I do not believe that I am qualified to write on Faiz Ahmed Faiz. But the memory of a long ago Moscow afternoon tempts me. As a young diplomat existing somewhere at the edge of the embassy, I could not believe the phone call from the multilingual and multi-talented Amina Ahuja, who happened to the Ambassador’s wife. “Come with me,” she said, “we will go and meet Faiz sahib.”
I could only ascribe the immense honour to an incident when, listening to some ghazals of Faiz at a colleague’s house, she had noticed that I knew some lines by heart.
Soon I found myself being whisked away in unaccustomed elegance to the edge of the city, then through birch forests, to the immaculate green lawns of a hospital meant for those who mattered. A committed Marxist, Third World internationalist, poet of the oppressed and winner of the Lenin Peace Prize, Faiz was entitled to be there.
A walk down a long corridor and we were in the warm presence of the master, recuperating in his room with wife Alys at his bedside. I forget the exact conversation but, in a few minutes, Faiz had gotten up from the bed and we all walked out into the lawns, perhaps so that he could light his ever-present cigarette. And there he proceeded to recite some of his new poems…
I did not fully realise then how weak and tired he was, ailing between his days in Beirut and his final return to Lahore. A boyish smile still lit up his deeply lined face, a denial of the sadness in his eyes. In a year and a half he would be dead. Today I rue the carelessness of youth that makes us think that life and people are forever…else even in a non-digital age, there should have been a camera or, more important, a tape recorder.
The memory settles back into the comfortable crevice created by 25 years and I listen once again to an invaluable recording in his own voice — his deep, resonant, rhythmic, rasping smoker’s voice — as he recited his poems for Dr. Shaukat Haroon, believed to have been his Muse for several of them, under the shade of a huge banyan tree at her residence in Karachi.
The famous Gul-on mein rang bhare, baad-e-naubahar chale/chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka karobar chale (Bring the flowers to bloom, let the spring breeze blow/Come, my love, and rouse the garden from its sleep), sung to perfection by Mehdi Hassan, is believed to have been written for Shaukat Haroon.
Loves and passions
As of course the eulogy that he wrote when he locked himself in a hotel room in the immediate grief of her death: Chand nikley kisi janib teri zebai ka/rung badle kisi surat shab-e-tanhai ka (Let the moon of your beauty rise from some quarter/and change the mood somehow of this lonely evening).
There were other loves and passions too as he revealed in an unusual interview with Amrita Pritam, including an unexpressed love at the age of 18. Faiz let that experience flow into the poems in his first collection: Naqsh-e-Faryadi, including the immensely evocative verses in which the poet addresses his rival:Tu ney dekhi hai vo peshani, vo rukhsar, vo hont/ Zindagi jin ke tasawwur mein luta di ham ne/Tujh pe utthi hain vo khoi hui sahir ankhen/ Tujh ko malum hai kyun umr ganwa di ham ne. (You who have known that cheek, those lips, that brow/ Under whose spell I fleeted life away/You whom the dreamy magic of those eyes/ Has touched, can tell where my years ran astray.)
But his real love was Alys, an English girl who came to India in the 1930s, already a member of the Communist party. In Faiz she found a soul mate. Theirs was to be a friendship and partnership of four decades, through thick and thin, through Faiz’s imprisonment and self-exile. As Faiz told Amrita Pritam: “Alys is not just my wife, but my friend as well. This has made life bearable for me. There is intense pain in love, but friendship is peace.”
Faiz’s words in his own voice can cast a strange spell can create a mood which reaches deep into the soul, leave behind visions and images, and a smouldering fire. That is why I have kept this recording at hand for years, much like Faiz himself never slept without Diwan-e-Ghalib by his bedside.
“No one can say he has read enough of Ghalib,” said Faiz. He adapted Ghalib’s belief of expanding the particular to the general, to feel the sense of oneness with humanity expressed in Ghalib’s couplet: Qatray main dajla dikhain na day, aur jaz mein kul/ Khel larkon ka huwa, deeda-e-beena na huwa. (Unless the sea within the drop, the whole within the part/Appear, you play like children; you still lack the seeing eye.)
Romance and politics, sensuous lyricism and fiery passion, mingle inextricably in Faiz’s poetry. “The true subject of poetry is loss of the beloved,” he wrote but, in his case, the “beloved” could mean a lover, country, freedom, even revolution. He had grown up in the intellectual ferment after World War I, the wave of romanticism, the hopes of the October revolution, the emergence of a working class, the stirrings of nationalism. He had seen economic hardship, sleeping often on an empty stomach.
It was inevitable that social realism changed his poetic vision from the purely romantic and he became a founding member of the Progressive Writers’ Association. This transformation is best encapsulated by the famous Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na mang (Love, do not ask for that love again) in which he goes on to say “our world knows other torments than of love, and other happiness than a fond embrace.”
Incidentally, after listening to Noor Jehan sing this ghazal, Faiz immediately gifted it to her and thereafter would not even recite it, saying that it belonged to her.
Sympathy with oppressed
After the Partition of the sub-continent, after what he called the “pockmarked light” of Independence, after the “the dawn stung by the night”, he became editor of Pakistan Times in Lahore but was soon imprisoned in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case.
Prison walls could not contain the fire in his heart and mind: “If ink and pen are snatched from me, shall I/ Who have dipped my finger in my heart’s blood complain-Or if they seal my tongue, when I have made/ A mouth of every round link of my chain?”
The five years in prison, besides adding glamour to his persona, produced some of his best poetry, in praise of freedom, in sympathy with the oppressed of the world, as he felt the restless breeze go past his prison and wondered what havoc had been wrought in the garden beyond (Chaman mein ghaarat-e-gulchin se jaane kya guzri/Qafas se aaj saba be qaraar guzri hai).
And for readers of this column, Faiz’s writing method would be of interest. Here it is in his own words: “I do not really know how one writes. Sometimes while reading a book, a phrase or a sentence or an image or a rhyme sticks in the mind, and ultimately, ends up in a poem. At times, while listening to music, a certain note or a certain rhythmic pattern leaves a deep impression. A ghazal first requires the emergence of a rhyming scheme in one’s consciousness. One builds on it. For a nazm, one has to think. A line comes first and then you think of the pattern of the poem. It is like an artisan at work. It has to be built. You have to get it into focus. The basic image must be in sharp focus. You have to match things. The music has to be right. No false notes.”
And there were none.