My jail mate

Published February 15, 2011

faiz ahmed faiz
With Pablo Neruda at a Black Sea Resort

In early 1951 when I was a young, 25-year-old Captain serving in the Army School of Signals at Rawalpindi, providence suddenly pitch forked me into a highly dramatic event which later came to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. While it terminated my career progression in the military and I had to spend over four years in jail, I still consider it to be my great good fortune. Why? Because it gave me the opportunity to spend a long time in the company of such icons of literature and culture as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, whose names will forever be resplendent as stars in the firmament of Urdu literature.

I came out of prison a far more mature, well-read and in every way a better human being than what I was before I was thrown behind the bars. Today in 2011, as our country – and dozens of countries around the world – pay homage to Faiz by celebrating his centennial, I, (now approaching my 85th birthday) feel an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia about that period and the six decade-old scenes from my life flash before my eyes. All my other 14 prison mates have passed away long ago leaving me as the sole survivor; but I vividly remember each one of them with genuine love and affection, and none more so than the unique and incomparable Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was not only a very great poet, but a gem of a man, in fact a man in the real sense of the word.

As I have explained in the initial pages of my prison memoir book, Zindagi Zindaan Dili Ka Naam Hai, the entire Rawalpindi Conspiracy was the brainchild and concept of one person, the then Chief of General Staff, Major General M Akbar Khan, who had managed to persuade, cajole, seduce and `half-convince’ some other military officers to string along with him which they did up to a certain point, and then refused to go forward any further.

The first time I ever saw Faiz was in a meeting held at Major-General Akbar Khan’s house on February 23, 1951, where a number of army officers and three civilians were present and where Akbar Khan presented his plan, which was to arrest the Governor-General Khawaja Nazimuddin and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, both of whom were expected to be in Rawalpindi after a week. The Governor-General was to be forced to announce the dismissal of the incumbent government and the formation of an interim government, presumably under General Akbar Khan, and general elections were to be held after some months, though no precise time frame was given. The general also spoke on this occasion at some length about Kashmir, land reforms, eradication of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and other national problems.

Even today 60 years later I can recall the immense tension under which everyone was placed after hearing the general’s discourse. Apparently no one, except the general, was psychologically prepared for the highly adventurist plan unfolded by the Chief of General Staff. There was palpable hesitation on the part of everyone present. Objections were raised about what would happen in East Bengal even if the coup succeeded in the West. I don’t remember Faiz Ahmed Faiz saying much; he seemed to be listening most of the time to the ferocious argumentation of the military officers to and fro, pro and con. The meeting lasted eight hours, at the end of which the general’s plan was disapproved. The participants dispersed without even deciding to meet again. The “conspiracy” thus never took place, because there was no agreement:

Woh baat sare fasane mein jiska zikr na tha

Woh baat un ko bohat nagawaar guzri hai

My second meeting with Faiz took place in a police bus, months later, when we had all been arrested and brought to Hyderabad to stand trial before a Special Tribunal. We had been taken from Lahore to Hyderabad in a highly guarded train, every prisoner in a separate compartment. At Hyderabad we were unloaded and escorted into a police bus. Lt Colonel Niaz Mohammad Arbab, Captain Khizer Hayat and I were already seated in a bus when Faiz Ahmed Faiz was also brought there and told to sit with us. Unlike the rest of us who had been all together in Lahore jail, Faiz had been kept in solitary confinement for about three months and was delighted to see civilised human beings once again, people whom he recognised.

Solitary confinement is extremely depressing and demoralising and Faiz had obviously been under great stress all these months. Now that he was with us, a great load seemed to have been lifted from his soul. When we entered the jail premises and were taken to the ward where we were going to reside for the next few months (or years). Faiz was elated; he was laughing and smiling, almost chirping. I said: “Faiz Saheb, you look exceedingly happy here in prison. What’s the reason?”

“What’s the reason?” Faiz repeated my question. “The reason is that I have been confined in solitary for the last three months. After such a long time alone I am again in the company of human beings. What can be a greater joy that this, that I will now be living with some other persons. This is perhaps the happiest day in my life. You folks can’t gauge the immensity of my happiness, because you have been lucky not to have passed through the rigours of solitary.”

Faiz Saheb was not a talkative person. He believed that unless you improved upon the silence it was better not to speak. Neverthless, when one is cooped up in the confines of a jail ward with 14 other prisoners, one is forced to intermingle, interact and talk to others. Our group of accused persons was definitely far above average in education and intellect and so there used to be passionate arguments on political, social, literacy, religious and other subjects. Some of out friends, notably Major Ishaq Muhammad and Muhammad Husain Ata, would sometimes lose their temper in these vigorous and heated discussions and become rude and even abusive, and they were invariably admonished by Faiz who called them “idiots” and told them to shut up, which they did.

In jail, the differences in military rank disappeared pretty quickly, so that generals and captains were reduced soon to an equal level and there was no more of “sir” and “janab”. But Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz were older and more learned then all of us young officers and they received due respect from everyone during the entire period of incarceration. Major Ishaq, the big, bold, brash fighter man, would in his usual free style occasionally address Faiz as “Oye, mundya sialkotia”, but that was all in fun and frolic. Faiz Saheb would smile broadly whenever so addressed by Ishaq.

As ‘A’ class prisoners even after conviction, we were not supposed to wear jail uniform, but could put on whatever clothes we liked. The military officers usually wore shirts or bush-shirts, and western trousers during daylight hours in jail, but Faiz Saheb was most often dressed in a spotless white kurta pajama. Faiz was also in the habit of applying cologne quite liberally and when queried about it by a companion, he said, “Don’t you know applying ‘khushboo’ is Sunnah?” The questioner protested and said: “My dear sir, I doubt if you are a great one for following the Sunnah and so on!” Faiz replied, “Why not, I am also a part of the Islamic culture.”

People like me, educated exclusively in English medium schools and inducted at an early age into the westernised ambience of the British Indian Army’s Officer Corps, Faiz considered us, ‘Tommies’, and would often address me by the epithet of ‘Tommy’. As far as political leanings are concerned, Faiz Saheb, who was a staunch Marxist himself, quite correctly ranked me as “Left Liberal” at best, but considered Major Ishaq Mohammad as ‘a flaming sword of the proletariat’, a designation which Ishaq later showed that he so richly deserved. But as I was the youngest member among the accused persons in jail, Faiz Saheb was invariably very affectionate and kind to me. I was quite accomplished in singing the conventional, obscene military songs in English, with which I sometimes used to regale Faiz and the others. These dirty ditties made Faiz laugh vociferously, and he would applaud me by calling me ‘paaji’ or an ‘idiot’. That was high praise from the great man.

We were imprisoned in 1951… up to that point in time the traditions of the British Army Officer Cadre were still very much in vogue, especially the rituals of the Officers’ Mess, including Dinner Night, Guest Night, etc; and imbibing of liquor was part of the ceremonials. Among our group of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case prisoners, except for about three ‘sufis’, all the others were accustomed to at least occasional bouts with whisky, gin and beer, the favorite drinks of the British Army. One of us, Lt Colonel Ziauddin, had been a regular imbiber and used to enjoy a few drinks religiously (no pun intended) every evening. Faiz Saheb would say that drinking is a minor sin, because while there are punishments for many offences, these is no punishment laid down for drinking:

Aaye kuchh abar kuchh sharaab aaye

Uske baad aaye jo azaab aaye

The interesting fact is that all us non-abstainers remained in prison for over four years but nobody ever complained about not being able to get a drink. Perhaps, because, except for Lt Col Zia, nobody was a regular drinker. After release from prison, Faiz Saheb gradually became a daily drinker. But I’m told that one year before his death he gave up both drinking and smoking. He had, of course, been a heavy smoker all his life. Smoking is, of course, more detrimental to health than drinking, unless of course one is an alcoholic, which none of us was.

Being a poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a great admirer of female beauty but he was by no means a licentious man. Some people believe that Faiz Saheb was a Don Juan or a playboy. This is a totally wrong belief. Faiz Saheb liked the company of women and once quoted a saying of the founder of the protestant church, the great Martin Luther, in his defence: ‘He who loves not women and wine and song, remains a fool his whole life long’.

Faiz Saheb never chased women, but apparently many women chased him. Faiz Saheb remained within the bounds of moderation in all aspects of life. One interesting fact is that though he himself was short, Faiz was an admirer of tall women and would wax eloquent when he observed a tall, statuesque lady. And we all know that his wife Alys was also taller than him.

During our long stay together in prison, the one thing which impressed me most about Faiz Saheb was his modesty in the realm of poetry. A number of times I heard him say, “People praise me so much, but I am nothing exceptional. Meer, Ghalib, Iqbal, they were the genuine great poets. I am nothing compared to them”. And this was not said in any show of artificial humility but apparently in all sincerity. Faiz was, of course, the greatest admirer of Ghalib. I remember once asking him which in his opinion is the best ghazal in the entire Urdu literature. After pondering a bit he replied, “You know, it is impossible to give a judgment and state that such and such is the best ghazal in our entire poetry. All I can say is that the ghazal I most enjoy reading is Ghalib’s:

Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehmaan kiye huwe

Josh-i-qadah se bazm charaghan kiye huwe

Faiz Saheb was a great admirer of Nazeer Akbarabadi and I borrowed the book from him and read it from end to end, it was quite fascinating. The next time Faiz praised Nazeer Akbarabadi, I jokingly teased him. “Yes, Sir,” I said, “I am particularly captivated by his verse: Aao parosan chapti khelen baithe se begaar bhali. Faiz Saheb smiled, “Can’t say that he is wrong, Youngman,” he replied.

A great quality of Faiz was his coolness. He was never quick to take offence and shrugged off even the most vicious criticism by some antagonists from the media and the political world. In confinement people are apt to become short tempered; amongst our own group verbal battles were quite frequent, and there were at least two incidents of exchange of blows – one between Brig Sadiq Khan and Lt Col Ziauddin, and the other between me and the hero of Gilgit, Major Hasan Khan. But in all the time I was with him in jail I never saw Faiz lose his cool at anything. This is a quality which very few people possess and is the essence of a real man.

All of us prisoners remained together in Hyderabad jail while the trial was going on in the court of the special tribunal located on the jail premises. A few weeks after the sentences were handed out we were broken up into small groups and sent to different jails all over the country. Faiz was sent to Montgomery (now Sahiwal) jail where he had the company of Major Ishaq and Captain Khizar Hayat. I was retained in Hyderabad jail with Maj-Gen Akbar Khan and Mohammad Husain Atta. Once in a while Ishaq’s letter would arrive from Montgomery jail enclosing the latest ghazal or nazm of Faiz, which Ata and I would read and recite dozens of times; our third companion, the general, was totally devoid of any interest in poetry.

I recollect Hyderabad jail with deep nostalgia. I must go and visit the jail one of these days, I often promise myself. I do recollect all of us prisoners sitting on the steps of the verandah and Faiz Ahmed Faiz reciting his latest ghazal to us – this was the routine we followed every few weeks. I have had the privilege of hearing the majority of the poems in Dast-i-Saba and Zindaan Nama first hand from the lips of the great man. Isn’t that something to be proud of?



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