Categories: Biographies

by sangemeel

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Categories: Biographies

by sangemeel

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faiz today - love and revolution - sang-e-meel

It is one of the many ironies of history that those who lead the most controversial lives are imperceptibly absorbed into the mainstream following their deaths—their lives and ideas molded and softened to fit prevailing beliefs. The most potent symbol of resistance to the prevailing world order, the Argentinian revolutionary, physician and author Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928–1967), one of the architects of the Cuban Revolution and a perpetual thorn in the side of those opposed to the Cuban experiment, was tortured and murdered in the jungles of Bolivia. He had become restless after the success of the Cuban Revolution and wished to bring the same change to the rest of Latin America. Unfortunately, his creative and revolutionary energies ran ahead of the existing social conditions and he was captured and executed at the young age of thirty- nine. Even though he was reviled by many during his life (and adored by an equal, if not greater, number), today he has been sanitized and ‘commoditized’, his likeness on T-shirts, posters, and any number of goods being used for a variety of causes of which he may or may not have approved.

Closer to home, one of the most controversial writers of recent times, Saadat Hasan Manto has seen a sudden resurgence of interest in his life and work, with the Government of Pakistan even bestowing a top state award on him and putting his face on a postage stamp. This is the same Manto who was prosecuted six separate times on charges of obscenity during his lifetime (and honorably exonerated each time) and who eventually drank himself to death because of his legal and financial difficulties. As if to underline the point, Manto’s dear friend and fellow writer Ismat Chughtai (no stranger to controversy herself) recalled how she had teased Manto about his legacy: ‘One day, just to tease him, I said, “Manto, when you die, people will worship you and call you a standard- bearer of all greatness. People will permanently attach the word ‘great’ to your name. They’ll call you an expert psychologist and a national reformer.” Manto got very mad at all of this and began to shout while trying to scowl at me as best he could with his very large eyes. “By God,” he said, “if that happens, I’ll come out of my grave and haunt them.”

Something similar seems to be happening with Faiz. His poetry, perceived as a symbol of resistance to oppression and injustice during his lifetime, now appears in school textbooks, political rallies, television programs and even advertisements for various products. It has been shorn of its political and social context and is in the process of being ‘commoditized’ to suit commercial and political interests. Some of the blame for all this rests, perhaps, on Faiz himself. Soon after Independence, it became evident that the new rulers of Pakistan were not inclined towards the socialistic aspirations of the mass of people. The independence struggle had willy- nilly unified people of all political beliefs into a ‘common front’ against the hated British. Once the British were gone, though, class differences between the rich and the poor inevitably began to come to the fore. Faiz and his companions had dreamed of a new country, Pakistan, in which oppression, hunger, injustice and tyranny would be a distant memory but, like all dreamers, they had no concrete plan to bring such a world into existence. Faiz admitted as much in an interview many years later. His seminal poem, ‘Subh-e azadi’ (Dawn of freedom), written in August 1947 already speaks of this disillusionment and exhorts his countrymen to ‘go on, our goal is not reached yet’.

For close to four years after Independence, Faiz continued his political activism along with his poetry. He wrote scathing editorials in his two newspapers about the ineptitude of the new Pakistani government; about the dangers to workers’ rights, women’s’ rights and democracy; about the short-sightedness of Pakistani foreign policy and about the increasing dangers of dictatorship at home. Once the clampdown came and he was imprisoned (along with anyone else remotely considered a danger in official circles), he had time to think about his situation. The imprisonment itself must have been stressful enough with Alys having to care for their two young daughters by herself, although even in prison Faiz’s innate optimism, his staunch faith in the goodness of human nature and his resolute idealism persisted, as evident in his letters to Alys from prison. Once he was released, Pakistan had changed beyond recognition. The Left was in tatters. The Communist party, which had been decimated at Partition by the migration of its most committed and experienced cadres to India, had effectively ceased to exist and the few who remained in Pakistan were in hiding or lying low.

Faiz had never been a slogan monger anyway. His temperament was not suited to it. Now that there was no movement to speak of, he decided to concentrate on the arena he knew best and was comfortable in: culture and literature. One Left critic wrote rather harshly that Faiz’s political stand following his imprisonment in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case was ‘one of an avoidance of full commitment to any clear cut stand and one which therefore enabled him to steer clear of anyone’s strong disapproval’.2 The same author describes Faiz’s politics as ‘a blend of Marxism and a kind of secular Pakistani nationalism’, close enough to the communists to win their respect, but not so much as to alienate the liberal Pakistani establishment.

Faiz continued to write poetry that highlighted the burning social and political issues of the day, both within Pakistan and internationally, and after he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962 he was fortunate to find a hugely sympathetic and receptive audience in the Soviet Union where his poetry was widely translated and read.

While he was alive, he had his share of detractors, especially in Pakistan. After his death, with the passage of time, the ‘topical’ issues in his poetry have faded away, leaving only the universal message. This, as Faiz himself pointed out, resonates only if a poet captures the inner essence of his reader’s feelings, what is in his or her heart. Since injustice, tyranny and oppression have continued, and in some way intensified since the fall of the Soviet Union, Faiz’s poetry remains relevant and widely read. The theoretical political debates of the decades since Faiz was born have faded away but people can still feel the indignation, the protest and the hope in his poetry and this is what they respond to.

The fact that his poetry has been expropriated by the Pakistani establishment (and in some cases by the religious right) for their own purposes is less a failure of Faiz than of the Left movement in Pakistan, a project that was strangled in its infancy by a combination of state repression and its own theoretical and practical inadequacies.

love and revolution faiz ahmed faiz - ali madeeh hashmi - sang-e-meel publications

How is one to explain the enduring popularity of Faiz?

One explanation is to be found in Faiz’s use of language. Even though some of his poems retain the classical ‘Persianized’ language of the ghazal, most of his poetry is fairly easy to understand, even for the average reader. There is some ‘sloganeering’ in a few of his poems but even these retain their poetical quality and are pleasing to the senses. Like all good poets, his best poems pull at one’s heartstrings and resonate with one’s inner experiences. Unlike his predecessor Iqbal, there are no overt calls to the heavens or references to angels and the Divine (a fact that endears Iqbal more to the religiously inclined than Faiz). Although there are numerous references to the Quran and to the Divine in Faiz’s poetry, they stay rooted in the struggles of this world, as befits a ‘socialist humanist’. For those repelled by the barbarity of religious fundamentalism, this is a key attraction of Faiz’s poetry.

Another explanation of Faiz’s enduring popularity might simply be the recentness of the themes of his poetry. We are still less than a generation away from his death and a little over a hundred years away from his birth. The burning issues of the twentieth century, especially as they pertain to Pakistan and India, are still with us. Partition and its attendant mutual suspicion and hostility remain a ‘festering sore, dripping corruption’ on the body of the Indian subcontinent. For Pakistan, especially, the dismemberment of the original dream in 1971 remains another unhealed wound. And, of course, for millions of people in both Pakistan and IndiaAzadi remains a cruel joke while they are ‘yoked to the wheel of fate’, as Faiz wrote in his only English-language poem, ‘The unicorn and the dancing girl’:

And the wheel was fate
And the yoke was ‘karma’
And fear and want and pain
And withering of age
And death with its mercy
And the tyrant with no mercy in his heart.

Further on in the poem, Faiz writes of the present:

Time present is still time past
in faces
in places
in custom and ritual and the grave of the nameless saint
In hunger and want and pain and the withering of age
And its birth in Pakistan as elsewhere in
the newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa
is as yet only a small flag of freedom raised against
The bannered and embattled host of
Fear and want and hunger and pain
and the death of human hearts.

For the purists, including poets and writers, a key attraction of Faiz’s poetry is his supreme command over technique and language. Faiz was well versed in all three ‘root’ languages of Urdu poetry—Arabic, Persian and Urdu—and this is evident from his diction. In addition, he was fortunate during his youth to have had teachers who had mastery over poetry and languages such as Sufi Tabassum, an acknowledged master of Persian and Urdu. Not even the most accomplished poets can find fault with Faiz’s mastery of his poetical craft.

For the casual reader, the themes resonate but so too does the language, the melody and the romantic lyricism, the core of classical Urdu poetry. One does not have to be a Marxist or a litterateur to enjoy Faiz’s most beloved poems. They are enjoyable even in casual reading. This was the reason that popular singers of Faiz’s era, including Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hassan and many others, sang a number of Faiz’s poems for radio, television and films. This helped popularize his poetry even more and with the increasing advent of mass media (a process that started in Faiz’s youth and blossomed after Partition), his poetry found a new and more receptive global audience. Now, in its ‘second incarnation’ with the coming of the Internet and social media, Faiz is being reborn yet again for another generation, although his poetry is now shorn (in most cases) of its political and social context. Those who take the trouble to dig a little deeper, though, can easily find the underlying subtext, which links the poem to its original ‘cause’.

In the end, two interrelated themes can best explain why Faiz and his poetry continue to be adored by millions, not just in South Asia but around the globe.

With his technical and linguistic proficiency and his complete mastery over the canon of Urdu and Persian poetry—including the likes of Hafez of Shiraz and even the seventh-century Arab master, Ta’abbata Sharra— Faiz had the ability to comprehensively express all manner of themes and ideas in his poetry, including ‘new’ ideas like socialism, humanism and the various permutations of politics. With practice, he also became a master of ‘political lyricism’. This was one of his innovations and his particular contribution to this genre was to create poetry that adhered to the rules of classical Urdu poetry while still showcasing the struggles, hopes and aspirations of the teeming masses of colonized (and newly liberated) nations of Asia and Africa.

The second was, of course, his conscious commitment to being a spokesman for ordinary people: workers and peasants, women and children, all those who have no voice in the oppressive societies of developing nations. He made the decision to speak for them, in his own way, early on in his life and, by and large, upheld this commitment. This alone would have been enough to endear him to a large majority of the people in all countries where Urdu poetry is read and appreciated. In Pakistan, India and the subcontinent, where poets are revered just a little less than prophets, it has won him millions of ardent followers.

As he aged and the times changed, his poetry also became more reflective (and less overtly ‘political’), but then this is common to all of us. A person is no more and no less, as Marx said, than the sum of his or her ‘historical conditions’. Our worldview, including our view about ourselves, changes as we move through life. What may have seemed urgent and insistent at one stage may at another time appear trivial at best and laughable at worst. This is what it means to be human.

But while we understand and often forgive this trait in ourselves and those around us, it is more difficult to do so in those whom we adore and idealize. In the end, though, they are just as human as we are and to ask more of them than we do of ourselves seems rather churlish.

Faiz is gone but his voice is still with us in his poetry, and so are those things in the world that so rankled and infuriated him: exploitation, injustice, tyranny, oppression.

If we can remember that the best tribute we can pay him is to dedicate ourselves, in whatever small way we can, to ending these cruelties, Faiz would be happy that he had succeeded in his mission.

Notes

1. Ismat Chugtai, A talk with one of Urdu’s most outspoken women writers, Mahfil, vol. 8, nos 2–3 (Summer-Fall 1972), pp. 169–88. Available at http:// www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/ 00urdu/ismat/txt_ismat_interview_ mahfil1972.html?

2. Ralph Russell, ‘Faiz Ahmed Faiz—Poetry, Politics and Pakistan’, in The Pursuit of Urdu Literature: A Select History (London: Zed Books, 1992). Available at http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/ 00urdu/3mod/

This is an excerpt from the biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz written by Dr. Ali Madeeh Hashmi – Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz (A Biography)

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