Last night, your lost memories came to me
As spring steals into the wilderness
As the morning breeze skims the desert gently
As a patient finds solace without cause
These lines, among the peaks of Urdu poetry, are written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, widely considered as one of the greatest poets from the Indian sub-continent. Born in Sialkot, British India, in 1911, he stayed on in Pakistan after independence. A classical poet to the core, he extended the traditional idiom of Urdu poetry. Where in the past Urdu poetry was restricted to the Saaqi, the wine, roses and nightingales, he changed the concept of the divine wine-bearer to mean the social and political revolution which would bring justice, freedom and equality to the oppressed. For him love for the Saaqi became a call to arms to create a new world order based on the principles of liberty and fraternity. It is perhaps these opinions that got him in trouble with the authorities. Arrested for subversive activities twice in Pakistan, he spent about 5 years in prison between 1951 and 1959. Yet, this did not blunt his desire to speak on behalf of the underprivileged in various capacities throughout his life.
Faiz was Chief Editor of Pakistan Times, and later, Editor of Lotus magazine published by Afro-Asian Reuters Association. He was awarded the prestigious Lenin award by U.S.S.R. in 1962. In his day he was deemed one of the worthiest nominees for the Nobel Prize. That he did not win it is one of the gravest omissions in the history of the award. Faiz passed away in 1985.
He remains one of the most romantic poets in world literature, comparable to Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth or Tagore. However, what makes his poetry unique is how it moves effortlessly between romanticism and reality. One of his most famous poems, typical of his style, starts off in this manner:
Do not ask for love as before, my dear!
I had thought that if you are, life is light,
If you are sad, what quarrel is worth the world’s sadness?
Your face is the reason for spring in the Universe.
What else is there in the cosmos if not your eyes?
But as the poet realizes the harsh realities of life, he is forced to confront them and sing a different tune:
Life has more torments than love alone
And greater solace than being with the loved one.
Do not ask for love as before, my dear!
Faiz does not jar the reader’s sensibility with startling juxtapositions or shock the brain with post-modern effects, merely for the sake of it. Each line is measured, deliberate, refined, quiet. Yet, when he makes a transition from one thought process to another, the results could not be more striking, in part due to their subdued texture underlining a sharp contrast. In the example given above, we find a clear contradiction between two visions and compelling movements. One is the pull of the beloved; the other, the suffering of his people. Faiz does not scream, he whispers; when he speaks softly, you pay attention because of what he has to say, not solely because of how he says it.
He does not break rhyme or rhythm like free-verse poets. His images are apt and not arbitrary like Lorca. His music rings with compassion, subtlety, wit and innovation in its neo-formalism. If Ghalib was the Father of Urdu Poetry, Faiz, to my mind, is the Father of Modern Urdu Poetry.
Faiz is old but new, traditional but contemporary. His feelings are true and deep. Whether it is in dealing with his beloved or the masses, his is not rhetoric or high-pitched falsetto. One feels the presence of a genuine emotion, an individual concern growing so deep that it becomes universal. Faiz cannot be classified only as a communist, even though he was associated closely with the socialist movement; his empathy makes him a true bearer of his religion even though he seems irreligious on the face of it. His compassion rings true and cannot be restricted to a movement or philosophy.
Faiz loved his people and his land deeply. But he was not blinded by his love. Being a true humanist, he showed his appreciation for all peoples and lands. He was able to overlook the cultural and religious baggage that well-meaning people carry, especially when it came to the rivalry between India and Pakistan. That he remained as popular in India as in Pakistan is testament to his reach beyond borders.
For any student of Modern Poetry, Faiz remains extremely significant. He needs to be studied until he becomes a part of one’s blood. Faiz ranks among the great poets of any language. He is as great a peak as Tagore, Yeats, Neruda, Rilke, Eliot or Sri Aurobindo.
Classics never die. They grow as you mature and mature as you grow. The poetry of Ghalib or Tagore or Shakespeare or Faiz is immortal and worthy of being read again and again till it changes us for the better. Even in suffering, it sings of joy and hope.
Be close to me…my assassin, my beloved, stay close to me…
When the night moves, the dark night, having drunk the red blood of skies…
Laughing, singing, ringing the epileptic anklet of pain…
When the night moves, funereal and empty…
Stay close to me…