Gulzaar-i-hast-o-bood na begaana-waar dekh (Do not observe the garden of Being unawares) — Iqbal
Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born in Sialkot a hundred years ago, with official records showing February 13, 1911 as the date of birth. He shared his hometown with Pakistan’s national poet, Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Faiz’s father, Sultan Mohammad Khan, was a poor shepherd boy, the son of a landless peasant in Kala Kader, Sialkot, who taught himself Persian as well as Urdu and English and, by a fortuitous combination of hard work, intelligence and luck, eventually rose to become the then Afghan king’s personal interpreter and senior minister.
He later moved to England, where he acquired a law degree at Cambridge and became friends with Iqbal. He finally retired back to Sialkot as a practising lawyer and a gentleman of leisure. Sultan Mohammad Khan had acquired several wives during his travels, including some daughters of Afghan nobles. However, upon his return to Sialkot, he married Faiz’s mother, his last and youngest wife. Shortly thereafter Faiz was born, and received his early education under the tutelage of the renowned scholar Sayyid Mir Hasan, known as Shamsul Ulema at the Scotch Mission High School in 1921. Mir Saheb was the finest scholar in Sialkot.
Allama Iqbal had completed his studies from same school in 1893 but a few of his teachers were still working there, including Mir Hasan, whom the British government at the insistence of Iqbal had given the title of Shamsul Ulema. By Iqbal’s own account, Mir Hasan had influenced him immensely, and Faiz was to become one of his favourite students just as Iqbal once was. Faiz showed a natural affinity for languages and excelled in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English as subjects. He graduated from the Scotch Mission in 1927 with honours and remained in touch with Mir Hasan, continuing to learn Sunnah and literature. Faiz described how in school he was accepted as a leader by his peers in spite of his own perceived lack of any such qualities in himself. Of his well known and soft-tempered personality, he offered another explanation from his childhood. He described himself as growing up in a ‘horde of women’, aunts, cousins and other relatives; how his two brothers, Inayat and Tufail, were interested in outdoor pursuits and how he (Faiz) was the one whom ‘the women nabbed’. He described affectionately how they ‘forced’ him to become civilised and how this resulted in him becoming ever so soft-spoken and never wishing to utter a harsh word to anyone.
The Government College years
Na poocho ehd-i-ulfat ki, ek khwaab-i-parishan tha (Do not ask of the time of love, it was a bewildering dream) — Faiz
After graduating with the highest honours from Murray College, Sialkot, Faiz left for Lahore in the autumn of 1929. He was carrying an introductory letter to the principal of Government College, Qazi Fazl-e-Haq, written by Iqbal, who was a friend of Sultan Mohammad Khan and was by now familiar with the brilliant young son of Sultan Mohammad’s, having heard him recite his poetry in mushairas. Faiz later said ruefully that the principal “snatched the letter from me. After the interview, I said, ‘let me have the letter back’ but he said, ‘no, it will remain with me’.” The letter was thus lost. Faiz became a student of Government College 30 years after Iqbal had graduated from there. Government College at the time was the highest rated college in the region because of its academic excellence and also for its democratic environment which encouraged frequent interaction between students and teachers both on and off campus. Ahmad Shah Bukhari ‘Patras’, a towering literary figure, who later became Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, taught English language and literature at the college. Bukhari was to become one of Faiz’s closest friends and an early mentor. He had studied at Cambridge while Iqbal was also there, and he, like Faiz, admired Iqbal. One time, during a debate on the philosophy of Bergson, Patras put forth some forceful arguments leading Iqbal to finally withdraw. However, Iqbal later wrote a poem about the incident (and Patras), and titled it Ek falsafe-zada syedzaade ke naam (To a philosophy-inspired Syed). Bukhari, and later, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, represented the best of the modern (post-19-century) intelligentsia of the subcontinent. Tabassum, an accomplished Urdu, Persian and Punjabi poet and teacher, was Faiz’s earliest ‘poetic’ mentor to whom he regularly turned for opinion and criticism of his poetry even after he had become a recognised poet himself. In 1931 Faiz recited his poem Iqbal on the eve of the annual mushaira at Government College, with Iqbal present as the guest of honour. This poem was awarded the first prize and was published in the respected college literary journal, Ravi. His Government College years were also the time when Faiz first tasted grief of the death of his father in 1931. Sultan Mohammad Khan left behind a mountain of debt for his large family, and for a while, Faiz seriously considered leaving college and trying to find work. However, his older brother, Tufail, and his mother would have none of it. Faiz devoted his later years at Government College to poetry probably because he was in love — love which remained unrequited. Some initial poems included Aik Rahguzar Par and Teen Manzar. However, Faiz was not very satisfied with this early poetry and included only a limited portion of it in his first collection, Naqsh-i-Faryadi. He remained at Government College till 1933, obtaining the degrees of B.A., B.A. honours (Arabic) and a Master’s in English. A year later he did a Master’s in Arabic from Oriental College, Lahore.