the verses are laden with remorse, pain and lonesomeness. Sample these (random) –

Here she accepts her pain and becomes stronger from within-

We, by our pain made brave,
Seek not despair nor hope; neither outlast
Their little day. We take but what Fate gave,
Not as Zuleikha, brooding o’er the past.

Here she talks of philosophy-

Mortals we are, and, fashioned thus of earth,
Vain, Makhfi, is this world in which we trust,
Dust is the rank of kings, the pride of birth,
    Yea, thou thyself art dust.

And yet, O Makhfi, if with eyes made clear,
    Freed from the world's illusion, thou shalt see,
Lo, the faquir's torn garments shall appear
    More regal than the robes of majesty.

Here she talks of a complete submission to God-

But here before the garden door I wait;
Why should I deem myself unfortunate?
For by Thy holy threshold shall I stay,
And with my lashes sweep its dust away.

Haply indeed, O Judge, wilt thou be kind,
    And pity in thy heart for sinners find.

So were we not, O Master, led by thee
Vain were our struggles, scant our victory!

A wilderness this lonely heart of mine
Till love transformed it to another guise,
And now it shines as fair as the divine
      Gardens of Paradise.

Here she talks of the relief prayer gives her-

Dawn comes, and despair
Has vanished before the miraculous arrows of prayer.

Though evil days are mine, of joy bereft,
    With pain that never ends,
Fate, do with me your worst, there still is left
    The Friend beyond all friends. (GOD)

Her verses also reflect a pride for her religion-

The world through Islam light in darkness saw
   And walked safe guided by thy Scroll of Law,
      Bowing to God in hope and holy awe

 O Prophet, o’er the world
Thy soul-compelling banner is unfurled:
    See how thy faith hath spread
Till Iran and Arabia are led.
    Thy lips unclose
Like petals of a newly-budded rose,
    And from them flow
Thy words of wisdom, till not only know

To Thee, first,
From the clouds of Whose mercy is born
The rose of my garden, I look!
Let the praise of Thy love the beginning adorns
    Of the verse of my book.

Most verses are colored with pain and hopelessness-

Unto the fields like pecking birds I go
To gather up the ears of golden grain,
But only tears, not corn, I gather—lo,
      They fall in floods like rain.

   Behold my luckless heart,
    So broken, so dissolved by pain,
It even flows in tears between my lashes;
      And yet how can I part
    With it, while still to me remain
Its shards—I wait till it is burnt to ashes.

 And in my desolation tears of blood
Gushed from my stricken, widowed heart in
      never-ending flood

The wine of my delight has lost its taste;
The earth of my existence turns a waste,
No wholesome grass grows there, but only weed;
My flaming spring of life has passed indeed.
I searched for joy, but never found the end;
My empty hands, outstretched, can greet no friend

O, I have drunk my cup of cherished grief,
    And love the torment of my wounded heart;
    As the scars heal I tear their lips apart,
And in my pain find rapturous relief.

The verses are beautiful, profound and tell us about the futility of transitory human life. The life of the princess was more of a tragic tale and her poems will always remind us of two things- first, of a double-faced and cruel attitude towards women, and second, that by believing in and submitting to God, we can tackle our inevitable pains.

You can check out the book here

·  The term ‘Sufi’ comes from ‘Suf’ the Persian word for ‘wool’ as those spiritual dervishes (later called Sufis) used to wear garments made only of pure wool.

·   In Sufism, God is perceived as a romantic partner but in a very pure and platonic way.


  1. Beautiful verses. But the poor lady suffered a lot. What a pity!

    1. Hi SG

      Yes, her verses are beautiful but her life was definately not

  2. Love those poems, thanks so much for sharing! She sounds like a strong woman with a hard life!

    1. Hi Katrin

      Yes, the verses are really lovely! Her life was indeed very hard

  3. beautiful poems loved them .. I love listening to sufi music so this is a good start to my day reading all this


    1. Hi Bikram

      Yes, very lovely! thanks a lot!

      Thanks again :D

  4. Beautiful poems and a great review Ankita. i feel like reading the whole book now. :)

    1. Hi Rahmath

      Thanks a lot! I am really glad that you liked the review and the verses :)

      Just go for it! I think, you will enjoy the book for sure!

  5. I liked the verses ... your review is very descriptive ... will try yo pick it up :-)

    1. Hi Amrit

      Thanks a ton! I am really glad that you liked the review :D

      You will enjoy the book, I am sure!