Conversations With My Father: Forty Years On, A Daughter Responds
By Moneeza Hashmi
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693534061
160pp.

Faiz the poet. Faiz translated. Faiz the journalist. Faiz the intellectual idealist. Faiz the free spirit, icon, mentor to generations. Even Faiz the husband.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was all this and much more. Contemporary literature has a vast collection of texts archiving him as a public figure, but 40 years would have to pass after his death before he was to come alive as Faiz the father.

One wonders why nobody, not even his own daughters, thought of writing about Faiz the father.

Moneeza Hashmi’s Conversations With My Father: Forty Years On, A Daughter Responds clears this long-due backlog to bring out the father, as he figured in her life, through a posthumously conceptualised correspondence.

Moneeza Hashmi’s book is a debt of honour to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s fans, who would have known nothing about the sentiments Faiz the father harboured for his daughters

That it took her four decades to re-read the “Dear Mizu” letters and postcards her father wrote to her, and then ‘write back’, remains a charge Hashmi herself finds hard to justify. Yet, the tapestry of memories she has finally decided to weave, opens up a side of Faiz’s personality that, until now, she savoured as a purely personal legacy.

Sharing this legacy would understandably have been a tough assignment but, as she updates him, between the lines is a sense of daughterly pride at having somewhat followed his way of life.

Relationships are private affairs and there may be a feeling of guilt on disclosing them, as if breaking a sacred trust, a sort of stepping over family parameters, if not selling the family silver outright. There is the risk that it could be seen as a kind of betrayal of a sacrosanct correspondence between father and daughter, that the memories could hurt or embarrass others. Would one be able to live with having exposed a bond one has zealously guarded for long?

But Hashmi wanted to unburden herself. Her book is a debt of honour to her father’s fans, who would have known next to nothing about the sentiments he harboured for his daughters as he battled with the oddities of creative genius, traversing the globe, being welcomed and, at the same time, stalked.

The result is a very readable text, endearing and amazing, eye-opening and a boon for coffee-table conversation. So Faiz had such a side to his persona, too? That a man who had every reason to be bitter — as he walked into prison on a trumped-up charge, without a backwards glance at bewildered, eight-year-old Mizu — could joke and laugh and team up for father-daughter secrets?

Collections of letters, private and public, always have literary worth. The genre is read for its historical value, finesse of language, wisdom and witticisms. But, it is debatable if the younger of Faiz’s two daughters, embarking on the trail of literary giants, had any idea that she might be carving an innovative path, for Conversations With My Father is a set of letters actually written and also not written.

The book is a surreal connection between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Faiz’s fatherly letters, short and to the point, come alive in their original, handwritten Urdu format, but Hashmi’s replies are a combination of shared memories, a repertoire of personal and public successes and experiences as an adult describing her life after Faiz’s death.

Many are also questions that she never had the time to ask her busy father. Some of these questions she still leaves unanswered, others she endeavours to answer.

Beautifully crafted and filled with photographs, the book may thus be the precursor to a new literary genre, where archived, one-sided correspondence receives a response after many years.

The letters and postcards Faiz sent came by post, or were surreptitiously carried by hand — depending on which part of the world he was in and why he was where he was on a particular date. Yet not one piece of his correspondence in the book speaks of the pain of incarceration, of the heartache of exile.

The letters are simple open-and-shut cases of moral support, advice, affection, promises of ‘goodies’ and hope of a return to normalcy. Most fathers would write thus to their daughters, but Faiz being Faiz put a certain musicality to those sentiments.

Hashmi, too, must have written back, opening up to the one confidante she most valued, but those messages were never archived. Today, she has decided to write back once again. What she writes is a very, very long missive, spread over chapters that define her own trajectory as a lonely little girl wondering why her father had to be away so often, for so long, or chastising the superintendent of Hyderabad jail who had had the audacity to read her letters to her father.

Hashmi’s book contains many of the letters and postcards, written in Urdu, that Faiz sent her | Image from the book
Hashmi’s book contains many of the letters and postcards, written in Urdu, that Faiz sent her | Image from the book

She knew hers was no ordinary father, but why? Why? Why? She collected a whole lot of ‘whys’, questions she now thinks she would have liked to ask him, but there never had been time to frame them.

True to spirit, Hashmi pens what could have escalated into a soap opera of wistfulness and self-pity into a compendium of rakish humour and precocious maturity and flowing into mellowness, especially in the book’s first part.

She writes merrily of times when, with her as an undergraduate student always short on cash at Lahore’s Kinnaird College, Faiz would drop in with a greatly welcome contribution. It was the twinkle in his eye, that secret liaison that Mama was not to be told about! Then they would both laugh.

Tongue-in-cheek, she picturises the horror on the nosy train passenger’s face at her frank admission about going to meet her father in jail. Hashmi’s mother, Alys — true to her English sense of decorum — kept the gory details of the family’s train journey covered, but little Mizu could not disappoint their co-traveller!

After Faiz’s death in 1984, Hashmi was herself to become a celebrity of sorts: she had an illustrious career as a television broadcaster, won national and international awards and travelled to the most unlikely places on the globe. Thus, in the book’s second half, her correspondence with “Abba” takes the form of essays that entertain with their accounts of adventure, and amaze because of the courage and determination it must have taken to live life on her own terms.

She tells her father about having her birth certificate retrieved from Shimla, India, not once, but twice and her own visit there on the spur of the moment. She writes of other travels — to Palestine to savour the bonding of the three Abrahamic faiths, to South Africa to meet her maternal cousins, to Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the British queen.

In the final analysis, the book displays a rhythmic, conversational flow of words and sentiments to create a real-life symphony that will make readers laugh and sing, stand tall and, yes, weep with her.

We feel the pride of a daughter gasping for breath as she grows up in the semi-limelight, under the shadow — yet supportive — of a towering man owned by the world and his wife. We also feel the grit this lifestyle ultimately gifted her. It would not have been easy at all, but apparently this one daughter did it all, as her letters tell us.

So just as we rejoice in the positivity of the references, we share with her the poignancy of unasked and unanswered questions. “I never asked you why you were in the group plotting the so-called Rawalpindi Conspiracy which took you away from us for four long years. I never asked you what you were thinking in that cold solitary cell in the Lahore Fort under death sentence looking out of the small window. Did you see my face or [her elder sister Salima Hashmi] Cheemie’s?”

Yes, even today as she pens the book, Mizu has had her moments of grief at having been forced to share her father with the world, but the aesthetics of her writing make even those sentiments a thing of beauty.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/ report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme.

She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 4th, 2022

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