You don’t have to be a connoisseur of Urdu poetry to appreciate Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the poet who lived from 1911-1984, and whose centenary celebrations are just beginning to wind down. Faiz’s poems are part of the architecture of the minds and hearts of millions of people in this subcontinent. Can one think of the pain of Partition without the words from “Subh-e Azadi 1947” – “Yeh dagh dagh ujala, yeh shab guzida sahar (This stained light/ This night-bitten dawn)”? Or of the defiance of revolution without thinking of Iqbal Bano sweetly singing the fiery lyrics of “Hum Dekhenge” at a huge stadium concert in Lahore during the Zia dictatorship, and the audience ecstatically responding with cries of “Inqilab Zindabad”? Can anything express the bittersweet pain of separation from one’s beloved better than the ethereal “Dasht-e Tanhai”?
“In an article I wrote [last year] I mischievously suggested that Faiz rather than Iqbal is Pakistan’s national poet,” said Ali Madeeh Hashmi, Faiz’s grandson and the author of a new biography on the poet titled The Way It Was Once. Predictably, Hashmi’s suggestion caused something of a furore. Faiz was always critical of the policies of the Pakistani state and spent many years in prison and exile. Yet he wrote about his country (and the world) not with the pedantry of an ideologue or the rhetoric ofa nationalist zealot, but with the tenderness of a lover. “Faiz used to say, ‘Main to kabhi vahid ka sidha istemal nahin karta,” said Hashmi in a conversation over Skype from his Lahore home. “He never used the first person singular. It was never ‘I’, always ‘we’. ‘Hum.’ This was not because he had a big ego, but because he always wanted to think about the collective.”
The Way It Was Once is one of the few English biographies of the Urdu poet, and the first in any language by a family member. The biography is not comprehensive – Hasni is working on a much longer one – but rather a series of short, intimate sketches which focuses on selected moments of Faiz’s life, interspersed with excerpts from his poems. The book is loaded with many lovely black and white pictures and leavened with personal anecdotes. There is a chapter on Faiz’s family life and loves, full of details which might be common anecdotal knowledge in Pakistan’s literary circles, but are likely to be new to Indian readers. The second half of the book comprises an impeccable selection of poems by Shoaib Hashmi, Faiz’s son-in-law and a well-known theatre and TV personality in Pakistan.
In his poetry, Faiz brought together the intimate and the historical, the personal and the political in a manner unprecedented in Urdu literature. The Way It Was Once shows us why. With its two-part structure, the book highlights not just the politics behind the poetry but, more importantly, the poetry behind the politics. From the biography, one realizes how much Faiz’s exquisite poetic sensibility was a part of his journalism and of his politics. Incarcerated on trumped-up charges of conspiring against the state, he wrote poems describing his country with metaphors hitherto reserved in Urdu poetry for the beloved, and of the oppressive military rulers of the country as raqib, or rivals in love. Faiz’s revolutionary side, so often celebrated in India, cannot be understood without this romanticism, which is deeply embedded in the classical ghazal tradition.
The beauty of this book is in making us aware of the ‘I’ behind the poetic ‘We’: the human being whose experience of friendships and family, of losses and loves, disappointments and exile, was not so different from our own, but who created out of them an oeuvre that transcends nations, languages and politics. While most recent translators of Faiz have focused on the more “personal” poems, Shoaib Hashmi strikes a fine balance between the “political” and “personal” verses. His translations are direct and engaging. Translation is always challenging, but he mostly makes it look easy, with precise translations that scan well. The Devnagari text of the poems has some mistakes, but these are few and far between.
Faiz is much feted today but as Ali Hashmi reminds us, this was not always the case. “When I was growing up in Zia’s Pakistan, you didn’t want to advertise that you were related to Faiz,” he said. “Now, my kids are asked for autographs by their schoolmates when they find out that they are related to Faiz. Things have come full circle.” In an India where freedom of speech is increasingly being sacrificed for petty politics, and where the public sphere is dominated by frenzied news media, Faiz’s life and his words have perhaps never been more important. I asked Ali if he had any favourite poems, and he obliged with a short ghazal that has been stuck in his head lately. The last sher goes: “Ham apne waqt pe pahunche huzur-e Yazdan men/Zaban pe hamd liye, haath men sharab liye (I reached the presence of God at my appointed time/A song of praise on my lips, a glass of wine in my hands).” Amen to that.
By Anand Vivek Taneja on March 16 2012 6.32am