Faiz Ahmed Faiz with his wife Alys.

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.  

Launching pad: Amritsar

Tapesh mi konad zinde tar zindegi ra (The heat of struggle animates life) — Iqbal

Faiz accepted his first job offer to work as a lecturer of English at the Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College, Amritsar in 1935. At the time the entire world, including the subcontinent, was in the throes of the Great Depression which had started with the Wall Street crash in America in 1929 and spread rapidly to the rest of the world. Unemployment, poverty and fear stalked the land. Faiz wrote later how he was happy to accept any job offer that came his way in those difficult times.    He taught at the MAO College from 1935 to 1940, and in those years, according to his biographer, translator and friend, Dr Ludmilla Vassilyeva, “A new Faiz was born in this city who perceived the world entirely differently from before.” Faiz again found a distinguished circle of literary and intellectual friends in Amritsar, which included the principal of his college, Sahibzada Mahmooduz Zafar and his wife Dr Rasheed Jahan. The two, along with Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmad Ali, had authored and published in 1932 a collection of short stories titled Angare which achieved instant notoriety (and was banned by the British Government) for introducing an entirely novel and modern way of writing as well as attacking many of the entrenched religious and cultural prejudices at the time.     It was, in the words of Ahmad Ali, ‘a ferocious attack on society in modern literature’; ‘a declaration of war by the youth of the middle class on the prevailing social, political and religious institutions… we were filled with zeal to change the social order and right the wrongs done to man by man…” The book became the nucleus around which grew the idea of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association, which later developed into a literary movement.    That movement gave birth, in one form or another, to some of the best literary and poetic talent of the 20th century Urdu language, and included adherents like Krishen Chander, Ismat Chughtai, Upindranath Ashk, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Mirza Adeeb, Sibte Hassan, and many, many others.

Marriage and “Kulsoom”

Naseeb aazmaane ke din aa rahe hain (The days to test our fortune draw near) — Faiz

During his time in Amritsar, Faiz also met his future wife Alys in 1938 at the house of Mohammad Din Taseer, another colleague at the college. Taseer had helped draft the original manifesto of the Progressive Writers’ Association in England where he had married Alys’s older sister, Christobel. Alys had come to India to visit her sister. Later, with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, she was unable to return to England. She was also a committed progressive, a member of the British Communist Party since the age of 16, who had worked with the ‘Free India’ movement in England serving for a time as the secretary of Indian nationalist Krishna Menon, a close associate of Jawaharlal Nehru.     Faiz and Alys shared the ideals of freedom and love for humanity and justice, and even though in some ways they had the opposing temperaments, Alys was a strict disciplinarian while Faiz was a typical, at times rather disorganised artist, they eventually fell in love.     Faiz’s mother, a traditional Muslim, was not entirely happy that her favoured, brilliant son had chosen to marry outside his religion. However, she gave in when she saw how happy Faiz was. She chose the Muslim name ‘Kulsoom’ for her daughter-in-law to be. This fact was not widely known, and when Faiz dedicated his second collection of poetry Dast-i-Saba (The Breeze’s Hand), written in prison ‘to Kulsoom’, there were some raised eyebrows about the identity of the mystery woman.    Faiz and Alys were married at the house of M.D. Taseer in Srinagar in October 1941. Their nikah was performed by Sher-i-Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the leader of the National Conference. Shaikh Saheb was one of the most important political figures in the history of modern Jammu and Kashmir. It was a simple wedding ceremony, ending with an informal house party attended by the progressive poets, Josh and Majaaz among them, in addition to the family.    Faiz and Alys’s Nikahnama, the marriage contract, was modeled after that of Christobel (Bilqees) and Dr Taseer, which had been drafted by Iqbal along what he believed were truly Islamic lines. It was progressive and very modern for the time, granting the wife the full right of divorce as well as binding the husband to monogamy with all other conditions open to negotiation. Those conditions eventually trickled down to formulating later on the Muslim Family Ordinance (1961), now in force in Pakistan for all marriages.

Yeh dagh dagh ujala — 1947

Woh intezaar tha jiss kaa, yeh woh seher toe nahin (This is not the dawn we longed for, so long) — Faiz

Faiz never wrote much specifically about Partition. He may have believed that to make statements about such issues was the job of politicians. In the years leading up to 1947, Faiz and most intellectuals considered freedom from colonial rule as the most important matter. He wrote: ‘We all knew that we wanted independence from the British but what this would look like, what shape it would take, all of us had only a vague idea about that’. It would be safe to say that no one (including politicians) expected the human catastrophe that Partition eventually brought.     Alys was in Kashmir at the time of Partition along with her young daughters. They were lucky to avoid the bloodshed, and managed to reach home safely. During those horrible days Faiz never hesitated going to the most dangerous places as a correspondent and often amazed his foreign friends and counterparts from western news agencies with his courage and boldness.    Faiz at this time was the Editor of the daily The Pakistan Times, the flagship publication of Mian Iftikharuddin’s Progressive Papers Limited. Whatever Faiz expressed in his poems, he also wrote in his paper.  He wrote several editorials and essays in those days filled with grief over the pointless massacres, the terrible killings of thousands of innocent people and appealed for sympathy and aid for the victims and for an end to the bloodshed.    His most famous poem from that era influenced a whole generation and is always quoted whenever Partition is discussed. Subh-i-Aazadi was Faiz’ first poem written after independence on August 14, 1947.  Professor Fateh Mohammad Malik has written: “It is surprising that those who express anger at the dawn of independence being labeled a ‘blemished dawn’ and a ‘night-stung morning’ fail to see the aching love for Pakistan in those lines especially when the wounds inflicted by Radcliffe were still fresh and our political leaders were openly lamenting the deceit and treason of the British.”     Faiz had been to East (Indian) Punjab and had seen the devastation and bloodshed with his own eyes. Partition displaced up to an estimated 12.5 million people in the former British India, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million. The remnants of the violence and the mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan plague their relationship to this day.

The Pakistan Times and Progressive Papers days

Taraash az tishe-ye khod jaade-ye khweesh (Hew your own path with your own stone pick) — Iqbal     Mian Iftikharuddin was an old acquaintance of Faiz. He hailed from an affluent family of Punjab and had been a member of the Indian National Congress and President of its Punjab chapter till 1946 when he switched allegiance to the Muslim League. He was later to become Pakistan’s minister for refugee rehabilitation. He was the owner of Pakistan Times, a paper started by progressives in the Muslim League in Punjab as a counterpoint to the Hindu press. Mian Iftikhar offered Faiz the chief editorship of his new daily. The name Pakistan Times was chosen because six months before partition, ‘Pakistan’ was the most popular word in the areas later to become the new country. Faiz, who had been serving as a decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the British Indian army’s propaganda department, accepted the offer and resigned from the army.    Initially an English journalist was appointed to assist the chief editor but Faiz soon mastered the art of journalism and publishing. Within a very short time, Pakistan Times gained the reputation of being one of the most distinguished dailies. Reading some of Faiz’s editorials from that time is an education about what fearless journalism ought to be. On April 21, 1948, he wrote: “We celebrate today the anniversary of the greatest name in our recent literary and cultural history. We have said a great deal in praise of that name and done correspondingly little. Iqbal has been acclaimed for three decades or more as one of our greatest national heroes and yet… there is hardly a monument to his name apart from an unfinished tomb. Petty officials, municipal councilors, political opportunists and distinguished millionaires have been treated better.”    Another editorial from January 25, 1949 states: “The West Punjab assembly has been dissolved. The selfish pack of men who have, for the last 18 months, revelled in the people’s misery and mocked at the nobility of freedom have been asked to quit…We demand that every adult citizen must be given the right to vote. We demand this in the name of Islamic equality that makes no distinction between rich and poor; we demand it in the name of freedom that is the common heritage of us all…we demand that no one should be given that privilege to arrogate exclusively to himself the past prestige of the Muslim League, a prestige that belongs to the Muslim Nation as a whole…We demand that political tricksters should not be allowed to load the dice for and against any citizen…” Reading these lines today, one can see how far ahead Faiz was of his time. It is also easy to see how he was to become such a thorn in the side of successive governments.

The Rawalpindi Conspiracy case

Woh baat saaray fasanaay mein jis kaa zikr na tha… (The words that were never mentioned…) — Faiz

Faiz was friends with several military men from the days he had served in the army during World War II. One of these was Major General Akbar Khan, a senior member of the Pakistan Army. Akbar Khan and many of his colleagues in the army had become frustrated and disillusioned with the civilian government of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan over what they perceived as the lack of material and moral support that had been given to the Army during the fight over Kashmir that had broken out immediately after Partition.    The general and his friends wanted a political change specifically of a 'leftist' or progressive kind, including land reforms and eradication of corruption and nepotism. They sent a message to Sajjad Zaheer who was the Secretary General of the fledgling Communist Party of Pakistan. Akbar Khan requested Faiz to arrange a meeting with Zaheer who was in hiding since, as in the days of the British, all communists and any of their sympathisers were heavily monitored. Zaheer invited Faiz to go along with him and Faiz, blissfully unaware of what was being planned, agreed. In March 1951 Faiz and Zaheer had another meeting with Akbar Khan and his friends in Rawalpindi and after listening to suggestions about a military revolution, both, on behalf of progressives as well as the party, rejected the idea since it would likely have no popular support.     No ground work had been done to educate and inform the people and most ordinary people would likely have seen it (correctly) as another measure to impose change on them from the top without consulting them in any way. Faiz and Zaheer were also convinced that the situation was not bad enough to call for militant resistance and that in any case, given the circumstances, it was not practical. The meeting ended with a decision to avoid any such extreme measures. Unfortunately, one of the participants of the meeting got cold feet and informed his superiors who promptly informed the authorities. The next day Faiz was arrested from his house in Lahore and many of the other participants in the meeting were also rounded up. Incredibly, Faiz was treated as the ‘chief conspirator’, representing communists, since Zaheer could not be arrested for another three months.    For Faiz, this resulted in an imprisonment lasting four years, a time that was very painful for him as well as for his family. However, his poetry, which he had barely had time for while editing Pakistan Times, flourished and two collections were published during the four years of prison. Dast-i-Saba' (The Breeze’s Hand) and Zindaan Nama (Prison Notebook) contain some of his most beloved poems. By the time Faiz was freed, he was known far and wide.

After the release

Husn larzeed ke saheb-i- nazar peyda shod (Beauty trembled at the birth of beholder) —Iqbal

By the time Faiz was released from prison in 1955, much water had flowed under the bridge. In his own words, the country had been ‘sold to the neo-imperialist block’. The government had signed the Seato and Cento pacts and had lodged itself squarely alongside western powers led by the United States. The Cold War had begun in earnest and the former ally of the West, the Soviet Union, was now its enemy number one. All left-leaning and progressive voices were heavily censored. The trade union movement, which Faiz had helped build had been destroyed.    By Faiz’s own account, any activity in the political arena had become impossible. Politically, there was famine in many parts of the country and industrial activity had stagnated or come to a standstill. Poverty had increased still further from the level it was at in 1947. Faiz rejoined Pakistan Times, again writing editorials critical of the government’s domestic and foreign policies. In addition, the paper voiced vocal opinions about normalising relations with the socialist bloc, by this time possible only through cultural and scientific exchanges.    Faiz wrote little poetry during this time but did attempt to enlarge his creative horizons. He wrote a screenplay and then helped turn it into a feature film, Jago Hua Savera based on the lives of fishermen in East Bengal. In 1956, Faiz was invited to India to the inaugural session of a conference on Asian writers organised by the Progressive Writers’ Association, giving Faiz a chance to meet and catch up with his old comrades, including Syed Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand, Krishen Chander and others. It was at this conference that the similarities between problems faced by former colonies in Asia and Africa were discussed and the idea of an Afro-Asian Writers’ movement was born.    In 1958, Faiz and Hafeez Jallundhri, the author of the Pakistan national anthem, went as Pakistani delegates to the second conference of Afro-Asian writers in Tashkent. Faiz’s long cherished desire to see the USSR was thus fulfilled and he became a leading proponent of the ‘Tashkent Declaration’, which pledged to “resist the cultural pressures of neo-colonialism and help the former colonies throw off the spiritual yoke of colonialism by uniting intellectuals on a new, higher plane.” It was during the conference that General Ayub Khan and the Pakistani army led a coup against the Government of Pakistan and implemented the “Social Security Act” by virtue of which they began widespread arrests.    Faiz was warned by progressive friends in the USSR not to return to Pakistan since arrest, or worse, was a near certainty. He chose to return anyway and was promptly arrested a few days later, eventually serving six months in jail. After his release, he decided on a change of scenery and moved to Karachi for a while and taught at a college for poor students. However, the weather in Karachi did not suit him. He began having frequent asthma attacks, and eventually Alys persuaded him to return to Lahore.

The Lenin Peace Prize

Khalal pazeer bovad har bina ke mi beeni (Every foundation you see is faulty) — Hafez    Upon his return from Karachi, Faiz had been ill and had been told by his doctor that he had suffered a mild heart attack. It was while he was recovering at home that he was informed of having won the Lenin Peace Prize, the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The year was 1962. The prize ceremony was to be held in Moscow and since Faiz was still under surveillance by the military government, the only way he could travel to the USSR to accept the award was by the permission of the President of Pakistan.

Fortunately, the military government of Ayub Khan was, at this time, experimenting with a slightly more non-aligned foreign policy more in line with Pakistan’s national interest and becoming less subservient to the US. Faiz received the permission to travel to Moscow. His doctor was less sanguine and forbade him travelling by air.    Faiz went to Moscow by sea and train to receive his award. His colleagues at Pakistan Times tried to persuade him to not leave the paper which had by then been taken over by the government; however, Faiz had made up his mind. The prize ceremony was held in the grand Kremlin hall in Moscow. Faiz’s acceptance speech at the ceremony, which appears as a brief preface to his collection Dast-i-tah-i-Sang (Hand under the rock) is a great piece of humanist literature:      Human ingenuity, science and industry have made it possible to provide each one of us everything we need to be comfortable provided these boundless treasures of nature and production are not declared the property of a greedy few but are used for the benefit of all of humanity… However, this is only possible if the foundations of human society are based not on greed, exploitation and ownership but on justice, equality, freedom and the welfare of everyone… I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies will, after all, be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred and cruelty, the foundation of humankind will rest on the message of the great Persian poet Hafez Shiraz: ‘Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless’.     The Lenin Peace Prize helped lift Faiz’s image even higher in the international community. He was invited to speak in many countries and was especially feted in the socialist countries or those allied to the Soviet bloc. His poetry was being translated into dozens of languages. He traveled widely in the Arab world as well and developed a special fondness for Lebanon, especially Beirut, which would become his home in later years.

Beyond Hum Keh Thehre Ajnabi

Hum keh thehre ajnabi kitni madaraaton ke baad (We who became strangers, after so many graces) — Faiz    The year 1971 saw the culmination of what was then termed the ‘Bengali problem’ in the shape of the trauma of Pakistan’s second partition and the secession of East Pakistan to become the independent state of Bangladesh. While the problems had been simmering since independence in 1947, they had come to a head during the latter part of General Ayub Khan’s rule. The bloodshed in Dhaka and all of East Pakistan in 1970 and 1971 saddened many people reminding them of the trauma of 1947.    After the creation of Bangladesh, the new civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto offered Faiz a position as Cultural Advisor to the Ministry of Education, and after some deliberation, Faiz accepted. He had always considered culture an integral part of society, imperative to the development and uplift of a nation. In this position, he created the Pakistan National Council of the Arts as well as the Lok Virsa, the Institute of Folk Heritage. He assembled a group of volunteers and performed some essential, long neglected tasks. The local folk tales and stories of different regions were documented, folk songs were recorded and folk dramas were studied in detail. In addition, folk art and craft were collected from all over the country for the museum in Islamabad.    Faiz was of the opinion that folk art was an inexhaustible source of inspiration for writers and poets. His own work shows clear signs of this influence, especially his ‘geets’ (songs). He continued his activities with the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association as well. In 1973 at Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, Faiz was reunited with his long separated and dear friend, Sajjad Zaheer. Their happiness remained short lived though, as Zaheer suffered a severe heart attack and died there. A grief stricken Faiz accompanied the body to Delhi and later composed Sajjad Zaheer Ke Naam (In memory of Sajjad Zaheer). In 1974, he was part of a delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Bhutto to the new state of Bangladesh, to repair relations the dismemberment of Pakistan. While the official visit did not accomplish much, Faiz, at the request of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, an old friend, composed his famous Dhake say waapsi par (Return from Dhaka) to express his sadness:

Mere Dil, mere musafir

Hua phir say hukm saadir/ keh watan badar hon hum tum (My heart, my traveler, the order has gone forth again/that we be exiled) — Faiz    August 1977 saw the end of the Bhutto government through another military coup, thus ending a relatively calm period in Faiz’s life. Once again, the government and all civil institutions were suspended, all political and trade union activity was banned, arrests began and, for Faiz, it was déjà vu all over again. He was again put under constant police surveillance, his every move watched. He could be arrested at any time, and finally decided to leave the country on his own. Faiz later described his flight out of the country.    One day, cigarette in hand, he strolled out of his house. The policeman on duty thought he was going for his regular morning stroll and paid him no attention. Faiz went straight to the airpo



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