(Book Review) Letters and politics: Behind the towering genius of Faiz

(Book Review) Letters and politics: Behind the towering genius of Faiz

By KARTHIK VENKATESH | | 2 July, 2016
Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
A new biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, written by his grandson, gives us glimpses of the great poet’s life, although it elides certain important questions on Faiz’s politics, writes Karthik Venkatesh.

Love and Revolution: The authorized biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

By Ali Madeeh Hashmi

Pages: 232

Price: Rs 595


Love and Revolution, it must be clarified at the outset, is a grandson’s book about his much-adored and famous grandfather. By profession a psychiatrist, Ali Madeeh Hashmi is Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s eldest grandson. The book documents the life of Faiz well which is good. Since Faiz’s poetry has been written about in considerable detail, his life merited a narration and this is it.

Of Rajput stock, Faiz’s father, Sultan Mohammad Khan was a self-made man. In the 19th century, the British and Russians were engaged in the “Great Game” — an attempt to absorb Afghanistan into their sphere of influence. Afghanistan was a dangerous place and during this tumultuous time, Khan served as chief secretary to the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, and later as his Ambassador to England. He returned to Sialkot in the first decade of the 20th century and it was there that Faiz was born in 1911. He was the second son of Khan’s youngest wife.

After his early education, Faiz arrived in Lahore as an impressionable 18-year-old to study at the Government College. Hashmi sketches this part of Faiz’s life very competently as he does the Amritsar part of the poet’s life (1935 to 1941) where he went to teach at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. His marriage in 1941 to Alys, an English woman and fellow communist, is also recounted in detail. Faiz then came back to Lahore in 1941 to teach at the Hailey College. This period of his life was also a productive one for his poetry. In 1942, Faiz moved to Delhi to join the British Indian Army in the department of broadcasting and public information. He felt that Fascism needed to be stopped. He stayed in the Army almost till the time of Independence, when he launched on a journalistic career. The information given in these chapters is surely of interest but it is here that one also begins to get a sense of what the book’s omissions are.

Faiz was in Lahore between 1929 and 1935, then a hotbed of political activity. It is interesting to note that Faiz played virtually no part in it. Beyond a solitary reference to how his hostel room  used to, for some time, store prohibited literature, the book doesn’t say much about Faiz’s politics. Faiz seems to not have engaged in any political activity, either with the Congress or with the Muslim League. This was in all likelihood not unusual. But the question is why a sensitive and aware soul like Faiz was reluctant or perhaps unwilling to engage in political activity. This remains a mystery. Also, Faiz joined the army in 1942 after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin who had bought peace with Hitler even as Hitler ravaged other parts of Europe was forced to defend himself against the rampaging Nazi hordes. Did Faiz, who was involved with the Communists, decide to join the Army as a result of Germany’s invasion of Russia, then a beacon of hope for the Communists? This is yet another question that remains unasked in the book.

As a prominent writer from a newly-independent country, Faiz’s poetry came to be regarded as an important document of the colonial and post-colonial experience.

Post-Independence, Faiz took up a position as the editor of the newly-founded Pakistan Times and Imroze. That Faiz was ambiguous about Partition is borne out by his poem, “Subah-e-Azadi” with its famous line, “Yeh woh seher toh nahin [This is not that long-awaited dawn]”. Nevertheless, he plunged headlong into public affairs in the newly-born nation. Pakistan Times and Imroze became well-respected newspapers. In addition, Faiz was also involved in trade union activity. This period of sustained activity saw Faiz emerge as one of Pakistan’s leading intellectuals and voice of morality. This came to an end when he was arrested in 1951 for what came to be known as the “Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case”, when a bunch of army officers and a few others like Faiz were arrested for conspiring to overthrow the government in a leftist-inspired coup. He was eventually released in 1955. Here again, one notices that the book omits more than it mentions. While it gives a detailed account of his time in jail which turned out to be productive for his poetry, it shies away from clearly investigating the extent of Faiz’s involvement, the motivation behind the conspiracy and what the revolutionaries had in mind. Skimming over these issues, it prefers to wallow in quotidian detail.

After 1955, Faiz plunged into a literary life that brought him great acclaim. As a prominent writer from a newly-independent country, Faiz’s poetry came to be regarded as an important document of the colonial and post-colonial experience. After a brief incarceration on account of his socialist sympathies at the beginning of the Ayub Khan regime in 1959, Faiz headed the Lahore Arts Council from 1959 to 1962 and did more than a competent job of it. He transformed it into a vibrant institution. In 1962, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. Choosing to accept the prize, Faiz went to Moscow to accept the award in a glittering ceremony. Again here, a contradiction surfaces that goes uninvestigated. In 1959, the Russian writer, Boris Pasternak had been forced to decline the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pasternak’s independent-minded stance had not endeared him to the authorities. By this time, Faiz too had been at the receiving end on this account. Yet he chose to accept a prize from such a regime. Why? Did his starry-eyed fascination for Communism blind him to its excesses? The fascination for the Soviet Union where he was very popular was an enduring feature of his life. It would have been revealing to investigate this further.

In 1964, Faiz moved to Karachi which proved a blessing for his literary and cultural activity. By now, Faiz was virtually inactive politically. But culturally, he contributed a great deal to Pakistan. For that reason, he chose to serve the Ayub Khan and Bhutto regimes as cultural advisor even as their venality and corruption ate into the soul of Pakistan. Only in 1976 did he return to Lahore. Uncomfortable with the Zia regime, Faiz went into self-exile in Beirut as editor of Lotus, a literary magazine of the Afro-Asian Writers Association. In Beirut, he was drawn into the circle of Yasser Arafat, the P.L.O. chairman. Faiz eventually returned to Pakistan in 1983. His death in 1984 brought an end to an illustrious life.

As a grandson writing about his grandfather, Hashmi gives us more than a glimpse into Faiz, the person. Then again, this relationship also fractures the account somewhat as important questions go unasked. The relationship is the book’s greatest strength. And its greatest weakness.

There is 1 Comment

The secrets the family knows, it tells not. The laudatory things it tells are either already known or count for little.

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