Celebrating Faiz Ahmed Faiz

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Karachi stole a few hours from its urban madness, and targeted killings, to celebrate Faiz’s centenary this past Sunday. In the blistering April heat danced the Makranis to the inimitable tune of their drums and flutes. For the more discerning, there were short seminars and theatre performances; art stalls occupied another corner of the spacious lawns on Kashmir Road. Citizens for Democracy had joined hands with a number of public and private entities and NGOs to put up the show, which saw a good number of citizens in attendance in these days of enveloping intolerance.

Faiz and his universal message of love, harmony and social justice denote everything that the forces of violence do not. In these days of mayhem brought about by sheer greed and lust for power, and by terror, including the ‘war on terror’, Faiz’s prophetic words, Tujhe pukara hai be-iraada/ jo dil dukha hai bohat ziyada (to you we beckon, with a heart battered hard), come no less than a supplication that gives solace. He is our contemporary Waris Shah, whom Amrita Preetam invoked as the saviour in her famous poem written on the eve of Partition and the horrors unleashed by that fateful event.

Faiz may have come to be owned reluctantly in a country he called his mankooha (one he was wedded to) as opposed to Hindustan, his mehbooba (beloved), when he was invited by Nehru to take Indian citizenship, but his message of peace and love never received any state patronage. This is ostensibly because people like him and what they have to say do not figure anywhere in the official scheme of priorities.

His, alas, is a country of political martyrs; some, mostly unnamed, died for democracy, others for ethnic nationalist causes; innumerable are killed extra-judicially; one, the first ever elected prime minister, is claimed to have been a victim of judicial murder; several others have succumbed to sectarianism, intolerance and the blasphemy law; yet many more, mostly women, are killed for so-called honour; the rest die every day in targeted killings. Faiz, by contrast, is a small fry in the scheme of things and events Pakistani – not owned by a single political outfit or the state.

He lived an honourable, if turbulent, tormented life, one that he sought for each of his compatriots, and died a man satisfied of having done the right thing by his values and by his people. He’s no martyr here, for nobody can cash in on his stature as a poet, as a humanist with a global vision and a message that stares eternity in the face.

He spent more years in jail and in exile than anyone else in Pakistan; his daughters too grew up without the comfort of having him by their side; his wife sought no asylum abroad and went from one jail to the other across the land to be told that her husband could not be allowed to meet her or that he had been transported to another jail hundreds of miles away. But he, his wife or his daughters, never complained; they never sought redress for the state having done them so much physical and emotional harm; they never talked about democracy being the best revenge. Because he was no politician; neither are his children or their children. Such is the unsung, unlamented murder of meaningful politics in this country, and thus our misfortune. That’s why nothing here changes for the better.

But these are grim thoughts as we celebrate Faiz’s birth centenary this year. He is the poet of hope and resilience; resilience that is as intrinsic to the human condition as the odds it is up against. What lies ahead need not be as grim as what we have left behind. Like Jinnah, Faiz’s language and diction too was elusive for the masses; but like Jinnah, they own him and the values he espoused.

I can’t think that the Makrani dancers who came to Faiz’s centenary celebrations in Karachi this past Sunday understand his poetry; or even the trade unionists of whose woes he’s written more elaborately. But they trust the name, the brand that is Faiz, and that this was one person who spelled hope for them, even as he emphatically claimed, kisi sabab se falak ka gila nahin karte (by no means do we blame fate, come what may). What gave the people hope was the punch line of the same poem: Yeh chaar din ki khudaai to koi baat nahin (this passing lordship is no big deal).

The old Muslim elite, whom Sir Syed Ahmad Khan dubbed as the Ashrafiya, and whose fading remnants today are somewhat Urdu literate, understands the subtleties of Faiz’s diction and the finesse lent to it by many ace singers, among them  giants like Mehdi Hasan, Noorjehan, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, and composers like Rasheed Attre and Mehdi Zaheer. In their footsteps has followed Arshad Mahmud, with Nayyara Noor and Tina Sani in tow.

Arshad’s latest album, about to be released, has Nayyara matching her vocal chords to the magic of Faiz’s poetry, which due to Arshad’s lyricism and of which Faiz was very fond, must be called ‘lyrics’. The duo carry forth a tradition that cannot be taken any political leverage of, but is sheer delight for all across the board.

Yet, while composers and singers will come and go, Faiz is here to stay, not despite but ironically for most of his diction’s evasiveness. That said, it remains jazz to the earns of the initiated and the uninitiated alike.

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