A poet’s tribulations — I - Mahir Ali - Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Source : www.dawn.com

Yeh khoon ki mehk hai ke lab-i-yaar ki khushboo
Kis rah ki janib se saba aati hai dekho
Gulshan mein bahaar aaee ke zindaan huwa abaad
Kis samt se naghmon ki sada aati hai dekho

ONE of the more enchanting aspects of my relationship with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry — and it may well chime with the experience of others who relish his work — is the way how long familiar verses suddenly strike a particularly profound chord.

I had that experience just a few days ago while listening to the above quatrain, which opens his fourth collection of verse, titled Daste-Teh-i-Sang. To loosely translate: “Is this a whiff of blood or the fragrance of her lips?/ Ascertain the path down which the morning breeze blows./ The prison blooms with life at the first hint of spring/ Ascertain the direction from which the chant of freedom songs flows.”

It is a commonplace that poetry with enduring appeal reflects universal truths, and Faiz’s verse is replete with these. This much is conceded even by those who appreciate this poet’s unique talent while disdaining his ideological inclinations.

I recall a deeply conservative high school English literature teacher lamenting Faiz’s communist inclinations before launching into a panegyric about the exquisite imagery in: Bhujha jo rozan-i-zindaan to dil yeh samjha hai/ Ke teri maang sitaaron se bhar gayee hogi/ Chamak utthe hain silasil to hum ne jana hai/ Ke ab sehr teray rukh par bikhar gayee hogi. (“As the prison window fades to black, the heart senses/ That the heavens above must be awash with glimmering stars;/ And with the first glistening of the bars the realisation dawns that the blessed morn/ Has returned to gently cast its glow across thy visage.”

The teacher failed to realise, perhaps, that it’s unlikely Faiz’s imagination would have toyed with images of this nature but for his incarceration. And what are the chances he would have glimpsed the interior of a prison cell but for the path delineated by his political convictions?

The poet first found himself behind bars in the wake of what’s known as the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. The known details of the case make the suspected aspirations of the conspirators seem like folly; success would have entailed a communist-backed military coup, with indeterminate consequences. It has long been established that by the time the organising cell was busted, the plot had effectively been abandoned.

It could nonetheless be argued that at least some of the would-be adventurists involved in this dimly remembered episode from Pakistan’s early history had broadly honourable intentions; and, given the nation’s trajectory in the 60 years since then, who can conclusively claim that they were all grievously mistaken?

More to the point, Faiz’s series of spells in prison throughout the 1950s served as a conduit for some of his most powerful poetry. His second and third volumes of verse, Dast-i-Saba and Zindaan Nama, were thus unwittingly subsidised, so to speak, by the very state that sought to seal his lips. Enforced isolation in this form is surely not what Wordsworth had in mind when he defined poetry as “emotions recollected in tranquillity”, but Faiz evidently found plenty of tranquil moments behind bars, and the solitude appears to have enhanced his sensitivity.

Zindaan Ki Aik Shaam (A Prison Evening) not only epitomises his heightened sense of awareness — “The morning breeze brushes past/ As tenderly as whispered vows of endearment” — but also his lasting conviction that oppression would not endure: “Reason reassures the heart/ Life’s so sweet at this moment in time/ The sadists who seek to poison its stream/ Can’t have their way today or anytime soon/ Let them turn out the lights/ In the hallowed spaces where we gather/ They cannot hope to extinguish the moon.”

Yet the poet’s thoughts extended well beyond personal sensations. The years of imprisonment also yielded memorable verses on international affairs, ranging from the troubles in Tehran (Irani Tulaba Ke Naam) to freedom struggles in Africa (Aajao Afreeka). And, not least, Hum Jo Tareek Rahon Mein Marey Gaye, verses from which were resurrected during television coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and cited again last month following the murder of Faiz’s nephew by marriage, Salman Taseer.

The latter poem’s origins lie in The Rosenberg Letters, a compendium of the correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the final months before their execution in the US on the charge of supplying atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Faiz read the book — a heartrending testament to Julius and Ethel’s devotion to each other and their love for their young sons, which includes, as an appendix, a vast number of (ultimately ignored) clemency appeals from Nobel laureates, rabbis and priests — while in Montgomery Jail.

Given the poet’s proclivities, not least a rebel spirit that endured until the very end, it was somewhat alarming to learn some months ago that 2011 has officially been decreed Faiz Year on account of his birth centenary next Sunday. The last thing a literary giant of Faiz’s stature and cultural cachet needs if official approbation from a regime whose stalwarts could easily qualify, inter alia, as the targets of a pointed of a barb from one of Faiz’s lesser known anthems: Yeh kitne din Amreeka se jeenay ka sahara maangain ge? (“How long can they hope to rely on American life support?”).

It is something of a relief to realise that commemorative events in the week ahead are mostly under the auspices of the Faiz Foundation, guided by the indefatigable I.A. Rehman. One can only hope they will help to enhance popular acquaintance with Faiz’s spirit in the land he loved to distraction.


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