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The many colours of Faiz’s company
At the height of his fame, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was one of the most eagerly sought after Pakistanis, not only in his home country but also in many foreign lands. People belonging to different walks of life and subscribing to different schools of thought wanted to enjoy his company, hoping to hear from his own mouth the latest verse he had written or some of the old favourite lines, and even to share his moments of silence. For them Faiz was excellent company in whatever mood they found him.
However, to a greater extent than in the case of most eminent persons the nature and quality of Faiz’s company varied with his progress in the several fields of life that he chose for himself or were chosen for him by circumstances. By his own account his personality formation began when he joined the graduation classes at Lahore’s Government College. He did have a few friends whom he joined in doing “what is done in youth” but except for developing a taste for classical music in Khwaja Khurshid Anwar’s company (while the latter tried to write poetry), he preferred to savour the romance of life by himself.
While teaching at the MAO College in Amristar, one of the most important phases of his life, Faiz found himself in a group of dynamic personalities – Taseer, Mahmuduz Zafar, Rasheed Jahan – and most of the people noted that the young poet was given to brooding in silence. Only a few looked up to him for lively company, including Alys or some youthful lovers of romantic poetry for which he was beginning to be known. But as his involvement with the Progressive Writers’ Association, trade unions and political movements grew Faiz’s company began to be sought by fellow writers, trade union workers and political activists. Companionship of such partners in struggle brought into Faiz’s company a discourse sustained by a shared striving for a better life, especially for the under-privileged.
This phase continued during Faiz’s service in the British Indian army, because the radio community in Delhi included quite a few prominent writers and Faiz found it possible to contribute to the literary enrichment of the groups to which he belonged. Faiz’s company acquired a new colour when he became editor of The Pakistan Times. He began to attract people who wanted something good to be done for the community. The provincial governor wrote a confidential letter to the Viceroy recommending a civil servant for high-grade service to the Empire and the letter was entrusted to a CID official to be delivered to the Viceroy’s secretary in Delhi by hand. The official brought the letter to Faiz and he without hesitation published it.
His company also attracted men in authority. He received information of the Quaid-i-Azam’s death, probably from a high-placed source in the Governor House, a couple of hours before the news was put on the air. The result was the publication of a marvelous supplement of Imroze the same evening, an issue worth keeping in libraries.
As the editor of The Pakistan Times, Faiz often gave his reporters tips about news stories ripe for reporting instead of the reporters informing him of developments worth noting. He also demonstrated an ability to unobtrusively inspire members of his staff to deliver to the best of their abilities. As a result of these qualities Faiz’s company was sought by journalists and columnists and many fell under the spell of his instruction which was different from the standard ways of teaching.
The value of Faiz’s company in prison has been fairly comprehensively documented by Sajjad Zaheer, Zafrullah Poshni and Ishaq Mohammed. His prison-mates found his poetry, his optimism, his wit and his very presence helpful in keeping their spirits high and cheerfully facing the rigours of captivity.
By the time Faiz regained freedom in 1955, after four years in prison, he had become a celebrity and his company was cherished by people who had accomplished something on their own. Many of them were attracted by Faiz’s adherence to the most endearing features of eastern culture – modesty and brevity in speech, unfailing regard for his teachers and seniors in age – Bokhari Saheb, Taseer Saheb, Sufi (Tabasum) Saheb. Hasrat Saheb, Majid (Malik) Saheb, Josh Saheb and Salik Saheb, and also for younger poets such as Zehra Nigah, Ahmad Faraz, Kishwar Naheed and Habib Jalib, and colleagues in labour unions and young scholars. Except for an occasional, and poor, attempt at ribaldry induced by intimates at a gossip party, he suffered from a congenital inability to use coarse language.
To what extent Faiz’s words could persuade people, young persons in particular, to bring their talent into play became evident during the period he worked as the Secretary of the Lahore Arts Council. Any young person who had an idea that he wished to express in verse or in a play trudged to the modest office of the Arts Council, enjoyed tea at a make-shift reed-lined canteen, rubbed shoulders with other budding writers/artists, and thus kept the flame of creativity in his heart alive. Faiz listened to every caller with interest and soon became known for telling everyone to start doing whatever one’s heart was urging him/her to undertake.
Forced by a foul-mouthed governor (who gave the title of an Alsatian dog to the police official he had selected for harassing the poet), Faiz migrated to Karachi. Many of the people who doted on Faiz in the industrial-commercial metropolis had nothing to do with the pursuits that were valued by him. Their sole qualification for having Faiz in their midst was their ability to pay for his entertainment and impress sizeable crowds with their resourcefulness. Quite a few of his friends, especially in Lahore, started worrying about the effect of ‘bad company’ on him. But in this situation Faiz further developed his art of switching off his mind if the company became incongenial to his refined sensibility, or when “what I say or think does not get registered with the audience”, as he told the present writer.
Faiz often resorted to this ability to detach himself from his surroundings in periods of exile, when the poet whose company was sought by an increasing number of well-wishers found loneliness unbearable and out went the cry of anguish
یار آشنا نہیں کوئی، ٹکرائیں کس سے جام
کس دلربا کے نام پہ خالی سُبو کریں
سرِ کوئے نا شنایاں
ہمیں دن سے رات کرنا
کبھی اس سے بات کرنا
کبھی اُس سے بات کرنا
تمہیں کیا کہوں کہ کیا ہے
شبِ غم بُری بلا ہے
یہ آئے سب میرے ملنے والے
کہ جن سے دن رات واسطا ہے
یہ کون کب آیا، کب گیا ہے
نگاہ و دل کی خبر کہاں ہے،
خیال سُوئے وطن رواں ہے
In Faiz’s company many normally dumb persons discovered their voice for he persuaded them in a way that made them feel important. He set an example for others by declining to express his views on matters he was not familiar with. On such occasions he would ask anyone in the company to throw light on the subject. There could, however, be situations when he would volunteer his views on a major development at home or abroad or when he was provoked into joining a debate on literature or politics. Once in a while he could get angry too, if an outlandish thought was introduced in the debate. The strongest word of censure he could use (that too rarely) for anyone who was beyond redemption was paji (wicked).
He had a unique way of encouraging young writers and defending friends against unfair attacks. Once somebody complained that one of Faiz’s friends was writing too much with too little care. “He at least writes”, Faiz said, “and those who write nothing should respect all those who write whatever they can”. Similarly his comment on a charge against a civil servant, that he had become a dictator’s hatchet man, was: “this is largely due to the bad system that we have; in a just dispensation the same bureaucrat might have done much for the people”.
Many learnt in Faiz’s company the art of keeping private matters private. He was usually in a hurry to finish any discussion about himself, even when the interlocutor was as determined to play the Boswell as Mirza Zafrul Hasan was, and who could innocently ask Faiz, “How did you come to write yeh dagh dagh ujala?” Everybody is familiar with Faiz’s summing up of his life. “A little of love, a little of work, both abandoned unfinished”. About his loves he perhaps never said anything, and about his work his statement rarely exceeded two words ‘koshish ki’ (tried to do). His joys were to be shared with friends but grief was to be borne in silence, only his most expressive eyes gave away a hint of the extent of his suffering.
Faiz never stopped refining his art of making profound observations in the fewest words possible. As we drove past the mound on what is now called Islamabad Highway, on which the Quaid’s motto (Unity, Faith, Discipline) is inscribed, on the morning of July 5, 1977, Faiz broke his 30-minute silence with the remark: “Students will be asked (in future) to write short notes on Pakistan’s third, fifth and ninth martial law”. Period.
Faiz maintained an open house for all those who wanted to see the river in a drop and the whole of life in a tiny piece in the large mosaic. Only he could have offered so much to anyone who was fortunate enough to join his company.