Literary history

Why are Alys’s letters to her husband Faiz Ahmed Faiz consigned to elite private readings?

The poet’s Britain-born wife was anything but a passive voice. She subverted genre and gender roles.

This is the story of an Alys not known to many. Born in 1914, in Leyton, near London, Alys George became a member of the Communist Party in Britain at the age of 16. She grew up with a deep political awareness and wanted to fight for India’s struggle against colonial rule. In London, Alys met Indian political intellectuals like Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer and MD Taseer, among others. She began to take a keen interest in their battle, assisting them whenever possible and, planned to visit India some day. This dream was realised soon, in 1938, after her sister Cristobel married MD Taseer.

“...after Taseer married, I was determined to go to India, to see friends again, those whom we had known in London, to view the Indian struggle for freedom at first hand. There were three of us who had been very good friends for a long time. Two of us were engaged to be married, one to a Sikh and one to a Hindu – and I to get rid of, or accept a hang-up! We were all three booked by an Italian liner from Venice to Bombay. We were to meet at Victoria Station and then head onwards.

I had received lots of commissions from Taseer and was accompanied by a large black wooden box, clearly marked with my name and destination in white paint – plus boxes full of my own belongings. Our families came to see us off – I intended to make it a long, enjoyable holiday. The other two would be there for life!

But of the third friend there was no sign. Anyway, we two stood surrounded by our piles of luggage and tearful relatives, waiting for the whistle. We would say goodbye to our piles of luggage, until we arrived in our cabin on the Italian liner. Tears over, we promised to write, to come home at once if we were unhappy, to write regularly if all did not go well (I was certain I would be back after my well-deserved holiday). The whistle went. Handkerchiefs waved and we were at last off. Little, oh little, did I know then.”

— From "Over My Shoulders"

Indeed, little did she know. The outbreak of the Second World War put paid to Alys’s plans to return to England and she had to stay back in India for much longer than was originally planned. This resulted in her spending long hours with the young and passionate poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was a regular at Taseer’s. A growing fondness and camaraderie developed among the two revolutionaries and soon Alys converted to Islam so as to marry Faiz in 1941, in the valley of Kashmir.

At the time of her marriage, Alys was given a Muslim name – Kulsoom, references to which are found in abundance in Faiz’s poetry. In the early years of marriage, Faiz, who was just emerging as a famous poet earned his living as a lecturer at the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College in Amritsar. The Partition saw Alys leave India with Faiz to settle in Pakistan, her adopted country. What is little known is the many extraordinary roles she would play in shaping her new country, in many significant ways.

Never a passive muse

Alys was the muse for Faiz’s poetry. The figure of the muse, generally, signifies a passive presence which by its very existence imparts to the poet his art. Yet, the muse, generally conceived as a feminine figure, has no voice of her own. She is invoked in the poet’s art and in exchange she instils in him the poetry that he seeks. The muse, after the poet has found his art, is unable to act or react in any way except by passively accepting the invocation of her poet.

Within this discourse of celebration and admiration, the poet, by placing his muse within the centrality of his poetry, in a way, “others” her from his own position, which lies on the periphery of his poetry, as the mere poet. But our Alys subverts this passive position of the muse and engages herself in many actions, defining for herself a more grand role of the heroine.

Alys incessantly fought for the rights of the marginalised in society, opened schools and libraries for poor children, initiated the first ever column for women and children in a Pakistani daily English newspaper, with many others, founded the human rights commission, wrote political journalism for almost twenty years and managed the monetary and legal aspects of her husband Faiz’s poetry written in prison, while earning bread for the family to bring up their two daughters.

What her letters said

Not only that, Alys also wrote of herself, initiating and encouraging many other wives of progressive writers to write and record their lives as witness to history. During the years 1951 to 1955, Faiz was imprisoned for his alleged involvement in the infamous Rawalpindi conspiracy case. These years are considered to be very crucial in shaping his poetry and are referred to as “Another Adolescence” in his life by the formidable critic of Urdu literature, Carlo Cuppola.

During these years, Alys and Faiz wrote letters to each other in English, which were scrutinised at least thrice by jail authorities before they reached the recipients. While Faiz’s letters have been praised and collected and quoted from, it is interesting to note what Alys does in hers. Subverting the genre of the private letter, Alys Faiz writes to raise pertinent political issues of the day, throwing it all back to the very state machinery within which she is located.

“Each and every person one meets asks, ‘Why don’t they release them now?’ and ‘When are they coming out?’ ‘What is stopping them?’ Yes, what is? Even one day’s expenses in this case, if saved, would build a school in that lovely village. There are a hundred children who squat, huddled together under a straw roof – not to mention accommodation for thirty adults who come and sit on the bare ground to learn to read and write – they have nowhere else. So wrong, isn’t it? How simple it would be to put it all right and as it should be with a little mercy and understanding all around...

I try hard to keep everything going as it should be, but at times the burden is too heavy and my spirit fails me...because time is long and the fight so hard, not only our fight but that of so many more...the poor, the lonely, the starving, the helpless millions, the brow-beaten, the down-trodden, instead of a wild, murderous anger, there come, at last, tears...for all this untold misery...and my own weary spirit...”

— From "Dear Heart, To Faiz in Prison: 1951-55"

Using the form of the personal letter screened by the public servants of the State, Alys plays with notions of privacy and publicity in a set up where the public and the private are strictly mutually exclusive arenas. Exploiting the literary genre of the letter, Alys is also writing back autobiographically, breaking borders of genre, gender and subverting the medium to produce a work that is multi-dimensional, nuanced and accomplished in conception and execution – a work that is exemplary of the tumultuous times in which it was conceived, and which renders her the identity she demarcates for herself.

The letters of Alys Faiz provide for an excellent study of the many roles she had set for herself in society. Not only does she write to the state, but also, at another level, to a larger audience, with clear hopes of future readership.

“I hope you don’t keep all my letters, I may have to read them some day, and what a shock that might be!” she wrote in Dear Heart.

Apart from these, Alys authored a number of works that speak volumes about the many roles a woman plays, in love and in revolution. Over My Shoulder, her autobiographical journal-cum-memoir penned in Beirut, is an account of her life before and after she met Faiz. The women’s column in the erstwhile Pakistan Times, in which she played the popular role of “Apa Jaan”, and her regular columns in another magazine, Viewpoint, and, later in life, in the women’s magazine She, are her way of writing of herself and many other working women in a society not very comfortable with the notion.

While these are published and a little more is known of this multi-faceted personality and writer today than yesterday, it is a struggle even today for women’s histories to be read and circulated. During my research on the letters of Alys Faiz, I realised how these multiple forms of women’s writings are consigned to a narrow critical space: since Faiz’s birth centenary, the letters exchanged by the two have been read in performance, which has become de rigueur at elite cultural gatherings in cities like Karachi, Lahore, New Delhi and London, and does not reach the hundreds and thousands for whom she wrote, whose struggles she fought.

Even in their contemporary readership, these letters remain in the peripheries of performative presentations. All Alys’s works, including Dear Heart, remain privately read public texts – written for the masses and read by a self-selected elite readership – locked up in the archives of Faiz Ghar waiting to be found as Alys and many others like her urge us to take up the looking glass.

An enactment of 'Dear Heart'
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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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