The wine at night unto the morning lends
Its exaltation, morning to the night.
– From the Diwan-i-Makhfi, a compilation of writings by Zebunissa
AURANGZEB’S AUSTERITY means that music and poetry has long since been banished from the Court. Yet one group of poets manages to meet in the very precincts of the Court for hidden poetic parties. This has been made possible because they have the membership of Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter, Zebunissa, herself a poet of repute. If Zebunissa has some influence over Aurangzeb, it is well-earned. She proved to be something of a child prodigy and managed to memorize the holy book to become a Hafiz at the age of seven, an event that her father ensured was celebrated with a grand public feast at Delhi’s Great Maidan. From then on, she was instructed in mathematics and astronomy, subjects in which she quickly gained proficiency.
Her poetry caught the attention of her tutor who advised Aurangzeb to find a suitable circle of accomplished poets from all over the country, to give her artistic company. This request was surprisingly acted upon. As the mushairas play out today evening, it may very well be that Aurangzeb has chosen to look the other way. He thinks back fondly to a recent amusing exchange between his daughter and a prospective young suitor, who happened to be none other than the son of Shah Abbas of Persia. The Emperor had been told that at one point during the feast Zebunissa had arranged for him and his retinue, the prince had asked Zebunissa for a certain sweetmeat, with a name that was a convenient double entrendre. Zebunissa, quick to pick up the nuance, deadpanned that he could ask anything he wished from the kitchen.
Aurangzeb’s favour will not shine on Zebunissa for long. He will soon be informed of her complicity in helping Shivaji in his sensational escape. The last straw however will be evidence that she counselled her brother Prince Akbar in his rebellion against Aurangzeb. She will have her properties seized, pension cut off and she will be thrown into jail. There, in Salingarh Fort at the edge of Shahjahanabad, she will spend her last years. She will find solace writing poems, as she had before, under the name Makhfi (‘Hidden One’).
(*From a ghazal by Zebunissa)