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Mainsteam, Vol XLIX, No 12, March 12, 2011

Faiz: A Tribute

Wednesday 16 March 2011

by S.M. Mehdi

Urdu can boast of many great poets—from Meer Taqi Meer of the 18th century to Josh, Firaq, Iqbal, Faiz and others of our own century. But few were recognised as great in their own life-time. Iqbal and Faiz were perhaps the only two exceptions. It may be said that Iqbal’s philosophy and his unique style were not taken up by any other poet after him. Faiz was, however, in many ways his successor. Faiz put Iqbal’s philosophy and world outlook on its feet and took from it the kernel.

Iqbal embodied in himself the urges of a resurgent Islam which was trying to rediscover its message of universal brotherhood, end of injustice and inequity, by recognising its real enemies in European imperialism and in its own ruling elite in various Muslim countries. Iqbal’s was a voice of revolt: it was a clarion call for the liberation of the Muslim peoples from the clutches of the colonialists. But there was an element of revivalism too.

Faiz felt the liberating influence of Iqbal’s message, realised that the real message was for the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the East as a whole including the Muslim countries. And there was no going back in history. The people of the East have to carve out a future for themselves, brighter than their past, more just, more egalitarian, more humane. Thus rose Faiz’s voice, the voice of Asia’s revolt, the voice of the Third World, demanding an end to foreign domination, injustice, poverty and ignorance. In Faiz’s death this resurgent Third World has lost a champion, ever so loyal and dedicated and yet so gentle and sensitive to have acquired a place of honour in the hearts of the people.

Seventythree years back Faiz Ahmed was born in Sialkot, now in Pakistan (incidentally the birthplace of Iqbal also). As was the practice at that time, Faiz was put in charge of a moulvi, well known for his learning. Later he was sent to Lahore for higher studies. He did his Master’s degree in Arabic and English and joined a college at Amritsar as a teacher of English.

He was a shy, withdrawn, soft-spoken man of few words. He had started writing poetry but few knew about it. Writing about his first meeting with Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer recalls that his colleague and friend, the well-known Communist leader Mahmudzzafar, and his charming wife, Dr Rashid Jehan, were surprised when told that Faiz was a poet.

His poetry at that stage was conventional enough, using the time-worn symbols that had become the hall-mark of Urdu poetry. But there was a freshness and one could feel the poet was groping for new paths in his search for his own idiom of self-expression.

Almost every poet faces the problem of resolving the contradictory pulls of tradition and modernity or the demands of the new age. Faiz refused to go along with those—and there were many such among contemporary poets—who regarded tradition with contempt and plunged headlong into the future without what they regarded as the moth-eaten crutches of tradition. Faiz knew that such a leap cuts off one from the people for whom one writes, and makes a mockery of the muse one proclaims to serve. He opted for a dialectical approach. He combined in his poetry all that was living and beautiful in tradition with what was liberating in modernity. The old symbols acquired new meaning in his hands.

GRADUALLY but unmistakably his poetry acquired political and social overtones. He became the gentle bard of revolution, not its trumpeteer. He joined the Progressive Writers’ Association, and in time became one of its leading lights. The Spanish Civil War and the part played by European writers in the anti-fascist struggle attracted his attention and interest. He had left Amritsar, and had joined a college at Lahore which at that time had become an important centre of radical and Marxist intellectuals and writers. His poetry assumed a new depth and a new dimension. His humanism was enriched by his historical outlook. He became one of the most popular poets of the radical youth as he gave tongue to their urge for freedom and justice:

Speak, for your two lips are free,

Speak, your tongue is still your own;

This straight body is yours still—

Speak, before its breath is gone...

This short hour is time enough,

Now till body and tongue lie dead;

Speak for truth is living yet—

Speak whatever must be said.

Teaching in a college was not enough for Faiz. He had accepted Marxism as his philosophy of life, and he knew that a Marxist must combine his theory with practice. He started working among the working class of Lahore. He got in touch with trade unions and started organising study circles for them. Later on he was to become the President of the Federation of Trade Unions of Pakistan.

Came freedom and partition and the massacre of the innocents on an unprecedented scale. The people suffered, particularly the people of partitioned Punjab, as no one had suffered before. Was this the freedom people had fought and died for?

This leprous daylight, dawn night’s fangs have mangled

—This is not that long-looked-for break of day,

Not that clear dawn in quest of which our comrades

Set out, believing that in heaven’s wide void

Somewhere must be the stars’ lasting halting-place,

Somewhere the verge of night’s slow-washing tide,

Somewhere an anchorage of the ship of sorrow.

Fiaz found himself in a new country in the making—Pakistan. He was invited to become the Editor of Pakistan Times, a paper started by Mian Iftikharuddin. This was a new and uncharted field for Faiz. But it gave him an opportunity to put forward his ideas on how to go about in the new country. He blasted the reactionary views of the ruling elite and the obscurantist mullahs. Under his editorship Pakistan Times became one of the best edited newspapers, greatly respected in the sub-continent. This was perhaps the most hectic period of his life—editing a leading daily, guiding trade unions and the writers’ movement, and of course writing poetry.

And in March 1951 he was arrested and implicated in what came to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. For a long time he was kept in solitary confinement. When finally the case came up before a special tribunal, the government prosecutor demanded death sentence for the accused. Fiaz was denied even the facility of pen and paper. They wanted to break his spirit. But he wrote:

My tablet and my pen,

My two cherished treasures

Are snatched from me,

But does it matter?

For I have dipped my fingers

In the blood of my heart;

My tonuge they sealed

But does it matter? For,

I have placed a tongue

In every link of chain

That fetters me.

A vicious propaganda was launched against him. He was declared an enemy of Pakistan and Islam. His reply was:

What if they put the candles out

That light love’s altar! Let them put out

The moon and we shall know them then.

He came out of prison in 1955—a living legend. A poet is always a hero, some sort of demi-god for the Urdu-speaking people. If his poetry touches their hearts they worship him. And here was a poet who not only gave tongue to their feelings and longings but even from the shadow of death was throwing a challenge to the oppressors, was singing of a happy tomorrow and giving courage to his people. Here indeed was a prince among poets!

After coming out of prison Faiz took an active part in the Afro-Asian Writers’ Movement and the movement for world peace. He was invited to take up the editorship of Lotus, the journal of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association.

I happened to write to him on his 70th birthday. He wrote back from Beirut from where he was editing Lotus: “To wish a long life on one’s 70th birthday is rather cruel. Akbar Allahabadi has said:

The heart has no strength left for hypocrisy,

Kindly do not pray for long life for me.

“I have not indulged in hypocrisy but my only regret is that my body is feeling the age.” (translated from Urdu)

Yes, he was getting old and was feeling it too. But Faiz refused to trade quality for quantity. He refused to slow down the pace to gain a few more days of life. He was planning to reorganise the Lotus office in Tunis. That was not to be. So what?

Others will see, if I do not, that hour

Of singing nightingale and splendid flower.

(Mainstream, December 1, 1984)

This is how my sorrow became visible:

in dust, piling up for years in my heart,

finally reached my eyes,

the bitterness now so clear that

I had to listen when my friends

told me to wash my eyes with blood

Everything at once was tangled in blood---

each face, each idol, red everywhere.

Blood swept over the sun, washing away its gold.

The moon erupted with blood, its silver extinguished.

The sky promised a morning of blood,

and the night wept only blood....

Let it flow. Should it be dammed up,

there will only be hatred cloaked in colours of death.

Don’t let this happen, my friends,

bring all my tears back instead,

a flood to purify my dust-filled eyes,

to wash this blood forever from my eyes.

[Lines on the Massacres in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), March 1971]

When we the hard working ask the world for our share,

We shall not ask for a plot of land, or one country, we shall ask for the whole world!

The mountains here, the mountains are diamonds, the seas here, the seas are pearls.

The entire booty is ours, we shall demand the entire treasure!

If the merchants, traders and dominions are a million, then we are a billion strong.
For how long shall they knock on America’s doors for life-support?

The blood that was spilled, the gardens that were plundered, the songs that were murdered in our hearts,

We shall avenge every drop, every bouquet, every song.

When everything is sorted, when all fights are over,
We shall work hard to grow, we shall eat only our bellyful.

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