Revisiting Faiz

Coming Back Home: Selected Articles, Editorials and Interviews of Faiz Ahmed Faiz,
Compiled by Sheema Majeed, Introduction by Khalid Hasan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2008, pp 157, Rs 295.

‘Politics and history are interwoven, but not commensurate,’ said Lord Acton (1834-1902) in his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor at Cambridge in 1895. So also politics and prose, and, in the worst of times, politics and poetry. There can be no better example of this axiom in the twentieth century than the writings of the revolutionary Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. While most readers in South Asia are familiar with his poetry, few would have read his writings in English. Faiz wrote, prolifically and compellingly, on the events that shaped the destiny of the sub-continent.

Coming Back Home gives the English reader a sampling of the poet’s prose writings – a selection of newspaper editorials, articles and interviews compiled by Sheema Majeed. The title, however, is a bit of a mystery, for many contributions – arranged in no particular order – pre-date his exile and years away from Pakistan. The very first entry is an editorial from The Pakistan Times entitled ‘What Price Liberty?’ written in April 1948 long before his jail term and the spells away from home. No attempt is made to explain the title – neither in the publisher’s blurb on the jacket, nor in the introduction by Khalid Hasan. Hasan’s memoir, coming nearly at the end of the book, however, does talk of the years after 1982 when Faiz returned to live in Pakistan.

The small matter of the title aside, the book is a compact little treasure trove, for it illustrates better than many bigger tomes would, the depth and range of Faiz’s concerns and interests. Not only is the English prose, much like Faiz’s Urdu poetry, hard-hitting and passionate, but it is concerned deeply and ardently with the past and the present. Like his poetry it looks at the future with hope and not just a little foreboding. Unlike the poetry however – and I say this with some trepidation, for Faiz is revered by legions of admirers across the globe, and I would count myself among the faithful as far as his poetry is concerned – the prose is occasionally long-winded and just a trifle ponderous. Where the Urdu poetry enchants and beckons, spilling out a kaleidoscope of images and metaphors, calling out to the readers to find common cause against injustice, exploitation and a host of social and political issues, the prose is occasionally weighed down by its own rhetoric. Where the poetry lilts and soars with effortless ease, conjuring up the most evocative and lyrical images to record or condemn the most grisly events in the history of the subcontinent, the prose harks back to an older style of writing that was self-consciously pedantic, even arcane sometimes. Having said that, I suppose the comparison itself – between prose and poetry – is unfair, and the two, even from the same pen, are by their very nature as dissimilar as apples and oranges.

As the Editor of The Pakistan Times , the Urdu-language left-leaning newspaper from Lahore, he wrote on an array of issues from 1947 until his arrest in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951. Of this period, perhaps the most moving is the editorial of 23rd March 1949, titled ‘Progress of a Dream’. Declaring the Partition as a way ‘to end the vertical division that separated the two major peoples of the sub-continent… by a horizontal division so that the divided halves could each develop an internal harmony that the undivided whole lacked’ he says, ‘The dream is as yet unfulfilled. The division has come but neither half is as yet completely at peace, either with itself or with its neighbour.’

Faiz reserves his strongest words of criticism for those ‘selfish packs of men’ who ‘mock at the nobility of freedom.’ He is chillingly blunt when he writes:

‘There are no halfway houses between liberty and thralldom. The public have to choose and decide whether they are going to permit this and similar inroads on their hard-won freedom [referring to the infamous Public Safety Act that gave unbridled powers to the State] or whether they are content to live in daily fear for their freedom and honour. The weapon of the Safety Act that they have placed into the hands of their Government is a dangerous weapon and is not a fit thing for children or sadists to play with. It should either be taken back or the people entrusted with it should be taught its proper use. It must be realized that a weapon like this cannot be used properly either by men who are cursed with the vindictiveness of an elephant and the ferocity of a wolf or by men who lack the guts of a rat and the courage of a sparrow.’

For all his scathing editorials on the goings on in the government and his hauntingly evocative ghazals on the blood bath in East Pakistan by the West Pakistani armed forces, Faiz was a nationalist. He remained one no matter where he lived – in Lahore, London, or Beirut. He may not have written any rousing taranas or anthems but his epochal poem on the 1965 war, Uttho ab maati se uttho, jago mere lal (‘Rise from the earth, wake up, my son’), is a tribute to the soldier who lays down his life fighting for the country. For all his musafirat, voyaging to distant lands, Faiz remained deeply, quintessentially attached to his country that he called laila-e-watan (the beloved, that is the land of his birth) in one of his poems. Each one of the editorials, essays, interviews and memoirs in this collection bear that out.

At first reading I found it hard to reconcile the glowing tribute to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, captioned ‘To God we Return’, written upon the Quaid-e-Azam’s death in September 1948 with the poet who wrote Yeh daagh daagh ujala, yeh shab-gazida sehar, yeh woh seher to nahi tha inteza jiska ? Was it the same man who lamented in the poem Subah-e-Azadi (‘Freedom’s Dawn’) the ‘stained light and the night-bitten dawn’ that greeted those who had yearned for freedom? For a man like Faiz to write such an unqualified obituaryof a political leader whom he calls ‘friend and counsellor, the guide and confidante, the comrade and leader all combined into one’ seems fanciful.

There is plenty here that is not quite in consonance with the liberal, progressive ideology that runs like a shaft of translucent light all through his poetry. In real life, however, while Faiz had his sympathies with the poor and downtrodden, he was clearly never one of them. Despite his left leanings and the Lenin Peace Prize awarded to him by the Soviet Union in 1962, he did not belong to the Communist Party. It might, for this reason, be instructive, to read this anthology in the context in which it was written. For one can see here the tightrope Faiz walks between ideology and good taste, between art and propaganda, between his role as an editor and as a free thinker. For it is only then that we can truly appreciate what lies hidden between the covers of this slim book.

Rakhshanda Jalil co-edits Third Frame: Literature, Culture and Society, a journal published by the Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. Her two new book are Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi, Niyogi, 2008; and Neither Night Nor Day, a collection of short stories by Pakistani Women Writers, Harper Collins, India, 2008

First published in The Friday Times, Lahore




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