Notes from a people's poet

Apr 15, 2012, 08:26 IST | Waleed Hussain

The biography The Way It Was Once offers a rare glimpse into the life of the reticent, iconic poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who defied autocrats and won the heart of the common man with poignancy and style

‘Aaj ek harf ko phir dhoondta phirta hai khayal’ (Today a thought seeks, once again, a word) The delicate art of converting thoughts into beautiful words made Faiz Ahmed Faiz a legend in the Indian subcontinent. A 20th century poet, Faiz thrived on the simplicity of language and made fans of the man on the street. Unlike his predecessors Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbal, whose poetry was an amalgamation of complex words and views, Faiz was a ‘people’s poet’.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (centre) with Palestinian poet Moiene Bissisou (left) and Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat (right). Pics Courtesy/Faizfoundation trust

The intensity and depth of Faiz’s work was complemented by the simplicity of his choice of words. For decades lovers have used the line — Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai (And the endless depth of your eyes were enough for all creation) to woo their loved ones. Millions of his fans, both in India and Pakistan, admire and follow his work even three decades after his death. In Faiz’s biography, The Way It Was Once, his grandson Ali Madeeh Hashmi tells the story of the popular poet to a generation that may have merely heard of him.

Faiz was shy and remained so for the better part of his life. He was seldom heard and only smiled at social gatherings. His friends enjoyed coaxing and cajoling him into commenting on issues. But all they got in return was the infectious smile that soon came to be recognised as the poet’s trademark.
But Faiz’s shyness didn’t come in the way of his fiery and scathing editorials as the chief editor of The Pakistan Times. His editorials often served as a lesson on what fearless journalism should be like. In an editorial in 1949, he wrote “The selfish pack of men who have, for the past 18 months, revelled in people’s misery and mocked at the nobility of freedom have been asked to quit…”

As editor of The Pakistan Times, Faiz often came in the way of the autocratic government of Pakistan. He was accused of hatching a conspiracy against the Ayub Khan government and was sent to jail, framed as the key conspirator in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case. He stayed in jail for four years. The government thought that putting Faiz behind bars would silence his voice, but it was wrong. As the editor of the national daily, Faiz was unable to devote time to his poetry otherwise. However, confinement only spurred his creativity. He published two of his best collections of poems — Dast-e-Saba and Zindaan Naama — from prison. After that, his popularity soared in the subcontinent.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz with his wife Alys at their home in Model Town in Lahore in 1982

Faiz also wrote extensively about the need for land reforms in Pakistan. The problems of labourers and the worker class formed the theme for many of his poems. His poem Subh-a-Azaadi became a symbol of an unfulfilled desire for a free land. ‘Doing good without expecting reward’ was the motto of Faiz’s life, and the author, Hashmi, has done a commendable job of highlighting Faiz’s achievements with humility.

In the biography, Hashmi shares some of the many letters written by Faiz to his wife Alys from prison. The documents shed light on the turbulent times and also offer a glimpse into the personality of the reticent poet. After his release in 1955, Faiz rejoined The Pakistan Times, and wrote extensively. He later wrote a screenplay for a film on the lives of fishermen in East Bengal (Jago Hua Savera). In 1962, Faiz was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and, soon after, his work was recognised in the international community.

The unsavoury political atmosphere in Pakistan deeply affected Faiz, and in his work during 1958-1962, he wrote extensively about the issues that affected the masses. The Partition wounded Faiz considerably, and the formation of Bangladesh only saddened him further. He wrote Hum Kay Thehre Ajnabi (We who became strangers) at the request of Awami League leader Mujibur Rahman and expressed his grief.

Then in 1977, the Bhutto government fell and the military took over the reins. Yet again Faiz, was placed under surveillance, and risked the prospect of arrest at any time. He decided to leave the country, and fly to Delhi. In his own words, Faiz called it ‘self-exile’. No one had forced him to leave the country, and neither had he given up on the fight. His spirit was still willing but the body could not take the physical punishment at
his age.
In 1979, Faiz was chosen as the Editor of Lotus, the journal of Afro-Asian writers with Alys as the secretary. They headed to set up office in Beirut. There, Faiz developed a close friendship with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). His poem, Song for the Warriors of Palestine was translated into Arabic and became a national song for the struggling Palestinians.

When the war in Beirut escalated, Faiz was advised to leave the city. He moved to Moscow and later in 1983 decided to end his self imposed exile and returned to Lahore. A year later he breathed his last. He was laid to rest in a simple grave in Model Town, Lahore. In his lifetime Faiz has been called a socialist, communist, an atheist but, as Hashmi writes, Faiz was a man beyond labels. He was, and will be, simply, Faiz.

The Way It Was Once,
Ali Madeeh Hashmi &
Poems translated by
Shoaib Hashmi,
Harper Collins Rs 499

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was known for his shy smile, but that didn’t stop the iconic poet and editor from writing scathing editorials in The Pakistan Times

Faiz’s life: The way it was
Born in Sialkot, Pakistan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz shared his hometown with another iconic poet Allama Iqbal. Over the years he was influenced by the works of Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib and was mentored by Sayyid Mir Hassan. Faiz graduated from the Scotch Mission High School in 1927 with honours and excelled in languages like Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English. He took up his first job offer as a lecturer at the MAO College in Amritsar in 1935. And it was here that he met his future wife Alys. Faiz was a great fan of Ghalib, and kept a copy of the Diwan-e-Ghalib by his bedside and read it often. Ghalib’s work bore a great influence on Faiz’s earlier poems. Faiz’s poems have been translated into French, German, English, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, Polish, Danish, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and others. He had joined the propaganda department of the British Indian Army as a captain. He rose to the rank of colonel and was awarded as MBE for his services in 1946. 

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