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A Poet’s Tribulations


Yeh khoon ki mehk hai ke lab-e-yaar ki khushboo

Kis rah ki janib se saba aati hai dekho

Gulshan mein bahaar aaee ke zindaan huwa abaad

Kis samt se naghmon ki sada aati hai dekho

 

ONE of the more enchanting aspects of my relationship with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry – and it may well chime with the experience of others who relish his work – is the way how long familiar verses suddenly strike a particularly profound chord.

 

I had that experience just a few days ago while listening to the above quatrain, which opens his fourth collection of verse, titled Daste-Teh-e-Sang. To loosely translate: “Is this a whiff of blood or the fragrance of her lips?/ Ascertain the path down which the morning breeze blows./ The prison blooms with life at the first hint of spring/ Ascertain the direction from which the chant of freedom songs flows.”

 

It is a commonplace that poetry with enduring appeal reflects universal truths, and Faiz’s verse is replete with these. This much is conceded even by those who appreciate this poet’s unique talent while disdaining his ideological inclinations. I recall a deeply conservative high school English literature teacher lamenting Faiz’s communist inclinations before launching into a panegyric about the exquisite imagery in: Bhujha jo rozan-e-zindaan to dil yeh samjha hai/ Ke teri maang sitaaron se bhar gayee hogi/ Chamak utthe hain silasil to hum ne jana hai/ Ke ab sehr teray rukh par bikhar gayee hogi. (“As the prison window fades to black, the heart senses/ That the heavens above must be awash with glimmering stars;/ And with the first glistening of the bars the realisation dawns that the blessed morn/ Has returned to gently cast its glow across thy visage.”

 

The teacher failed to realize, perhaps, that it’s unlikely Faiz’s imagination would have toyed with images of this nature but for his incarceration. And what are the chances he would have glimpsed the interior of a prison cell but for the path delineated by his political convictions?

 

The poet first found himself behind bars in the wake of what’s known as the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. The known details of the case make the suspected aspirations of the conspirators seem like folly; success would have entailed a Communist-backed military coup, with indeterminate consequences. It has long been established that by the time the organizing cell was busted, the plot had effectively been abandoned. It could nonetheless be argued that at least some of the would-be adventurists involved in this dimly remembered episode from Pakistan’s early history had broadly honourable intentions; and, given the nation’s trajectory in the 60 years since then, who can conclusively claim that they were all grievously mistaken?

 

More to the point, Faiz’s series of spells in prison throughout the 1950s served as a conduit for some of his most powerful poetry. His second and third volumes of verse, Dast-e-Saba and Zindaan Nama, were thus unwittingly subsidized, so to to speak, by the very state that sought to seal his lips. Enforced isolation in this form is surely not what Wordsworth had in mind when he defined poetry as “emotions recollected in tranquillity”, but Faiz evidently found plenty of tranquil moments behind bars, and the solitude appears to have enhanced his sensitivity.

 

Zindaan Ki Aik Shaam (A Prison Evening) not only epitomizes his heightened sense of awareness – “The morning breeze brushes past/ As tenderly as whispered vows of endearment” – but also his lasting conviction that oppression would not endure: “Reason reassures the heart/ Life’s so sweet at this moment in time/ The sadists who seek to poison its stream/ Can’t have their way today or anytime soon/ Let them turn out the lights/ In the hallowed spaces where we gather/ They cannot hope to extinguish the moon.”

 

Yet the poet’s thoughts extended well beyond personal sensations. The years of imprisonment also yielded memorable verses on international affairs, ranging from the troubles in Tehran (Irani Tulaba Ke Naam) to freedom struggles in Africa (Aajao Afreeka). And, not least, Hum Jo Tareek Rahon Mein Marey Gaye, verses from which were resurrected during television coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and cited again last month following the murder of Faiz’s nephew by marriage, Salmaan Taseer. The latter poem’s origins lie in The Rosenberg Letters, a compendium of the correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the final months before their execution in the US on the charge of supplying atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Faiz read the book – a heart-rending testament to Julius and Ethel’s devotion to each other and their love for their young sons, which includes, as an appendix, a vast number of (ultimately ignored) clemency appeals from Nobel laureates, rabbis and priests – while in Montgomery Jail.

 

Given the poet’s proclivities, not least a rebel spirit that endured until the very end, it was somewhat alarming to learn some months ago that 2011 has officially been decreed Faiz Year on account of his birth centenary next Sunday. The last thing a literary giant of Faiz’s stature and cultural cachet needs if official approbation from a regime whose stalwarts could easily qualify, inter alia, as the targets of a pointed of a barb from one of Faiz’s lesser known anthems: Yeh kitne din Amreeka se jeenay ka sahara maangain ge? (“How long can they hope to rely on American life support?”)

 

This anthem  – which begins with the declaration: Hum mehnat kash jag waalon se jab aapna hissa mangain ge/ Ik des nahin, ik khet nahin, hum saari dunya maangain ge (“When we, the workers of the world, demand our fair share/ No single patch of land will suffice, we’ll demand everything that’s there”) – does not appear in any of the poet’s published collections.

 

Perhaps it was considered too didactic or insufficiently poetic for that purpose – even though, over the decades, Faiz consistently delivered his verse in a variety of forms, traditional and innovative, ghazal and blank verse, quatrains and couplets, elegies and dialogues. I originally encountered this particular tarana in manuscript form, but find myself unable, three decades or so later, to elaborate on the impression that it was composed for a particular occasion. I encountered it again a few years ago in the shape of a recording by an outfit known as Voices Group, in an album comprised of verses by Faiz and the Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz. And one line in particular – the determination, once the conflict’s been resolved, to demand a red star on every nation’s flag – reinforced the impression that this uplifting song ought to find a home in Laal band’s repertoire.

 

This band has made its name primarily with lyrics derived from Faiz and his contemporary Habib Jalib, the tenacious poet of the barricades. Its pop sensibilities have helped to acquaint a new generation of Pakistanis with their politico-cultural heritage. But it could easily be argued that’s nothing new in Faiz’s case: through the decades, musical renditions of his verse have probably irrigated far more souls than the published versions. Perhaps this trend is best epitomized by Iqbal Bano’s live recording of Hum Dekhain Ge, in which the audience’s unrestrained enthusiasm compels her to pause and start anew on more than one occasion.

 

It’s hardly surprising that this poem, from Faiz’s final volume of verse, resonated with a public disenchanted to the point of detestation with General Zia-ul-Haq’s stifling militarist obscurantism. (And who can doubt it would, in appropriate translation, resonate today with the vast crowds that congregate each day in Cairo’s Tahrir Square?) If the imagery in the verses is evocative of scriptural references to the End Times, a complementary poem from the same collection makes it clear that, in Faiz’s vision, Judgement Day would be played out here on earth, rather than in the hereafter.

 

Notwithstanding her elevated stature among his interpreters, Iqbal Bano was just one among many renowned performers who took a shine to Faiz’s verse – among them Noor Jehan (her a cappella renditions from a private gathering in 1959, with audible appreciative murmurs from Faiz himself, are well worth seeking out on YouTube), Mehdi Hasan, Farida Khanum and Malika Pukhraj. Innumerable others – including Amanat Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar, Surraya Multanikar and Nusrat Fateh Ali – recorded a ghazal or two. Nayyara Noor’s Faiz album is simply outstanding, and it’s an enduring shame that a projected second volume never materialized. Abida Parveen’s recordings, although no match for her magnificent excursions into Sufi verse (particularly that of Bulleh Shah), include a version of the rarely sung Mauzoo-e-Sukhan (Poetry’s Theme). And Zia Mohyeddin’s superlative Faiz Sahab Ki Mohabbat Mein serves as an invaluable antidote to recordings of the poet’s own endearingly ramshackle recitations.

 

Another excellent interpreter, Tina Sani, has been intimately involved in recent celebrations marking the centenary of Faiz’s birth, alongside Shabana Azmi. Many of the performers have, perhaps understandably, demonstrated a predilection for Faiz’s wonderful romantic verse – although the poet’s creative ambiguity often leaves room for conjecture about whether his passion is addressed to a member of the opposite sex or his blighted homeland. What Shelley  referred to as “The desire of the moth for the star/ Of the night for the morrow/ The devotion to something afar/ From the sphere of our sorrow” can manifest itself in varied incarnations. 

 

But Faiz was certainly no stranger to dispatches explicitly from the sphere of our sorrow, and one of his more unrelenting journeys into the depth of melancholy was put down in black and white on 8 April 1971, just days after the Pakistan army, 40 years ago, inaugurated its bloodbath in what was soon to become the capital of Bangladesh. Many of Faiz’s favourite images – the sun’s golden nectar, the silvery moon, the weeping of the night and the laughter of the morn, towering trees and flowers in bloom – coalesce in these verses, but bereft of their customary hues, for the poet has bathed his dusty eyes in the fluid that seeps from the multitudinous corpses of the day, and everything he sees has taken on the colour of blood.

 

Contrary to Faiz’s usual conclusions on a compellingly hopeful note, in these unprecedented circumstances he invokes the assistance of an unseen power: Charagar aisa na honay de/ Kahein se laa koi sailaab-e-ashk/ Aab-e-wazoo/ Jis mein dhul jaayein to shayed dhul sakay/ Meri aankhon, meri gard-alood aankhon ka lahoo (“Let it not be thus, o lord/ Send forth a flood of tears/ A cleansing drench/ That may wash away/ The blood from my dust-splattered eyes”).

 

As in much of Faiz’s topical verse, the emotions expressed herein remain broadly applicable in various parts of the world, not least in his homeland.

 

One aspect of Faiz that rarely emerges in his verse is his subtle sense of humour. The satirist Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi recounts an exchange between the poet and a student who asks him, with a sense of urgency: “When will the revolution come?” Faiz’s laconic response goes something like: “What’s your rush, young man? It’ll come when it comes.”

 

That tale, possibly apocryphal, loses something in translation. But if anything befitting that nomenclature does occur in Pakistan, the revolutionaries will surely have the immortal spirit of Faiz by their side.

 

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