The subcontinent has a long and rich history of Urdu poetry. Within this context, Faiz Ahmed Faiz is one of the most renowned and celebrated Urdu poets. Below, Rakesh Mani, a 2009 Teach for India fellow and regular CHUP contributor, commemorates Faiz’s 25th death anniversary with a tribute to the artist’s life and work:
Of Urdu poetry’s timeless greats, different poets are remembered for different things. While Mirza Ghalib is famous for his pining and pathos, Allama Iqbal for his patriotism, fervor and elevation to the status of Pakistan’s national poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz is still remembered as a revolutionary on the 25th anniversary of his death.
He was a humanist in the best sense of the word, and his poetry was free of any racial or religious prejudice. At every gathering, he drew large crowds and his poetry made him the center of attention. His genius was recognized early, and he was drawn into the charmed circles of Lahore’s Aesthetes Club and later, the Progressive Writers Movement.
A poet right from his teenage years, delivered this striking couplet at his very first mushaira, or poetic gathering, in Sialkot where he was studying for his Bachelors degree:
Lab bandh hain Saaqi, meree aankhon ko pilaa
Woh jaam jo minnatkash-e-sehba nahin hota
[O Saaqi, my lips are sealed. Let my eyes take a sip
Of that wine without drawing to ask for it]
After receiving a Masters degrees in English and Arabic literature, he became progressively more involved with the Communist Party. Like many of his contemporaries, Faiz’s politics was greatly influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution.
It was around this time that he met Alys. She had come to India to marry a Sikh gentleman to whom she had been engaged while he was at Sandhurst. Finding that he was already engaged to someone else, a heart-broken Alys married Faiz, and bore him two daughters: Saleema and Muneeza. Saleema married the noted Lahore professor and playwright Shoaib Hashmi, and became an artist in her own right.
At the behest of the Communist Party, Faiz then served in the British Army’s Information department in World War II. The Communists had changed their stand on the war, from opposing it to then supporting Allied action after the USSR was attacked by the Germans. His final posting saw him heading the propaganda department in Singapore.
Soon after his discharge, the Subcontinent was ravaged by Partition. The horrors of that bloody vivisection left Faiz deeply troubled and, although he decided to stay on in Lahore, he refused to accept the distinctions between the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He expressed his sorrow with another couplet:
Yeh daagh daagh ujaala, Yeh shab gazeeda sahar;
Woh intézaar tha jis ka, Yeh woh sahar toh naheen
[This blemished light, this devoured dawn;
This surely isn’t the dawn we were awaiting]
In Lahore, he distinguished himself as a journalist and edited the Pakistan Times as well as the Adab-e-Latif and Lail-o-Nihar. But an iconoclastic leftist and an apostate were not easy things to be in newly independent Pakistan. He was soon charged with treason and imprisoned for complicity in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
But Faiz’s years in Hyderabad Jail brought out some of the greatest poetry he ever wrote. Dast-e-Saba and Zindaan-Nama, two of his most acclaimed works, were produced during this period. According to Faiz, being in prison was like falling in love all over again:
Bujha jo rauzan-e-zindaan to dil yeh samjha hai
Ke teyree maang sitaron say bhar gaee hogee,
Chhamak utthey hain silasil, to hum nay jaanan hai
Kay a sahar teyrey rukh par bikhar gaee hogee
[When the light in my prison window fades and night falls,
I see your tresses, with stars shining down on the parting
When my chains sparkle in the sunlight,
I see your visage lit up with the morning glow]
He continued to write poetry through the 70s and early 80s and won the Lenin Peace Prize, the Lotus Award and several honorary doctorates. Now a doyen of the literary scene, he became a thorn in the side of the military government and outraged orthodox society by denying God openly.
But there were many grave incongruities in his personality. He championed the cause of the poor and disenfranchised through his poetry, but enjoyed the life of a wealthy man with a penchant for fine Scotches. He believed passionately in communism, but fraternized easily with the social and industrial elite.
President Ayub Khan decided that the best way to destroy Faiz’s spirit was to give him power. He appointed him President of the National Council of Arts and gave him a state bungalow. Soon Faiz succumbed to the ease of life and the pleasures of the bottle. In a chilling last poem, it seemed as though he had a premonition of his death:
Ajal key haath koee aa rahaa hai parwaanah
Na janney aaj kee fehrist mein raqam kya hai
[Death has some ordinance in its hand,
Alas, I don’t know whose names are on the list today
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