Write angle Ziya Us Salam

When a comrade led the prayers…

Faiz Ahmed Faiz with his wife, son-in-law and grandchildren   | Photo Credit: 04dmcfaiz2

After 40 years, an old man went to his childhood villages Kala Qader and Jessar near the small town of Narowal, around 100 kilometres north-east of Lahore. Kala Qader had a mosque built by his father. The villagers asked him to lead the prayers. The old man obliged. He mingled with everybody in the village, going down nostalgia lane with relish. He even asked the villagers, many of whom were related to him through his father Sultan Mohammed Khan, to build him a room or two overlooking the vast fields of mustard and sugarcane. Maybe, just maybe, he could spend the late autumn of his life in the village. In Jessar he found time to see a girl who was devastatingly beautiful when he was young, which was around 60 years ago! Today, she was wrinkled, an “old crone” yet he imagined, “I wonder what I looked like to her?” Men, as they say, will be men.

He missed his friend Sher Muhammad Hameed who had struck a rapport with him in Government College, Lahore. Hameed remembered, “We all used to live in New Hostel. Every evening, when we would go out for a stroll, we would see a young man standing by the railing, alone, unaware of his surroundings, gazing at the college tower and far off into the horizon. It has been forty nine years since that day…but our bond of friendship….has endured.”

Then the old man came back home. Seemed happy, rather content. It seemed he had fulfilled one last wish. He instructed his daughter Salima to go to the ancestral village more often because life over there is completely different. Soon after he breathed his last. The man who had led the prayers a day earlier passed away around the time the muezzin called the faithful for the afternoon prayers. The doctors, attending to him, tried their best to revive him, but his long years of chain-smoking and a lifestyle impervious to physical activity meant they were always fighting an uphill battle. Predictably, they put up a gallant fight. Inevitably, death prevailed over life.

As the news of the death spread, a few mourners came down to pay their last respects. Then came some more. Then a few more. It all seemed normal. Then they came in hundreds. This was surprising considering the Government had passed orders against public congregations. Yet people seemed happy to ignore the order, just to get closer to the janaaza. Soon, the BBC and Doordarshan announced his death. And a man in Amsterdam, who was an old friend, got to hear of the news too. That is when the world realised that the old man who had died after long battle with lungs was none other than hamara Faiz, the greatest Urdu poet the subcontinent has seen after Mohammed Iqbal, was appropriated by Pakistan.

His family knew he was famous, but this famous! As Ali Madeeh Hashmi, his grandson recalls in the authorised biography, “Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz”, “The crowd swelled into the thousands; the small house was packed, as were the streets outside. Humair Hashmi remembers the day of his death: We were all devastated of course, my mother, Moneeza, Salima, Shoaib, all of us. And then the people started showing up and it was unimaginable. He died around one or two in the afternoon and people started arriving soon after that and just kept coming. There would be a knock on the door at 3 or 4 a.m. and people would want to come in and offer their condolences….It was surreal; there was such a crowd.”

As Pakistan discovered Faiz in his death, and mourners turned from a trickle to a flood, politicians too thought it opportune time to seen walking in Faiz’s mile-long funeral procession. So too did military generals. Faiz who gave the establishment many a sleepless night was so useful in death! Ah! The ironies of life. And death. Talking of ironies, they hardly left Faiz. Just a few hours before he fell ill never to recover, he had led prayers. Yes, a comrade who many believed was an atheist was not just praying to Allah to show him the right path but also leading the prayers!

The ironies did not leave Faiz in death too. If the villagers asked him to be an imam, and Faiz’s only Persian Na’at is reproduced at his ancestral village’s mosque, in death too, faith did not leave him. As Hashmi recalls, “Everyone wanted to accompany Faiz’s funeral procession. Muslim tradition dictates that the deceased is carried aloft on the shoulders of the mourners, lying on a charpoy, after the burial absolutions have been completed…the number of mourners was in the tens of thousands. Everyone wanted to lend their shoulder as a mark of respect and devotion.”

Little wonder, his life-long Marxist friends were unhappy. They objected strenuously at Faiz being given a traditional Muslim burial as he had never observed traditional religious rituals. As Hashmi reproduces Salima’s words in the book, “They were very angry. They said, as an atheist, he would not have agreed to that (traditional burial). But I said, Abba organised that for anyone in the family who died. His sister passed away, his mother passed away, all of that was done…But those diehard communists, they weren’t convinced.”

Incidentally, just a little before he passed away, Faiz wanted his friends to pool in enough money to make a trust so that one of their comrades Ustad Daman, who had lived life in humble circumstances, could have a house of his own. A little before that he had visited his filmmaker friend Khurshid Anwar who was in the hospital. Seeing Faiz, Anwar sat on his bed. Pointing to heaven, Anwar said, “I’m leaving. I’ll wait for you over there.” In life’s endless ironies, Faiz died ten days before Anwar. And Daman followed Faiz two weeks later; death denying him the right to make someone’s life better.

Thus went away Faiz leaving behind ironies, questions, controversies. Of course, he left behind poetry too. And to think the common man remembers him by singing, “Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang”!

(the author is a seasoned literary critic)


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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 12:47:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/When-a-comrade-led-the-prayers%E2%80%A6/article14382572.ece

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