Life and Letters

Poet of Two Nations

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Faiz Ahmed Faiz passed on 25 years ago. A chronicle of the life of the Scotch-drinking, globe-trotting, communist, Don Juanesque poster boy of modern Urdu poetry.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz passed on 25 years ago. A chronicle of the life of the Scotch-drinking, globe-trotting, communist, Don Juanesque poster boy of modern Urdu poetry.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the most popular poet known to the independent countries of India and Pakistan. I include India because Urdu poets have long enjoyed a preponderant influence on its poetic culture, thanks in no small measure to Hindi-Urdu cinema. He also led an idealistic life of resistance, which makes him—a concept coined by Milan Kundera—the perfect example of the ‘Writer as modern Prophet’. His verse still resonates from Peshawar to Bengal, enjoying simultaneous currency in elite salons as well as grassroots revolutionary movements. You can find Faiz adorning pamphlets demanding the ‘Right to Food’ as well as helping lovers woo their beaus in elite colleges across north India. How did he become so popular, so ubiquitous and so long-lasting?

An obvious reason for that is the sheer quality of the poetry. No other modern poet has produced such a series of iconic prose poems. Kutte, Bol, Aaj Bazaar Mein, Hum Jo Tareek Raahon Mein Maare Gaye, Dil-e-Man, Lauh-o-Qalam—and this is a very quick and cursory recollection—are poems that remain alive for their quiet and confident defiance. They are both lyrical and ironic, romantic as well as rebellious. There are existential dilemmas there which still resonate. There are lamentations for choices that cannot be made, paeans for paths that must be compulsively taken. The influence of Ghalib shines through, but it is a Ghalib that has been updated for the thrusts and parries of modern life.

The combination of Farsi, which he had studied extensively, and Punjabi provided Faiz with a mellifluous diction which distinguished him from most of his peers. Words flowed with slender ease, delicately lighting up the thought. The thought was never too demanding or harsh or alienating, as was the case with some others like Noon Meem Rashid.

All the harshness of the world could be momentarily forgotten in the melody of the poetry. The effect was inescapably romantic. It was a diction most suited to writing ghazals, but the ideology of the times frowned upon ghazals and valourised the nazm—the freer, more modern form. Through most of his life, Faiz only wrote nazms. Most of his other peers from the movement—Jafri, Makhdoom, Majaz—did the same. But none had the softness of touch and the directness of emotion that Faiz did. It helped, of course, that in Urdu, the conventions and images of poetry are malleable enough to be moulded into many forms. The lover’s longing for wasl, or union, can equally easily become the Sufi’s longing for union with God or the revolutionary’s aspiration for the day of revolution. Often it is a question of what you wish to read into it—and rebellion and revolution was always read into Faiz. The lasting allure of Faiz is the attraction of the romantic revolutionary.

Faiz began writing poetry in the 1930s, a few decades after the onset of realism in Indian literature and a few decades before the onset of Modernism. Indians were graduating by the million, newspapers were thriving and popular literature had already emerged in Hindi and Urdu. The years between 1930 and 1950 belong indisputably to the Progressive Movement in Indian arts and letters. Artists felt compelled to commit themselves and their art to ensure a better world. All poetry was to hail the proletariat and serve the revolution because what was the most real—the dominance of the capitalist in every sphere—was not always most apparent. But artistes must not be content with writing, they must also turn into activists, cultural or otherwise.

So how did Progressivism become so dominant so quickly? Because the 1930s and the 1940s were internationally the decades of the Socialist movement, because under Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose the Congress party was trying to reinvent itself and align with the masses, and because radio, cinema and the documentary movement enabled new forms of communication. There were also plenty of unemployed youth around and the Communist Party of India, with membership soaring to millions, was brilliant at propaganda and attacking its opponents.

So when Naqsh-e-Fariyadi and Dast-e-Saba, Faiz’s first two poetry collections, first appeared in public in the 1940s and early 1950s, the ground was ripe for him. The innumerable literary magazines, the personal and political networks and the anti-colonial resistance made him, overnight, a star in India. There were thousands of others writing similar stuff in Hindi and Urdu, but there was none who could so appealingly and so seamlessly combine revolution with romance. None who could turn their lovers away (in Mujhse Pehle Si Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Naa Maang) by pointing to the misery and exploitation that surrounds us. Nobody who could cast such a poignant glance at the lot of clerks and their families (Aaj Ke Naam Aur Aaj Ke Gham Ke Naam), or address a rival in love (Raqib Se) and urge a sublimation in improving the world, or lament the ineffectiveness of poetry in eradicating unhappiness (Mere Humdum Mere Dost). Included also was the iconic questioning of the moment of freedom (Subah-e-Azadi) which lent gravity and pathos to the shrill slogan with which the Communist party had greeted independence (Yeh Azadi Jhooti Hai). The sentiment was not new but the sensibility was and so was the diction in which it was expressed.

Support for the Communist movement, in India and elsewhere, also deeply determined Faiz’s journey in life and in poetry. At the time of independence, the Communist Party deliberately nominated members for Pakistan to keep the movement alive there. In 1951, in what became known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, some leading intellectuals, including Faiz and Sajjad Zahir, were arrested for conspiring against the nation and imprisoned for five years. Faiz turned into a cause celebre in the Subcontinent, and beyond.

Thereafter, he had many stints in jail or in exile. But the movement, especially through the patronage and support provided by the Soviet Union, had also an international dimension. This was still the heyday of the Third World project and Faiz sang of African solidarity, celebrated Iranian students and serenaded Turkish poets and Palestinian mujahids. He was one of the early recipients of the Afro-Asian writers Conference’ Lotus Award and the International Lenin prize of the USSR. In turn, his poetry was available quite early in translations in most European, Asian and even African languages. By then, too, the great socialist historian Victor Kiernan had produced his long-lasting English translation of Faiz. The international solidarity was achieved poetically as well as through physical travel and this helped create pockets of network alliances and supporters all over the globe. After Tagore, Faiz was the second world poet produced by the Indian Subcontinent.

On the few occasions that Faiz visited India after independence, he was feted as a star. He was mobbed by politicians, singers, poets, students everywhere he went. Until the 1980s, Urdu poets enjoyed superstar status in the country. Civil society conferred a special status on them, mushairas were attended by thousands and were the salient events of the city. It is difficult to imagine today the kind of aura they commanded, an aura that is today granted to select film stars and English novelists. What this meant, in a slightly caustic vein, was that artistes of resistance had backdoor access to the corridors and vistas of power. They were fashionable, and, in spite of hailing the subaltern, sometimes quite privileged.

Therefore, the famously taciturn man who loved his Scotch, courted and loved many women, and recited his own poetry very badly, was both a prison-going revolutionary and a privileged member of society. As ghazal-singing established its dominance after the 1960s, music helped spread Faiz further.

The famous story on that relates to the legendary Iqbal Banu and her singing a short poem by Faiz in an open-air late night concert at Lahore at the height of Zia-ul-Haq’s power. The poem, Hum Dekhenge, uses religious imagery to demand an overturning of established power and the inheritance of the earth by the meek. It remains equally stirring and passionate 25 years after it was first sung.

Faiz’s Hindi selection, brought out by Rajkamal, has gone into multiple editions in less than 20 years and has sold thousands and thousands of copies. Here is one such sample from the master:

Ye dagh dagh ujala, ye shab-gazeeda sehr/Vo intezar thha jiska, ye vo sehr toh nahi (This stained light, this half-bitten dawn, Is not the dawn we had long awaited)

Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi-based writer and dastango. His book on 1857 will be published next year by Penguin.