Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a poet of the oppressed classes and is rightly recognized for highlighting their torments. Be it economic exploitation, social injustice, political repression or racial persecution; Faiz stood by the aggrieved. His words ring as commiseration to the tortured souls of deprived masses.
Faiz was born to an affluent family. His father was a prosperous barrister, political worker and an author from the town of Narowal, Sialkot district. At the time of Faiz’s birth in early 20th century, not many children in Punjab could claim such a privileged childhood. When he started going to the local mosque in his village -now named after him – to learn to read the Quran, other children felt uncomfortable with him around. Faiz would be neatly attired and arrive in a horse-driven carriage. He felt so strange among his impoverished colleagues that he stopped going to the mosque-madrasah after a few days.
Though his poetry is unequivocally leftist in sentiments and anti-capitalist in tenor, his social and professional life remained a well-heeled one. His elitist living continued in his adult life. He was attired in well stitched suits, wore expensive perfumes, drank high-end liquor and chain-smoked costly cigarettes. He served the colonial Indian Army during WWII to retire as a Lt Col with an MBE, stayed in high government posts, remained principal of Abdullah Haroon College owned by one of the biggest industrialists of the country and was editor of The Pakistan Times owned by a wealthy politician. He was friendly with Bhutto and served in his premiership in ministries of education and culture. He socialized with the rich, the famous and the celebrated.
On the other hand, he was also a member of the Communist Party, an ally of trade unionists and a vocal proponent of human rights. He comprehended the abysmal condition of people at the lower rungs of socio-economic ladder without experiencing their sufferings. Like in his mosque-madrassah days, he remained physically aloof from the suppressed people on whose behalf he spoke and whose pain he felt. In the numerous photographs with the ritzy glitterati, he appears completely at ease but in the few pictures in the company of working classes, he appears tense and patronizing to me.
Major Ishaque, a convicted co-accused in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, and a lifelong trade unionist thereafter, refers to this aspect when he writes in introduction to Faiz’s ZindanNama that his poetry had still to spread from drawing rooms, schools and colleges to roads, bazaars, fields and factories. He also observed that the sweat of the working class has not permeated Faiz’s poetry. Therefore, while his heart was captivated by Marxist themes, Faiz liberally partook of bourgeois charms.
This introduction to the intellectual development of Faiz leads us to examine two of his poems that are not only a reflection on but also an acknowledgment of the above described intellectual tussle that he experienced. Both clearly bring out the internal struggle that he longed to devote his immense intellect to change the circumstances of society but was reluctant to turn away completely from a life of relative ease.
As pieces of literature, these two are timeless poems; incomparable in lyrical style, social context and nuanced subtlety. They are unique pieces in Urdu literature that penetrate the core of our soul and stir painful emotions against injustices and inequality.
Faiz knew well the social discriminations and tyrannies that he depicted in his poems. If his thoughts were concentrated on those sorrows only, he could have penned the second operative part of this poem directly, without the need to refer to his amorous partner
The poems – easily accessible on the internet – being referred to are titled ‘Mujh sey pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na mang’ meaning “My beloved! Do not expect the same old love from me” and ‘Aa key wabasta hain us husn ki yadain tujh sey’ which translates as “You remind me of my lost love.” Both poems are divided in two parts. The first part recalls the pleasures of the company of the amorous lover that the poet has forsaken to attend to the ugly realities of the society as depicted in the second part.
Both poems are about a past love whose memories haven’t faded away and where the strength of sensual love has transformed into empathy for the underprivileged masses. Both poems start with reminiscence of the ex-lover and fondness for time spent with the old flame but then the thoughts of the poet turn towards the class struggle and a desire to work for a just social order.
The poem titled ‘pehli si mohabbat’ is widely known, very popular and variously sung. It is so well known that presenting it here would be superfluous repetition and, therefore, only a relevant gist should suffice. In response to complaints of loss of passion in their love, the poet explains to his miffed beloved that he erroneously thought that their mutual love would lead to a blissful life but has now realized that there are other sources of grief and comfort in the world around them. Faiz then goes on to list centuries-long brutalities, blood-soaked tortured bodies, chaste innocence sold in the flesh markets and the wasted-ailing humanity as some of the causes that trouble his compassionate heart.
Faiz knew well the social discriminations and tyrannies that he have been depicted in his poems. If his thoughts were concentrated on those sorrows only, he could have penned the second operative part of this poem directly, without the need to refer to his amorous partner. The wordings and the mood of the first part is wistful of days gone by, yearning for lost joys and dispirited about losing the tranquil life. That is a reflection on the internal conflict in poet’s thoughts and, perhaps, desires. Read the following lines of the poem,
“Teri surat sey hey aalam mein baharun ko sabat, Teri ankhon key sawa dunya mein rakha kya hey”,
“The tranquility in the universe is a reflection of your countenance,
There is no charm in this world that rivals the allure of your eyes.”
These are the wail of the smitten lover who cannot turn the page on his recent past even as he attempts to become a revolutionary.
The second poem, titled ‘To the rival’ is addressed to the current paramour of poet’s ex-love and enumerates the joys that they both have reveled in. The poem, in essence, is nostalgic. As opposed to ‘pehli si mohabbat’, it is long in its first part and also rich in sentiments, passion and sensuality. It describes the joyous moments spent in the company of the lover during their trysts.
“Tujh pey barsa hey, us baam sey mahtab ka noor, jis mein beeti hui raatun ki kisk baqi hey”
“You too have been a beneficiary of same joys of intimacy, that continue to fluster my heart.”
In the first eight verses of the poem, the poet is explicit in describing the charms of his union with the beloved in a manner that leaves nothing to imagination; the charms that are now bestowed upon the new suitor and hence the shared experienced. The wording of this part is very powerful and clearly issue from a heart saddened at the prospect of permanent separation. In the second part, the poem takes a turn in sentiment to unity with humanity. However this segment lacks in emotions, appears almost an afterthought and is clearly an appendage. Two parts do not even connect lyrically. The poet clearly didn’t have his heart into writing the second part. That is also the reason that while the first part of “Aa key wabasta hain” has often been rendered in music, no singer or composer has found the second part as fit to be sung. It may not be out of place to add that listening to these two poems in the immortal voice of Madam Noor Jehan is an aural joy.
Nothing signifies this duality than the fact that Faiz was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and also received a Nobel nomination in literature. More interestingly, he never collaborated with military dictators, yet he joined a group of serving military officers to became part of a conspiracy in 1951 to overthrow civilian government and install military dictatorship.
Faiz was not a romantic poet. He was revolutionary in thought and wrote about social injustices, economic oppression and national repression. His thoughts and pen, if not his lifestyle, invariably gravitated to the downtrodden. In all fairness and certainty, his poetic legacy shall live on for as long as Urdu is spoken as a language. He will be counted amongst its greatest poets.
Note: All translations are by the author. Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com