During the autumn of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s rule in Pakistan, when he suspended chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, imposed an emergency, was forced to resign when facing impeachment, and saw Chaudhry return to the Supreme Court, Pakistani mood was rebellious. At that time, what gave Pakistanis hope was the haunting voice of Iqbal Bano, as she sang “hum dekhenge“, or “we shall see”, the poem of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which drove another dictator, Zia-ul Haq, nuts.
As a revolutionary phrase, hum dekhenge sounds limp: prosaic and unenthusiastic, as if being a spectator is somehow the same as being a participant. “We shall see” sounds weak, unlike the rousing spirit of the gospel song “We shall overcome”, the anthem of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. But it is deceptive to call hum dekhenge uninspiring.
Never judge a poem by its translation, for poetry is what’s lost in translation. Replace “see” with “witness”, and wait for the magic: “We shall witness”, it now begins. The poem reveals itself, and a mesmerizing web emerges. Faiz, whose centenary fell on 13 February, builds the momentum slowly, and the poem grows in strength: the struggle is just, the resolve gets firmer, and the outcome becomes certain. Tyranny is overthrown, “blown away like cotton”.
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Now let Faiz’s words blend with the tune, and allow them to flow through Iqbal Bano’s voice, and victory seems preordained, even inevitable. As she sings “aur ehl-e-hukum ke sar upar, jab bijli kad kad kadkegi”, you can see the lightning strike over the head of the ruler, and witness the end of an empire. (In one live recording on YouTube, you hear spontaneous applause accompanying that line, as if thunder is joining the clear, sharp lightning of Faiz’s verse).
The words are passionate, and Faiz was an intense man. He was a dedicated Leftist who saw hope in Communism. In the outwardly Westward-leaning Pakistan during the Cold War, Faiz’s politics was an anomaly then, as it would be now. In the early post-independence years, Faiz sided with the landless and the powerless, hoping for a classless society where landlords would not dominate the economy, the military would not interfere unduly in politics, and clerics would not control the society.
Even while he jailed him, Gen. Ayub Khan praised him as the nation’s pre-eminent poet. There is a subtle distinction: As Victor Kiernan, who translated Faiz, wrote: “To be a nationalist writer is easy, to be a national writer hard.” Indeed, clothing ideas in the national flag, filling the space with slogans, and setting words in rhyme may look and sound like a poem, but it is “patriotic rubbish”, as Adil Jussawalla described such writing from India, in his 1974 anthology, New Writing in India.
Faiz did not belong to one nation. He pledged allegiance to humanity. His heart bled for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in the US for being Communist spies; he was a comrade of Vietnamese peasants; he rubbed shoulders with Pablo Neruda and translated Nazim Hikmet; and for a while, Beirut was his home.
Having been a prisoner, he could identify with others who were denied freedom. But he believed in the inevitability of dawn. In one ghazal, the breeze knocks on the prison door. And in that slightly rattled door, he sees hope: “It whispers, don’t give up, wait a little, dawn is near.” In another poem, again set in prison, he says that what consoles him is the thought that “though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed, in rooms where lovers are destined to meet, they cannot snuff out the moon.”
Love matters, but love must compete with revolution. It cannot be hedonistic and indulgent; larger forces that dictate life must be tackled. Reflecting on other miseries, the poet tells his beloved: “There are other sorrows in this world, comforts other than love. Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.” Prison’s stifling loneliness cannot poison the poet’s romance. In The Rebel’s Silhouette, the late Agha Shahid Ali translates another poem:
I drink the poison and I drink the faint light.
I say, “To life”,
And long for my friends at home
And in countries I’ll never see.
With them I used to raise a glass
To this planet
And to the beauty of woman.
Love and revolution: love for revolution, but also love as revolution. Love for a woman, and for humanity; and the poet draws on the strength of the two loves to unleash a revolution, to overthrow tyranny.
Faiz would have cheered the demonstrators at Tahrir Square in Cairo, but he’d have been happier if there were similar demonstrations at Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi, so that people could reclaim power.
Fantasy? Maybe. But hope springs eternal: “Dil na umeed to nahin, nakaam hi to hain; lambi hai gham ki sham, magar sham hi to hai.” (I haven’t lost hope, but just a fight, that’s all; the night of suffering lengthens, but it is just a night, that’s all.)
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com