The ‘global’ poet
Had Faiz Ahmed Faiz lived on, he would have been exactly a century old this year. He was born in Sialkot in Pakistan, incidentally also the hometown of Muhammad Iqbal, on 13 February 1911. He died in Lahore in 1984.
Faiz is known as the unofficial poet laureate of Pakistan. But it is perhaps more accurate to see him not just in the context of the Indian subcontinent, but also that of larger events, such as the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Indian fight for independence from British rule. Interestingly, while the period of Faiz’s youth and flowering is seen as a largely dismal period by Europeans—two World Wars, the threat of Communist revolution and the loss of empires—it was largely a period of hope and liberation in Asia and Africa. In this context, it is not surprising that Faiz’s critique of society, unlike that of T.S. Eliot, does not depend on shoring up the shards of an impotent past, and his fervour, though complex, never waxes and wanes and finally turns into a public face smiling in a classroom, as is the case with W.B. Yeats.
Well-versed: Faiz’s poetry has resonance in today’s world. Lev Ivanov/AFP
In his own way, of course, Faiz deserves to be ranked with poets such as Eliot and Yeats, and the fact that he does not enjoy the same stature globally has as much to do with him writing in Urdu as it has to do with him writing of hope in a period when, most European and American critics remain convinced, “world” literature had only reason to plunge into despair and bitterness.
Faiz’s sorrow and criticism, especially in the light of the bleakness of much of Urdu love poetry, was almost always touched with a complex hope, as in these concluding lines from a famous nazm:
“Aur bhi dukh hain zamaaney mein muhabbat ke sivaraahaten aur bhi hain vassal ki raahat ke sivamujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mahboob na maang!”
(There are sorrows in these times other than those of love; there are freedoms other than those of passion; don’t ask me for that love of the past, O my beloved).
Perhaps non-Western poets such as Faiz can only be done full critical justice at the “global” level if more European and American thinkers face up honestly to all the reasons for their own lack of hope in the first half of the 20th century.
Even as book publishing in India seems to be thriving, books are in dire straits in many parts of the First World. An article in The Guardian notes that, in Gloucestershire alone, 23 out of 43 libraries will be closed this year. Scholars, of course, will vomit voluminous papers on it, blaming everything from the Internet to childcare. But the bottom line is that First World governments, for largely political reasons, have decided to cut down on the humanities, and hence primarily on book spending. And most First World citizens are too comfortable in their armchairs to realize that they are well on the way from their Orwellian terror of censorship to a future of “programmed entertainment” and apathy depicted by Aldous Huxley, as Stuart McMillen’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, the cartoon strip, suggests. So, perhaps, the fact that there are political parties and governments in, say, India or China that still ban books or persecute writers is not such a total negative after all!
Need it even be mentioned that the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, one of the great annual literary events of the world, is on until 25 January?
Tabish Khair is an Indian writer based in Denmark. His latest novel is The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at email@example.com