How Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s most famous poem came to be written

The poem with the famous line ‘This is not that dawn’ was written to commemorate Pakistan’s independence.

As the horror of partition gradually receded over the ensuing months, peace returned and poets picked up their pens once again. All of them wanted to express in their own words the sentiments of their fellow Pakistanis. Most of these poems proved transitory but in the ones that have been preserved, there is a reflection of the hope and optimism which most citizens of the new land were feeling. At last, they were free of the hated British Raj and the Muslims of the subcontinent had a land to call their own.

It was Faiz, however, from whose pen sprang one of the earliest, and most memorable, tributes to this bloody chapter in the history of the subcontinent. This is how one author later described it:]

On June 3, 1947, the partition of the subcontinent was announced. A few days later, summer vacations started…[We] came to Srinagar in August. Across the river from our houseboat was a large mansion, “Harmony”, where Dr MD Taseer and Faiz’s family were staying. Two or three days after August 14, Faiz sahib arrived there. I met him the next day at Taseer sahib’s house. Faiz, who always used to be somewhat hesitant in front of his elders, especially Taseer sahib and Bokhari sahib, remarked that he had started a poem in Lahore and finished it by the time he got to Srinagar. At Taseer sahib’s request, he recited it for us.

The poem was titled Subh-e azadi (Dawn of Independence) and it was to become one of the most enduring pieces of writing on the Partition:

Ye daagh ujala, ye shab gazeeda seher
Wo intezaar tha jiska ye wo seher tau nahi
Ye wo seher tau nahin, jis ki arzu le kar
Chaley thay yaar ke mil jaye gi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil
Kahin tau hoga shab-e sust mauj ka saahil
Kahin tau ja ke rukay ga safeena-e gham-e dil.

This stained light, this night-bitten dawn;
This is not that long-awaited day break;
This is not the dawn in whose longing,
We set out believing we would find, somewhere,
In heaven’s wide void,
The stars’ final resting place;
Somewhere the shore of night’s slow-washing tide;
Somewhere, an anchor for the ship of heartache.

Faiz ended the poem with these lines:

Abhi giraani-e shab mein kami nahin aai
Nijaat deeda o dil ki ghadi nahin aai
Chaley chalo ke wo manzil abhi nahin aai.

Night’s heaviness is unlessened;
The hour of the heart and spirit’s deliverance has not yet arrived;
Let us go on, that goal has not yet arrived.

The people in Faiz’s circle of friends who first heard the poem were “transfixed, especially Dr Nazir Ahmad [Faiz’s old friend, later principal of Government College, Lahore], who kept repeating the poem after Faiz finished reciting it. In between, Taseer sahib also requested Faiz to repeat some verses two or three times.”

The poem, as was usual with Faiz’s poetry, did not go unnoticed by the general public either. However, the reaction was decidedly mixed. In fact, Faiz, by gently combining lyricism with political comment and expressing his sorrow about what had happened (and perhaps his apprehension about what was to come), raised hackles on both sides of the political divide.

Those on the right scorned the poem for not celebrating independence enthusiastically. This, according to them, was not the time to cry over the anguish of ordinary people but to be happy that freedom had finally arrived.

Those on the left were not too happy either. Faiz’s friend and Marxist historian Syed Sibt-e Hasan wrote:

Both those on the Right and the Left protested [about the poem]. Those on the right said outright that it was a betrayal of the cause of Independence and that Faiz was against Pakistan. His enemies were also upset that he had not criticised the Radcliffe award outright in the poem. They could never understand the depth of the metaphors “stained light” and “night bitten dawn”.

The critics on the left said the poem was too vague, claiming that if the title was removed, it would be impossible to tell if the poem was about Independence. They also protested that the romantic symbols had lessened the impact of the poem. These people are happy to extend permission to Mirza Ghalib to describe the truth in terms of wine and cup but are unwilling to extend the same to Faiz sahib.

Faiz’s friend and fellow Progressive poet, Ali Sardar Jafri, called the poem “half truth” and wrote that a poem like this could be written by both a member of an Islamist or a Hindu religious organization, that if Faiz felt that independence (and its ensuing partition) was a negation of the aspirations of common people, he should have been more forceful in his denunciation of it, etc.

Defending Faiz, Professor Fateh Mohammad Malik wrote:

It is surprising that those who were criticizing Faiz never managed to see in it his deep, undying love for his land, especially at a time when the wounds of the Radcliffe Award (Partition) were still raw, when our (Pakistan’s) leaders were bemoaning the cunning and betrayal of the British about this “moth-eaten” Pakistan.

Subh-e azadi was written on the occasion of Pakistan’s first birthday and Faiz, in his own unique way, highlighted the problems facing the new nation. From 1947 till his death in 1984, Faiz composed a total of eleven more poems to celebrate either Pakistan’s Independence Day or Republic Day. In all of these poems, Faiz spoke lovingly and sadly about his land and its long- suffering people, their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, their dreams and disappointments.

There is also, in these poems, both an expression of solidarity with his land and its people and also a challenge of the oppressed against their oppressors. The beauty of these poems (and Faiz’s poetry) is their melody and their message of hope, although many of them also reflect the agony of the poet in the face of life’s painful realities. Agha Nasir has noted, “These poems were written at different times and are composed in different styles and different metres but if we read them together, their internal rhythm makes them appear like a single long poem.”

Excerpted with permission from Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The Authorised Biography, Ali Madeeh Hashmi, Rupa.

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