It was 1983. The place was Begum Amina Majeed Malik’s drawing room in Karachi. I was 16 and accompanied my father and his friend, Mahmood Faridoon, to meet the man who had challenged oppression and inequality all his life. Mahmood Faridoon was editing a publication on film and television and wanted this man, who also indulged into films like other fields of art and culture, to write a piece for his publication.
We were there to meet the most celebrated poet, educationist, trade unionist, political worker, true champion of the rights of the wretched of the earth and the greatest living literary and cultural icon of the country. When three men and Begum Majeed Malik settled down and discussed contemporary politics and Zia’s martial rule, the situation in Palestine and Lebanon, the difficult times faced by artists, writers and journalists in our country and the possibility of return to a democratic order, I listened to them intently while couching in a deep leather sofa by the window. Faiz would keep clearing his throat while speaking before finally asking Begum Majeed Malik for a cough syrup. Oblivious of dropping it on the thick carpet and leaving stains, he kept pouring the syrup again and again into a small spoon and sipped from it until the bottle was almost done. Then he asked for some paper and took less than 20 minutes to write in long hand a piece for Faridoon.
After a while, Faiz turned his head towards me but asked my father, “Khalique Mian, Sahibzade, coffee bana lete hain kya (Does your son know how to make coffee)?” I nodded and walked up to the trolley sitting in the middle of the room. He then said, “Ham zara strong kaali coffee piyen ge, na doodh na shakar (I will have strong black coffee, no milk, no sugar).” Faridoon had read through Faiz’s piece by that time. He said, “Faiz Saheb, Aap ka Angrezi ka idiom bhi khoob hai (You write such impressive idiomatic English).” At the same time, I handed him his cup of coffee. Faiz thanked me, looked at Faridoon, and said, “Bhui aaj kal hamare bachche bas Angrezi parh rahe hain. Yeh theek nahin hai. Angrezi bhi zaroor parhein magar apni zaban to aani hi chahiye (See, our children these days study English only. That’s not good enough. They should learn English but must know their own language as well).”
He then related an incident, which I have quoted once before in a paper on language issues in Pakistan. Faiz told us that once he had to travel to Moscow via Delhi because there were no direct flights from Pakistan to the USSR. After dinner at a senior Pakistani diplomat’s residence in Delhi, his young son asked Faiz for an autograph. Faiz inscribed one of his verses and put his signature. The boy looked at his autograph book in amazement and asked Faiz, “Uncle, you know such good English. Dad told me you were the editor of a leading newspaper also and you have given me the autograph in the Khansaman (cook)’s language?” I could see that it was Faiz’s way of conveying to me and my generation that we needed to stay rooted, grow a solid trunk and then branch out wherever we wished to.
Roots are not just about the language. It is about our vantage point, how we view the world, where do we stand, position ourselves and connect with the suffering around us. Faiz was an internationalist who spent years abroad and worked closely with Progressive Writers’ Association, Palestinian freedom movement, anti-imperialist forces worldwide, Afro-Asian writers and labour movements in South Asia. But his narrative emerged from the culture he belonged to. I see him as a Marxist-Nativist who did not find a problem in bringing the metaphors offered by Islam, the Indo-Persian civilisation and the green fields of Punjab into the folds of his universal poetry.
While growing up I felt myself closer to the works of Noon Meem Rashid, Majeed Amjad and Akhtar-ul-Iman from among the major contemporaries of Faiz. I revere them as much as I revere him for their sensitivity, craft and aesthetic appeal. But what makes Faiz most significant are his political consciousness and a deep sense of history of human struggle which have a unique bearing on our times. By far, he is the most relevant poet and reading him instils hope in our struggle for a just, egalitarian and dignified society.
--The writer is a poet, columnist, literary and civil society activist