I got to know of Faiz Saheb through his book, Naqsh-i-Faryadi. I was in school in Karachi, around 1951-52. A very dear friend of mine and I read Naqsh-i-Faryadi together. I memorised many of the poems; me and my friend realised that this poetry was somewhat different from any poetry we had read before. Then we came across Ada Jafri’s verse, which made me realise that a woman too can write contemporary verse, so I tried my hand at poetry while still in school.
Time passed, and I went on to take part in mushairas, but had not yet met Faiz Saheb, because those were the years when he had been imprisoned. After he was released, I remember, I went to Lahore for a mushaira at Islamia College. There I met Faiz Saheb’s wife and his daughters. They invited me to their house, which used to be opposite the Lahore radio station. I was finally introduced to Faiz Saheb. But it was not until I got married in 1958 that I started meeting him more often. My husband, Majid, was very fond of Faiz Saheb. Later Majid’s job took us to Pindi and Islamabad, where Faiz Saheb used to come from Lahore quite regularly and we met.
I remember the night when one of his dear friends had died and he was very upset. We brought him to our house and late into the morning hours he kept talking about the departed soul and the sense of loss that he felt. I think that was the beginning of a long association that we would have with him in the years ahead. Now we met often enough to feel that we were among his friends, though we never felt equal to him; we just couldn’t.
My husband and I went on to live in Abu Dhabi; later his job took him to London. It was there that Faiz Saheb would become a regular visitor. In those days he was editing Lotus in Beirut, and would hop over to London every now and then. In the letters written to Iftikhar Arif (Banaam Iftikhar Arif, Islamabad, 2011), Faiz Saheb mentioned me and Majid quite regularly. He did not correspond with me much but did so regularly with my husband. But Majid believed that if someone the stature of Faiz wrote to you, of his feelings and thoughts, then such writing should be destroyed after reading; and this he did very promptly. However, I have held on to two letters that Faiz Saheb wrote to me.
Back in the London days, Faiz Saheb came and stay in London war broke out in Lebanon and Beirut was no longer a safe place to be. Ideally, he wanted to go be back to Lahore but those were Ziaul Haq years, and he stayed put in London instead. I got to know him from up close those days, the kind and considerate person that he was. He was very well mannered and caring. Little things that he did revealed that. He would read a number of papers every morning; was very fond of reading, but afterwards, he would fold back each and every paper properly so that I didn’t have to do that. He would also make his bed, not something that other guests staying at our place would do. I would stop him but he would insist on helping out with little chores.
Once he went off in the evening with Kahlid Hasan and Athar Ali Saheb, and got late. He would always call to say if he was getting late. That night also he called. He came back very late. I was up and opened the door. He stood there and apologised profusely. He would not come in and insisted that I wake up my son, Nomi, saying he knew it was very late and that I should go retire now. I woke up Nauman who walked him to his room, and told me the next morning that he did not want to inconvenience me any longer than he already had, and so he asked for Nomi to show him to his room. I don’t recall any other house-guest being so considerate.
He liked omelet a lot; had a day marked for it. But if we stayed up late (he would just start talking about Sialkot and the old days, speak very admiringly of Iqbal, Maulvi Mir Hasan, Sufi Tabassum, etc.; time would just fly), he would insist that he have cereal in the morning just to save me the trouble of making an omelet, which he liked with onions and other fix-ins. He would insist I retire and sleep late; that he would have corn flakes for breakfast by himself.
The last time he came to London a friend asked him why he was not drinking anymore. He replied he wasn’t keeping all too well. The friend insisted, “You’re above 70, have lived a full life, why worry about health at this age?” Faiz Saheb stated very steadfastly, “Bhai, I am not worried about me, nor am I afraid of death, but I must worry about those who would have to tend to me if I am not well.”
His nostalgia for Pakistan, his love for the country, would not let him be at rest. He would reminisce incessantly about Sialkot, his brothers, the streets there, the culture of his childhood. He longed to be back in Pakistan. What kept him from going back was his nigraani, not being allowed by the Zia regime to come and go as he pleased.
Later, after his return to Lahore, once at my brother Ahmed’s house in Karachi, Faraz confronted Faiz Saheb thus: “Why did you go to meet Ziaul Haq?” He said we had the right to ask and know, and explained, “The president asked me what he could do for me to stay in Pakistan. I told him that I did not want nigraani by his men; I should be free to come and go wherever I want. Then I requested him to issue a statement about Josh Saheb who had just passed away. He was a big poet and scholar, and the president should honour him posthumously.” A presidential statement honouring Josh Saheb was issued promptly.
Faiz Saheb never spoke ill of anyone, not even of people who used to speak ill of him. I asked him if this was just a ‘pose’, for surely he must have thoughts about people which he kept to himself. With his exemplary composure, he said he had trained himself in a way that no vitriol ever reached him. “I just switch myself off to all such talk,” he responded.
Once a big poet came to London and spoke out of turn and very ill of Faiz. Some days later Faiz Saheb was also in London and wanted to go see that poet. I stopped him, and he asked, “Why, he is my senior, I must pay my respects to him?” I told him what the gentleman had said about him, and which I had heard myself. He said to me: “Zehra Begum, why do you lend your ear to talk in such bad taste?” He turned the whole thing around and made it my problem. I learnt a lot from this.
Then, once at a wedding, a man came to sit next to him at our table. Soon he reprimanded Faiz Saheb for smoking and asked him how many cigarettes he consumed a day and for how many years. Then he took out his calculator, did the arithmetic and said, ‘You have burnt some four lakh and so many thousands on smoking.’ Faiz Saheb smiled and said, “Just as well, for I really wouldn’t have known what to do with so much money!” He was very patient with people.
Another incidence comes to mind. He had just come to London from Beirut and we were invited somewhere, the kind of people who were very uptight and overly conscious of their status. I reluctantly asked Faiz Saheb, “If it’s not against your principles, perhaps you could consider joining us.” Faiz Saheb told me, “I thought better of you than to ask this silly question. Principles have to do with what you write, what you say, what you struggle for. What principle bars you from dining with people? By all means take me along.” The spic and span hostess not only showed him around the house but probably also told him which decoration pieces cost how much. Again, he was very patient, even looked happy.
Once I asked him, what should an ideal woman have. He responded, “She should be intelligent and dilkash (appealing)”; he used the word dilkash and not beautiful, though he was very fond of beauty.
Me and my family have been very lucky to have such lasting memories of Faiz Saheb. It’s humbling. We may not have been entirely worthy of it, but God has been very kind to us. He wanted to take us around in Pakistan; wanted us to spend more time in Lahore when we came, take us to Sialkot, and to his village. “What have you seen in Lahore if you haven’t met Ustad Daman and Dr Nazir Ahmed? I’ll introduce you to them,” he promised.
My only regret is that he wanted me to do translations of Mouin Besseiso and Mehmood Darwish with him; that he would explain the work and I would do poetic translations. He had suggested the project the last time we met in London. But that was not to be.
--Zehra Nigah spoke to Murtaza Razvi