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Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Conscience of his Time and Station - By Asif Zaidi

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We are now in the thirtieth year since the ‘Elan Vital’ that was Faiz withdrew itself from “the muddy vesture of decay” that we have literally become. Let’s briefly discuss the full value of what he felt and what he wrote to the age in which he lived.

 

His was a full and a rich life. His stature as the Urdu’s finest poet in the latter years of his life and his vibrant human characteristics admit of no controversy. Even those who differ from him do not deny his phenomenal influence on the literature of his generation. The value of his poetic work is colossal. His works chronicle the evolution, mood, and decay of Pakistan’s politics. One might be cynical about the ultimate worth of his life’s work, but one cannot deny that he has left an important mark on his time.

From the munificence of your sweet lips, my beloved

Bestow on me just one word of intimacy

The eminence and reputation of a man is not something which is unqualified and immutable, instead it is subject to the vagaries of time. With that in mind, how shall one speak of Faiz. Looked at in the larger perspective of history, Faiz does not have the halo and splendour of some of the giant literary figures of the subcontinent like Khusro, Mir, Ghalib, or Tagore. In comparison with these spectators of all-time and all-existence, Faiz appears as a remarkable child of his age. However, while discussing the significance of his work and life, let’s attempt to discover the enduring and abiding in what he endeavoured to achieve. I want to discover the crucial and outstanding features of his work. He was a teacher, a journalist, a political activist, and a poet. A lot has been written on how he fulfilled these roles. Here, let’s try and define his place in history and, to the extent possible, the influence which his life and work are likely to have on posterity. For that we need to grasp not only the essence but the incarnation of his poetry; the substance and not the mere husk of what he stood for.

At least for once, the dawn should begin from the corner of your lips

At least for once, the scented night should descend as you loosen your hair

In my view, Faiz was basically a social campaigner. Everything he has written is imbued with his unrelenting passion for social justice. He subordinated the art of poetry, of which he was a recognized master, to that purpose. Like Ghalib, Faiz realised that in order to reform a society we need a clear understanding of the problems of social and individual life. For Faiz, to expose the follies and ignorance of a society is the best way of salvaging and liberating it. As the voice of newly created country, he hoped that by criticizing the society and by pointing out its follies, he would be in a position to chart the way forward for social reconstruction and reform that the new state needed.

Whatever the pain I endured matters not, but oh forlorn night

My tears have safeguarded your bliss, here and beyond

Among all the factors that bestow power, the idea that a man expresses is probably the greatest source of power. This power of idea is the power that a writer possesses. It is by proliferating right ideas that a writer creates a situation ripe for a social revolution. For example, French Revolution owed its ideology and timing to the ideas of equality and liberty that Voltaire and Rousseau had popularized. The ideas of Christ and Prophet Muhammad have also played a great role in changing the lives of innumerable human beings down the ages. A hundred years after his death, the abstract speculation of Descartes became a practical force controlling the conduct of men. All struggles against arbitrary authority, oppression, tyranny, and dogmatism have been carried on only by those who knew the explosive power of a true idea. In the face of Liaquat Ali Khan and his successors armed with the powers of imprisonment, torture, and death; Faiz only had the power of idea. Alas, his idea has not yet prevailed because, apart from Faiz, we have not had any thinkers of note to win the victories of mind in every age. That’s why while Faiz’s poetry won sweeping acclaim in the intellectual field, it produced almost no effect anywhere else.

Now there will be neither light nor gloom anywhere,

After me the path of devotion lies quieted like my heart.

What will become of the caravan sworn to love’s suffering?

Someone else now must nurture the garden of sorrow.

A man’s way of life is, in any case, the manifestation of his thought. Faiz was a literary centre of influence and a man who radiated light and warmth to all those who came in contact with him. Faiz’s calling as a poet is strictly practical. He does not believe in halfway reform frequently touted by our politicians. These politicians, of course, never succeed because they are not earnest enough. For Faiz, all transformation must first be directed to transforming the life of the common man; it is only by liberating him from the shackles and oppression, need, and ignorance that foundation can be laid for guiding the society and the country towards an equitable and nobler life. Faiz pressed into the service of his poetry everything which could give an effective and appealing literary expression to the ideas he believed in. In the brief preface, that he wrote from Hyderabad jail, to his second book “Dast e Saba” Faiz sets forth his conception of his life’s work in a simple and forceful manner. Faiz’s fight was for the eradication of poverty and for equality of rights. Faiz saw his fellow humans in so intimate a sense that for him the misery and deprivation of one are the misery and deprivation of all. He insisted that all of us, as citizens, have a collective responsibility. In a country where the power has never been wielded by morally weighty personages, Faiz saw it as his duty to continually expose mock democracy and other systems of governance our country has suffered. He was arrested in 1951 and spent four years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement while on death row.

We yearned for spring in autumn’s bosom

We claimed love’s sight from the dark night

Faiz thinks that the age of blind faith, of unquestionable authority, is over. This is the age of intellection, of realization. And if a new country has to surmount the obstacles in its path, then it must discover what it ought to do to evolve and to become better. He saw in his new country the liberty of man struggling against forces of feudalism, forces of blind faith, and the albatross of tradition. He knew that it would take a lot of will, intelligence, and hard-work to create a well-ordered and harmonious Pakistan. Unfortunately, that is yet to be. As a poet he saw it as his role to prepare the ground for onset of those values which we have been taught to realize by all higher philosophies and morality.

Will someone sound the march! For an age nearly has elapsed

That the heavens have halted the procession of day and night

And now let’s briefly discuss his style as a poet. Faiz’s style is a function of what he considers his calling; he is not as such obsessed with the fineries of style in the sense of traditional Urdu poetry; it is the content and the truth of his message that matters for him. While he shows remarkable poetic genius, his style is mainly a derivate of his desire to be lucid, eloquent, and forceful. Each poem is crystal-clear and sharp in driving home the meaning it is intended to convey while using the conventional metaphors of Urdu poetry. His conviction carries him. However, his mastery of poetic expression notwithstanding, if Faiz at all continues to live as a legend it will be due to the wisdom and struggles of Pakistan’s young years contained in the poetry he wrote.

May I become a martyr for your glory, oh motherland, where

It has been ordained that no one shall walk with his head high

My overall view about his life’s work is that he was a man of high and thoughtful intent. He saw his role in exposing the injustice and social ills that were taking roots in his new country. If I were to sum up his life’s value in one word I would say it is ‘genuineness’. Faiz is a creature of his age. He demands what he thought would become serviceable elements to social justice in his country. He is definitely not of ‘eternity’ such as Aristotle and Shakespeare; nor does he scale the timeless Olympian stature of the likes of Hafiz, Mir, Ghalib, Pushkin, and Tagore; but that renders him more relevant and serviceable to his contemporaries. Faiz is essentially the creature of the first few decades around and after Pakistan’s creation, a much-loved child of the times that marked his existence. His work is therefore relevant mainly to those times but will always remain useful in the context of Pakistan’s early social and political history. I feel from where he is Faiz still looks at the country he loved so much and speaks softly, as he always did, musing over his own words below:

So many crucifixes are planted in my casement

Each one reddened with the blood of its Messiah

Each one longing for God’s mercy

On one the climes of spring are crucified

The bright moon is hanged on another

The blooming bower ripped dead on yet another

The zephyr is martyred on one more

Every so often these deities of benevolence and beauty

Dripping in their lifeblood come to adorn my grove of sorrow

And every so often in front of my eyes, their

Martyred bodies are raised, whole and fresh

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