Subsumed by history and nation

Subsumed by history and nation

Where does Faiz the poet and pan-Southasian Marxist end and Faiz the Pakistani begin? This is a question to which Bangladeshis, among others, still seek an answer.

Afsan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi liberation war researcher, columnist and journalist.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz remains one of the great unsolved enigmas of Southasian literature. Where does Faiz the poet end and Faiz the politician begin? Where does the pan-Southasian Marxist end and the Pakistani begin? His engagement with these contradictory identities constitutes a painful puzzle for his admirers. This becomes all the more complex because Faiz never seemed to have belonged fully to any one land – the boundaries of his literary, political and cultural life are fluid, flowing  and overlapping.

The issue becomes even more complex for a Bangladeshi admirer such as this writer, who was born in the 1950s and to whom Faiz offers a complex identity and a bonding to great ideals crossing all borders. He is one Pakistani whom Bangladeshis have looked upon with the greatest possible admiration and affection. Yet what challenges this bond is the Faiz of during and immediately after 1971. During those terrible days, Bangladeshis who knew about or of him would ask each other, What is Faiz saying about all this? He had become the 'Good Pakistani' in the eyes of those in the East. Yet, was Faiz ever a person who represented more than Pakistan? Was it possible for him to escape being a Pakistani and have a wider identity encompassing all the admiring nations of Southasia and beyond?

During the late 1960s, Munir Chowdhury hosted a literary television show in East Pakistan, during which he would discuss various writers of Pakistan. He was a legendary speaker, and employed his dramatic skills to present literary luminaries to a devoted public. In one show he talked about Faiz, his friend and fellow-traveller. Chowdhury focused on the poem 'Mujhse pahli si muhabbat mere mehboob na maang', presenting Faiz as a social revolutionary and a poet of the oppressed. This presentation suited Chowdhury, who had been a Communist Party member, jailed in 1952 for his activism during the Bengali-focused Language Movement, and a lifelong literary activist who had become an icon of Bengali nationalism. He had moved on from his firebrand days, however, to become more a writer than a politician, an unparalleled teacher and East Pakistan's leading dramatist.

Most importantly, Chowdhury's love for Faiz's poetry was real. His introduction was one of the memorable moments of my life, an introduction to a poet of passion and beauty whom I admire to this day. Though I understand little of the literary tradition that Faiz upholds or the magnificent language of his poetry, I appreciate it – somewhere, there is a deep bond that transcends poetic pursuits. Yet my affection is also tinged with pain, as I see Faiz nationalised, regionalised, made language-specific. This is a tragedy for a poet who spoke to all of us once.

Defanging the revolutionary
During the 1940s, Faiz was certainly a Marxist. At that time he was in then-undivided India and had gone to war as an officer of the British Indian army, but returned home to become a journalist. He was married to Alys, a British sympathiser of the communists, whose sister was married to an Indian who taught in Aligarh. During this period, as the nation-states of Pakistan and India came into being, the Communist Party (CP) told its members to choose countries according to their religions. Thus, many communists in India and Pakistan emigrated across the new border obeying the party diktat. Many critics argue that the Communist Party went 'communal' even before that, when it asked cadres to join the Muslim League or Congress as per their respective religious identity. Harnessing India's political will proved to be quite beyond the capacity of the party, and the CP was relegated to a marginal role.

After Partition, Faiz, who had earlier worked on both sides of the new border, chose to live in Pakistan. Was this because he believed in the political structure and state ideology of the new country, one that subsequently moved increasingly towards becoming what was obvious in its charter – a state for one faith alone? Faiz was never a Muslim Leaguer, nor even a 'Muslim', so why then would he choose Pakistan? Perhaps it was never more than a move to his homeland, which by all standards was much less open than India. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons that attracted him to Pakistan, but the new country's ideals certainly would not have been guiding his decision – maybe, going home was all it was about.

In Pakistan after 1947, Faiz was known for his views and activism, a man clearly a part of the left. He was involved with trade unionism, which even in those early days in Pakistan was considered an activity almost treasonous. In 1950-51 Faiz was arrested, along with Communist Party leader Sajjad Zahir and a few military officers led by General Akbar Khan, for planning a military takeover. There was a period of prolonged incarceration and a trial followed by a four-year sentence.

What was Faiz trying to do? Gen Akbar, leader of what has since become known as the Rawalpindi conspiracy, was a rabid Pakistani nationalist. He wanted to take over Pakistan – not because he wanted a new form of the state, but because he was frustrated with the Pakistani leadership, considering it too moderate in dealing with India. How did Sajjad Zahir and Faiz get involved with such a person? Where was the common space? I have not come across any material on the motives of the participants, or of the deals that must have been made between these two completely disparate groups, the communists and the ultra-nationalists, to achieve this alliance.

Around the world, communist parties generally tend not to be pro-army when out of power. But there has always been a fatal attraction among communists towards the military, in the belief that a coup can deliver revolution in a quick stroke, rendering organisational work and resilience unnecessary. This has been tried in Africa with a marked lack of success, as in Ethiopia and Mozambique; and so too in Bangladesh, where a one-legged War of Liberation hero, Colonel Abu Taher, came to power for a few hours in November 1975. He led his Marxist activists in an anti-officer uprising, which was to deliver socialism. Along with many others, he was hanged. History has also shown that attempts by communists to use the military path to power usually end in failure.

There seems to be no satisfactory explanation for the left involvement in the 1950 Pakistan coup attempt. But Faiz was involved, or we assume he was, because no 'confession' exists. Soon after the imprisonment, his active political life also began to fade and, anyway, the CP was banned in 1954. In the public mind, Faiz gradually became many other things: one of the great poets of our time, a friend of the Sufis of Pakistan and, finally, the safest and most innocuous, an outspoken lover of alcohol. Faiz was transformed and fitted into the benign identity of a great poet who does not challenge the state. Yet the fact remains: he did challenge it, albeit unsuccessfully.

Poets as communists 

The identities of poets and communists do not always go well together. Poets usually tend to be people of words and passion, moved to politics by the power of the heart, not ideology. Over time, the two identities can become contested, if not came in direct conflict. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was always a better poet than a Marxist revolutionary, but he did try to cultivate a mix of both identities. Bangladesh's national poet, Nazrul Islam, was jailed for sedition and was a fellow-traveller of the Communist Party; he even ran the party's official newspaper in Bengal but drifted away over time, as his poetry and songs began to take priority. Also his inter-faith devoutness, believing in the mystic constructs of Islam and Hinduism (hardly a Marxist attitude, whichever way you look at it) became increasingly important to him. Early senility robbed him of his faculties when barely past forty, and things therefore never really reached a point where this conflict could grow larger.

Faiz had a better formal education than Nazrul, and also had a better knowledge of Marxist dogma and its application. He was also more middle-class and shareef (genteel). His poetry's roots and tools were the fine wine of Urdu and Persian literature; even his most famous poem 'Mujhse pehli si muhabbat', was written in the language of a chosen few, a highly stylised articulate Persian-Urdu that would be meaningful only to the well-educated. He was in many ways far more representative of the CP leadership's class and cultural roots than was Nazrul, who came from a peasant background.

Yet that only underlines the original question: Where could Faiz's politics find space in Pakistan? Unlike East Pakistan, where the communist tradition was deep and its politics itself spurred on by Marxist intellectuals and cultural activists, West Pakistan was almost completely bereft of such impulses, united in hatred for India but not much more. One could name Mian Iftikharuddin and Wali Khan, but these politicians were more Pashtun than Marxist, and much of the left nationalism was limited to NWFP and Balochistan. The Punjabis of Pakistan were not known for their leftist leanings. Was Faiz's much vaunted loneliness merely a poetic expression, or did it go deeper?

As children in Dhaka, we heard about Faiz's refusal to write a laudatory editorial in the Pakistan Times – the paper owned by Mian Iftikharuddin and edited by Faiz – about the martial law imposed by Gen Ayub Khan in 1958. Soon the paper was taken over by the government and Faiz had to leave. For some reason, the political Faiz went missing after that defiant stand, at least as far as pan-Pakistani politics was concerned – the kind of politics that could also resonate in East Pakistan. Faiz was from then on a poet, not a socialist poet.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan that Faiz wanted to transform in the image of his ideals ended in 1971. During the days after the crackdown on Dhaka on 25 March of that year, as people wondered how the people of the Western half felt about the bloody events in the East, they heard a chorus of approval, led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saying, 'Thank God! Pakistan is saved!' This was a famously premature statement, of course, as all of Bhutto's machinations ran out of momentum in the end, with Pakistan collapsing in ignominy in December of that year. During those days, those who knew would ask, What did Faiz say? Did he protest? Did he give a statement saying it was wrong? In fact, we do not know what Faiz did. But we do know that this was one man many Bangladeshis expected to stand up for them. Of course, it was unfair to expect that Pakistanis who wished to express dissent could do so in a martial-law governed Pakistan. Very few could, and those who did went to jail or paid an even higher price. But Bangladeshis were demanding all this from the person – poet and politician – they imagined Faiz to be, rather than a person of flesh and blood who lived in Pakistan. In a way, Faiz had become a prisoner of the history of Pakistan.

As the war reached a gory climax, Bengali supporters of Pakistan, particularly those belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami, went around the curfewed city, picking up as many poets, academics and intellectuals as they could find. It was always their view that Bengali nationalism was produced by these people, the so-called Hindu-loving secularists and cultural activists. If the crackdown on 25 March 1971 was the beginning of the end, the day when most intellectuals were picked up, 14 December marked the explosive end of the carnage. Many bodies could be seen dumped in the swampy killing fields, but few could be identified due to the advanced state of decomposition. Corpses with arms tied behind their backs, bearing marks of torture and missing eyes, have become the visual memories of the torture and murder of 1971. Among the many who disappeared and were never found was Munir Chowdhury, the man who introduced me to Faiz.

Friends and strangers

Faiz did visit Bangladesh in 1974, as part of an official delegation as an advisor on culture. He met with his friends but the closest ones like Shahidullah Kaiser, Munir Chowdhury, Zahir Raihan, all writers and CP activists, had disappeared. Others were uneasy with Faiz as memories, unshared history and the reality of two distant states came between friends. He clearly missed the warmth of their friendship. In one of his most painful and beautiful poems, 'Hum ke thehre ajnabi' (We who have been rendered strangers), Faiz summed up his personal agony – and that of many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis whose friendship had been torn asunder by the war. The final lines are:

Un se jo kehne gaye thhe Faiz, jaa sadqa kiye

Ankahi hi reh gayi vo baat, sab baatoon ke baad

Faiz, that one thing which I went there to say with all my heart

That very thing was left unsaid, after so much had been spoken

Friendship is a much more complicated matter than one imagines, for in Southasia politics can burn friendship with the flames of conflict.

Faiz's politics died in Pakistan soon after he was jailed in 1950; only his poetry remained. With each day, though, his status as a poet soared, while admiration for him spread throughout the Subcontinent. Eventually, Faiz had become among the greatest legends of all. One could ask whether he left the building of his people – the somewhat fuzzy definition of 'people' which Southasian socialism imagines existing beyond borders – as after 1947 his world was determined by the country in which he lived. His socialist imagination was encircled by Pakistan's politics, and the very politics he wished to change overcame his resolve.

Faiz's personality was much more than just that of a poet. Indeed, that is the root of my sorrow – an unreasonable feeling, I concede. We have also seen how people who are unable to change politics sometimes become depoliticised beings. Munir Chowdhury once lamented publicly that he was defeated by the temptations of life – he gave up the life of a party cadre to become a teacher. I am not sure what path Faiz followed, but I hope he found peace in supporting political causes in Pakistan.

It might be heretical to say this, but perhaps Faiz would have been happier in the more politically variegated soil of India, where his poetry is as much admired as it is in Pakistan. In India, only a crippled form of socialist politics breathes, but at least it exists. I concede that to suggest another home for Faiz, particularly India, will be tantamount to committing blasphemy in the eyes of some. It is cruel to Faiz, too. He lives on wherever Urdu remains alive. And yet, it is important to remember one more time that Faiz grew into adulthood and recognition in an undivided Subcontinent amid its dreams.

The communist, the rebel, the secularist, the romantic poet, the happy lover of alcohol – all had in the end become a Pakistani. So it was that when he visited Dhaka in 1974 with Bhutto, it was only to find that many of his friends had been killed or disappeared by the same forces he represented in Bangladesh. The chasm became infinite and complete: he visited accompanied by those with whom his Bangladeshi friends could no longer associate.

People who dream of a better world are often condemned to become what history demands of them.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian