Listening to Faiz is a subversive act
Being unfamiliar with the name of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and what it signifies can make one extremely unwelcome in the literary circles of North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as most of the countries that boast a sizeable Southasian diaspora. In Punjab province, despite a positive dislike for Urdu among some sections, Faiz remains as popular as the Sufi saints, Bulleh Shah or Baba Farid. Faiz was a trade unionist, a Marxist, and lived and died a communist, yet even reactionaries hold the man in high esteem. In Pakistan, he was hounded by several successive governments, and yet no fundamentalist group has ever passed a fatwa against Faiz. How did this happen? How did this mild-mannered, soft-spoken Punjabi, who spoke Urdu in a heavy Punjabi accent and was master of an awful reciting style, manage to surpass all the stalwarts, his seniors and contemporaries, in popularity? Faiz is certainly the only poet after Ghalib to have been translated into almost all languages of the Subcontinent and many further afield.
Of the galaxy of Southasian heroes, pre-or post-Partition, it is difficult to find individuals whose greatness is acknowledged even by their enemies – perhaps Ashfaqullah, Ram Prasad Bismil and Shaheed Bhagat Singh would so qualify. Even those who disagreed with their methods and worked against their ideological positions saluted their commitment to the cause, and accepted them as heroes of the freedom movement. While Faiz has been able to garner similar respect, there is a marked difference with these other three. Ashfaqullah, Bismil and Bhagat Singh were killed while fighting against the British. During this period, Faiz was writing poetry – albeit revolutionary poetry.
Throughout, he remained a consistent votary against imperialism on almost all issues, particularly during the extremely polarised days of the Cold War. Yet despite his publicly declared partisanship, how is it that many of those located on the other side of the ideological divide respected him? There seems to be only one answer: in his chosen field of poetry, Faiz simply stood tall – technically and, perhaps more important, morally. He chose poetry as his arena of revolutionary action, and he did this so well in the battle of ideas that he not only transcended the hitherto prescribed limits of expression, but also redefined the vocabulary of that expression. In doing so, Faiz successfully blurred the boundary between love poetry and revolutionary poetry to the extent that you cannot distinguish between the two.
With his felicity with languages and his brilliant academic record, Faiz could have had a bright career in nearly any field; but he chose a life of commitment, at great personal risk – to his freedom, citizenship and life – and at great cost to his family. Yet it was this steadfastness in his ideals and the uncompromising manner in which he worked that compelled all those who chose to stick to a safe path to bow their heads before him and acknowledge his leading role.
That brings us to the next question – what makes Faiz universally popular, even decades after his death? Faiz was a committed dreamer, and he dreamt of a revolutionary movement that was humanist, self-sacrificing and egalitarian, but also firm and uncompromising. He dreamt of a future that many had dreamt of, but expressed his views in a convincing and gracious language. Indeed, this language did not alienate his ideological adversaries, but rather made them uncomfortable – shaking the foundation of the other side of the ideological fence, and therefore leaving them dumbfounded.
My own love affair with Faiz's poetry started when I was still in school. The love affairs of adolescence are intense. Yet, only some last. Of course, in retrospect it seems clear that I understood little of his poetry at that age. The true meaning of the poem 'Mere humdam mere dost' descended like a revelation upon me only when I was in the final year of my masters programme in Delhi, when I recited it to a friend. The poem gently and beautifully says that revolution can be brought only by the working class; a poet can sing songs but cannot bring revolution – ie, though the middle class has an important role to play, the proletariat is the vanguard of any revolution. I must have recited this poem hundreds of times before then, but its import had somehow escaped me totally.
Still, during my school days it must have been the power and beauty of Faiz's language that attracted me. I memorised almost every verse from the anthologies of his works available at the time. Of course, much of this initial pull can be traced to my parents – my father a communist, both freedom fighters. They never asked their children to recite 'Twinkle, twinkle little star' or 'Goosy, goosy gander' before guests; instead, I was asked to recite the poetry of Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal (not one of my favourites), Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. During those years, 'Siyasi leader ke naam', 'Shishon ka masiha' and the aforementioned 'Mere humdum mere dost' were my favourites. The first of these was easy to understand, but the latter two are not. The soft, beautiful words might attract one to the beauty of poetry, but they depict extremely harsh realities of life.
Faiz realised quite early on that traditional Urdu poetry had immense potential to articulate modern revolutionary ideas, and that this medium was yet to be fully explored. Of course, the idioms, similes, metaphors and, above all, symbolism and structure of traditional Urdu poetry were already highly developed. So, Faiz was able to pick up words and expressions that were part of the traditional vocabulary of this form, and invest them either with new meanings or to actively create nuances within their traditional import. Words such as raqeeb (adversary), laila, majnoon, qafas (cage), saba (morning breeze), naaseh (sermoniser), munsif (judge), hawas (lust, greed), muddaee (complainant), etc, were each invested with new meanings. For example, in the poem 'Raqeeb se' (To the adversary), friends are addressed as adversaries in love (raqeeb). Calling a friend an adversary was a novel notion, tradition turned on its head. Such words had a long history of being used for love poetry, but Faiz was now appropriating them for a whole new context. He also borrowed the structure of love poetry from Mir Taqi Mir, the renowned poet of the early 19th century. Together, Faiz was able to use the traditional words and structure to symbolise capitalism and state oppression as enemies of harmony – lovers, hope, tranquillity and beauty symbolised revolutionaries and socialism for him.
Faiz's felicity with multiple languages, including English, Persian, Arabic and Punjabi, coupled with his understanding of their cultural and historical moorings, helped him to draw from diverse traditions to construct new metaphors in Urdu. His palette was large and he never hesitated to use words from other languages, which had the effect of increasing his intensity of expression. For example, in his poem 'Intisab', he has used the word clerkon (clerks, English), railbaanon (railway driver, English), katrion (dwellings, Punjabi) and wali-e-maasiwa fill arz dehqan ke naam (dedicated to, the inheritor of destitution, god's proxy on the earth, farmer, Arabic).
Whenever Faiz deviated from traditional language, literary critics would feel increasingly uneasy, with many criticising him for not knowing proper Urdu. Once a famous Indian Urdu critic said, 'He does not know Urdu, and there are many linguistic mistakes in his poetry – after all, he is a Punjabi.' A journalist reported this to Faiz while he was on a visit to Delhi, and the poet, characteristically polite, said only, 'We will correct the mistakes.' His answer disarmed not only the reporter but also the critic, just as his poetry always has done with his opponents.
As a poet Faiz is traditional in almost every sense. His choice of words, imagery and poetic structure are all traditional. What is not traditional was his content, and in this way he used traditions specifically to subvert worn-out conventions. This could be said about his entire corpus of poetry, but two poems in particular stand out: 'Dua' and 'Hum dekhenge'.
In Urdu and Hindi poetry, a collection of poems or even a prose book is supposed to start with a poem (or a chapter, in case of prose) in praise of god and other religious figures – this is referred to as the 'Dua'. Yet poets and writers associated with the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), most of them atheists, had given up this tradition – anti-god and -religion sentiments had become so strong that all such practices had become unacceptable. Faiz was the only one to realise that even this tradition could be used to subvert. The poem 'Dua' appears in the middle of his collection Sar-e-Wadi-e-Sina (Atop the Sinai Valley), so the placement itself is the beginning of this subversion. Thereafter, the first couplet, hard-hitting as it is, sets
Aiye haath uthaayen hum bhi
Hum, jinhe rasm-e dua yaad nahin
Hum, jinhe soz-e mohabbat ke siva
Koi but, koi khuda yaad nahin.
Let us raise our hands in prayer, we who remember not the tradition of prayer,
We, who expect the pain of love, remember not any idol, any god.
The poet does not ask anything for himself, as is the case with all traditional duas. He prays for 'exchanging the toxic bitterness of the present with the sweetness of tomorrow', 'hope for the hopeless', 'vision for the visionless', 'courage for the timid', the 'ability to investigate for those who believe in lies and myths'. There are no harsh words, no ill feeling invoked; yet the content of each couplet is revolutionary, sharp, clear and loud.
The title 'Wa Yabqa Wajhe Rubbika' of the poem is taken from the Surah-e-rahman in the Quran. 'Hum dekhenge' draws its imagery from the description of qayamat, the Day of Reckoning, as 'revealed' in the Quran (Surah: Ziljal), and transforms it into to 'day of revolution'. The description of what will happen on that day is taken almost verbatim from the Quran, though with slight modifications. Instead of merely 'mountains', for instance, he writes 'jab zulm-o-sitam ke kohe giran' (when the heavy mountains of tyranny). Once again, Faiz is at his best in subverting traditional imagery that had been used over and over again. In this case, Islamic fundamentalism had been used by the authorities to reinforce religious ideas that General Zia ul-Haq was trying to instil for the consolidation of political and economic power. Gen Zia came to power in a coup, imposed martial law in Pakistan (1977), and soon unleashed fascistic terror in the name of Nizam-e-Mustafa (Islamic system). The poem was written in 1979, as Zia's tyranny touched its zenith. Faiz subversively uses the lines 'removal of idols from the Kaaba' and the 'reinstallation of outlaws' to symbolise the removal of Gen Zia and his political movement, and the restoration of democracy. Faiz made it amply clear that his reading of the Quran was quite different from General Zia's and the brand of 'Islam' that Zia was trying to sell was not acceptable to him.
Iqbal Bano, the acclaimed ghazal singer, sang this poem in public during Zia's rule. Faiz was in jail. That night 50000 people, while listening to 'Hum Dekhenge', repeatedly chanted Inqilab Zindabad (Long live revolution). Shoaib Hashmi, Faiz's son-in-law, once narrated before a packed hall in Delhi how the recording was smuggled out, hurriedly edited with makeshift editing facilities, and a few copies quickly handed out to avoid confiscation. With these few audiocassettes, further copies were made. The number swelled in geometric progression and soon the copies crossed the border, and within weeks the cassette reached many individuals in Delhi.
Very often, I listen to a recording of this song at home and while travelling to work. Thunderous clapping and slogans of Inqilab Zindabad repeatedly interrupt the performance. A Telugu scientist friend who usually travels with me to the office has either given up hope that I will someday stop playing it – or has started enjoying 'Hum dekhenge'. I very often forced this song on him, told him stories about the context in which it was written and sung.
Recently a Pakistani friend, a scholar of the history of science, told me that he had actually been at the programme when Iqbal Bano sang. Thereafter, a friend of his who worked in the Pakistani armed forces had rung him up late at night, warning him not to stay at home for the next two or three days. He took precautions and stayed away from his house. In the coming days, many of those present in the Lahore auditorium were hauled up and questioned, and some were detained. His home was also visited in the middle of the night by the military police, to enquire after his whereabouts.
One need not be surprised by this. Listening to Faiz's poetry, even when sung by the most celebrated musical diva of the country, was an inherently anti-imperialist, anti-dictatorship and anti-fascist act. It was highly subversive. We may not realise it, but tyrants always recognise the explosive potential of an apparently harmless piece of text. Perhaps it should be applied in translation or without to the tyrants that remain with us all over Southasia.
–Gauhar Raza is a scientist, writer and poet based in Delhi.