Truth is certainly stranger than fiction. Otherwise, a poem written by an avowed communist in opposition to a fundamentalist dictator would not have been branded anti-Hindu by some people in an august institution such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. Students who recited Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s iconic Urdu poem, ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We will see) in solidarity with Jamia Millia Islamia students who were subjected to police brutality on December 15 while protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), were accused of reciting a poem that provoked anti-Hindu sentiments. Following several complaints, a committee was set up to probe the affair and we await its decision on whether the extremely popular ‘Hum Dekhenge’, recognised as a universal poem of protest, is ‘anti-Hindu’ or not. Clearly, it is a measure of the times we live in.
Faiz wrote Hum Dekhenge in January 1979, while visiting the US. It was a time when his country’s (Pakistan) first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been overthrown in a coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, was about to be hanged. Apart from writing this poem against the Zia dictatorship, Faiz also had in mind the Iranian people who were struggling against a dictatorial monarchy in their country at that time:
We will see
It is incumbent that we too will see
The day which it has been promised will be
Which is written on the tablet of eternity
When the mountains of tyranny and oppression
will be like cotton scattered by an explosion
When the earth will palpitate in apprehension
beneath the feet of the ones bowed in subjugation
And over the head of the ruler
when lightening claps with thunder
When all the objects of idolatry
will be lifted from the Kaaba of God’s country
When we, the pure-hearted, the rejects of the holy sanctuary
will be made to sit on the throne of royalty
All the crowns will be thrown
All the thrones will be strewn
Only the name of God will have eternal presence
who is absent, but also in attendance
who is the beholder as well as the countenance
The cry of ‘I am Truth’ will rise
Who is me and you likewise
And there will be the reign of God’s creation
Who is me and you even
Faiz passed away in 1984 and the famed singer Iqbal Bano immortalised this poem by performing it before a packed audience in 1986 in the Alhamra Arts Council auditorium in Lahore. During the dictatorship of General Zia, Pakistani women were prohibited from wearing the sari because it was deemed un-Islamic attire. Opposing the military dictatorship, Iqbal Bano performed wearing a white sari. A recording of the poem, done secretly, was smuggled out of Pakistan and reached the world.
While one does not know what the IIT committee will say in its decision, but to order an investigation into the poem is a clear indicator that the ideology of the ruling dispensation is as regressive as that of Pakistan at the time when Faiz wrote Hum Dekhenge.
This iconic poem forms part of Faiz’s collection, Mere Dil, Mere Musafir (My heart, my traveller). The shadow of remembrance of the homeland is very deep in this poem. Such too was the demand of the time. But in this sorrow, there is not a trace of the darkness of despair or defeat. The same trust in the human’s ability to overcome all travails, the same glad tidings of the victory of truth in the battle between good and evil, which was the philosophy of Faiz’s thought and art is dominant here as well.
Faiz and Sufi metaphors
Like many other poems written during Faiz’s incarceration by the Pakistani establishment, his poems abounded with Sufi metaphors. For example, he incorporated Masoor Hallaj’s famous declaration, An-al Haq (I Am God), as a political cry in Hum Dekhenge. The poem became as much an anthem of protest for Pakistanis struggling for democratic rights and civil liberties under Zia-ul-Haq as it has now become a call for resistance for the current generation of Indians under the Narendra Modi regime. This poem is the closest one can get in Urdu to an equivalent of Shelley’s equally iconic poem, Ozymandias, juxtaposing the inevitable decline of rulers with their pretensions to greatness.
The reference to the ‘objects of idolatry’ being ‘lifted from the Kaaba of God’s country’ was not intended to demean the followers or sacred images of a particular religion; nor is the pious hope, ‘Only the name of God will have eternal presence’, an advocacy of the religion Faiz was born into. He wrote the poem at a time when a dictator was claiming to be following God’s evangelical path, labelling those who opposed him as infidels, hence Faiz resorted to religious imagery to challenge Zia’s claims. The phrase, ‘the objects of idolatry’, becomes a metaphor for all the false and transient idols like fundamentalism, dictatorship, oppression and injustice – like Ozymandias for Shelley – and ‘God’ stands for secularism, humanism, democracy and justice, values which are destined to be permanent.
Just as there was no shortage of those from the Right slandering an enlightened, secular poet in Pakistan in Faiz’s own time, there is no shortage of such people in neighbouring India as well. Indeed, such slanderers are the real connoisseurs of Faiz, these men of ‘truth’ and ‘purity’. Just like the censor grasps the hidden secrets of the tavern better than the one who drinks, the circle of abusers understand the dangerous mysteries of Faiz’s personality and poetry better than his admirers. Indeed, Faiz said:
With the censor, indeed all is well
With his name, the names of the drunkards, bearer, wine, jar, measure all swell
If there were to be a Mount Rushmore of Urdu poetry, Faiz’s face would be in serious contention. Like Ghalib and Iqbal, Faiz has been written about, translated and commented upon abundantly.
Faiz was a Ghalibian, a Gandhian and a Marxist rolled into one. His poetry was infused with an unsurpassed lyricism, but spoke evocatively and urgently against the regimes of exploitation. He was an early member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and formed a Punjab chapter in 1936. He wrote poems against colonialism, and after Independence/Partition, he settled in Lahore. He was among the Pakistanis who travelled to India in 1948 to attend Gandhi’s funeral.
His activism in the labour movement irked the right-wing elements in the Pakistani state, especially Ayub Khan. Months after Khan’s elevation to the position of commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army in 1951, Faiz and several of his colleagues were imprisoned under trumped-up conspiracy charges. He was incarcerated for four years, during which he wrote some of his finest poetry. More than half of Faiz’s verses are the creation of his days in prison; almost all of the poems and ghazals of Dast-e-Saba (The hand of the breeze) and Zindaan Nama (The book of prison) were written between 1951 and 1955, when he was in jail. His fourth collection, Dast-e-Tah-e-Sang (Hand under the stone) also includes poems from his time in prison.
Even after his release, he was subjected to surveillance and harassment and he spent many years in quasi-exile in the Soviet Union and the Middle East, where his poetry developed a truly international ethos. He won the Lenin Prize in 1962, and things came full circle when the Pakistan government bestowed its highest civilian honour, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, on him (posthumously in 1990).
Not a stranger to controversy
Faiz is neither a stranger to controversy, nor to immense love from his fellow South Asians. The first controversy regarding his poetry occurred when he wrote his famous poem, Subh-e-Aazadi (The dawn of freedom). It roiled the Progressives because it was insufficiently progressive for them, while the conservatives censured it for being insufficiently Pakistani. On the other hand, more recently, in August 2019, one of Faiz’s poems, Falasteeni Bacchon ke Liye Lori (Lullaby for Palestinian children), was adapted by the Indian group, Dastaan Live, into a moving performance, using mixed media elements of shadow puppetry to create a powerful anti-war narrative. Faiz’s song did not attract much attention, or ‘anti-national’ rant, from the powers that be in India.
The idea that Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, and even he himself, was anti-religious is as laughable as it is insulting. Even to say that he was an atheist, as progressives from across the border like Javed Akhtar and Rahat Indori are insinuating, is far from the truth. If Faiz had a religion, it was love, and his understanding of religion was more nuanced than that of most people. He never spoke ill of anybody while he lived. In fact, his closest friends longed for a riposte from Faiz to his opponents who kept writing against him, but he always said, let them write. He never responded to his detractors or enemies.
He had this to say about religion, even in his final days: two things are in great danger in Pakistan; rather, they are much oppressed – one is our Holy Quran and the other is Iqbal; everyone extracts his or her own meaning from both. Faiz was a great scholar of Arabic and had a great attachment to the language, which increased after his visit to Palestine. He was greatly grieved about people who did not recite the Quran properly or translated it incorrectly.
Wherever Faiz lived, be it Beirut, or the US or Moscow, he lived in the hearts of millions of his fellow South Asians, and will remain alive forever. He is our very own Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda. Those in Pakistan or India who are intent on cutting this great poet’s girdle of truth and purity will never be able to change what he stood for.
By subscribing to a reductionist approach, we are further limiting the circle of our ideas and art. If this mentality continues to plague our societies and dispensations, the wellsprings of our creative abilities and imagination will dry up and we will be no better than the proverbial frog in the well. The attempts to reduce Faiz’s poetry by engaging in crass literalism is part of this mentality. If things go on in this manner and we keep on reducing Faiz and his legacy thus, the day is not far when Faiz will be reduced to being merely a poet of Sialkot rather than a universal man.
So, 35 years after he passed away, Faiz’s spirit calls out from beyond the grave:
Imprisoned in the cage, we are not alone, the morning breeze of the homeland every day
fragrant with memories it arrives, illuminated with tears it goes away
Lest this couplet too be investigated for being anti-Hindu, let me hasten to add that Faiz’s poetry has always exhibited a strong metaphorical connection with the trope of qafas (cage) and the relationship of the prisoner with the saba or naseem (breeze). His metaphor reflects his incarceration, and he reads the signs of his garden’s (country’s) fate from the breeze that eventually reaches his cage (prison cell). Despite millions of compulsions and constraints, the prisoner’s heart receives solace from the thought that here at least, there is the fragrance of the homeland’s soil. The winds from the homeland come in through the cracks in the cage. Whether it is the jangling of chains and fetters or the cries of prisoners in the air, the pain is expressed in the same language as that of the prisoner, notwithstanding the efforts of sections of society and the powers that be to forge language into a weapon of polarisation.
* Note: All the translations from Urdu are the writer’s own.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.