The Urdu internationale

Art by Khuda Bux Abro

While the crop of what can be called his most seasoned offerings ripened in later years, Faiz's early poetry and his linkages with the Progressive Writers' Movement (PWM) hold a key to many of his lifelong concerns. This article deals with his career largely in connection with the Progressive Writers' Movement (PWM) – a socio-political-literary movement that raged like a tornado from the 1930s till the 1950s and left a lasting imprint on the literatures of South Asia.

Faiz's introduction to the progressives took place in 1935, when he joined the staff of the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in Amritsar. Here, Faiz was drawn to the vice-principal, Mahmuduzzafar Khan, and his wife, the charismatic Rashid Jahan. These two introduced him to communists and their sympathisers, both from the Punjab as well as visitors from Aligarh, Lucknow and elsewhere, such as Sajjad Zaheer and Mohibbul Hasan. Sajjad Zaheer, founder-member of the PWM and one of its most vigorous proponents, in his Roshnai, the only history of the movement, makes several light-hearted references to the young Faiz, who seemed a trifle bemused by Rashid Jahan's forthrightness. Roshnai also documents Zaheer's first meeting with Faiz, in January 1936, and recalls how neither Zaheer nor his hosts knew that this shy young man wrote poetry. Mahmuduzzafar merely regarded him as a young teacher with good taste in books, since he borrowed Stephen Spender and W H Auden from his collection.

In early 1936, Zaheer travelled to Lahore in the company of Faiz, Mahmuduzzafar and Rashid Jahan. There, they met Mian Iftikharuddin and other prominent Punjabi writers and, with the active help of Faiz, set up the Lahore branch of the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA). Local units of the PWA had been springing up all over the country; their members would meet in April 1936 for the first-ever all-India conference and announce the launch of a radical new movement. During the Amritsar days, Faiz also became drawn into the trade union and civil-liberties movements, concerns that would occupy him for the rest of his life. And it was here that he began to take part in the great debate of his day: 'Art for Art's Sake' vs 'Art for Life's Sake', that is, the debate on whether or not literature should be socially-engaged and grounded to life and reality.

It was possibly in Amritsar, too, that Faiz first read the Communist Manifesto, banned in India but smuggled in by communist groups and made available in the areas around universities. This marked a turning point in his life. Of his days in Amritsar, Faiz said:

It was a time of great creativity and the opening of new perspectives. I think the first lesson I learnt was that it was impossible to detach oneself from what was happening externally … What is important is the larger human equation of pain and pleasure. As such, internal and external experiences are two sides of the same coin.

One is tempted to draw parallels with another Urdu poet and Faiz contemporary, Majaz. Both were good-natured, easygoing young men, shy with strangers but equipped with a ready wit in the company of friends, given to a liberal-left inclination but neither fully radicalised nor showing any inclination towards organised communism. Both were also heavily influenced by classical Persian traditions, and both evolved their own poetic rhythm and vocabulary, which was at once contemporary and exquisitely musical. Again, in the case of both, once nationalism began to colour all else, we see the emergence of a distinct poetic voice. Like Majaz, Faiz too began to use the nazm (free or rhymed verse which is different from the two-lined ghazal) for increasingly political, even revolutionary purposes. Unlike Majaz, however, Faiz had an academic bent of mind. Being a teacher, he retained a scholarly disposition that he brought to all subsequent vocations and callings.

Another useful comparison would be between Faiz and Iqbal. Both from the Punjab, both took to Urdu, not their mother tongue. They wrote poetry that was at once passionate, direct and impetuous, appealing with a startling near-prophetic call to the collective consciousness of their readers. Both used traditional poetic forms such as the elegy, ode and anthem, and infused them with a fresh note of social consciousness. And, eventually, Faiz took the message of Karl Marx where Iqbal had left off, and carried this to a younger generation of Muslims who were, in the light of the growing importance of the PWM, more receptive to its visions of egalitarianism, concern for the poor and advocacy for change. Faiz remained a Marxist long after the decline of the PWM, but never a doctrinaire one; nor was he ever a member of the communist party.

Apart from the help in setting up the Lahore PWA, Faiz lent his weight to progressive causes whenever called upon to do so. Along with Krishan Chander, a prominent progressive writer from the Punjab, he emerged as a leading light of the Punjab progressives. In early 1940, Faiz was denied permission to hold the Punjabi progressive writers' conference at MAO College in Amritsar, where he still taught. So, he sought permission from the organisers of the Kisan Conference, a peasants' and farmworkers' body, which was holding its annual conclave at the historic Jallianwala Bagh, to use their marquee. Sitting on grimy rugs under a torn canopy, an eclectic group of intellectuals responded to Faiz's call: Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, Firoz Deen Mansoor, Teka Ram Sukhan, Mohibbul Hasan, Taseer, Raghuvansh Kumar Kapoor, Raghupati Chopra, Sanat Singh, Faiz himself and Zaheer.

Streets of scorn
Faiz produced seven volumes of verse, of which three are of particular importance in the context of the PWM. His first collection, Naqsh-e-faryadi (Imploring imprints), was published in 1941 while he was still in Amritsar but was actually written over a period of ten years and include the years he spent as a student in Lahore. It shows a strange intermingling of the romantic and revolutionary, reflecting the aches of a sensitive, somewhat sheltered young man, but also the sorrows of the larger world. The early poems have a haunting, dreamlike quality, such as Mere Nadeem (My Friend), Husn aur Maut (Beauty and Death) and Aaj ki Raat (Tonight) as in 'Awaken not the chords of sorrow tonight' or 'Mute melodies from my heart-strings arise' or 'Roofs and doorways bent beneath the weight of silence.'

This trance was broken, however, as Faiz came in contact with Marxists and was increasingly influenced by social realism. In 'Mujhse pahli si muhabbat mere mahboob na mang' (My beloved, don't ask me to love you as I once did), for instance, the poet acknowledges the heart-tugging beauty of the beloved, but talks instead of the other sorrows of the world, which have begun to claim his attention. He juxtaposes the beloved's beauty against the miseries and ugliness around him, a world of hunger, disease and deprivation – he can never love her as he once did, because that love had been divorced from social reality, was too individualistic, too meaningless:

            There are other sorrows too apart from love
            And other pleasures too apart from that of union       

Another poem, Chand roz aur meri jaan (A few more days, my dear), again has the poet addressing his beloved, comforting her and telling her that the days of cruelty, oppression and helplessness are about to end. The humiliations inflicted by strange hands – read: the British – he assures her, shall be short lived:

We are constrained to breathe in the shade of tyranny
Bear it just a little longer, endure thus oppression
This suffering that is our inheritance, and we are helpless…
But now the days of cruelty are numbered

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Other poems from Naqsh-e-faryadi that bear the stamp of progressivism are Raqeeb se (To my Rival), Tanhai (Solitude), Bol ke lab azaad hain tere (Speak, for your lips are free), Mauzoo-e-sukhan (The domain of poesy) and Hum log (We people). In Bol, he incites his people to speak up, reminding them that they are free despite their fetters:

Speak, for your lips are free
Speak, for your tongue is still yours
Your supple body is still yours
Speak, for your life is still yours

In Hum log, he seems to be chastising them for the fear, regret and sorrow that are not allowing them to rise in revolt:

Clasping a row of snuffed out candles in the niches of our hearts
Scared even of the light of the moon, wearied of all things
Like the remembrance of love's beauty now faded
Clutching our darkness, and being cloaked by it

In Mauzoo-e-sukhan, he makes the most direct statement of what should concern a poet. Should it, he wonders, simply be the darkness of a beloved's tresses or the delicate tracery of henna on her pale hands; or should it be all that has happened to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve from time immemorial, and all the tragedies and misfortunes that continue to happen? Should he not ask, then:

The countless souls who inhabit these glittering cities
Do they live simply with the desire to die one day?
These beautiful fields whose youth is bursting forth
Why does only hunger grow in them?

The next two volumes, Dast-e-saba (The breeze's hand, 1953) and Zindah nama (Poems from prison, 1956), buttressed Faiz's reputation as one of the leading intellectuals of his day. The first of the 'prison poems' – written during the four years of incarceration in the infamous Rawalpindi Case – remains the best known among his early works, long after the details of the so-called conspiracy have been forgotten:

Why should I mourn if my tablet and pen are forbidden
When I have dipped my fingers in my own blood?

In The Execution Yard (A Song) he seems to be consoling himself and all others who face oppression:

Where the road of longing leads us, we will see tomorrow
This night will pass, and this too we will see tomorrow.

In the same poem, Faiz goes on to speak of the 'street of scorn', a familiar trope in Urdu poetry, used to refer to the wrong side of the street, where the prostitutes lived. In Faiz's altered landscape, it becomes any street anywhere in Pakistan, where the summons can come for anyone at any time.

Beyond deen and qaum
Sometime in the summer of 1951, Faiz wrote Subah-e-azadi. This is his first and only poem that directly addresses independence, and makes an allusion to the trauma of partition:

            This patchy darkness, this night-bitten dawn
            This is not the dawn of freedom we had waited for

Such subversive poems created a stir not just among the progressives – who were, of course, quick to hail them and embrace their writer as one of their own. Such works also made waves literary circles generally, where the connoisseurs of Urdu were quick to notice the promise of greatness and the use of classical tropes in the high tradition of Hafiz and Rumi. The Urdu critic, Ale Ahmad Suroor, writing the foreword to the Indian edition of Zindah nama, praised not only the melodiousness of the poetry but also its technical finesse. What really struck a chord with millions of lay Urdu readers, however, was the manner in which Faiz was voicing ageless concerns while also pointing out new ones. Not only was he drawing the reader's attention away from the ecstasy and agony of love, but was also no longer content to talk of deen (faith) or qaum (community) in a narrow sectarian way.

Faiz brought a new internationalism to Urdu poetry (See accompanying essay by Raza Mir…). Though the Urdu poets of the turn of the century had spoken of 'tremors' in the Muslim world, they had only been concerned with the Muslims of the Subcontinent. Faiz was saying it was as much his concern as anybody else's when someone, somewhere, oppressed the weak, or the mighty 'system' crushed the lone voice of dissent. The hauntingly evocative Hum jo tareek raahon mein mare gaye, written when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair in 1953 on charges of being Soviet agents in the US, is an excellent example. Similarly, Aa jao Africa (Come Africa, 1955) is an ode to oppressed people everywhere; it was also an attempt to show a path towards increasing internationalism in the progressives' range of interests. In later years, Faiz would write with equal passion about Palestine, Namibia and Chile. In each of these pursuits, he would justify his focus thus:

as a writer or an artist, even though I run no state and command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother's keeper, and my brother is the whole of mankind. And this is the relevance to me of peace, of freedom, of detente and the elimination of the nuclear menace. But out of this vast brotherhood, the nearest to me and dearest are the insulted and the humiliated, the homeless and the disinherited, the poor, the hungry and the sick at heart.

Rise, my son
Faiz's poetry was far above the lament of a lover for his beloved; it had become the agonised call of the conscience. The ghazal below, written in the spring of 1951 from a prison cell when the threat of a death sentence hung above him like the sword of Damocles, illustrates Faiz's ability to use classical idiom to speak of new, urgent concerns, and in the process also write what Carolyn Forche has called the 'poetry of witness' — from behind the bars of a prison cell:

This hour of chain and gibbet and of rejoicing
Hour of necessity and of choice
At your command the cage, but not the garden's
Red rose-fire, when its freshest hour begins:
No noose can catch the dawn wind's whirling feet.

Despite partition and the creation of Pakistan, Faiz's relationship with the progressives remained as warm as ever. While some comrades tried to play down some of the poignant and pathos-laden poetry at the expense of his more political offerings, Faiz himself brooked none of this double-speak. Just as 'Art for art's sake' could be the wrong maxim to adopt, he believed 'Art for rebellion's sake' could be just as misleading.

Using the analogy of a beautiful face to go with a healthy body, he spoke of the need to give due importance of aestheticism and social realism in poetry, whereby good poetry is that which passes the test of both life and literature. On his relationship with the PWA, he once said in an interview that he, like many others, was drawn to the movement for two reasons: because it was powered on the engine of independence, and due to its emphasis on the social priorities of those times. On both of these points, there was no difference of opinion among the members. The differences cropped up later: once independence was achieved, there arose the question of how best to reach the goal of 'true independence'. There were also differences, Faiz later said, on how best 'to portray life and its problems realistically in literature'.

In the years after the glory days of the progressives, Faiz might not have written any rousing national 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. It is a fine example of progressivism, of the poet's humanity and concern for individual life that is precious. His elegy is for all the soldiers who die in war – any war. Once again, it illustrates his humanism, which was the essence of his progressivism.

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