It was about two years ago, in the formative years of Zambeel Dramatic Readings, when a visit to the publishing house Maktaba e Daniyal helped us discover the letters of Faiz Ahmed Faiz to his wife Alys from jail during the years 1951-55. (Faiz had been arrested for his alleged part in the notorious Rawalpindi Conspiracy.) The letters, originally written in English, had been translated into Urdu by Faiz and published under the title Saleebein Meray Dareechay Mein (‘Crosses at My Window’). We were looking for all sorts of resources at this early stage of our journey and this seemed to be such a pertinent text. Yet the task was too daunting. We had 135 letters, each poignant and of a highly personal texture, each representing thoughts from the philosophical to the everyday. How could one extract from the text and yet retain its essence? The result was that I gave up. At least for the time being. But the idea kept brewing in my mind, perhaps for a better reason.
[quote]How could one extract from the text and yet retain its essence?[/quote]
When the opportunity recently arose to present a reading on Faiz, I knew that it was time to revisit the letters. But they needed a second voice – the letters of Faiz’s wife Alys. A text now out of print and titled Dear Heart – to Faiz in Prison opened the wondrous world of a courageous woman, struggling to keep her life in place, bringing up two little girls and living in an alien land in an atmosphere rife with uncertainty. My heart went out to her as she recounted to her beloved Faiz their life in Lahore, making sure he never missed a precious moment about the girls, or news about their friends, family and the discussions around his imprisonment. The letters also gave an insight into the political conditions of the country in the 50s. Through her mention of food shortages, protest marches, martial law, rampant use of arms, Alys took the reader back to details about a time otherwise unknown to younger audiences.
Here was Alys with her unreserved emotions, never fearing the expression of her anger, love or vulnerability. There was Faiz, looking at the larger picture, always supportive, finding the right words to lend courage to his wife, to have faith and keep up her spirits “but for a few days more”. This was the conversation that needed to be developed into a reading.
[quote]You experience the heavy stillness of Lahore’s summer and the chilly winter nights with Alys[/quote]
It took months of note-taking and reading both texts several times to begin to understand the shape of our project. I felt a need to keep intact the chronology, but I also wanted to bring in a range of emotions. There is humour in Faiz’s letters: at one point he speaks about getting so used to the amenities offered in jail (a radio set, a lamp, an armchair) that he isn’t sure how he will cope without the comforts of this lifestyle when he is released! There is also the strong presence of Lahore’s weather in Alys’s writings, and the reader vicariously experiences the heavy stillness of summer and the chilly winter nights through her words. As the first draft ran well over an hour, friends were called in for several critiques that resulted in a more succinct result. Mulling over the script for that long helps to soak in the text and know the characters as if they are extensions of one’s own life. My mind imagined Faiz’s prison cell and his little garden. My head was filled with anecdotes of Cheemie and Meezu through Alys’s voice. And so when I saw Salima Hashmi in Lahore on a recent visit I was startled for a moment. This was Cheemie! The nine year-old who woke up at seven to cycle and went to see Buzdil with Iqbal Mamu. This compelled me even more to bring these characters to life.
In a bid to diversify our work, the Zambeel team had decided to consider bringing in new voices for this project. We thought immediately of Khalid Ahmad and Nimra Bucha, both established artists in their own right. I am grateful that both agreed without hesitation. Rehearsals were no mean feat as we tried to find time slots that suited us all. We traversed the city and its various locales to meet at each others’ homes or workplaces, continuously thinking of ways to shape the work. The actors brought seriousness to the project from day one, a relief from the usual critique that considers dramatic readings inferior to theatrical performances.
[quote]This was Cheemie! The nine year-old who woke up at seven to cycle[/quote]
Sound and music is integral to Zambeel’s work, and it was essential to find the right tracks to support the text. Zaheer Alam Kidwai was forthcoming in his contribution by lending us a recording of the verses Mata-e-lauh-o-qalam in Faiz Sahab’s voice from his private collection. Setting the mood as the first voice to be heard in the reading, it was followed by another gem from Kidwai’s library; Bahaar Aaee played on the sitar by Ustaad Imdad Husain and on the sarangi by the late Ustaad Abdul Majeed Khan. This, supported by other sitar underscores, lent the work the sublimity it demanded.
As the production began to take shape, the Zambeel team set the wheel into motion. A poster was designed in keeping with the design sensibility of the repertoire, and announcements were forwarded to the press and on social networks to inform the audience. A meaningful moment for all of us was when Salima Hashmi dropped in to hear our final rehearsal. This was the closest any one of us could get to the characters in the text. While the actors understandably felt overawed by her presence, I did not dare steal a glance towards her throughout the reading. How could I? We were compelling her to revisit moments of her life that were etched in her memory, and her emotional response made it evident that despite reading, hearing and discussing these letters multiple times, it was still an overwhelming experience. And yet it is the large-heartedness that Faiz’s and Alys’s family demonstrates that makes the poet “our Faiz” too.
[quote]We brought the text to a younger audience that had not known this personal aspect of Faiz’s work[/quote]
On the day of the performance, as the audience sat in rapt attention, absorbing each word that was read by the actors, it was clear that we had brought the text to a younger audience that had not known this highly personal aspect of Faiz’s work. The rendition by both actors illuminated their skill, which through engaged rehearsals notched up their performance to a new level of excellence in the finale. There was a palpable sense of communication between the actors as they expressed in the voices of Faiz and Alys loneliness and despair, joy and encouragement, and most of all optimism for the future.
It is with this spirit of optimism that we ended the script, with Faiz unconfined and back at home with Alys and the girls.
‘Dhal Gaya Hijr ka Din’ was performed in Karachi on 26June 2014, performed by Khalid Ahmad and Nimra Bucha, directed by Asma Mundrawala