Poet, prophet, outlaw: The many lives of Faiz

The life of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most widely quoted poets from the subcontinent, has been a source of much romanticisation and speculation. A new biography of the poet, written by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, his grandson, tries to contextualise Faiz’s work in terms of the politically turbulent times he lived in. Excerpts from a conversation with Hashmi with Riyaz Wani:

How tough is it being a grandson of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and writing a biography on him? 


A. It works both ways. It *is* tough because of the expectations people have of us as members of his family and our feeling sometimes that perhaps we are not living up to his greatness. On the other hand, it does open a lot of doors, people give us a lot of respect because of him. As far as the book, there was a little bit of pressure because everyone said whatever you write will become authoritative so I had to take extra care to make sure the factual details etc were all correct and authentic.


Your book, you have said, has tried to demystify Faiz by showing him as a regular person. This involves, as you say, divesting him of the myth and the legend that has grown about him as time has passed. How have you done it? Or is it possible to do this at all with Faiz being such admired and revered poet in India and Pakistan?   


A. Yes, it's possible to do it, in fact it must be done: to humanize someone from a myth is to make him or her accessible to ordinary people. I'll give you an example. A very senior journalist, a friend and colleague of Faiz said at my book launch recently that he thought I was a 'born writer'. I appreciated his compliment but pointed out what Faiz had said (it's in the book): that nothing can happen without hard work and 'sweat' (Faiz called it 'Arq raizy', literally, squeezing the vital juice out of something). So no matter your natural talent (or lack of it), everyone can raise themselves by dint of hard work and determination. Like that Einstein quote about genius being "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". It's true. And in this book I've tried to show Faiz's 'human' side as much as possible. His worries, his passions, his concerns about his family, his regrets, even his favorite colognes and brands of whiskey!


You attribute Faiz’s espousal of communist ideas to the economic fallout of the Great Depression.


A. Not specifically in his own personal case but yes, the Depression was a global event which led, eventually, to the second World War, indirectly to India's freedom ( and partition) and so on. So yes, it had a huge impact on his and his generation. Personally, his introduction to communist ideas came in his first job as a lecturer in MAO college Amritsar where he was introduced to communism by his mentors Dr. Rashid Jahan and her husband Sahibzada Mahmooduzzafar. I've written about it in detail in the book.


What new facets of Faiz’s life does your book bring to light? Something that Faiz’s earlier biographer Dr Ludmilla Vassilyeva doesn’t?


A. Ludmilla's book is not really a biography (and it's not available in English, I don't know if a Hindi version is available). Since Ludmilla is a scholar of Urdu and a researcher, while the book has some biographical information, there are pages and pages of literary criticism and detailed dissections of Faiz's poems which can get tedious for the casual reader. Plus there are some factual errors e.g. her version of the account of Faiz's father's life has been disputed by some scholars. I've tried to correct that and my goal was to write a very personal, very readable book with lots of quotes from family and friends to really try and get at the essence of who he was as a man, not just "Faiz the Great Poet". Now it's up to you and readers of the book to decide if I have succeeded!




Faiz wasn’t happy with Partition. He was pained over the  war in Bangladesh. As his grandson, how do you think Faiz would have dealt with the current situation in Pakistan. It is hypothetical but a curious question?


A: I think he decided after he was falsely accused and imprisoned in the conspiracy case (1951) that he was going to steer clear of overt politics. In our countries (India, Pakistan etc), politics is really not a hospitable place for honest, principled people (with some honorable exceptions, of course!). I suppose politics has always been a dirty game, everywhere but he decided that he was going to concentrate on what he knew and loved best: culture and the arts. Of course, in our part of the world, there is also no way to NOT get involved in politics one way or another in whatever one does!


If he were alive today, he would be doing the same thing he was doing when he was alive: writing poetry to protest injustice, oppression, violence and inequality, talking to people, meetings and conferences about the same things, perhaps writing in newspapers (if he was allowed to!) etc. He would be trying to change the world for the better, as all of us should be doing.


What has changed vis-a-vis Faiz’s poetry in the thirty years after his death. One change is that his poetry has transcended its ideological inspiration and Faiz, as you have said, is celebrated and also quoted across the ideological and political divide.  Or for that matter even the geographical divides. In today’s polarized times, Faiz continues to be as popular in India as he always was.


A: Yes and I don't think he would have minded that. But he certainly would not want people to forget that some of his most memorable poems were, in fact, 'political' poems which were written to commemorate or otherwise underline definite events. So poems like 'Subh e Aazadi', 'Lahu ka suragh', 'Aaj bazaar main pa-bajaulan chalo' etc indicate his feelings about certain events of that time and place and it's important that readers look at that and remember that. I've tried to do that in the book: to link his important poems to the events that they signify.


And about his poetry being used by people of different political persuasions, well, he was never against that. I think anyone who can read and appreciate poetry is intelligent enough to be able to see beyond the narrow lines of political difference or ethnicities or religions to our common humanity.


When we remember Faiz, it is not for what he stood for, his social or ideological concerns, it is for his poetry.


A: That's right because no matter how 'big' an event, how momentous, it is ultimately rather trivial when placed in the context of the entirety of human history. Even the big, earth shaking events of the past century will begin to recede from collective memory eventually. So for example, people of my generation have no personal memory of partition or the second World War although they were pivotal events of their time. And our children and grandchildren will have even less memory of it. That's the nature of the world, time passes and things fade away.

But poetry tugs at the feelings and emotions that lie deep inside the hearts of all humans and for that reason its universal, primal and unforgettable. Plus the beauty of great poetry is that it is timeless. So Ameer Khusro or Mir or Ghalib's verses still move us to tears although we may know nothing about the times in which they were writing.  That's the beauty of poetry and that's why a hundred years from now, people will have probably forgotten what Faiz was writing *about* but they will still be marveling at the beauty of the verses

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