The mere mention of the name Faiz Ahmed Faiz evokes a warm adulation, as much in the highbrow scholarly critic as in the mind of the common reader, not restricted to the Urdu world. Faiz became in fact a legendry figure in his own life time, an icon to reckon with. When Sheema Majeed, in her “Editor’s Note” in the book, Culture and Identity, refers to him as a “metaphor of his age”, she directs one’s attention to the gradual unfolding of different aspects of the spirit of the times presented in Faiz’s English writings. What she has compiled in this book arouses the attention of all, readers in Urdu as well as those who can read Faiz only in English. Several attempts have been made to transport the vibrant poems by Faiz into English, some fairly successful and others mere experiments in translating great poetry. But, what we get in this book for the first time is Faiz’s original writing in English, his insights, reflections and random thoughts on ‘culture’, ‘identity’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Urdu and linguistic identity and literary heritage of Pakistan’ and amongst many other themes, he also dwells on some individual poets and writers such as Amir Khusrou, Ghalib and his favourite Mohammad Iqbal.
It would not just be performing a ritual to quote in this review, first and foremost, from Faiz’s solitary poem in English, ‘The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl’, included in this volume: The birth of time out of timelessness is beset like all births with travail, and hope, and joy and apprehension. And its birth in Pakistan as elsewhere in the newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa is as yet only a small flag of freedom raised against The bannered and embattled host of fear and want and hunger and Pain and the death of human hearts.
Pakistan, and for that matter, India too, with their newly begot liberation from the oppressive colonial rulers, could at best carry but a “small flag of freedom” when confronted by the host of “want and hunger and pain”. Faiz captures the delicate contradictions of his times in his poetry and his insights seem to come out of his deep concern for the multitude of ordinary people battling for survival. He knits into his poem a strong philosophic strain while he sounds playful in tone and words.
In his Introduction to the book, Mohammad Reza Kazimi, makes a very pertinent comment on how some poets define and interpret their cultures. While for medieval India, it was Amir Khusrou who interpreted culture and for the English speaking world it was T.S Eliot, for Pakistan, it was Faiz who took it upon himself to get into that role. What alerted him to the culture of Pakistan initially had a lot to do with the dominance of Urdu over the indigenous languages of Pakistan. Urdu he noticed was the mother tongue of a tiny minority : “Hardly any child sulks in Urdu, hardly any mother sang lullabies in Urdu”. To him as he repeatedly demonstrates, language cannot be separated from the culture it carries within its folds. When it is regional languages, such as Punjabi, Pushto, Saraiki etc, that project the culture of the land, how then, he interrogates, can a language that is imposed from above be seen as representing the values, ideals or ideology of the masses.
Kazimi sums up the debate : “…Faiz called history the length, geography the breadth, region, class and language the depth of culture”. But he does leave scope for a synthesis of regional cultures in his definition of ‘national culture’. This cannot be realized, he emphasizes, if the creative potentialities of regional art and culture are allowed to wilt and die. In the first section of the book, “Autobiographical”, in the piece entitled ‘Faiz on Faiz’, lies the explanation for the poet-writer’s extraordinary sensitivity to issues relating to the common man and the development of his own progressive ideals. The four years of solitary confinement in the prison were most productive for him: “…I had no amusements…had plenty of time to read and one felt angry all the time because one knew one was innocent…So during these four years, I wrote two books of poetry”. When he came out of the prison, he found himself a greater celebrity than before!
When Faiz talks of “Cross-Cultural Encounter in East-West literature”, he traces the earliest exposure of Urdu literature to the English literary influence and sees the advent of the modern movement in Delhi College in the early nineteenth century in Delhi. The foundations of a real cross-cultural encounter were laid both in the reception as well as propagation of European literature and science on the one hand, and on the other, in empowering Urdu through translations as well as original writing. Faiz quotes a noted Delhi scholar, Maulvi Zakaullah of Delhi College, to show how the English rulers and their civilization had become a political and social compulsion. Patterns of cross-cultural repercussions, as he calls them, kept emerging in a variety of ways prior to this period, as also till much later, when in the early twentieth century a number of new literary movements in various Indian languages were fertilized by western aesthetics and literary concerns. Faiz gives a quick overview of the dynamics of East-West cultural encounters here.
A major issue that seeks repeated deliberation in this book is the question of culture and national identity in Pakistan. One of the propositions posed by Faiz draws one into a significant debate: “If Pakistan is an ideological state and its ideology is Islam, isn’t Muslim culture or Islamic culture an adequate definition of Pakistani culture?” Faiz raises this point if only to get an opportunity to logically demolish such a position by establishing how the parameters of culture cannot lie constrained within geographical boundaries of this nation. Ironically, on the other hand, for him, culture also evolves necessarily from within a specific region or area. In that, Faiz argues for a realization of the notion of cultural diversity inherent in national culture which is, he states, an ‘aggregate of regional cultures’.
‘Writers, Where do You Stand?’ Such interrogative pieces included in the volume reveal the poet’s anguish as well as anger at the inactivity of the contemporary writer towards fighting for freedom of expression, and basic national and human rights.
Faiz’s English writings offer thoughts and ideas of a poet who after all worked also as a journalist and a teacher of English. Needless to say, not only will this book further enrich the understanding of his powerful poems but it is also a significant input towards building a sensitive, pro-people approach to understanding culture and identity in Pakistan.
Sukrita Paul Kumar is a poet and critic, and she teaches literature at a Delhi University College.