‘He is still haunting unjust rulers from beyond the grave’

Sushant Singh
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Poetry is timeless, universal, and great poetry always outlives the topical political and social issues of the day.

Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, has decided to investigate Faiz’s lyrics of Hum Dekhenge, after a complaint from a professor that they are anti-Hindu. What are your comments on that news?

We are all very amused. It would be funnier if the issues underlying it were not so deadly serious. Even in Pakistan, we were absolutely shaken to see the images from Jamia and AMU (Aligarh Muslim University) after the current Indian government took yet another ill-advised step by passing the CAA (I think, before this, the response to the scrapping of Article 370 was somewhat more muted because public opinion on Kashmir varies and perhaps people in India were, understandably, weary of the ongoing mayhem there). I think with the CAA, the government overreached and frankly was taken aback by the scale of the protests. They have responded as all silly people do, (Faiz would have called them namaqool loag – roughly translated as ‘simple’ or ‘ignorant’ people) with violence and thus have made matters worse.

In what way does Faiz’s spirit still resonate in Pakistan? Are his words a part of protests there too? For instance, the latest students’ protests.

Absolutely. You saw the video of students chanting Sarfaroshi ki tamanna at the recent Faiz International Festival in Lahore. We had several panels at this year’s festival on politics of the Left, radical journalism, environment and so on; all issues that would have been close to Faiz’s heart if he had been alive today. That gathering of students, in which you hear a young girl chanting Bismil Azeemabadi’s poem (immortalised by Ram Prasad Bismil, Bhagat Singh and his friends as a freedom cry against the British) was entirely spontaneous. But as you saw, it struck a chord and immediately became viral. Those students chanting the poem were all part of the Progressive Students’ Collective. It helped raise awareness for the Student Solidarity March that was held all over Pakistan a few days later to protest against tuition fee hikes, restoration of student unions in Pakistani colleges and universities (banned since the Zia-ul-Haq era), an end to sexual harassment on campuses and so on. Faiz sahib is still alive in the hearts of those who love his poetry. He is still haunting unjust rulers from beyond the grave.

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Dr Ali Madeeh Hashmi is the oldest grandson of Faiz.

The poetry of Faiz is powerful and lives on. But do you think it failed in effecting a change, in so far as Pakistan is not the country he would have liked to live in, in 2020?

Poetry is not a vehicle for political change; only an inspiration for it. Poets are not politicians (although some politicians can be poets. PM Vajpayee, who admired Faiz’s poetry and welcomed him to India more than once, was a poet). Poetry is timeless, universal, and great poetry always outlives the topical political and social issues of the day. Do any of us remember the exact political conditions prevailing in Ghalib’s time? Or Mir Taqi Mir’s? No, we don’t. But we still read and enjoy their poetry. Because they transcended the prevailing conditions of their day and spoke about the universal human condition. As to what Faiz would have thought about Pakistan in 2020; well, he loved Pakistan and the people of Pakistan with all his heart. He had many opportunities to settle abroad: America, Canada, the USSR, even India (where he was offered a professorship in Urdu at Kolkata University) but he always said no. His heart was always in Pakistan and with the people of Pakistan even though he himself belonged to the world. So I think he would have been sad about some of the things happening in Pakistan and he would have written poems about those things; beautiful, radiant poems which would continue to live on.

How do you see Faiz primarily, three-and-a-half decades after his death, as a poet or as a revolutionary?

Both. Again, he himself answered this in his own words. To paraphrase him, when he first started using revolutionary themes in his poetry, it felt awkward because no poet had ever done that (or done it as well as him). Gradually, he became better at it because he believed fervently in the causes he espoused in his poetry: the struggle against injustice and oppression, against the tyranny of both men and nature and the belief that despite our differences, humankind can overcome all this and build a better world.

Can Faiz’s poetry be disassociated from the fact that he stood up to authoritarian regimes and suffered for it? What tales of his suffering have moved you the most?

I think at a very basic level, everything a person does is reflected in what they say, what they write and what they think. Faiz started writing poetry when he was very young and in the beginning, he wrote traditional romantic poetry but that changed when he became practically involved in the struggles of peasants, workers and students. It started with his famous Mujh se pehli si muhabbat, which he himself termed ‘the boundary’ between his earlier work and his more mature writings. For the rest of his life, he never wavered from his commitment to the cause of justice and equality for all mankind. And that is very evident in his poetry.

For me, the most poignant story is the one about his older brother Tufail’s death. He was like a father to Faiz since his father died when he was still a very young man. Faiz was incarcerated in Hyderabad jail and away from his young family with a death sentence over his head. Tufail came to see him to give him good news about some family business, but died of a heart attack right there in jail. Faiz’s description of that event in his letters to (his wife) Alys is beyond heartbreaking. Even today, reading it brings tears to my eyes. But can you believe that in the very same letters, he is consoling Alys that he is strong enough to bear the burden of his grief and he is only worried about his mother and sisters. He wrote an elegy for Tufail called Noha, which is also quite searing.

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Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pakistani Poet. (Photo: Express Archive)

Why do you think Coke Studio Pakistan left out the crucial lines from Hum Dekhenge in its version — the one about sab taj uchhale jayenge?

You would have to ask Coke Studio. We didn’t have anything to do with it. I don’t think there was anything sinister about it. Perhaps it was a creative or artistic decision. Or perhaps someone in Coke or Coke studio felt that it was better to avoid any possible controversy. That tends to happen to revolutionaries and icons with time. Who would have thought Che Guevara’s image would be used to sell T-shirts and coffee mugs? But I think if Faiz was alive today, he would say the same thing he said so often about things that bothered other people: Choro bhai, theek hai (Let it be, it’s alright).

Dr Ali Madeeh Hashmi is the oldest grandson of Faiz. He is a psychiatrist, writer and author. His biography Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz was published in 2016 by Rupa Publishers in India. He lives in Lahore, where he teaches and practises psychiatry