The Poet, His Poems and His Tales

Faiz Ahmed Faiz: His Life, His Poems: The Way It Was Once by Ali Madeeh Hashmi/ Shoaib Hashmi; pp 256; Rs 499; Harper Collins Publishers India, 2012

After a decade without a day job, and associating with Dastangoi for over six years, I can safely say that I am a career storyteller. And one of the things I have learned is that resumes don’t make a person, stories do. Often these stories are not our own stories, but stories we’ve heard amongst loved ones, extended families, friends, work places, milieu; stories we’ve grown up with, stories distilled deep enough to become an integral part of our existence. We may not often identify with our resume but with our stories, always – acquaintanceship strikes, the moment our stories resonate.

Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s lucid biography of his maternal grandfather, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “Faiz Ahmed Faiz: His Life, His Poems: The Way It Was Once,” does exactly that. It tells the stories that Faiz, his daughters, and their children grew up with, the stories that wafted through the living rooms, the corridors and the courtyards of the Faiz/ Hashmi families, the stories that every family insider knew. For example, the story of the Englishwoman Lilias Hamilton situated at the Afghan King’s court warning Faiz’s father about conspiracies being hatched against him and the threat to his life, and his subsequent fleeing to England in 1903. In fact, now that I have mentioned the Hamilton story, let me slip in another remarkable story that Ali himself narrated to me about the Hamiltons. A century after Faiz’s father fled, Ali happened to eavesdrop on a conversation at a café in London of an Englishwoman telling her partner about how her great-grandmother helped the father of a great Urdu poet escape from an Afghan king’s clutches. Ali turned around and told her that he is the grandson of that poet.

Another fascinating story is that of how Sialkot got its name. A Shakaal Nagri, mentioned in the Mahabharata, was founded around 3000 BC by a ruler named Shaal. During Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s (375-414 AD) reign, a ruler named Shal Bahan built a fort in the city, fort being ‘kot’ in the local dialect, thus giving the place its name as “Shaal-kot,” which eventually turned into Sialkot. During my last visit to Lahore, one day at a post prandial conversation, Adeel, Ali’s younger brother, shared with us some audio recordings of Faiz Saheb talking about the Sialkot of his childhood, the people who lived there, prominent families, his teacher, the social hierarchies and his own family. I just sat there listening to Faiz Saheb’s voice as my mind conjured up images of a city I’ve never been to, of people I’ve never met.

Another story that leaps out of the pages is that of Patras Bukhari’s, the great Urdu littérateur and satirist and one of Faiz’s teachers, tour de force in saving UNICEF from being disbanded at the UN. After hearing Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s farewell speech, he dramatically stepped down from the president’s podium, took his seat as the Pakistani representative and rebuked Ms.  Roosevelt. Stunned by Patras’s response, the US reversed its stance the next day and UNICEF’s mandate was extended.

These stories must be part of Faiz’s upbringing, and by incorporating them, Ali has given us a glimpse into the inner Faiz; a Faiz so often obscure in his silence and demeanor.  Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s new book is actually two books in one. The first part is an insider’s biographical sketch of the great poet’s life, and the other part is translations of 52 select poems by Shoaib Hashmi, a performer, teacher, writer, and Faiz’s elder son-in-law.

Faiz is one of the most well documented people of our times; both for the poet and for the man he was, and for the times he lived in. Little is absent from the public domain. Yet, it is not an exhaustive biography.  There are aspects of Faiz’s life, which are completely untouched. Like his relationship with one of his mentors, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum. Given that he was one of the few people Faiz thought worthy of commenting on his poetry, there is very little we know of him. Why wasn’t he a curious figure in public life? We don’t know why Faiz thought highly of him. We don’t how the mentoring happened. We don’t know what others thought of this relationship between Faiz and Tabassum.

We also do not know the relationship between the two icons of Urdu poetry: Faiz Ahmed Faiz and NM Rashed. The latter father of Modernism in Urdu poetry and the former as Frances Pritchett says, “not only [as] the last of the classical poets in Urdu, but also [as] the ‘hinge’ between the classical and modern ghazal.” Their paths must have crossed many times but we don’t get to read any of that in here.

We only get a peep into his association with great Turkish and Arab poets Nazim Hikmat and Rasool Hamza. Just a mention of Noami Lazard, and if I may recall perhaps Edward Said. Surely, those years as the editor of Lotus journal were tumultuous. The growing discontentment with the Soviet regime, the worsening situation in Beirut, and Faiz’s own disillusionment with Communism – but we only get a fleeting glimpse of this and of the criticism on the lack of his writing in Punjabi.

The other fascinating aspect of Faiz’s life that one would wish to read in detail would be his association with the unions, namely the tongawalas, the postal workers, and the railway workers. Ali himself writes that the entire union had to be rebuilt from scratch and Faiz’s organizational experience and expertise proved invaluable. A brick-by-brick account of the rebuilding would not only be fascinating but would also give a glimpse into early attempts at building institutions in Pakistan. Who would not love to know the story behind the anecdote of Faiz being asked his address in Pakistan, to which he responded, “Just write, ‘Faiz, Pakistan,’ it will get to me.”

But then as Ali himself says, this is a ‘bird’s-eye-view’ of his life. At best, Ali’s book can only acquaint us with Faiz’s life. There is no new insight, but where the book stands out is the insider’s view that Ali brings to it: the stories, like this lovely story of a young Salima, Faiz’s elder daughter, sitting on a donkey, waving a white flag, participating in a peace march in Murree in 1947. Or the photographs, like a fascinating one of Faiz and Pablo Neruda in Russia. Or the facsimiles of Faiz’s letters to Alys when he was in jail for the Rawalpindi Conspiracy. All these make the book invaluable and a must for Faiz lovers.

The second half of the book consists of translations of fifty-two select poems of Faiz by Shoaib Hashmi, one of the pioneers in developing original content for Pakistan Television in 1970s, with political satires like Such Gup and Taal Matol. He has been a teacher for long, and a man of arts and letters. Translations are tricky. Hashmi begins his introductory note with a famous anecdote where a noted Pakistani economist took it upon himself to translate Faiz’s poems. Faiz kept delaying his response to his translations but when pressed by Alys to send a courtesy note, he politely thanked the economist for his effort. The economist went ahead and published the translations with Faiz’s thank you note as foreword. Later when hounded by journalists Faiz responded, “The first rule of translation: make sure you know at least one of the bloody languages!” Hashmi claims that he has learned his English from comic books – of course, that is Hashmi the satirist at his modest best. The reason he cites for translating Faiz’s poems is an “irresistible urge to share it with others, and to share it by somehow putting in your own two bits’ worth.”

One of the most widely read translations of Faiz are by the British Marxist Historian Victor Kiernan. He writes in the introduction to his translation work “Poems by Faiz,” that faithfully reproducing metre and rhyme in English “would be a counsel of perfection impossible to follow.” He explains that “Urdu prosody rests on a basis too remote from that of English to be reproduced with any exactness; while rhyming is so much more facile than in English as to have a much less insistent effect, so that to copy it would be often undesirable, even if not impracticable.”

Translating poetry is mainly an art of transcreation, which as Kiernan says is retaining “the poetic colouring of the original while deviating as little as possible from its sense.” So, translating poetry makes it imperative for the translator to know not only both the languages well, but also to be well versed with the rules of poetry and structure of both the languages, the wider cultural context, the idiomatic life the verses have, and yet be faithful to both – but that is virtually impossible.

Translation, then, is like a dream. The visuals may be different but the inherent logic is not amiss on anyone. Recently, I wrote a poem “At The Bend,” where I neither attempt to translate a Faiz poem, nor do I transcreate it. The poem, in Musharraf Farooqui’s words, is a “riff”. But I couldn’t use the Faiz lines as a riff without toiling a little. The original went as:

Ye raat us dard ka shajar hai
Jo mujhse tujhse azeemtar hai

Whereas my dowdy act is:

This tree that looms taller than
Mine and your pain put together

Of course, as I said earlier, mine is not an attempt to translate the poem at all; I was using Faiz’s central idea to build a poem of my own. But Hashmi is not writing a poem of his own, he provides caveats and in some sense absolves himself from the responsibility of being accurate, but is torn between accuracy and capturing the mood. For example, the famous Faiz nazm,

Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mahboob na maang

Becomes “Do you remember still, how it was once?” and when the line repeats at the end of the poem, as in the original, it becomes in Hashmi’s version as, “And so it cannot be, the way it was once,” which becomes the title of the book. However, in Kiernan’s translation, the opening line is, “Do not ask from me, my beloved, love like that former one.” But when Kiernan transcreates it, it becomes, “Love, do not ask me for that love again.” In fact, for one of the poems Hum Jo Taareek Raahon Pe Maare Gaye, Hashmi says that each time he translated the poem; the first line turned out so trite that he eventually gave up the idea.

Further, once in the process of transcreating the poem, Hashmi though keeping his sight on the original, is careful to maintain the integrity of the transcreated poem. He drops lines like in the very first poem Intesaab or Dedication. The original reads:

Jiski beti ko daaku utha le gaye
Haath bhar khet se ek angusht patwaar ne kaat lee
Doosri maaliye ke bahaabe sarkaar ne kaat lee
Jis ki pug zorwaalon ke paon tale…

Whereas in Hashmi’s version it reads as:

This heir who once had a daughter – carried off
Who knows where
This chief whose turban is a tattered rag
Beneath the feet of the mighty

Then in some places, he rearranges the line sequence. For example in the poem Subah-e-Azaadi or The Dawn of Freedom, he ends the transcreation with the lines,

Dawn’s maiden, it seems, has been and gone
And the lover waiting by the wayside knew not her coming, not her going.

However, these lines appear three lines before the end of the poem in the original.

Kahan se aayi nigaar-e-saba, kidhar ko gayi
Abhi chiragh-e-sar-e-reh ko kuchh khabar hi nahin
Abhi garaaniy-e-shab mein kami nahin aayi
Najaat-e-deeda-o-dil ki ghaddi nahin aayi
Chalo, chalo ki who manzil abhi nahin aayi.

Clearly, Hashmi is reinterpreting Faiz and presenting transcreations of his poems. But one of the best translations in this book is of a ghazal ‘Har Samt Pareshan Teri Aamad ke Kareene’ or as Hashmi titles it as My Tattered Shirt. My favorite is the couplet:

Har manzil-e-ghurbat pe gumaan hota hai ghar ka
Bahlaaya hai har gaam bahot darbadari ne

Which reads as:

Each house of ill fortune, seemed an abode of love
And that is how my homelessness led me from door to door

An absolute gem. A purist may at times be disappointed with Hashmi Saheb’s omissions and rearrangements of lines in his transcreations, but if one were to absorb the essence of Faiz’s poems and then read Hashmi’s transcreation, the poem at times unfurls new meanings, and delights in inexplicable ways. But then as Ali says in the book’s introduction, “Who is to decide what an authoritative translation is?”

(Thanks to Amruta Mehta for editing this review article. First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, May-June, 2012.)

5 thoughts on “The Poet, His Poems and His Tales”

  1. I have no claims to be acquainted with the poets personally, however, I heard a lot about FAF’s association with the Rampuris, who actually invited him to their house in Dehradoon to read his poems and his first book, which was published in Lucknow was decided in that house. I have no “documentation” on this. Another aspect of FAF’s life, which is indeed well documented by the poet himself was his friendship with Sajjad Zaheer. K. Satchidanandan had written a very nice piece on SZ’s contribution as a member of Progressive Writers’ Association… (please check the name of the group). I haven’t yet have the time to get a copy of this but I guess Zaheer should be mentioned as a great deal of his political ideology was forged rather through his interaction with Sajjad Zaheer.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s