|Artwork by Saif Ali|
Politics and history are commensurate. At the worst of times, when upheaval and change are the order of the day, so are politics and poetry. There can be no better example of this axiom in the 20th century than the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who wrote prolifically and compellingly on the events that shaped today’s Subcontinent. Apart from his prodigious output as a poet, Faiz also wrote newspaper editorials and articles, and gave interviews on a range of subjects that, taken together, reveal a highly political mind beneath the poet’s persona and demonstrate the astonishing range of his concerns and interests. Our interest here is in Faiz’s prose writings and the similarities and differences with his poetry. While admittedly the comparison itself – between prose and poetry – is unfair and the two are, by their very nature, as unalike as apples and oranges, when the writings come from the same pen they inevitably arouse curiosity
The War in Europe affected India and Indians in strange ways. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Faiz’s pacifism changed. He joined the welfare department of the British army in 1942 and was put in charge of publicity. He served in the army till 1947 and was given an MBE for his services, and raised to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He wore a uniform and served His Majesty’s Government, not for guts or glory but simply because he believed fascism had to be fought at all costs and by whatever means available. But with the war over and his teaching days behind him, Faiz found himself in search of a regular job.
Sometime in early 1947, the Progressive Papers Limited was established in Lahore by Mian Iftikharuddin, and Faiz was offered the job of editing Pakistan Times and heading the editorial board of its sister publications, the Urdu daily Imroze and the literary and political weekly Lail-o-Nahar. Faiz was then only 37 years old. As the editor of the Pakistan Times, the English-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.
To instruct and inform
It is in these English writings that one gets a taste of what Faiz had set out to do when he, along with a group of like-minded young men, established the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq or the Circle of Men of Good Taste. Set up in 1939, the members of the Halqa set themselves up as the arbiters of good taste in matters of poetry, prose and politics, and continued to exercise a prominent influence on the Pakistani literary scene long after the waning of the PWA. The Halqa demanded nothing of its members save a vaguely defined aestheticism that did not shy away from individualism and subjectivity (both, incidentally, anathema to the ‘hard-core’ progressives). To the modern reader the name of this loose coalition of ‘literary types’ – many of whom had overlapping membership with the PWA – may seem pretentious and snobbish but it was, during its time, a much-needed corrective for the progressives who held all matters of ‘good taste’ in lofty disdain and prized ideology above all else. It might, for this reason, be instructive to read Faiz’s editorials in the context in which they were written. Their purpose was not merely to raise a voice of dissent or create a platform of resistance for the sake of a laid-down ideology; their purpose was, I think, to instruct and inform, and when his conscience so demanded, offer
In an editorial entitled ‘What Price Liberty?’ written in April 1948, we see Faiz at his most trenchant:
There are no halfway houses between liberty and thraldom. 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.
From the writings of this period, perhaps the most moving is the editorial of 23 March 1949 titled ‘Progress of a Dream’. Declaring Partition 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,’ Faiz goes on to say, ‘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 saves his strongest words of criticism for those ‘selfish packs of men’ who ‘mock at the nobility of freedom’.
However, it seems hard to reconcile – at least for me, as an Indian – the glowing tribute to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, captioned ‘To God We Return’, written upon the Quaid-e-Azam’s death on 13 September 1948, with the poet who wrote Ye daagh daagh ujaala, ye shabgazeeda sehar, Vo intezaar tha jis ka, ye vo sehar to nahin? Was this 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 obituary of a political leader whom he calls ‘friend and counsellor, the guide and confidante, the comrade and leader all combined into one’ seems excessive, to say the least. Moreover, in comparing the loss of India and Pakistan who were ‘in quick succession deprived of the two wisest and most humane men in the sub-continent’ (referring to Gandhi and Jinnah in the same breath), he goes on to say, incredibly enough: ‘Ours is very much the greater and the more grievous loss.’ Was Faiz being prophetic? Was he implying that Pakistan’s loss was greater, not because Jinnah’s stature was greater than Gandhi’s, but that India would, or could, move beyond the Mahatma’s death, while for Pakistan it would prove to be a grievous body blow?
To be fair, writing shortly after Gandhi’s assassination in an editorial dated 3 February 1948 titled ‘Grave Challenge’, Faiz described Gandhi’s murder as ‘one of the darkest crimes in history … comparable only to the crucifixion of Jesus.’ But in the very next breath he goes on to make a remark that, in modern parlance, can only be called politically incorrect:
The Jews have not been forgiven [for the crucifixion], and their lot through the centuries has been little better than that of fugitives and vagabonds. It is our earnest hope and prayer that India may be spared the nemesis to which an entire people is sometimes landed by the doings of its misguided fanatics.
A different medium
Faiz’s English prose, much like his Urdu poetry, is powerful and passionate and 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. However, unlike the poetry – and one says this with some trepidation regarding someone of Faiz’s stature – 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 English 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 sometimes arcane.
It is not just a difference of style; there is the matter of substance, too. In real life, it must be remembered, while Faiz had his sympathies with the poor and downtrodden, he was clearly never one of them. Perhaps, constrained to walk a tightrope between ideology and good taste, between art and propaganda, between his role as an editor and a free thinker, between being a citizen of a Pakistan increasingly moving in the direction of sectarianism and fundamentalism and a world whose borders were dissolving, Faiz must have felt the tug of nationalism and the voice of his conscience. There must have been occasions when the liberal, progressive ideology that runs like a shaft of translucent light through his poetry gets dimmed in the prism of his prose.
As Faiz increasingly got drawn into the trade union and civil rights movements, he was often called upon to act as a spokesperson for his people and make himself known as an opponent of oppression. ‘The wretched of the earth’, a phrase popularised by Franz Fanon, continued to interest him but then he did occasionally feel compelled to also write what was expected of him. For instance, there is the account of life in the Soviet Union entitled Mah-o-Saal-e-Aashnai (Months and Years of Friendship), which, ostensibly written as a memoir by a sympathetic fellow-traveller, falls barely short of propaganda.
Poetry, on the other hand, allowed him to use classical imagery for political themes, and to evolve a trope of metaphors and symbols that made profoundly radical, even subversive, comments in the guise of a time-honoured repertoire that was familiar both to him and his readers. In this, he borrowed from the best tradition of the centuries-old shehr ashob (literally ‘lament of the city’, this refers to a school of poetry that concerned itself with social and political decline), as well as poets of protest like Chakbast and Hasrat Mohani. It allowed him, for instance, to write deeply political poems, especially during his imprisonment from 1951-55 when the threat of death hung over him. Prose, that too in English, has no such leeway; a spade has to be called a spade or else left alone. The limitation – if it may be called that – is, to my mind, of the medium in such cases and not of the pen.
Faiz called his second and third volumes of poetry – Dast-e-Saba (The Breeze’s Hand, 1953), and Zindah Nama (Poems from Prison, 1956) – a ‘tribute’ to captivity: ‘Confinement, like love, is a fundamental experience. It opens many new windows on the soul,’ he said. Deprived of pen and paper in the early days of solitary confinement, he wrote qatas (four-lined rhymed verse) that he could memorise; later he evolved a complex system of images, drawn from the classical Persian tradition that seemed on the face of it ‘harmless’ enough. Shortly before his death, while addressing the Asian Study Group, he revealed the subtle ways he was forced to evolve to evade censorship. For instance, when speaking of ehd-e-junoon (period of obsession) or chaman ki udasi (sorrow of the garden), he was actually referring to oppression and injustice.
Prose, unfortunately, has no such provisions; it certainly has no time-honoured ‘formula’ for transforming the lament of a lover for his beloved into the agonised call of the conscience. Also, the very nature of an editorial, bound as it is by the compulsions of time and circumstance, sometimes makes it a knee-jerk response. That might also explain the rawness of thought in some of the editorials. The profound sorrow and solidarity expressed in some of Faiz’s poems that came, evidently from reflection, are missing in these editorials. Hum jo tareek rahon mein mare gaye (We who were executed in the dark lanes), written for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and Dhaka sewapsi (Return from Dhaka) resonate with a deep sympathy and profound sensitivity that can only come from long hours of contemplation, even meditation. Even in some of his outright political poems, Faiz could be philosophical, even mystical; he could appeal to the senses and also stir one’s thoughts; he could use imagery that was at once oblique, even radically new, or use classical imagery to mean totally new things. The tangled skeins of modernism (jadidyat) and progressivism (taraqqui-pasandi) ran through his poetry and show the influence as much of Hafiz and the Persian masters as Stephen Spender and W H Auden.
The pull of nation
The charges against Faiz during the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case brought his career as a Pakistani news editor to a halt. When he emerged from jail in 1955, he found the world a changed place (chhute aseer to badla hua zamana tha). The years of the Cold War saw him involved with the International Peace Committee. Between periods of exile he served first the Pakistan Arts Council (where he wrote radio plays and film scripts) and then the Lok Virsa (National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage) as a ‘cultural bureaucrat’. It was only during his self-imposed exile in war-torn Beirut, as editor of Lotus, the journal of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, that he once again wielded the prose writer’s pen. From 1979-1982, he not only published translations of the poetry of his close friend and fellow-poet, Pablo Neruda, and a host of new voices from the Third World, but also wrote on a range of subjects dear to him. The Lotus years show him as a man consistently and compulsively engaged with all those who, like him, longed for freedom from oppression and injustice. These years also show him contributing to the growing movement for anti and post-colonial writings which lay at the heart of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association formed by Faiz and others in the early 1950s and whose first conference he had attended in Tashkent in 1958 as the delegate from Pakistan (with Hafiz Jallundhari as fellow-delegate).
At the same time, since the creation of Pakistan, we see an increasingly nationalistic tone in both his prose and poetry, though never in the jingoistic or chauvinistic sense. Despite all his scathing editorials on the goings-on in the government, the hauntingly evocative ghazals on the bloodbath in East Pakistan by the West Pakistani armed forces, his iconic song to the slain soldier after the 1965 war with India, and his many years in exile, Faiz was essentially a nationalist. He remained one no matter where he lived – in Lahore, London, or Beirut.
The laila-o-watan (the beloved who is the country) whom he courted with such ardour in his poetry coloured his prose as well. The effect, so enticing and bewitching in the poetry, is less so in the prose. The small matter of effect aside, together both the prose and poetry consistently show the anti-imperial, anti-colonial and humane outlook that was quintessential
to Faiz’s worldview.
—Rakhshanda Jalil lives in New Delhi and writes on issues of literature, culture and society. She is presently
working on the impact of the Progressive Writers’ Movement on the Independence movement.