Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Human Predicament

“Poetry is like a musical composition. One has to see if and where a note fits”.

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Faiz Ahmed Faiz

I wrote on Faiz for the publication of the Urdu Speaking Union more than three decades back. In the meantime, I had the opportunity of once more reading some of his best poems published under the title, The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl. The poems are selected by Khalid Hasan who also edits the work. Daud Kamal, for his part, has translated the poems from the original Urdu into English.

I have recently perused what novelist cum columnist, Khushwant Singh, has written about Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I am both grateful and indebted to Pritish Nandy who provided me glimpses of the genius of the renowned poet from time to time. I have jotted a poem of Faiz which was published in the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India when Pritish Nandy was its Editor. For personal reasons I wish to begin my humble appreciation of one of my favourite poets with it.

Last Night

At night my lost memory of you returned


And I was like the empty field where springtime

Without being noticed is bringing flowers


I was like the desert over which

The breeze moves gently without care


I was like the dying patient

Who for no reason smiles

                                                                                    Faiz Ahmed Faiz

The Sadness of the World

Faiz Ahmed Faiz led a rich and eventful life. He spent his time in “owning up the sadness of the world outside”. He refers to his passage in the army, journalism and trade unions as ‘stints’. He also spent four years in jail. He says, “imprisonment brings in a new dimension, a new way on which you look at things. Objects one had not even noticed in normal life, because one was so busy to perceive their ugliness or beauty, appear anew. One’s sensitivity is heightened…….”.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz breathed his last on November 20, 1984. Khushwant Singh mentions this sad event in the following terms, ‘…… “I was distressed to discover that when I was having a wonderful time in Tokyo my friend Faiz Ahmed Faiz was dying in Lahore”. He claims in the book I consulted which is edited by Rohini Singh, “… there could not be many Indians who knew him so well as I. He was two years my senior at college (and exactly five years older to the day than my wife having the same birthday”). While he was still a student Faiz Ahmed Faiz had the reputation of “an up and coming poet”. He had been composing poetry ever since he was sixteen and at his first appearance at a mushaira (gathering of poets) in Murray College, Sialkot, from where he took his Bachelor’s degree, he had impressed the people present with the following couplet.

Lab bund hain saaqi, mere ankhon ko pillaa

Voh jam jo minnakash-e-sebha nahin hota

(My lips are sealed, / saqi, let these eyes of mine take a sip/

Without drawing to ask for wine).

New Insights in His Genius

The seminal work, The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl, provides new insights in the genius of the poet. In it is a note from the publishers who express their deep sorrow at the “passing away of Daud Kamal in New York in November 1987, while the book was under production”.

Khalid Hasan begins his biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz by mentioning his death in Lahore, “a city he loved and, during his periods of self-exile pined for. If the end had to come, then it was apt that it should have come in Lahore and not on the ‘nameless byways of an unknown land’, to quote a snatch from one of his poems”.

Hasan enquires how he should go about to sum up a man who is “larger than life” especially one whose fame had spread “far beyond the land of his birth and whose work was translated into so many languages”. His inroad in the life and works of the poet provides many interesting details about both the man and the persona behind the person. For me it was a journey of discovery and more.

And thus I came to know that Faiz was born on 13 February 1911 in Sialkot, West Punjab, the second son of Sultan Mohammad Khan. He was educated at the well-known Murray College, Sialkot, where the poet Iqbal also received his early education. He then moved to the Government College, Lahore, where he studied English literature and Arabic. By the time he completed his studies in 1934, his fame had already reached the literary establishment there.

He started working as a lecturer in English in 1935 at the Mohammadan Anglo- Oriental College in Amritsar. He spent the next seven years in that city where he formed some of the most abiding relationships of his life. It was in Amritsar that he first read the Communist Manifesto. He was to comment on the experience in the following terms, “ I read the Manifesto once and the way ahead was illumined”.

Contradictions in His CharacterKhushwant Singh writes that Faiz joined the British army and consequently wore an officer’s uniform. It was about this time that Alys George, whose sister was married to an Indian, came to India on a visit. She married Faiz in 1941 and bore him two daughters, Saleema and Muneeza. Khushwant Singh describes him as a man of ‘short stature with a dark brown complexion…… He was a man of few words, soft-spoken and impassive. It was not his conversation but his poetry that made him the centre of attraction at every party”. He was devoid of any kind of prejudice, whether racial or religious. He befriended many Hindus and Sikhs. He was a humanist in the best sense of the term. In his writings he championed the cause of the poor and the downtrodden but his style of living was that of an aristocrat. Nevertheless, in sharp contrast during the time he spent in jail he lived on a diet of dry bread and water. In the words of Khushwant Singh, “there were many contradictions in his character”.

The Partition of India left deep scars in Faiz’s psyche. He decided to stay in the country where he was born but he refused to accept the division between the peoples and, till he breathed his last, remained a Pakistani, an Indian and a Bangladeshi. He was “a man who denied God and was most God-fearing. He writes about the Partition of India in his poem The Morning of Freedom (August 1974) from which I am quoting only the first eleven lines.

This stained light, this night-bitten dawn

This is not the dawn we yearned for

This is not the dawn for which we set out

Hoping that in the sky’s wilderness

We would reach the final destination of the stars.

Surely, the night’s turgid sea will breathe its last

On the inevitable shore

Surely, the boat of the heart’s agony will somewhere

Come to a stop.

In the aftermath of the Partition, Faiz came to be regarded as a symbol of revolt and dissidence. His poetry, as much as his life, came to represent “the longing of the people for the freedom which had come their way so briefly and then been cynically taken away”.

Faiz became a “source of great ideological power to the forces of the left whose aim it was to set up a just and exploitation free society. He constantly expressed his disapproval of martial law rule.” In the 1950s he wrote from prison, “What if they have snatched away the pen and the tablets from my hands, for have I not dipped my fingers in the blood of my heart?’’

A celebration of Life

Faiz was a Marxist. What distinguished him from this often dry and doctrinaire circle was his profound humanism anchored as it was in the rich tradition of the subcontinent’s culture, literature and spiritual continuum. His poetry was a celebration of life and “an affirmation of the law of change”. He fought bigotry with tolerance.

In literary terms, Faiz was in the direct classical tradition of Ghalib and Iqbal and takes his place an equal among equals “with a presence and style directly his own”.

Khalid Hasan is of the opinion that “his greatness lay in his ability to write about contemporary issues and the human predicament in an idiom which always retained the high sobriety of classicism. He wrote within the great literary tradition of Urdu poetry. His diction, his imagery and his symbols remained unmistakably traditional but unlike others who tried the same formula, Faiz managed to produce poetry which could be directly and immediately related to the concerns of today

Faiz rejected the art-for art’s sake approach. Very early in life he identified himself with the aspirations of the masses. The miracle of his genius lay in his ability to communicate with them and the so-called “more sophisticated sections” of society.


“His verse”, again in the words of Khalid Hassan, “retained its purity and lyricism and never failed to move”. He is among the handful of whom it can be said, “they never wrote bad or indifferent poetry”. One of my favourite poems of Faiz is, The Soldier’s Elegy, written in the lilting cadences of Hindi. The beginning of Hasan’s translation which he confesses is in free verse of utto ab mathi se utho reads

Arise from the dust, my son

Wake up

The black night is over us

Bedecked in soft blue shawls

I have made your bed

Consecrating it with the pearls of my tears

So many pearls

That the sky is luminous with their splendour

The splendour of your name.

Due to my scant knowledge of Urdu, I confess that I had to rely on the criticism and appreciation of Khalid Hassan, Muzaffar Iqbal and Khushwant Singh. I also derived pleasure galore reading what the poet wrote about his boyhood and youth. I have read and appreciated the English translations of his works- some of which have been translated by himself. I, however, rue the fact that I could not enjoy the nectar of his poems in Urdu.

Khushwant Singh writes, “I have little doubt that Faiz had a premonition that death was beckoning”. In this connection he quotes from the last poem he wrote,

Ajay key haath koee aa rahaa hai parwaanah

Na jaaney aaj kee fehrist mein raqam kya hai

(Death has some ordinance in his hand/ I know not whose names are in its list today).

On departing he has left a trail of memories. He adhered strictly to his literary and political principles. His poems are still read and appreciated. His legacy will continue to “inspire that generations that lie unborn in the womb of time”.

Mithyl Banymandhub








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