The Faiz I knew

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Vignettes of a childhood in an unusual household

By Salima Hashmi

Family time Faiz with wife Alys and daughters Salima and Moneeza
Family time Faiz with wife Alys and daughters Salima and Moneeza

MY SISTER and I learnt young that you have to pay if you lived by certain ideals. I was eight years old when my father went to prison. He was at the time accused of being involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy to overthrow the government and later he’d resign from his job as editor of Pakistan Times after Pakistan’s first military takeover, for his socialist views and then was exiled. There was nothing extraordinary about being Faiz’s daughter until he was arrested and everything changed. I remember the poems in the letters that my father sent my mother from jail. It was then that I realised the power of words, and that my father had something that no one else had. In particular, I remember the lines in a Qita — If ink and pen are snatched from me, shall I/ Who have dipped my finger in my heart’s blood complain/ Or if they seal my tongue, when I have made a mouth of/ Every link of my chain?

Growing up, my father’s friends were our friends. Of course, there was never money in the house but we always enjoyed ourselves. Our internal world was secure but we were constantly aware of the undercurrents around us, tensions that threatened to pervade our lives. I think that is something that continues even today. Pakistan has changed and it hasn’t. The problems that we have are a threat to the survival of the whole region.

You still have to pay if you stand up for your beliefs. My cousin Salman Taseer paid with his life. My father would have reacted to today’s world with the same verses. In Ab Tum Hi Kahon Kya Karna Hain, he is posing the question to all of us in India and Pakistan: …blame whomever, as much as you want/ but the river hasn’t changed/ the raft is still the same/ Now you suggest what’s to be done/ you tell us how to come ashore.

Faiz also had a funny side to him and was famously diplomatic. At a conference in Aligarh recently, I recalled his response to a famous Pakistani personality who had asked him what he thought of a particular translation of his poetry. He was silent, suavely blowing out a ring of smoke, till he said with a straight face that it was advisable that the translator knew at least one of the two languages really well.

He was always firm about revolution, never cynical. Palestine was his last big love and he saw it all play out while still in exile in Beirut

When he was in Sahiwal jail, my sister and I were once allowed to walk with him to his cell to see the garden he had planted there. I recently went back to the prison to see my father’s cell. Not only is the cell standing, the garden is still there! It has a plate with his name on it. In a strange way, a renegade is reclaimed and celebrated.

Writers and artists complain the world never appreciates them. My father felt he got more than his due. I once accompanied him to a mushaira. Everyone there was in awe of him and that surprised him to the point of embarrassment . His softness made Faiz endearing. He was firm in his belief in the revolution, never cynical. Palestine was his last big love and he saw it all play out while in exile in Beirut. His poem Hum Dekhenge could have been written about present day Palestine. It could be a song of hope arising from the world’s festering battlefields. He talks of a time “when the enormous mountains of tyranny blow away like cotton”. To me, his poems acknowledge the burdens of the past, but celebrate the promise of the future… it helps deal with the impossibility of the present.

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