Faiz Ahmed Faiz visited Kurukshetra in 1978. One of the holiest cities for Hindu pilgrimage, Kurukshetra is also known as Dharmakshetra, as it is believed that the battle of the Mahabharata was fought here. Faiz expressed his desire to visit the most sacred tirtha, Jyotisar, in Kurukshetra — where the sermon of the Bhagavad Gita is said to have been delivered by Krishna. Stepping into the precincts of Jyotisar, Faiz, along with his wife Alys, bowed to Lord Krishna and stood for long under the auspicious banyan tree. Faiz was deeply moved. In the temple visitors’ book, he wrote beautiful lines expressing his reverence for the Gita and Krishna. The Bengali priest in Jyotisar blessed Faiz. This incident is part of my childhood memory. Future historians will someday look into the visitors’ book at the Jyotisar temple and gain much from what Faiz wrote in adulation of Krishna — the omnipresent hero of the Bhagavad Gita.
There is a lot to be learnt from such hitherto overlooked historical truths which have been silenced in the recent cacophony around Faiz and his legendary nazm, Ham dekhenge, Lazim hai ki ham bhi dekhenge. We’ve heard the ghazal umpteen times in the sonorous voice of Iqbal Bano. There is something uniquely universal about this piece of poetry as it has touched the hearts of generations across the world in so many different ways that it is difficult to fix its deeper meaning and describe its magical impact. Some layers remain unexplained. But that’s the mystery of poetry and the poet’s esoteric sentiments conveyed through metaphors and symbols. Isn’t it? Faiz’s nazm does not hurt any religious sentiments, and never intended to. In fact, it inspires people of all hues against authoritarian regimes and serves as a beacon of hope.
What recent debates do not recognise is that poets cross national boundaries. That’s poetic freedom. What the current noise seems to ignore is that Faiz, who began his career as a lecturer in English literature in the holy city of Amritsar in 1935, could travel many different worlds through his popular poetry and draw upon many rich traditions across religions. Faiz was not restricted by any one ideology. To reduce Faiz to a single frame or identity is to kill and crush his universal language of love, hope and human pathos. There is more than one Faiz that we discover as we read and savour his nazms, and relish his soul-searching renditions. But in all these forms, Faiz appears more inclusive and open-minded than any other writer of his generation.
Faiz would have been disturbed by the present battle over his nazm that he wrote against the Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. He would be shocked to find himself being labelled as anti-Hindu or Islamist. Like many poets, Faiz had no religion, but a religion of universal love and longing. The line between beloved and divine love was blurred in his poetic compositions. His poetry heals and inspires, provokes and resists the powers that be. For instance, his poem, Subh-e-Azadi (Dawn of Independence), on the horror and sorrow that followed Independence, became one of most poignant expressions of the festering wound of Partition and the onset of freedom tainted with dark patches.
People across the new border were completely overwhelmed listening to it. And the echoes of the famous lines, Yeh daagh daagh ujala, yeh shab-gazida sahar, vo intizar tha jiska, yeh vo sahar to nahin (this stained light, this night-bitten dawn, that which was awaited, this is not that morning), could be heard in the streets of Amritsar and Lahore long after Partition. Faiz questioned the very politics of division and expressed excruciating pain over the loss of his homeland in 1947. The poem was criticised by both the right and the left in Pakistan. The right-wing forces said that Faiz had not appropriately celebrated freedom, while the left objected that the nazm had too many romantic symbols that obscured its political meaning. What these contending forces failed to understand was that the poem was mourning the loss of a human community and the trauma of violence, dislocation and perpetual exile. They refused to acknowledge that the poet had every right to reveal and articulate his own truths and unmask the complex reality.
To judge Faiz for hurting Hindu sentiments is an unfair indictment of his composite vision and heritage that was shaped by India. Poets like Faiz are above political ideologies and affiliations. Looking at the present squabble over the meaning of his powerful nazm, one can perhaps cite his famous lines: Vo baat saare fasane meñ jis ka zikr na tha, vo baat un ko bahut na-gavar guzri hai (What was never mentioned in the entire story, is the very thing that offended most). So, what’s all this fuss about?
Today, Faiz may like to be left alone. His poetry is beyond petty politics and mere conflicts over words pulled out of context. He empathised with people’s beliefs, sentiments, visions and broken dreams. Let us start the new year by appreciating this great poet who has only united, enraptured and enchanted the people of the subcontinent through his heart-rending nazms that convey the joy and catastrophe of human existence and condition. His words celebrate the human predicament and frailty. They soothe the raw wounds pierced by the daggers of inequality, injustice and unrequited love. Let us remember Faiz’s visit to Kurukshetra and his darshan at Jyotisar.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 23, 2020 under the title ‘A poet of many worlds’ The writer teaches history at JNU
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