Updated: February 14, 2012 08:29 IST

Admired alike in India & Pakistan

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Here, Faiz, the poet takes the back seat and the political thinker comes to the fore

A few years ago when the colour version of K. Asif's timeless epic Mughal-e-Azam was due to be released, one was tempted to recite a Faiz couplet, Mujh se pehli si mohabbat, mere mehboob, na maang. The sepia-tinted memories of the black-and-white classic were sacrosanct. Like Beethoven's, its symphony cannot be improved upon by anybody, one thought. Well, fears proved unfounded. The film wowed one and all in its new avatar. And Faiz's couplet, indeed, the ghazal itself, could be used to send out a message of love renewed, redoubled.

Incidentally, the ghazal, which talks of love in bruising times of hunger and denial, was used in a Pakistani film Qaidi in 1962. In the late '60s, Majrooh Sultanpuri gave a tribute to Faiz's ghazal through the song Teri ankhon ke siwa in Chirag. Well, that is the impact Faiz has had on generations of Urdu lovers. He is probably the most widely quoted poet of his generation and his popularity transcended geographical boundaries.

So, it was with a lot of enthusiasm that one picked Celebrating Faiz, the book under review. Unfortunately, the book disappoints. Maybe, the expectations were high. More likely, it is a victim of preconceived notions about Faiz. Here, the poet takes the back seat and the political thinker comes to the fore. It's more about the man, not so well known.

We get glimpses of the real Faiz, away from the finesses of his poetry. Truth to tell, he manages to shine. No self-effacement or even an attempt to win a few brownie points. He talks of his father with a transparency that borders on the irreverent. “I was born in the house of a gentleman... who had a far more colourful life than I have had.” He reveals that his father lived in a mosque, worked as a coolie. Destiny though had better things in store for him. Once he met an Afghan grandee in the mosque, who invited him to Afghanistan where the king employed him. Later, he was to meet an English woman there.

Early days

Faiz gives us an insight into his early days, and what moulded him to become the poet he was. “I got my first schooling in the mosque, a mosque in our locality... I went to the Scotch Mission… this period — the end of the First World War and the beginning of the 1920s — was a period of great upheaval in India… In our small town of Sialkot, great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru's father visited… one got the first whiff of politics during those eventful years…”

It is on such occasions the book sparkles. Otherwise, it is like a river flowing in the plains: quiet, tranquil, deep, but not grabbing your attention. Elsewhere, it craves for attention, rather than command attention. — like when Faiz talks of his early induction into poetry, and his first brush with Iqbal in his home town.

I.K. Gujral reveals that the poet had given up drinking for almost a year before he passed away. And that India, with its secular democracy in place, celebrated Faiz's birth anniversary better than Pakistan, where members of the celebration committee spent the day in the Old Anarkali police station. Kuldip Nayar points out that Faiz was a Leftist, not an atheist, and “argued how Islam and the ideology of the Left, were on the same page.”

The most memorable nugget though comes from somewhat unexpected quarters. In a book loaded with encomiums, Mulk Raj Anand reveals a lighter side of the poet. Faiz and he used to greet each other with a Bahadur Shah Zafar couplet, Oh innocent heart, what has happened to you? It is then that you smile; otherwise, you read on, reclining and calm. No undercurrent of tension here, no storm brewing in any of the chapters. Some small anecdotes, and a good window on the early years of the legendary poet. That is all. Faiz's poetic flourishes figure off and on. His wit makes only a fleeting appearance. His confabulations, his international tryst have a ring of deja vu. Some of the writing is fresh and breezy; otherwise, it is laboured. A bit of travesty indeed, considering that one is talking of a man, whose words flowed like a river in spate yet retained the depth of the seas. As for films, well Faiz continues to inspire people on either side of the divide.

CELEBRATING FAIZ: Edited by D.P. Tripathi; Vij Books India Pvt. Ltd., 2/19, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 695.

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