“Speak out! Your words are free. Speak up! Your tongue is still your own“, writes Faiz Ahmed Faiz, urging people to not accept the dooming times as their pre-accepted reality. Today, decades after Faiz has died, his pen still lives, his poetry relives, sometimes translated and sometimes in original.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz had published eight books of poetry, Naqsh-e-Feryadi, being the first to be published in 1941. As Riz Rahim says in his book, ‘Faiz Ahmed Faiz: A Renowned Urdu Poet‘, Faiz’s earlier verses were more rooted in the craft of traditional Urdu poetry. However, soon after, Faiz commenced focusing his writing on the state of affairs of a declining world. His poems then documented experiences of Faiz’s own life, in the larger context of national happenings and world history. Faiz did revel in the guarded garden of the quatrains of poetry, however, he didn’t stop at that, he made poetry an immortal living entity, by constantly pivoting it to take a stand against the oppressors.
Born in Punjab, in British India, on 13th February 1911, Faiz had been awarded the International Lenin Prize for ‘Strengthening Peace Among Peoples’. He had also been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. A notable member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and not the one to tow down before fascism, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was loved by the oppressed and hounded by the oppressor. His poetry grew more societally conscious, especially in the mid-1930s, which was a cataclysmic time in British India as well as the world, where constant rebellion against the British empire as well as the imminence of World War II was putting things into peril, while the Soviet Union was experimenting with Communism
While during partition, Faiz was a young, hopeful man; it was post partition that the oppression, tyranny and trauma turned him into a man of immortal poetry. His patriotism was questioned by those who could not accept dissent from his pen, his progressive poetry stalled by politicians who would term a questioning conscience to be that of an anti-national. Faiz was arrested in March 1951, kept in solitary confinement and even denied pen and paper. He was booked under the Pakistan Safety Act, a pathetic reincarnation of the Preventive Detention Act of the previous British Empire which had been used to brutally stop any protest by the colonised population. Except in Faiz’s case, he was imprisoned in his own country where he was the rightful citizen.
In his book, ‘Faiz Ahmed Faiz: A Renowned Urdu Poet‘, Riz Rahim elucidates that while Faiz was never afraid to state upfront whatever he felt given his frequent incarcerations, and that he was denied the pen and the paper while in jail denying him the space to communicate. Faiz also used to write in ambiguous strength. In a way that would give courage to the oppressed who would understand the poem, in a way that would confuse the oppressors who would then be busy trying to decode what Faiz was saying. Faiz would express progressive societal stances by revolving them around the metaphor of romantic love, semiotics which would challenge the hegemony of language and power. Precisely why, he used ‘you’ as a metaphor for the country’.
While Faiz was refused pen and paper in the prison, he had created some of his most harrowing pieces of works that would shake anyone who came across them. His fellow prisoner Major M. Is’haaq(Retired) had endeavoured to memorise several of these poems, however, he admits that a considerable amount of the prison output was lost.
Even during his solitary confinement, Faiz saw hope. Once when he was tied in chains on a tonga, while being taken from the jail to a dentist in Lahore, people recognised him. Faiz later wrote a poem dedicated to them and in solidarity with their strength, “Let’s walk the streets, feet chained!..Friends, let’s all walk.”
Faiz believed in revolutionising society by empowering the working classes and eradicating poverty, a society that would foster peace between nations. He believed that the power of the pen was stronger than guns and weapons. Be it romantic traditional ghazals, be it poetry reinstating the ideologies of left-wing, socialist, revolution, or be it blank verse in political poems, Faiz maintained honesty and integrity towards both the subject of the art as well as the truth of contemporary times. The aesthetics of literature, as well as the urgency of politics, were both paramount in Faiz’s oeuvre. It canvassed both progressive realism and modernist aesthetics asking us not only to observe but to fight. The meanings of Faiz’s poems are not an intangible entity. Instead, they are rooted in reality.
Today, Faiz’s poem, ‘Bol’ asks us to speak up. And his poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ encourages us to not give up. Both of them combined is hope. All of them together are strength. Even in these most tumultuous of times, Faiz keeps us going, because, “Bol ke lab azaad hain tere.”