Dialogue: A Family of Three and a Poet

ON FAIZ'S 36TH DEATH ANNIVERSARY, IN CONVERSATION WITH HIS DAUGHTER SALIMA HASHMI

Written by Suryansh Deo Srivastava

In fact, in his letters to my mother written from jail, he often wrote, “I have the right to suffer for my beliefs but not the right to do it to you or to our children. And for this, I can only thank you”.

It was my father’s birthday when Iqbal Bano first sang it (Hum Dekhenge)... After two days, around four hundred people were arrested...when they arrived at the Lahore jail, somebody asked which party he was from, Habib Jaleb jested, ‘he’s the birthday party’.

There are bad times, when voices are totally muffled. When people are prosecuted, when they disappear, when they lose their lives. But we also know that when you are singing ‘Hum Dekhenge’ you are reaffirming your faith in a time jab hum dekhenge.

“When I was a child, relatives would place their hands under my chin, look straight into my eyes and ask, ‘Faiz ki beti ho, sher nahin kehti? — you are a poet’s daughter, don’t you recite poems?’. When I finally went and complained to my father about my ordeal, ‘Next time someone does this, tell them that one poet is enough for any family’, he said smiling”, recalled Professor Salima Hashmi. 

At 78, Professor Hashmi is a multi-faceted woman. A Rhode Island School of Design alum, she is a painter, a teacher, and an anti-nuclear proliferation activist. As we began the video call, the webcam stared into her canvas-embellished living room. She faced the camera with a radiant smile and told me that it was incredibly hot in Lahore. 

My fascination with Faiz began with the 2014 film, Haider. Too young to even grasp the complexity of the Kashmir insurgency, I was delighted with the idea of indulging myself in the glorious landscape: the valley decked with chinar trees, dotted with fables, flanked by towering snow-clad Himalayas, from which gushed turbulent brooks with strong political currents and an even stronger resolve to flow freely. 

The final instalment to Vishal Bharadwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy was moving, heart-wrenching, and numbing, all at the same time. However, the most mesmerizing bit came right after the film ended and the credits rolled. Rekha Bharadwaj’s deeply haunting voice echoed in the theatre: 

‘Aaj ke naam aur, 

Aaj ke gham ke naam; 

Aaj ka gham ke hai zindagi se bharey, 

Gulsitaan se khafaa, 

Zard patton ka ban’ 

 

It effortlessly summed up the 182 minutes but even more effectively commented on the state of this country: a pile of shrivelled, yellowed leaves, distinct from the colourful orchard that harbours life. I was compelled to probe further. I wanted to know whose pen had birthed prose of such supreme quality. And I did find out. 

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, it turned out, was a shared literary treasure. I kept this adolescent discovery to myself—not letting it trickle out to anyone—and tucked it in my kitty to sound smart at any significant social event. I did not look for Faiz Sahib further. His words lingered and provoked but my fancy did not chase him any longer. 

That was until he came back. In chants and in slogans, on streets and on television. 

‘Hum Dekhenge; 

Laazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge: 

Woh din ke jiska vaada hai, 

Jo lauh-e-azal mein likha hai’ 

 

I was more intrigued than ever. However, I was not the only one. This time around, he caught the fancy of our rulers too. And they conveniently did what they do best: labelled him an anti-Hindu and called for its supporters to boycott a dead man’s verses.

 

Could you shed some light on the father, the husband, the poet, and the man that Faiz Sahib was?

People associate Faiz with struggle, for speaking for the voiceless, for celebrating life and hope. A man of peace but also of great humour. I think that is because he could see the irony in the human condition. That irony used to feed into his sense of humour, always ready with a very quiet one-liner. I think that stood him in good stead—in his years of incarceration, in years of exile. So, I knew him in many ways. Of course, he was a father but he was not the proverbial father. You could get away with anything. My mother, on the other hand, was a disciplinarian. I hated school and would always come up with excuses.

He was always a friend. The calmest person, never-ever lost his temper. This one time when I flunked in maths, he looked at the scoresheet and said, “don’t worry, even I never passed math”. Even when people were after his life, he never seemed ruffled. When I visited him in exile (in Beirut) in the early 70s, he asked me if a certain newspaper was still gunning for him. I said there was not a mention. He looked disturbed. I asked him what was bothering him. He said, “I am worried people will think I am dead”. So, you get the idea.

I think he was one of the people who in his long years of doing what he believed, always realized it was very tough for his family. In fact, in his letters to my mother written from jail, he often wrote, “I have the right to suffer for my beliefs but not the right to do it to you or to our children. And for this, I can only thank you”. So, he was terribly aware of the fact that when there’s a person who is an activist, it is always the people around them who pay the price. He never let us know how much he suffered from the inside but it is all there in the poetry.

The seeds of a new nation are always nourished with blood. As Faiz sahib spent a major part of his life in undivided India and later in Pakistan—a country born out of the very communal divide he was direly opposed to—what impact did that experience have on his poetry?

Well, he was a Marxist. When the communist party decided to support Pakistan, it became apparent that he would land up in the new country. But it was beyond anyone’s imagination that it would lead to this bloodbath.

In his later years, I was chiding him, “What a terrible time, what savagery, so much bloodshed, for what? And you only wrote one poem?”

He looked at me and said, “We couldn’t cope”.

And I think he really could not. Because no one imagined, none of the leaders, that this is what the two nations will be born out of. So, when he wrote that one poem, nobody was happy with it. Leftists were most unhappy. Pakistani nationalists were upset because it did not eulogise the birth of the country, the Indian side was sad because it did not favour either of the parties.

But 70 years down the line, this is the only poem that could have been written.

‘Yeh daagh daagh ujaala,

Yeh shab-gazeeda seher

Intezaar tha jiska,

Yeh woh seher toh nahin’

 

Today, art has come to be governed by capitalistic values. We assess art based on the price it can fetch. When art is not being celebrated for its intrinsic value but its market value, how do you think Faiz sahib would have felt about this?

 

You know, art has always required patronage. From the Roman civilization to the Egyptian civilization or the great civilizations even back home, there were always patrons. However, what has happened is that patronage has moved out of courts, temples, and mosques to private hands. But that in no way means that there are not artists who continue to document, to be moved by, to express what they think are the important events in the world today. 

 

I think if you look very carefully around you, there will be artists in every country which may not necessarily be the most fashionable but they will very often be the most significant figures. We have seen this in the movements for independence, we have seen it happen in South Africa, and even in modern movements like the Black Lives Matter, art is appearing again. It, of course, does not happen suddenly but it grows out of things, images, movements that inspire and fire the imagination of the artists

 

Yes, sometimes, capital actually does patronize these artists as well. But artists that are deeply committed will always find a way. Capital can never buy an artist’s conscience.

 

When the recent CAA/NRC protests broke out in India, Faiz sahib hit the headlines again. How did that feel?

 

It brought back memories. You know, my father’s spirit must have been smiling. It is reborn now but I remember very vividly, it was my father’s birthday when Iqbal Bano first sang it (Hum Dekhenge). Since it was Zia Al-Haq’s regime, no public hall in Lahore would allow us to host the concert but a five-star hotel agreed because the manager was a great fan of my father. Hundreds had gathered and after the speeches, Then Bano Aapa sang the song.

 

But after two days, around four hundred people were arrested. This included the intellectuals, poets, leaders. My apolitical husband too was picked up. Interestingly when they arrived at the Lahore jail, somebody asked which party he was from, Habib Jaleb jested, ‘he’s the birthday party’.

 

The famous rendition, however, was performed at the Lahore Arts Council, long after my father’s passing but still during Zia’s time. This one was recorded secretly and you could hear people chanting. We had to open the doors, there were throngs of people on the stairs. There were encores and encores. It was a night to remember. Next morning at 6 am, the phone rang. I picked it up to hear Bano Aapa’s voice. ‘Ji, Bano Aapa?’. I asked groggily. ‘(Sal)Ima, mujhe zindagi mein kabhi aisi daad nahin mili”— I have never received such praise in my life’, she had replied ecstatically.

 

Coming back to what happened not many months ago, it made me realize that a poet lives outside his time. He lives outside his moment. He can be claimed by anyone and he belongs to everyone. I congratulate these young people for discovering and reclaiming Faiz. It gave me great pleasure and great delight.

 

Despotic Leaders always come for those who provoke free thought, for those who have the best interest of the nation at heart. They often weave a false narrative around art and very conveniently label them ‘Anti-national’.

 

Yes, yes, we know all about that, “anti-nationals” and “gaddars”. We know them very well because we have lived with all these labels.

 

Exactly. In that case, when even private media becomes a mouthpiece of the government and assists in the dissemination of propaganda when art is censored. There will always be regimes that muffle free voice. Do you think that can be countered?

 

We have lived through those times in Pakistan. We know censorship very well but we also know what survives. There were times when Faiz could not be recited on the radio or the television. But poetry is memorised by people. And this is not only with Faiz — look at the great sufi poets. Bulleh Shah’s verses are known by heart by those who cannot even read and write. And I remember an occasion during Zia’s period when there was this huge festival in Sindh and Abida Parveen was a very young, very new singer. There she was, in this lawn singing Bulleh Shah who, as you would know, is very anti-mullah and says that God is not in the masjid but in the heart. And I saw that outside this lawn, buses had stopped and people had climbed on the top to just listen to this woman singing her heart out. That for me is how you evade censorship. You always find a way to navigate these walls. And words cannot be stopped because they live in people’s hearts, in their memories, and they carry them.

 

Yes, there are bad times, when voices are totally muffled. When people are prosecuted, when they disappear, when they lose their lives. But we also know that when you are singing ‘Hum Dekhenge’ you are reaffirming your faith in a time jab hum dekhenge  — when we shall see. Sometimes, it is very discouraging and depressing, the darkness seems to be endless. But then someday the door does open and the truth does prevail. Uthhega an al-haq ka naara.

 

How would you want posterity to remember Faiz Sahib?

 

Having lived as long as I have, I think how he would want to be remembered as a man whose lone mission was that of peace. He longed for peace in his time, I longed for peace in mine. It has not happened yet. But I think it is the legacy of peace and not allowing anything to come in between that vision and struggle for peace. I know things are not the best between our two countries, there have been better times. I remember once things were quite tense, as happens, and I asked my father that since I have the opportunity to go, should I visit in this situation. He said, “Achhe waqt mein toh sab saath dete hain, burey waqt mein haath badhhana mushkil baat hoti hai aur who karne laayak baat hai” — in good times everyone will support you, it is during difficult times that lending a helping hand is hard, but it is worth doing.

 

We must value  the importance of all human beings. Shedding blood is something nobody should be proud of. He was pressed so many times to write a patriotic poem during Indo-Pak war and what he ultimately wrote was about a mother weeping over her lost son and the other one was called ‘Blackout’ which starts with the line, “kho gayi hain meri dono aankhein” — I’ve lost both my eyes. So, he was absolutely against war.

 

Could you share your personal favourite from your father’s body of work?

 

My favourite keeps changing but this one, I feel, he wrote for you and me, the people of India and Pakistan:

 

‘Jab dukh ki nadiya mein humne

jeevan ki naao daali thi

tha kitna kas bal baahon mein

lahu mein kitni laali thi

yun lagta tha do haath lage

aur naao pooram paar lagi

 

Aisa na hua- har dhaare mein

kuchh andekhi majdhaarein theen

kuchh maajhi the anjaan bohot

kuchh be-parkhi patwaarein theen

 

Ab jo bhi chaaho chhaan karo

ab jitney chaaho dosh dharo

nadiya bhi wahi hai, naao wahi

ab tum ki kaho kya karna hai

ab kaise paar utarna hai

 

Jab apni chhaati mein humne

is des ke ghaao dekhey the

tha khud par bhi vishwaas bohot

aur yaad bohot se nuskhey the

yun lagta tha bas kuchh din mein

saari bipta kat jaayegi

aur sab ghaao bhar jaaenge

 

Aisa na hua- ke rog apne

kuchh itne dher puraane the

ved unki toh ko paa na sake

aur totke sab bekaar gaye

 

Ab jo bhi chaaho chhaan karo

ab jitne chaaho dosh dharo

chhati bhi wahi hai, ghaao wahi

ab tum hi kaho kya karna hai

ye ghaao kaise bharna hai...’

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