Writing a biography of someone you are closely related to is like tightrope walking, because even if you have the fairest of intentions you can be accused of concealing the weaknesses of the person whose life and achievements you are recording. But Ali Madeeh Hashmi, a grandson of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, had no such disadvantage, for his subject had no weakness worth mentioning, except his lifelong habit of chain smoking, which the writer highlights more than once in his highly absorbing Love and Revolution, Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Authorised Biography. Hashmi sticks to his decision of keeping himself “out of action”, to use his own words, but he certainly has had the advantage of having access to people who knew Faiz closely, his mother Moneeza Hashmi, aunt Salima Hashmi and father Humair Hashmi. Full marks to the biographer for also digging deep into writings on the poet.
Inarguably the finest Urdu poet of our time, Faiz was a compassionate human being. Soft-spoken, forgiving and large-hearted he certainly was, but he didn’t mince his words when it came to voicing the truth and pointing out injustices. His verses also amply reflect all these traits. His poems are mostly brief but they convey their themes forcefully.
He started his poetic career as a romantic. Proof, if proof be needed, is his first collection Naqsh-i-Faryadi, the foreword of which was written by another eminent poet, Noon Meem Rashed, who was Faiz’s senior at Government College, Lahore. “This is a collection of ghazals and nazms by a poet standing at the intersection of romance and realism,” wrote Rashed.
Faiz became inclined towards realism when he moved to Amritsar to take up a teaching assignment at MAO College. He met Mahmooduz Zafar and Rashid Jahan, the husband and wife duo, both avowed Communists, in Lahore. It was these two, together with Sajjad Zaheer, destined to become a lifelong friend, who introduced Faiz to socialism and the plight of factory workers and labourers. Faiz became an active member of the Amritsar Labour Federation.
Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s biography covers all the facets of his grandfather’s life
It was again in Amritsar that he became involved in the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association and became the editor of Adab-i-Lateef, a literary journal he founded. It was in the annual issue of the periodical that he published Manto’s ‘Kali Shalwar’, Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Lihaaf’ and Mumtaz Mufti’s ‘Badmash’, which created quite a storm. Manto and Chughtai were taken to court for writing “indecent stories” and the magazine was proscribed and shut down. Faiz stood his ground and argued in the court that the stories were masterpieces in the realm of progressive writings. The ban on Adab-i-Lateef was ultimately lifted but due to his time-consuming involvement in labour issues, apart from his teaching assignment, Faiz gave up the editorship of the journal some time later.
During his stay in Amritsar, he met Alys, whose elder sister Christabel was married to Dr Taseer. Later when the senior couple moved to Srinagar, Alys paid them a visit. Faiz proposed to Alys and she responded favourably. The nikah was performed in Srinagar by no less a person than the Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah. In 1941 the couple settled down in Amritsar. One would, however, like to recall that initially Faiz’s mother was not in favour of his marrying a woman from a totally different background. Even when she did give him the permission to get married to Alys, she maintained a distance from her daughter-in-law, who later on won her over.
After his marriage, Faiz found happiness for the first time after the death of his father, Sultan Muhammad Khan, a highly accomplished man, who had served as the chief secretary to the ruler of Afghanistan, Emir Abdul Rehman. He was valued for his knowledge of English. The Emir later appointed him Afghanistan’s ambassador to Britain. The story of Faiz’s father makes interesting reading, and also serves as a commentary on Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan. One gets some information about the Great Game and the creation of the Durand Line just as one learns later about the effects of the Great Depression on the farmers of India, who got a pittance for their produce.
Khan got married to Faiz’s mother when he moved back to India. She was his last wife, the earlier ones were all Afghans. The family lived lavishly but when Khan died of a sudden heart attack it was discovered that they had in fact been living beyond their means and the deceased had left behind enormous debts. Economic crisis engulfed Faiz, his mother and his elder brother Tufail, who insisted that Faiz continue with his studies at Government College, Lahore.
Back to Amritsar, Faiz joined the colonial army, a decision that has always puzzled his admirers, this reviewer included, but his biographer quite convincingly points out that in the days of WWII, the British rulers were fighting against the Fascists, who were the enemies of not just Western Europe but also the Soviet Union. Those Indians who thought that by aligning with Japan or Germany they would be able to get freedom from the Britain were mistaken. However, after the end of the war, Faiz resigned from the British Army. Later he joined the academic staff of Hailey College, Lahore, where his students included Inder Kumar Gujral, who later became Faiz’s close friend and arranged for his treatment in Moscow when he was there as India’s ambassador. Gujral rose to become the prime minister of India in 1997, a position he held for about 11 months.
One of the most absorbing chapters of the volume under review is the one where Hashmi brings out the contrasts between his two grandparents. She was tall and very fair, he was shorter than her and had a tanned complexion. Both of them could not tolerate injustice but she was much more vocal in her condemnation. He never lost his temper, but she did, even if it was for a short while.
The letters that they exchanged when Faiz was imprisoned for four years under the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case showed how much they missed each other and how much he regretted not being able to see his two daughters growing up.
The biographer does a great job when he points out the contexts in which Faiz wrote his poems. For example, his immortal poem ‘Subha-i-Azadi’, was written when the northern parts of the subcontinent were plagued by communal riots. A sensitive soul like Faiz could not celebrate the much sought-after freedom from colonial power because it was accompanied with bloodbath and rape on both sides of the great divide.
Faiz was not an extremist. His Communist friends were sometimes critical of him but he never failed to protest through his poetry and the talks that he delivered in different parts of the world when people were victimised, be they in South Asia or in Palestine. He never compromised and never refrained from telling the truth as the two dailies that he edited with distinction, Pakistan Times and Imroze, would prove. So would Lotus, the journal whose editorship was given to him by his friend Yasser Arafat.
Hashmi has evocatively recalled Faiz and Alys’ days in Beirut when the Civil War was raging. It was on Arafat’s concern for their safety and on his insistence that they left Lebanon.
Going through the biography one gets to ‘meet’ so many extraordinary people. The long list includes such greats as Patras Bokhari, Sufi Tabbasum, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Dervish, Khwaja Khurshid Anwar and Sajjad Zaheer, what to say of his close friends like Shaukat Haroon, Amina Majeed Malik (who had named the library in her school after Faiz) and her husband.
Faiz won several coveted awards, the icing on the cake being the Lenin Peace Prize. Another recipient the same year was Pablo Picasso.
The military dictators tried to get Faiz on their side, but he was not one to compromise on his beliefs. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over as the first politically elected prime minister of the country, he convinced Faiz to become his cultural advisor. Faiz established the Pakistan National Council of the Arts and Lok Virsa in Islamabad, and the Lahore Arts Council. He also developed the Karachi Arts Council, during his days in Karachi, and upgraded the Abdullah Haroon School to college level.
One point which Hashmi should have written about in some detail is that after Ghalib, Faiz has been the most recorded non-film Urdu poet. It was not just Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hasan, but a whole lot of eminent singers such as Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Jagjit Singh, Nayyara Noor and Tina Sani who took pride in singing his poems.
The reviewer is a journalist and author.
Love and Revolution, Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Authorised Biography
By Ali Madeeh Hashmi
Rupa Publications, India