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'Going to jail was like falling in love again' – Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Updated 14 Jul, 2019 11:39pm
Courtesy: White Star
Courtesy: White Star

An assignment to interview Faiz Ahmed Faiz is quite a challenge. He is not inaccessible, nor is he reluctant to talk about anything, nor even intolerant of the naivete of the questioner. But he is one of the most frequently interviewed men in Pakistan. His views are known and his life is an open book. He has gone beyond the point where friends could help him or foes could harm his image. Then the sheer magnetism of his presence — the man who almost deceived everybody with the image of an unexcitable, slow-moving, reticent dervish.

Probably he was always in a hurry: a recognised poet at 18. One of the founders of the Progressive Writers Association at 24, a colonel in his thirties, editor of a national daily at 37, and a Lenin Prize winner at 50. Out of his 73 years he has been a celebrity in his land for 40 years and at the international level for over two decades. The only problem with him could be the absence of any new heights to scale, the problem of continually fulfilling the expectations aroused by this record of accomplishments.

He himself is, perhaps, not even aware of the weight of the decades-old legend that his name has become. His deeply lined face does show his age and the battering his body and soul have taken, but his sad eyes are still of the curious child going forth to savour the joys of hopeful existence and his wan smile reveals a heart that has not been sullied by any coarse grain.

What follows is a rambling conversation with Faiz about his quest of human happiness, against the background of a debate that has been going on for some time between two groups of his large following.

One views him as a visionary whose task is to lay the foundations of the revolutionary process by presenting an alternative world outlook, a new blueprint of values and attitudes in all fields of human interest, and this section is quite happy that Faiz continues to perform this role through his verse. The other section, comprising mostly younger people, would like to believe that Faiz 's brief participation in national politics should not have ended, and looks upon him from the perspective of tactical politics. This section sometimes complains that it is not getting the benefit of Faiz's views on its day-to-day struggles.

Some feel deprived that unlike the Palestinians, they are not marching forward to a battle-song by Faiz. The difference is born of the difficulty, caused by subjective factors, in distinguishing between agitational, and hence of momentary relevance, writing and the revolutionary perception which must be abiding. As far as Faiz is concerned he has never had any doubt about the vision of a society of free and equal men nor about his uninterrupted pursuit of this ideal.

I A Rehman. Faiz Sahib, you have always presented yourself as a partisan of the cause of the have-nots. How do you explain your popularity with a wider section of people from the very beginning? Was it the experience of the Depression that won you the admiration of even those who did not agree with your message?

These lines were written by Faiz especially for the *Herald* magazine
These lines were written by Faiz especially for the Herald magazine

Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Depression came later. My rapport with the audience began earlier - in the 1920s. At the end of the First World War the world scene was characterised by a great intellectual ferment, a new elan, a wave of romanticism. Injected into this worldwide stirring was the tide of hope generated by the October Revolution. The war years had given a boost to our economy. The communication barriers were falling, the movement of goods and ideas had become freer. The soldiers returning from foreign battlefronts had brought with them new perceptions.

The indigenous political movements – the Khilafat, the Congress, the Akalis - had given new dimension to the nationalist struggle. And not only was politics in a state of turmoil, there was an all-round cultural upsurge. People rediscovered their folk music, there was great interest in sports (cricket, wrestling), and the impact of European literature and aesthetes was felt by our poets and writers at first-hand poets like Hasrat Mohani and Akhtar Shirani were widening the range of traditional poetry.

In these circumstances one did not have to make any special effort to see a rapport with one's generation. Indeed, I had complete understanding with not only poets in my age group, like N M Rashed and Miraji, but also with older literary figures of Lahore - Patras, Taseer, Sufi Tabassum, Salik, Hasrat, Majeed Malik.

Rehman. When did the conscious effort to find a direction in life begin?

Faiz. I was coming to that. Towards the end of the 1920s the landscape suddenly changed, both subjectively and objectively. Subjectively, the death of my father wed the family from ‘rais’ to paupers. The years of formal education were somehow completed and then a job had to be found. Collectively the Depression exposed the people to serious hardships.

The nationalist struggle played itself out and politics drifted into communal channels, but at the same time, it was radicalised by the induction of the working class as an important factor. As a direct product of this political and social situation, the Progressive Writers' Association was born.

Rehman. And that might have caused a breach with the older writers at least?

Faiz. Not immediately. The older writers could be divided into two groups: one upholding art for the sake of art, the other bringing to its work a progressive sensibility. They already had a tradition of political rhetoric while we were introducing a new tradition of political lyricism. They agreed with us aesthetically if not ideologically.

Besides, when we held the foundation meeting of the PWA in Lahore in 1935 - and the participants included writers like Mian Bashir Ahmed and Sufi Tabassum - we were working on a broad consensus. The idea was to have a movement allied not to any particular political party bur to an ideal – the ideal of taking the masses towards social emancipation and progress. The formula was based on a realistic appreciation of the social situation and visualisation of a free and just society. The goal was to guide the people towards freedom and to use their genius to establish an order based on social justice, an order in which an individual's status would be determined not by heredity or wealth but by his merit.

Rehman. How did PWA run into controversy? Some older writers accused organisers of sectarian tendencies.

Faiz. In the beginning the movement was patronised by diverse groups including eminent writers not identified with any narrow-based faction, men like Prem Chand, Hasrat Mohani, Maulvi Abdul Haq. However, the PWA had a core of dedicated leftists who greatly contributed to its momentum.

Rehman. And they invited opposition?

Faiz. The opposition to PWA in the early years came only from pure aesthetes, the diehards of the old tradition. But they, too, criticised only the of style and expression of the PWA. Otherwise, everybody accepted the assumptions of the PWA. However, the criticism that the PWA alienated some sections of the literati was not entirely unjust. Some younger and more enthusiastic votaries of the progressive cause did make unguarded and exaggerated statements.

The reason was that some of the writers who held important positions in the PWA had come out of the British, non-indigenous classical tradition and made generalisations based entirely on this tradition. Also there were some young men who talked of the masses without being familiar with their sensibility and aspirations.

Taken from a compilation of Vai Ell's illustrations of Faiz's poetry, 1987
Taken from a compilation of Vai Ell's illustrations of Faiz's poetry, 1987

Rehman. Surely something must have been done by the forces of the status quo, those who found the idea of change unwelcome?

Faiz. Yes, there were men who reminded one of the Freudian inverted being wallowing in cesspools of his own subconscious. However, to continue with the sequence, the cleavage in the writers' ranks came with the division of the community during the Second World War and the subsequent polarisation caused firstly by the rise of communalism and later by the initiators of the cold war. While one section viewed the war as an anti-fascist struggle on the happy conclusion of which India’s future also depended, the other section welcomed an alliance with the Axis Powers in order to beat the British rulers - birds that have their eyes closed to the cat.

Rehman. But in that period and even during post-Partition years your poetry continued to inspire an increasing number of young people. We will not go into the controversies raked up by over-zealous critics about ‘daghdar ujala’,

Faiz. As I have so often said, the joy of independence was quickly washed away by disillusionment. Since most of the conscious people wanted to realise the Pakistan of their dreams, anyone who kept their dream alive had a rapport with the majority.

Rehman. And going to jail did not upset this relationship?

Faiz. On the contrary, it strengthened it. An element of glamour was added. Politicians had been going to prison but the idea of a poet being incarcerated was something new. Besides, the years in prison formed a highly productive period in my life. Going to jail, as I have earlier observed, was like falling in love again. Not that the jail was a particularly suitable place to write, only one had a lot of time to think and put one’s thoughts in verse.

Rehman. Your release from jail in 1955 marked a watershed in your life. For more than 20 years you had been recognised as an activist in the cause of the downtrodden. Apart from the poetry and work as a leading figure in the PWA, you had acquired a key place in the trade union movement. Your position as one of the leading spokesperson of the democratic opposition was secure. Why did you not pick up the threads after your release from prison?

Faiz. By the time the jail phase ended, the dream of Pakistan was in shambles. The country had been mortgaged to the neo-imperialist power bloc. The trade union movement had been broken up and the labour leadership fashioned by the vested interests had been given over in apprenticeship to the cold warriors. The working class could never rise after this blow except for a brief period in the early seventies when hopes of its leading the people towards a near revolutionary situation were scotched by the emergence of adventurists.

Similarly, the independent press was moving towards extinction. All avenues of active involvement with people’s cause available to a person who did not live by poetry alone were closed. All that one could do was to reflect on social change rather than social events, to become an observer of what was going on. All thoughts about one’s self were given up in favour of an attempt to interpret the climate and the mood of the times.

Taken from a compilation of Vai Ell's illustrations of Faiz's poetry, 1987
Taken from a compilation of Vai Ell's illustrations of Faiz's poetry, 1987

Rehman. Some people think you could have taken the way adopted by poets like Lorca, Neruda, Makhdoom, Mohyuddin…

Faiz. Why omit the great Nazim Hikmet? I would answer this by recalling the epic mass struggles that these heroes joined. Today you must take into consideration two factors. One, age - and that should not be difficult to understand. Second, the lack of opportunities to lone campaigners. I never thought of myself as anything more than a contributor to the process of people's awakening to their destiny, to a discovery of their goal. And whether I was teaching at a college or taking a class of young trade unionists, helping the war against fascism or working in journalism, the theme was not given up.

Rehman. Then what happened in the late 1950s and 1960s?

Faiz. Only a change of front. Finding the political stage demolished, I decided to concentrate on culture because I felt it was necessary to define the people's cultural identity, the sheet anchor of their existence as a nation, so that they were able to acquire a clear perception of their national identity, which is the base of every other struggle. This meant fighting against two forces: the entrenched state apparatus which did not like any threat to colonial concepts and the champions of parochial chauvinism. One did what one could, which was not much. A few steps were taken and then disillusionment set in.

Rehman. And you got tired?

Faiz. No. The emergence of the Third World front added a new factor to the search for the ideals of liberation. The regional struggles merged into a global confrontation between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, between the purveyors of hope and the purveyors of despair. It seemed that instead of striking one's head against a small wall one might do better by joining the wider Third World struggle for liberation from the neo-colonial stranglehold.

Rehman. Did it imply that a collective effort to promote national liberation on a global scale could overcome the deficiencies from which national entities were suffering?

Faiz. Partly so. As we recalled the other day, the line `koi nijat fla paye nijat say pehle' (nobody can be free until all are free), a concerted campaign by the Third World writers could help the masses in their different countries to deal with their internal conflicts. Anyhow, it is to this period that the complaint against my absence from the people's struggle is related.

"The radio, instead of promoting the language of the rural masses has spoiled it.”

And it is largely due to the fact of my absence from the country. One thought that the struggle of the Pakistani people towards self-realisation and the Palestinian people's fight for national sovereignty, or the Third World's collective striving for a new order did not mean different things. But I can appreciate the feelings of a young Pakistani friend if he thought that I was fighting other people's battles and not his.

Rehman. Surely, in the present situation the common people have a right to ask about a way out from someone with six decades of experience behind him?

Faiz. One has never seen this kind of situation. We have had our periods of disillusionment alternating with moments of hope, of dreams shattered and reconstructed. Nothing like the impenetrable shutters across our eyes and mind. One can't see properly. But I agree with you up to a point.

Rehman. Do you subscribe to the view that in today's world there can be no lone pathfinders when the caravan has been scattered in the desert?

Faiz. Men of vision should be able to point out the way to salvation but whether they can themselves lead on the path, at the head of a vanguard, depends on a host of objective factors, especially on the existence of a body of men who have been stirred up for decisive action. Even one's perception is clarified and burnished by a dialectical relationship with the collective perception. When for any reason one is isolated from collective ethos one goes barren (banjh). I think quite a few of us are suffering from a lack of any positive impetus which comes from fruitful and productive assertion of people's genius, not only in politics but in all fields of human endeavour.

Rehman. Could it be that the people, especially the younger ones, have ex-hausted their patience and would like something to provide instant relief, a short cut to release from suffering?

Faiz. Possible and understandable. But there are no short cuts to salvation, no Concorde to heavens. However, let me make it clear that while impatience, which makes one indifferent to the dialectics and mechanics of social change, can do more harm than good, patience which leads to inaction is equally reprehensible.

Rehman. You drafted quite a few manifestoes for new political parties. Perhaps you could write one more?

Faiz. Yes, I worked on the manifestoes of two political parties, three in fact, Azad Pakistan Party, National Awami Party and the Republican Party. These were not my manifestoes but command performances subject to the perceptions of the people who were founding these parties. But my last manifesto was for the writers.

Rehman. One can understand Azad Pakistan Party and NAP, but how did the Republican Party fit in with your outlook?

Faiz. The Republican caucus appeared to be a counterforce to the procession of Muslim League coteries, something that could pave the way for a normal, democratic political process. Unfortunately, the Republican party did not move in this direction; instead it led to martial law.

Rehman. It would appear that you have withdrawn yourself from any forum which was no longer congenial to you, instead of putting up a fight?

Faiz. Because I am a man of peace. Except for the ideological plane, where no fight can be avoided. In most cases I have found fighting useless, and preferred withdrawal from one front to be able to concentrate on another, to militancy for its own sake.

Rehman. At what age did you become a man of peace?

Faiz. I think my undoing was my childhood environment. I was surrounded by a number of women, widows and orphans who had suffered terribly. We were three brothers. The eldest had grown up as the favourite one, the youngest was too small to be bothered about. I was in the middle and became the target of everybody's effort to produce a decent person. The games that children play were taboo for me. I had no opportunity to indulge in mischief or learn words of abuse, nor even to fly a kite or play with a lattoo (top).

Rehman. There was no bar to falling in love though?

Faiz. There was, but then falling in love is not a deliberate, pre-meditated act.

Rehman. A distinguished educationist/writer has just written ‘Faiz is not only the embodiment of all that is best in our own culture and tradition, he is the symbol of our finest aspirations.' What would you say about the earlier part of the statement?

Faiz. People are given to exaggeration. As for trying to be faithful to one's living tradition, that is a basic condition of cultured existence. Essentially our tradition comprises two broad strands: one, the folk tradition of Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi and Pashtu folk culture; second, our classical tradition of Urdu, Persian and Arabic.

“One thought that the struggle of the Pakistani people towards self-realisation and the Palestinian people's fight for national sovereignty, or the Third World's collective striving for a new order did not mean different things."

Unless one combines the two strands into a harmonious whole, one cannot draw honestly on tradition to develop a true cultural identity. Unfortunately, there are some who are grounded in the folk tradition but have not had the opportunity to benefit from the classical tradition. There are others who are steeped in the classical tradition but are ignorant of the folk tradition. This deficiency produces in the activists of the former category the chauvinism of the underprivileged and in those of the 'latter category the arrogance of the privileged.

To make matters worse, the post-independence period witnessed the rise of the English-medium school. which meant that the new generation was divorced from both the folk and the classical traditions. This is the root cause of our failure to develop our cultural and national identity. The confusion has affected our mental constitution. I think the media has contributed a lot to this problem. For instance, the radio instead of promoting the language of the rural masses has spoiled it.

Rehman. While working on the cultural front, did you consciously try to emphasise the folk content of modern culture?

Faiz. What else did plans to preserve and promote folk ballads, legends, artefacts from all the regions of the country mean?

Rehman. Then why have you not written poetry — except for a few poems — in the language of your folk tradition — Punjabi?

Faiz. Partly because the classical Punjabi poets — Baba Farid, Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu — set such high standards that one finds the task of picking up where they left extremely difficult. Then, knowledge of a language is not enough to be able to write poetry in it. It demands command over nuances of expression which require a great deal of apprenticeship to craft. We did not have any academic training in Punjabi, no opportunity of developing a discipline to express in Punjabi verse. Only this morning I was wondering about the strength of the folk tradition as against the classical. An old line came to mind: `Meri lagdi kisay na wekhi tey meri tutdi noon jag janda.' How would you put it in Urdu? Can you?

Rehman. While talking of tradition one would like to ask you about the religious tradition...

Faiz. The religious tradition is inherent. But it is evident in two forms; one folk, the path of ‘sufia.' The other of formalists. The latter emphasise the ritual, which is the least important part of religion. The Sufis follow the humanist path, l have said so many times that I am a follower of Roomi.

Rehman. How much has your recent illness affected your living style?

Faiz. For the first time it has forced me to look after myself. Resting in the afternoon and taking walks. I take what the doctors have prescribed and have given up what they prohibited. That's all.

Rehman. You were reported to be thinking of starting work on several books — on culture, on languages, memoirs.

Faiz. Still thinking. Niyat bakhair hai (The idea has not been given up).

Rehman. How do you explain the fact that the lobby that used to blame you for every disorder has not assailed you for quite some time?

Taken from a compilation of Vai Ell's illustrations of Faiz's poetry, 1987
Taken from a compilation of Vai Ell's illustrations of Faiz's poetry, 1987

Faiz. Couldn't have bribed them. A Persian couplet comes to mind: Diwana berahe rawad wa tifl be-rahe Yaran magar seen shehr-i-shuma sang nadarad (The madman is going his way and the child his. Friends, are there no stones in your town?).

Rehman. It is said that your muse has been affected by the amount of attention you receive from rich socialites.

Faiz. I do not plead innocent of self-indulgence and I like the company of friends. Among the rich, too, I have some acquaintances. I like them not for their wealth but because some of them are good human beings.

Rehman. Pleasure is not central to your aesthetic creed?

Faiz. Nor sanyas.

Rehman. Let us go back to your childhood. What did you inherit from your parents — in terms of social values?

Faiz. A lot. My father was a remarkable man. He left his village a poor, lonely child. He educated himself and rose to be a minister/ambassador but his heart was in the village. When he returned home he chose to practise in Sialkot — near his village — instead of Lahore. On the one hand he was a grandee and a patron of many institutions in Sialkot.

“As a child I wanted to be a cricketer. Never played. Then there was a desire to become a learned man (alim fazil), an authority on something. Couldn't make it. Never did anything properly. Always started at the wrong end from the top."

But in the village, where all of us spent our holidays, he was one of the peasants. We were brought up as lower middle class children. Thanks to this I grew up in my folk tradition. From my mother I learnt the value of love, patience, tolerance, forbearance. She, too, was from peasant stock. My father married her after my stepmothers had died. She was younger than my stepsisters (I learnt that they were my stepsisters when I had grown up) and she ran the house on the strength of kindness. It was a calamity-hit house. Soon after my father died, two sisters lost their husbands and the family faced economic ruin. She taught us to live within our means and keep a cheerful face in adversity.

Rehman. Did you suffer extreme poverty in those days?

Faiz. Absolute. I was studying in B.A. but I would not bother mother for expenses. It's no use going over those days but if you wish to know if I ever slept on an empty stomach — many a time when my pride or mood forbade me to go even to friends, though they were always kind.

Rehman. And how have you provided for your old age, property-wise?

Faiz. What do you mean? I am a working man. I've been earning my livelihood month after month, year after year. I have no property, not even the house where we are sitting.

Rehman. But you did inherit some land?

Faiz. All given away. These lands were cultivated by members of the clan. They had troubles. When I came out of jail in the fifties I requested my mother to give away all the land to the cultivators. She agreed. I do have half-a-bigha (about two kanals) of land in the village, the essential link to my soil and fellow peasants. If not the whole of it, a part of my heart is still there.

Rehman. Any ambitions you would like to achieve?

Faiz. No ambition. Only a prayer that I should not live to be a decrepit old man. The thought of living like a useless, unproductive person frightens me.

Rehman. Any regrets of wishes not realised?

Faiz. A few. As a child I wanted to be a cricketer. Never played. Then there was a desire to become a learned man (alim fazil) an authority on something. Couldn't make it. Never did anything properly. Always started at the wrong end — from the top. Started writing poetry and was accepted as a poet after two mushairas. Joined the army and soon became a colonel — which was as high as Muslim officers went in those days. Entered journalism as editor.

Rehman. And memories of persons loved and loved by?

Faiz. That's a treasure.

Rehman. You are not going to give up poetry as you are reported to have remarked?

Faiz. Of course not. How can I? Don't start believing everything that is reported.

Rehman. I don't wish to tire you. It's perhaps time for your afternoon nap.

Faiz. Thank you. But why should anybody try to interview me? Anyway, do, not lose faith in the ordinary people. They are capable of great deeds. They shall overcome.

This was originally published in the Herald's March 1984 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.