Salaam Likhta Hai Shayar…

Faiz’s daughter, Salima Hashmi speaks to Pritha Kejriwal about her father and his poetry, and how Pakistan is rediscovering the poet, crisis by crisis…


The last time I heard you speaking on Faiz, you had said, “Shero Shayiri se mera aur koi talooq nahi hai par rishtedari zaroor  hai”. So tell us a little more about this rishta and what was it to have Faiz as your father, especially in the context of his being a communist revolutionary and what impact did his worldview have on yours?

Well of course, one was brought up with the underlying values which were a part of his philosophy. He was never a member of the Communist Party but he believed in an equitable world order and there was a very strong sense of belief in justice and of giving power to the people, and of elimination of poverty and overall the fact that this is not attainable without peace. So I think those were the values we were brought up on. We were never given a lecture on values. We naturally imbibed them because that was the way of life… when I was eight years old… when he went to prison…  my mother always inculcated in us a sense of pride that if you believed in certain things, suffering could come. So that was the rishta, but it was never so much a traditional baap-beti ka rishta ever… when he came out of jail, I was already a teenager and I felt I was very grown up… so he was like my pal and it was like that throughout. He would say ki achha bhai thodi si tuk- bandi ki hai, sunlo… and I remember once he had finished his book, another volume of poetry and he came over to the house and said that the volume was ready and I said “Title kya hai?” So he said, “Lahoo ka suraag.” Humne kaha ki, abba that sounds like a murder mystery… You can’t have that. Unhone kaha ki “acha tum batao” aur humne kaha ki “nazme baatein”…yeh yeh hai..humne kaha ki iska naam rakhen ‘Sarewaadiye seena’. One day he came back from a conference and brought back Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and said “ki naya likne wala hai… ise padho… the book had just been translated… he said ki “bada mazaa aayega”. A few days later, he said “kya bana”… maine kaha, “abba us kitaab ka toh bukhar chad gaya hai!”

So it was very casual, he was never like a patriarchal figure. He had a great belief in women being the future of Pakistan. And he used to say this… “Aadmiyon se toh mujhe koi umeed nahin hai.”


Recently, the Pakistan High Commissioner, while speaking on Faiz, said that Faiz used to be a part of the Left movement which used to be quite popular during those days… So what do you think has been the journey of the Left movement in Pakistan?

Or anywhere…


Or anywhere… of course…

I think that the form has changed but the essence remains the same. Poverty still remains one of the major issues of the world and equality still remains the horrifying part of our reality. I think specially in the subcontinent, where we know that everywhere people live below the poverty line, there is not enough education for children and women are oppressed. The issue still remains and we need to struggle… I think that you can name it by different names, the ideology that is, but anyone who is a humanist can see that the premise remains.


The premise definitely remains but do you think the Left movement in Pakistan has been able to capture the imagination of the Pakistani youth today?

I think that Pakistan’s political history has been so turbulent that for most of our 63 years, the Army has been in power, people’s will has been suppressed, so the movements that are centrist or even vaguely left of centre have been stamped out ruthlessly. But you cannot suppress people’s will and there is a coming together of the Left movement, coming together of the labour groups, coming together of the workers’ group… what the future is going to be immediately… we can’t say… because as you read in the papers right now, democracy is in trouble … it is fragile but we carry on.


Coming to the issue of partition- Faiz wrote, “yeh daag daag ujala…yeh shab guzeeda sehar…ye woh sehar to nahin” and on his return from Dhaka, Kab nazar mein ayegi bedagh sabze ki bahar…

Khoon ke dhabbe dholenge kitni  barsaaton ke baad…”


Yes… what was his view on Partition? How much was he opposed to it?

I think the fact that there seemed to be a popular mood that majority Muslim areas wanted to self govern was something that was to be respected. The Communist Party of India decided that okay…you are to support Pakistan…of course he was from there so there was no question of not accepting Pakistan. I think what nobody realised, that there would be such terrible bloodshed. It could have been a perfectly civilised border of the kind that you have in the other parts of the world. But the fact that it was accompanied by such mass killing was incomprehensible. The fact that we are living with this bitterness which is constantly being supported by our politics, that is the thing to worry about. If Pakistan and India can settle their differences as mature nations; the fact that they are two countries will be fine. People can move back and forth and they can be a part of a South Asia which is progressive and which is developing.


The state had certain expectations of Faiz endorsing a certain religious line.  Faiz himself was a Sufi socialist and an atheist; do you think Pakistan is rediscovering Faiz now?

I think Pakistan has always remembered Faiz in its most difficult times. He is like… as Tariq Ali said on June 11 in London when people were celebrating Faiz that “Poets have a third eye and they look beyond and see things that people of their times don’t.” Of course, today when there is deep oppression and themullah is empowered, we read Bull-e-shah. So in the same way, when people are oppressed, when they feel their voice is being silenced, Faiz becomes their voice. And they reclaim him over and over again. During the Lawyers’ movement three years ago, everbody recited Faiz and they were carrying badges which said ‘Bol’. So Faiz is there. His poetry is there. And it lives with the people.


This entire year Faiz has been celebrated worldwide.  So do you think we have been able to capture the true essence of Faiz? 

I hope so. In the London celebrations on June 11, I was amazed that the majority of people in the audience, and there were about 1200 people, were young people. And most of them had not even read the original. They had read him in translation. They came from as far away as Barcelona, Lisbon, Berlin, Oslo, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds and they had packed the hall. And they were looking at Faiz as an alternative to the pessimism of our age. And that is very heartening. Yes, the celebration carries a kernel of desire to find a pathway to the future. We have had such wonderful poets all over the world, including the subcontinent. But, I think, rarely has one been celebrated the way Faiz has been celebrated this year. It has amazed us.  We no longer own him. We are just there to give assistance to his readers. Somebody wants his photograph. Somebody wants his recording. We set up a little museum in Lahore called the ‘Faiz Ghar’ and we live on a shoestring with it. But people are helpful. Somebody contributed an A/C or somebody says, “Oh, I’ll pay your salary.” We put up his library. It is a space where people can feel him. So, yes Faiz is there for anybody to claim.


Faiz as a translator, has worked on Rasool Hamzatov and many others… do you think he was very passionate about translation?

You know, once somebody who had translated his work was talking to him. And that particular translation was very bad. We asked Faiz what he thought about that translation? He was very shy of giving any opinions thinking he would hurt someone’s feelings. But later, he said, you know there is a rule for translations. The translator must know at least one of the languages! But Faiz was always in favour of translations. Because he just felt it makes anybody’s kalaam or writing more accessible. He didn’t do much translation himself but he was always very very supportive of it.


What do you think of Aga Shahid Ali’s translation of Faiz?

I think Shahid did a wonderful job. He himself said to me that his Urdu is not great but his mother was a passionate admirer of Faiz. He said she would sit with him and make him understand. He also was of course a passionate follower of Begum Akhtar and he loved Begum Akhtar’s rendering of Faiz’s so he would follow her around. I didn’t know him and he came to my exhibition in Delhi, this little figure waiting patiently on a bench for me. And he came to me and said, “I’m Aga Shahid Ali and I translated Faiz. Can you forgive me?” And I gave him such a hug and said, “Forgive you? Y‎ou were wonderful.”


I remember this anecdote from Ghalib…there was a sher by Momin“tum mere paas hote ho  goya, koi doosra koi nahin hota”and Ghalib after reading it had said… “Momin, tum yeh ek sher mere naam kar do to main apna saara diwan tumhare naam kar doonga.”Did Faiz have any such favourites?

 (laughs) He was a passionate passionate follower of Ghalib’s. He venerated Iqbal because he was a very close friend of his father’s and ideologically close also. When abba came to Lahore to study, he was in Govenment college.My grandfather brought my father to him and told him “main tujhe Iqbal ke kadmon mein chod kar jar raha hoon”. So he always venerated him. Of course, he’d written a poem when he passed away. But he felt a kinship with Ghalib, more than perhaps with any other poet.


Tell me something about your mother Alice.

Well, Alice was the absolute opposite of Faiz. She was extremely vehement in her views. She was an extrovert while he was an introvert. She was a person who would declare her passions and beliefs very strongly, whereas he would always be very quiet and very neutral. But together they shared the same political views and shared their commitment to the land. And I was brought up with my first language being Urdu. She learnt it so that she could speak to her two children in Urdu. We were always brought up in one culture. That was a tremendous sacrifice for her. She came here in 1938 and didn’t go to England for 20 years till 1958. In the meantime, her father and mother had passed away. She gave up everything. She was such a committed human rights activist. She was one of the founding members of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She was the first woman journalist of Pakistan. She worked for women and children’s rights. A robust fighter.  My father used to often say “I could do the things I could do because I know your mother would look after you… ke tum kabhi khali pet nahi sooge.


So any of Faiz’s couplets which were her particular favourites?

She liked the poem ‘Do ishq’ very much. And I remember the time we were visiting him in Hyderabad Jail and he had just written the poem. He read it to her first in Urdu and then translated it line by line for her. She was quite adept at the language but with a bad accent. Yes, she liked this poem a lot.


If I’m not mistaken, I read a poem by Faiz which he had written in jail… meri beti ke janam din ke liye

That was for Muneeza. She wanted a gudiya but he couldn’t send one from the jail of course. Back then she was very upset par ab kehti hai gudiya toh kab ki toot jaati, nazm toh hamesha saath rahegi…


There was another “Tum mere paas raho”…

This was also written from jail. Another poem he wrote was “Salaam likhta hai shayar tumhare husn ke naam’’. He had written that for my mother’s birthday. Back then we earned money everytime he sent anazm or ghazal because that’d get published and we would get paid for it. But he had told her that with the money that comes from this poem, she should buy something for herself, not for the children. But she still ended up taking us to the movies with the money.


The last question. Faiz as a political activist, a Communist, editor of Lotus magazine , a poet, a dissenter in democracy – which one  of these is his true legacy and what do you think will be the last standing identity of Faiz?

I think as a great humanist. I think that superceded all. He himself said that there is only one abiding value and that is humanity.

Pritha Kejriwal is the founder and editor of Kindle Magazine. Under her leadership the magazine has established itself as one of the leading torch-bearers of alternative journalism in the country, having won several awards, including the United Nations supported Laadli Award for gender sensitivity and the Aasra Award for excellence in media. She is also a poet, whose works have been published in various national and international journals. She is currently working on two collections of poetry, soon to be published.

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