to the melancholic lives of the clerks
to their moth-eaten hearts and tongues
to the postmen
to the coachmen
to the railwaymen
to the hungry, valiant factory hands
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz
During my first year as a student at a Muslim-minority university in New Delhi, I bought an old, dog-eared copy of Pankaj Mishra’s 1999 debut novel, The Romantics, from a Sunday book market. I read it slowly between lectures, particularly enjoying those parts which were set in another Indian university. While much of Mishra’s description of campus politics differed considerably from my own experiences, I found a similarity which, despite being quite unsurprising, stuck in my mind for long. In one of the passages underlined meticulously by the previous owner of the book, Samar, the protagonist, goes to meet his “backer,” Rajesh, a student agitator who keeps pistols in plain sight inside his congested hostel room. With a “strange disquietude” over his face, Rajesh recites to Samar a few lines from a poem which was written after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 by “the poet of heartbreak and sorrow,” Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Last year in December, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to marginalize India’s Muslims even further, widespread protests erupted across the country. Faiz’s poems, which have always been anthems of dissent for university students, were spray-painted by them on campus walls and roads, along with slogans demanding the abrogation of CAA and other contentious laws. Muslim women wrote them on posters and marched out on the streets. And, in perhaps the most telling of all instances, a premier Indian research and technical institute ordered a probe against its students for reciting Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge” (“We Shall Hold Witness”) at a small and peaceful gathering.
It is interesting to note that the poem which was called anti-national and anti-Hindu by the most ardent followers of Hindutva was written by Faiz against the military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq in Pakistan. Legend has it that Iqbal Bano, the great Pakistani ghazal singer, sang “Hum Dekhenge” dressed in a black saree—an attire outlawed by Zia’s oppressive regime—in front of a packed stadium in Lahore in 1986. The impact this rendition had on the audience was such that when her voice reached the crescendo, the stadium reverberated with chants of “Inquilab Zindabad!” (“Long Live the Revolution!”). Later that night, military police raided the houses of the participants and destroyed every audio copy of the performance they could lay their hands on. Luckily, a recording was smuggled out to Dubai where it was copied and widely distributed. It is this recording that novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy played on her iPod for a Maoist rebel, years later, deep inside the forests of central India. “The home minister has been issuing veiled threats to those who ‘erroneously offer intellectual and material support to the Maoists,’” she writes in Walking with the Comrades, her searing chronicle of the months she spent living with the guerrilla fighters. “Does sharing Iqbal Bano qualify?”
The poet whose poetry made such “strange alliances” across time and space was born in 1911 into an aristocratic, upper-class family in British India and belonged to that camp of Muslim intellectuals who, influenced by European revolutionary traditions, considered Marxism a force which could effectively combat colonialism, communalism, and capitalism. While producing poems which reflected this line of thought, Faiz, like Simone Weil, spent his time mingling with the working class and, in 1942, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, joined the British Indian army to fight in the “war against Fascism.” The Partition and the ensuing bloodshed dealt a heavy blow to Faiz’s ideals but he continued working for the cause of communism in the new nation-state of Pakistan. In 1947, he co-founded the Communist Party of Pakistan, and in 1948, he was elected the vice-president of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF). While serving two jail terms—first, for his involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, an attempted coup d’état, and then, for “promoting pro-communist ideas”—Faiz composed verses, committing them to his memory when he was confiscated of pen and paper, which were covertly sent out of prison and recited across the country, cementing his image as a revolutionary poet. In 1962, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and thereafter served for some years in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s self-proclaimed Islamic socialist government before exiling himself to Beirut, Lebanon, in 1979.
I was first introduced to Faiz’s poetry through my maternal uncle’s small collection of books and magazines which I read in secret in hopes of finding something forbidden and exciting. Although I had no understanding whatsoever of the political undertones they carried, I immediately fell in love with his better-known poems, mostly because the dainty metaphors I found in them soothed my teenage heart’s cravings for glittery, otherworldly things. Later, as a young university student, I pretended to despise them for this very reason, overenthusiastically endorsing a casual remark made by a well-respected Urdu critic about Faiz’s oeuvre being full of “moon, moonlight, and nothing.” Being excessively metaphorical was a criticism Faiz had to face even during his lifetime: after penning down his historical poem “Subh-e-Azadi” (“The Dawn of Freedom”)—which also finds mention in Mishra’s book—he was rebuked by Ali Sardar Jafri, writer and comrade, for being too cryptic, hence politically immature. But what I in my naivety, and others who charged him with ambiguity, failed to understand is that sorrow, the most important element in Faiz’s poetry, cannot but be conveyed through metaphors, for when stripped of this delicacy of expression, it not only fails to generate empathy but also becomes subject to revulsion and mockery.
It is as much a mistake to label Faiz “the poet of heartbreak and sorrow” because for him sorrow is not an end in itself, a pessimistic resignation, an abstraction leading to nowhere. It is, rather, the fall which precedes new heights, the crisis which always comes before the change, the chaos upon which a new world must be built. Perhaps the best example of this prophecy of revolution from “wounds overflowing with pus” and “evenings of tyranny” could be found in “Hum Jo Taareek Raahon Mein Maare Gaye” (“We Who Were Killed in Dark Lanes”), a heart-rending poem Faiz wrote after reading the letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union:
Picking up our banners from slaughterhouses,
New caravans of lovers would emerge.
It is for them that we hastened our steps to shorten the distances of sorrow.
It is for them that we went out to make the world our own.
It is the presence of this glint of hope, this augury of triumph that makes Faiz’s poetry revolutionary even when it is not hortatory. Indeed, some of his poems are direct calls to action: they command his readers to “speak,” they implore them to “walk in the marketplace with fettered feet.” Others are bolder predictions of the day when “mountains of oppression would be blown away like fluff.” And there are still more which are mere declarations of dismay, which ask the “sad heart” to “put out the lamps.”
Introducing her translation of selected poems by Faiz, Baran Farooqi, professor and translator, who also taught me a term at the university, calls him “a poet who speaks for the lonely, the single human being” rather than “a poet of the teeming crowd, the so-called ‘people.’” I agree with this only partly. True, I have often found Faiz on the lips of the disillusioned, poverty-stricken youth, lost in the darkness of city apartments, trying hard to earn a degree or a wage, smoking cheap tobacco, drinking bad tea. But I have also found him at protests, boycotts, and strikes, chanted in unison by voices demanding freedom, justice, and dignity. And the latter is only a manifestation of the first because personal sorrow is the foremost act of resistance; if capable of leading us to throes of despair, it is also capable of making us resilient enough to stand up for change, of making us desirous of altering our circumstances, and of giving us the nudge when the time is ripe. In this, the sorrow in Faiz’s poetry is a unifying force which binds the oppressed of all places together and gives them the hope that they, too, “shall hold witness to the promised day.”
Shigraf Zahbi studies literature in New Delhi.