It is hard to imagine Faiz Ahmed Faiz, that brave, vital poet, Sufi, communist and chain-smoking holder of an overflowing red glass as 100 years old. Yet, that is the age he would have reached tomorrow, February 13, 2011.
Such is the tragedy of the Partition that even one like I, born before that trauma, did not know of the magic power of this Pakistani poet's verse until 1993 when Merchant Ivory's In Custody appeared. By then, Faiz had been dead nine years. The tale of an Indian poet played by Shashi Kapoor was not on Faiz's life. But the genius of Ismail Merchant introduced into the narrative the poetry of Faiz. This transporting music and Shabana Azmi's acting lifted the film to a plane I had not expected to have to catch up with, when I saw it on the large screen and heard its songs.
Gham na kar, abr khul jaegaa, raat dhal jaegi, rut badal jaegaa… (Grieve not, the leaden sky will open, you will see the night yield and the season change…) belonged to my experience and yet not, for I, unlettered in Urdu, had never read them and Hindi cinema had kept me from Faiz. A friend, Nasreen Rehman, gave me Victor Kiernan's translation of Faiz with the suggestion that I make my 'real' acquaintance of Faiz with his Subh-e-Aazaadi (Dawn of Freedom) written on and for August 1947.
"Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa, ye shab-gazidaa sahar Vo intezaar thaa jiskaa, ye vo sahar nahin..." (This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn/ This is not that long-looked-for break of day).
As happens with all mundane beings, this 'rising' of Faiz in my consciousness soon receded into the background, until nearly a decade later, when I heard former prime minister IK Gujral describe the atmosphere of mutual suspicion in South Asia to a Sri Lankan. He did so with a quotation from Faiz. The visitor was innocent of Urdu but Gujral provided a translation. He said: "We are afraid of each other, we distrust each other, we live in doubt, in perpetual tension... Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Pakistani poet... he was one of us really... by 'us' I mean all secular South Asians... has described this condition in a lovely line, Aaj meraa dil fikr mein hai... in sab se kah do, aaj ki shab jab diye jalaaen unchi rakkhen lau... which means 'Today, doubt fills my soul... say to them all, This evening when they light the lamps, let them keep the wicks turned high...' We have to reach a time when we are not bothered about whether the wicks are turned high or low. We have to light the lamps of mutual faith".
My next near-decadal date with Faiz came in 2006 when at a conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said something that reminded me of another immortal piece by Faiz. Those present at the meeting were expecting to hear the PM speak on security, terrorism and law and order. He did not disappoint them and gave them suggestions on how they could contribute towards addressing those vital issues. But then, departing from the written speech, the PM said he would like them to do something different as well. He said he would like them to take some time out of their busy schedules to do something about the condition of prisoners and under-trials in our jails. We need jails, prisons, 'correctional homes', he said, but we do not need to run them like they might have been in the middle ages. Listening to him, I could not but think of Faiz's long periods in jail for his political belief, including a spell in solitary confinement. And Faiz's Zindaan Ki Ek Subh (A Prison Daybreak) scrolled down my head, particularly its lines: Duur darwaazaa khulaa koi, koi band huaa, Duur machlii koi zanjiir, Machalke roi, Duur utaraa kisii taale kii jigar mein khanjar, Sar patakne lagaa rah-rahke dariichaa koi... (A distant door opens, another shuts, A distant chain scrapes sullenly, scrapes and sobs, Far off a dagger plunges into some locks' vitals, a shutter rattles, rattles, beating its head...)
I took the PM's suggestion about prisons as an instruction and visited some of them in West Bengal, an experience that might not have come my way but for that conference and its unintended evocation of Faiz. The inmates were not uninterested in the reform of conditions but their priority was release from jail. In one correctional home, one of the inmates I met was a young bearded man. Speaking in Urdu, he said, he was a Pakistani who had come with a visa on a pilgrimage to India when he was rounded up. "I am completely innocent, I have nothing to do with politics." And then came the appeal for release. "That is not in my hands," I said to him. "There is a law and it will give you every opportunity to explain what you have just said." I could see I did not convince him.
Changing the subject, I asked "How are you spending your time here?" The answer was a surprise. "The place is beautiful, as I can make out from the sky and the tree-tops that I am able to see... but I spend most of my time reading the Koran, something I never did when I was back home, free."
Faiz has a line: Sahn-e-zindan ke be-watan ashjaar (Trees of the prison yard, exiles...)
Can Faiz's centenary find ways of easing the sub-continent's procedures for each others' citizens imprisoned beyond their borders for offences which are un-linked to terror or conspiracy?
The Faiz composition that has most vitally permeated popular imagination is Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness). The call for a mass uprising in favour of human rights applies not just to regimes but also to tyrannies and can be seen as directed at the masterminds of terror. Few words, written in a different context, can be so powerfully resonant in changed circumstances as that ghazal, especially in the elemental and eternal voice of Iqbal Bano. It is an alternative non-geopolitical anthem, one that has seized popular imagination, as 'We Shall Overcome' has.
Some centenaries cannot pass with flowers and festschrifts alone.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal