June issue 2016
Book Review: Biography Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Every verse that Faiz composed has its own biography. You may be able to decipher its political and emotional lineage. There was a particular time when it was born, and the circumstances in which it found its place in the hearts and minds of the admirers of Faiz’s poetry also illustrate the life of the poet.
In fact, Agha Nasir has written an entire book to explore the genealogy, so to say, of individual poems. Faiz himself had dated them to underline the connection with a specific time or event. This is why so many of us feel that we have a personal relationship with the poet and his verse. We have lived together, in a sense.
So, when I read Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s ‘authorised’ biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, I was constantly distracted by images and memories that relate to Faiz and his poetry. The biography is titled, Love and Revolution. Ali Madeeh, is, of course, Faiz’s eldest grandchild. The real value of the biography, thus, is the authenticity of the details that have been harvested from the shared memories of the family. There is considerable anecdotal evidence to fill the gaps that may have lingered in your own knowledge and understanding of Faiz’s life and passions.
In addition, Ali Madeeh has been a diligent researcher. He has ably woven personal recollections with relevant citations from the available published material. The idea is to sum up the man, the poet and the times in which he lived. Since Faiz was by far the most beloved of all contemporary poets, the task was not easy. But Ali Madeeh’s effort is commendable. It is very readable and provides fresh and fascinating insights into the life of a truly exceptional observer and interpreter of the human condition.
That the author is a practicing psychiatrist raises one’s expectations that the biography would explore a new territory in the inner life of the poet even within the limits prescribed by his relationship with the subject. Besides, the biography is professedly “authorised by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s family.”
In any case, Ali Madeeh has noted in his preface that “being a psychiatrist is an advantage since we are used to peering beneath the surface of things and I was also very keen to write about the human side of Faiz.” At the same time, he states that “I don’t think the book ‘psychologises’ Faiz and it is most definitely not a ‘psychological analysis’ of his life or work ……”
With a creative touch, Ali Madeeh begins the biography with a sensitive account of the death of the poet and the chapter is hauntingly titled: ‘The Envy of the Kings of Ages.’ We learn that Faiz had just returned from visiting his two ancestral villages. Was this some kind of a valediction? Salima Hashmi, his elder daughter, had this feeling.
And this is followed by a captivating glimpse of the storybook life of Faiz’s father. “Faiz himself called his father ‘a nineteenth-century adventurer, who had a far more colourful life than I have lived.’” But we know that the life that Faiz was able to live was beyond the scope of any adventurer or explorer. And Ali Madeeh has provided all the necessary details of this adventure of another kind.
Some of these details are very interesting and revelatory in the context of the evolution of Faiz’s thinking and his commitments. There would be a number of surprises in this account, given your own perception of Faiz and his poetry. We must remember that he was more than a poet. He was a pioneer of English journalism in Pakistan and his ability to analyse a situation in its historical context and then to transcribe it in lucid text is generally not recognised.
Personally, I was delighted to find some details about Faiz’s love of reading and to learn what he was reading when he was in school — in sixth and seventh class — Abdul Haleem Sharar and Ratan Nath Sarshar’s novels, for instance. He read Dickens when he was in eighth or ninth class. In college, he read European fiction for an examination — from Tolstoy to Hardy. Faiz said that he had read Tolstoy’s War and Peace about 12 times — ‘10 times definitely.’
He had time to catch up with his reading when he was in prison and his letters to Alys included his comments on what he was reading. I am tempted to quote a longish passage from the book because it includes titles of books he had asked for: “He had been a teacher of English in college and had mastery over Urdu, Arabic and Persian as well, and he loved reading since he was a child. He specifically requested that the diwan of the Arabic poet, Abu Tamam, be sent to him in prison. He requested Alys to send him Reynold Nicholson’s A Literary History of the Arabs, Ernest Turner’s A History of Courting, Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy and others, indicating his abiding interest in human culture and civilisation and its evolution. He had always been fond of literature and his reading list also included books such as Alphonse Daudet’s Sapho, Sean O’Casey’s play The Star Turns Red, the poems of T.S. Eliot, the short stories of Chekhov and Maupassant, James Aldridge’s The Jungle, the stories of Gogol and the works of Shakespeare. He also asked to be sent the books of Havelock Ellis and Nietszche.”
Ali Madeeh has thus given us some clues to the secret of his genius. For many, Faiz was an easygoing person. But the torment that a creative soul must go through was there. We have this example of what Faiz wrote in a letter from prison about his poem ‘Zindan ki ek shaam’: “I am particularly happy with this poem… I don’t mind telling you that no one else today can write like this and no one will be able to, for a long time to come. This is not because I am arrogant about my ability. My talent is very limited and there are many people who have more ability than I. The secret is hard work, toil and sweat, especially in writing.”
There are obviously some chapters in Faiz’s life that can best be rendered through the recollections of the members of his own family. Ali Madeeh has put together some interesting details about Faiz’s love affair with and marriage to Alys. Still, Alys told Salima not to do what she herself had done. Salima recalls: “I must have been about 16 and she said to me: ‘Never marry outside your culture.’ I asked her, ‘Why? You did it!’ She said, ‘Yes, but I would not want you to go through what I went through.’”
You find a number of such moments in Ali Madeeh’s biography of his grandfather who, because of the immense reach and influence of his poetry, was universally admired and loved. In spite of the difficulties that he encountered as a leftist intellectual, including imprisonment, he was the luckiest of poets anywhere for the immense love that he received in his lifetime. As a human being, he was incomparable.
But Faiz will live precisely because of his poetry in Urdu. This biography is in English, with inevitable references to specific lines that need to be translated.
While reading this biography, one is tempted to not be very conscious of, or critical about, what it lacks and how it has not been meticulously edited. The reason is obvious. It is about Faiz and our unbounded affection for him — both the poet and the man — tends to condition our emotional responses. Besides, the new material about Faiz that the ‘authorised’ biography has brought for us consists of recollections of members of his immediate family, mainly his daughters, Salima and Moneeza, Ali Madeeh’s mother.
We should also concede the fact that Ali Madeeh was brought up and educated in an environment that does not entirely overlap with the domain of Faiz’s verse. This is indicative of a tragedy that is too great to tell. The space between Urdu literature and the modern youth, mostly educated in the English-medium universe, is getting wider and wider.
We have intimations of this intellectual estrangement in this biography.
This may have been one of the reasons Ali Madeeh has not attempted to locate Faiz’s poetic stature in the overall context of contemporary Urdu poetry. What he has done well is to sift through the material he had and his conversations with those who were close to Faiz.
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.