Faiz was born in incredibly turbulent times for the world at large, and particularly for the Indian subcontinent. Though born into an affluent, aristocratic family (his grandfather had been a provincial governor in Afghanistan), Faiz did not go abroad to study like some of his peers from wealthy families. He studied philosophy and English literature in Lahore and finished with an MA in Arabic. He started his career as a junior lecturer in a college at Amritsar. What was it like to be Faiz Ahmed in those times (for Faiz hadn’t yet adopted for himself the pen name Faiz Ahmed Faiz)?

The making of a Marxist poet

It was 1934–35. Anti-British, or nationalistic sentiment, the desire for freedom, to rid the country of the foreigner, was everywhere in the air. So was, unfortunately, the feeling of “communal” conflict between the two main communities of Hindus and Muslims. Left-wing thought was making its presence felt, but it was generally side by side with the nationalist struggle and was mixed with it, not alien to it. The Communist Party of India had been founded in 1925, but its identity was often the same as the Indian National Congress, the main political party in the country at that time.

Nevertheless, life in Amritsar ran to a sweet, slow tenor, and the young Faiz could indulge in discussion and debate with his young friends, read voraciously and compose poetry. The tradition of the mushaira was strong and poetry was still something of a public affair at that time. Even Iqbal, whose poetry was philosophical and complex, was as much a public figure in the Amritsar of the 1930s as any major political leader like Mahatma Gandhi.

Poetry recitation at small or large gatherings inevitably led young poets to do “more of the same”. Suggestions from and even participation by the audience in such recitations gave poetry a reality and a place in public life which now seems to have been appropriated by the film song.

The All India Radio, founded in 1930, was also becoming a medium to disseminate and share music and poetry among large audiences. Faiz must have felt inspired to compose more and more. In spite of the largely conventional image that Urdu poetry had at that time, patriotic fervour was bound to make its appearance in any poetry being written at that time. Urdu was no exception and, in fact, led the field in patriotic songs and poetry. In their twenties at that time, Faiz and his friends and peers felt the urge to come up with a line of thought capable of not just combating the colonial presence in the motherland but also of making a stand against the forces of communalism.

The struggle against poverty and the fight against the forces of capitalism gave young Faiz’s poetry a sense of direction. The fight against political and social exploitation provided a common platform for poets who did not recognise the Hindu–Muslim divide, a divide which could have been a concern in Faiz’s poetic imagination. But a common platform for the larger struggle for freedom and social change made communal consciousness irrelevant and superficial.

The Marxist ideology, which gave primacy to economic and social forces governing human life in history, and which regarded the struggle for emancipation through revolution an imperative of history rather than a transcendental view of time and change, served the cause of communal harmony well, leading to the rejection of parochial concerns which seemed to be fanning the fires of communalism in those times.

By 1939, Faiz had made a name for himself in poetic circles. By that time he was also spending his time mingling with the working class, teaching them how to read and write and also refining their political sensibilities.

Shock and dismay

It is an interesting fact of Indian social history that the Muslim leftist intellectuals of those times came mostly from affluent families, or in fact even from what could be described as “the ruling elite”. Brought up in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and nurtured on the populist notions of the French Revolution, they felt drawn to Marxism because of their dissatisfaction with the sociopolitical structure of the times, the oppressiveness of the British rule and a strong sense of the need for change.

They were inveterate idealists, and though they were later derided for being “armchair socialists” who wouldn’t soil their hands with the sordid dirt of real life, they were true dreamers and idealists. Some well-known names among them are Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jahan, Mahmud-uz Zafar, ZA Ahmed, Muhammad Habeeb, Sibt-e Hasan, Kaifi Azmi, Sardar Jafri, Muhammad Ashraf, Abdul Aleem and Faiz himself. These wealthy or upper-middle-class intellectuals belonged to different regions but shared the same ideology and the same dream: the world needed to be changed, and Marxism was the force that could bring about the change. The Progressive Writers’ Movement, founded in 1935 in London by Sajjad Zaheer and Mulk Raj Anand, among others, was the literary form of that dream.

To be sure, both Ideology and Dream suffered many shocks in the years to come. The first one was the ugly, nakedly imperialist truth of the pact between Stalin and Hitler which in any case couldn’t prevent Hitler from invading the Soviet Union. But that truth was revealed later; the Soviet war and Hitler’s comeuppance in that war came before.

Yet, the Communist Party of India didn’t pause to consider why Stalin didn’t join the war against Hitler as other Western nations had done. The war was viewed in communist circles as an “imperial war”, which perhaps it was not, but which quickly became the “War against Fascism” when Hitler invaded Soviet Russia in 1941.

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union gave the Progressives the opportunity to express their sense of shock and dismay and protest by joining the British Indian Army. By doing so, Faiz had joined the war against fascism, fighting the oppressors, siding with the oppressed.

Then came Indian independence. His poem Subh-e Azaadi (The Dawn of Freedom, August 1947) records the disappointment that he personally, and the communists as a party, felt with the way things ultimately turned out for the Indian subcontinent. The Partition served a massive blow, not just to leftist ideals but also to the Progressive Writers’ Movement. When Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, Faiz expressed his sense of deep loss by actually attending Gandhi’s funeral in Delhi, despite the fact that Hindu–Muslim relations at that time were more fraught with tension than ever before in history.

Freedom and its aftermath

The poem The Dawn of Freedom expresses disappointment and sorrow on two levels: the Partition and the carnage that accompanied it, and the disappointment that the freedom that came that morning was not a freedom brought by an armed revolution by the people and was therefore incomplete. True to his poetic voice, Faiz expressed his meaning through metaphors which are ambiguous in their nature anyway and seemed even more ambiguous in the context. It began thus:

“This light, smeared and spotted, this night-bitten dawn 
This isn’t surely the dawn we waited for so eagerly”

If the beginning was accusatory and melancholy, its end was some sort of a call to continue the struggle for the revolution:

“The weight of the night hasn’t lifted yet 
The moment for the emancipation of the eyes 
and the heart hasn’t come yet
Let’s go on, we haven’t reached the destination yet”

Not unexpectedly, the poem drew a stinging rebuke from Sardar Jafri, the “official” spokesman of Progressive literary thought at that time. He blamed Faiz for being “too metaphorical”, hence ambiguous, and praised Kaifi Azmi’s poem on the same theme which, he once famously said, had “a hortatory and rhetorical voice”.

In February 1947, Faiz became the editor of two dailies in Lahore: the *Pakistan Times* (in English) and the *Imroz* (in Urdu). Faiz was also active in the trade union movement and acted upon his beliefs to a very large extent. In 1951, he became the vice president of the Trade Union Congress, the labour wing of the Communist Party of Pakistan. The Pakistan government sent him to San Francisco in 1948 and to Geneva in 1949–50 as a part of the Pakistani government’s delegation to the International Labour Organisation.

Things seemed to be going well for Faiz for a while – until he was arrested in March 1951 in connection with the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case. He was held in solitary confinement for three months in Sargodha and Lyallpur, where he was even deprived of writing material. It was during this period that he composed the following poem:

“My pen and tablet, all that I had 
Taken away from me 
But what’s there to grieve for? 
For I have dipped my fingers in my heart’s blood  
So what if my lips have been sealed shut? 
I have now put a tongue in  
Each and every link of the chain”

Denied pen and paper, Faiz had to commit this verse to memory even as he composed it. This poem exhibits a successful mingling of the classical flavour and revolutionary fervour with which Faiz infused his poetry. It was eventually published later in his collection Dast-e Saba (The Touch of the Breeze, Nuskha Ha-e Wafa).

In 1953, Faiz was transferred to Hyderabad (Sindh) jail. He was released in April 1955 on bail and acquitted in September that year. Faiz’s years in prison have been described in detail by Major Muhammad Ishaq, a fellow “conspirator” and inmate in jail. The account serves well to construct the image of Faiz as the great revolutionary poet, struggling against odds but moving unflinchingly towards the realisation of heroic dreams. During the period of his imprisonment, Faiz’s poems had been ingeniously smuggled out of prison or else sent out with his letters and circulated widely. Hence, by the time of his release, Faiz had become a local celebrity, rather, a “people’s hero”, with his verses being recited in almost every household across Pakistan.

Faiz was again imprisoned during the period of Ayyub Khan’s martial law in 1958. However, it was not easy to keep him in jail this time as many in the military regime itself had become admirers of his poetry, and he was released after five months. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962. This prize, regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, was widely acclaimed in the Indian subcontinent. According to Faiz himself, this was a humbling experience for him. I quote a major part of the latter part of his acceptance speech here:

“A few days ago when the world was resounding with the latest Soviet achievement in space, it occurred to me time and again that today when we can observe our world by taking a seat in the world of stars, then these petty meannesses, these selfish actions and these attempts to divide into parts and grasp the essentially small tracts of lands known as countries and the desire to make our writ run among small groups of people – how distant from rationality and reason these things are.

Now that the paths of the universe are wide open before us and the treasures of the whole world can easily be under the control of human hands, is there still not present even a small number of people among us who are reasonable, just and honest, who can make everyone agree to wind up military installations, to sink in the ocean the bombs and rockets, the guns and cannons?

And let us all, instead of trying to rule one another, go to conquer the universe where there is no shortage of space, where none needs to engage another in battle, where the environment is unlimited and where there are countless worlds. I am quite certain that in spite of all obstruction and difficulties, we will be able to make our human brotherhood agree to this suggestion.

I’m quite certain that humanity, which its enemies could never defeat, will yet be victorious, and instead of war and hatred, cruelty and malice, the foundation of a commonwealth will be shown to be the same which had been preached by Persian poet Hafiz long ago:

‘Whatever edifice you see in this world is prone to defects and disturbance
It is only the edifice of love which is free of the taint of defects and disturbance’”

Today, when the Word is in danger at the hands of the demagogue, the traducer of the reality of loneliness and pain, when the dignity of the individual is at stake and the freedom of speech much at risk of fast becoming an obsolete concept, we need the poetry of Faiz more than ever before. One is reminded of Eliot:

“The Word within the word  
Unable to speak a word”

Faiz stood for the dignity of man, the holiness of pain, the constructive power of the word and the sanctity of individual belief. He will always be needed, and that is his triumph and our tragedy.

Excerpted with permission from The Translator’s Introduction to Colours Of My Heart: Selected Poems, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi, Penguin Books.