I didn’t listen when my father
recited your poems to us
by heart. What could it mean to a boy
that you had redefined the cruel
beloved, that figure who already
was Friend, Woman, God? In your hands...

So wrote Agha Shahid Ali in his homage go Faiz and like him I can’t remember being interested in Faizshahib during my youth.

My maternal grandfather, a writer and scholar himself, was a devotee of Iqbal and Rumi. So during my childhood I had a lot of exposure to Iqbal’s poetry, but I can’t recall my grandfather ever quoting or mentioning Faiz.

My first and so far only personal contact with Faiz Sahib's family was when I was a pre-med student at Sir Syed College Rawalpindi and owned a Yamaha motorbike. I used to visit a mechanic in Sadar bazar where Mr Shoaib Hashmi used to come as well with his Honda motorcycle. So I had a chance to chat with him a few times as we waited for our bikes to be tuned and serviced. For me this was exciting as I was talking to a celebrity.

However, Mr Hashmi’s celebrity status for me was not as the son in law of Faiz Sahib but as the brain behind the TV satire Tal Matol and the lucky man married to the beautiful Salima. Certainly we never discussed Faiz or his poetry.

Personally I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in Faiz Sahib's poetry. Most likely it was during the times of Zia martial law when his poems were used as a channel of protest and defiance against prevalent oppression. The 1985 performance by Iqbal Bano in Lahore clad in a black sari (Sari had just been banned by Zia as un-Islamic) caused the thousands present to become ecstatic as she declared:

Hum deekhain gay
Woh din kay jiska waada hai
Jab zulm o sitam kay koh a gra
Roi key tarahurr jayeen gay
Hum mehkoomo kay paon talay
Jab dhartry dhar dhar dharkay gey
Aur ahlay hakam kay sarroopar
Jab bijli kar kar karkaygey

I was not fortunate to be among the audience but met some who were and it made quite an impression on me. To quote Agha Shahid again when he discovered Faiz:

I was no longer a boy, and Urdu
A silhoute traced
By the voices of singers,
By Begum Akhtar, who wove your couplets
into ragas: both language and music
were sharpened, I listened...

Since then my interest in Faiz as a person and as a poet has kept on increasing with time. And it is not just Iqbal Banu and Begum Akhtar for a countless string of great singers from Noor Jehan to Tina Sani have sung Faiz and done it so well that one has to wonder if it is not possible to sing Faiz badly.

No doubt Faiz was a great Urdu poet yet some critics may not agree and consider his poetry to be average or even mediocre. Well that can be argued but no one can argue that as a person he was universally loved, even by his critics.

Faiz himself writes: 

'Our poets have always complained of the indifference suffered at the hands of their contemporaries; in fact, this has been a perennial theme in our poetry. As far as I am concerned, it is the other way round. I have had such kindness and love showered on me-by friends, acquaintances and, even virtual strangers-that I often feel that I do not deserve it. The little what I have done, does not measure up to what I have received.'

It is not hard to guess why he was thought worthy of so much love. For Faiz always retained his humility and humbleness. He never retaliated when insulted and attacked. In all his works and writings you will not see any bitterness towards those who criticized him, such as when he wrote Dagh Dagh Ujala on the bloody birth of Pakistan or when in reply to everyone asking for a jingoistic patriotic song during 1965 war he wrote Spahey ka Merseya an elegy for the thousands of young men from both sides of the border who died in a senseless war that achieved nothing. Each time he was crucified by so called patriots but he never retaliated. There is not even any resentment towards those who arrested him, sometimes without giving any reason or forced him to leave his beloved city of light Lahore and Pakistan!

Faiz Sahib had a tranquil and calm nature but a sharp wit and sense of humour. TV actor Arshad Mahmood narrates that he once asked Faiz Sahib how come despite that he has similar qualifications and attributes yet has not achieved the same respect and acclimation. Faiz Sahib replied: 'Bhae hum mein aur tum mein aik buniyadi farq hai' Salman persisted 'Kya farq hai Faiz Sahib?' and Faiz Sahib replied: 'Bhae humaray ustad Pitras Bukhari thay, aur tumharay Shoaib Hashmi' (Pitras and Hashmi both taught at Government College Lahore in different eras).

In another incident famous actress Shabani Azmi remembers a mushaira at the house of her father poet Kafi Azmi who was a great friend of Faiz. Generally Faiz was known as not good at reciting his own poetry, although if you listen to him he has an individual style and grace. Anyway an upstart poet at the mushaira said: 'Kya khoob hota kay Faiz Sahib jitna acha likhtay hain utna he acha sunatay bhee' In his typical demure style Faiz Sahib replied:'Bhae abb sub kuch hum hi karein, kuch tum bhee to karo na' . Apparently the poet did not open his mouth for the rest of the evening.

Faiz rejects art for art’s sake and believes in striving through his poetry to bring about a change for the better in the condition of the poor and downtrodden people regardless of where they live, what language they speak and what religion, if any, they follow.

Even his romantic poetry is not without this element. The poem Mujh Say Pehli See Mohabat of which Faiz used to say is not his anymore as it now belongs to Noor Jehan, is an example everyone is aware of.

Another of his beautiful poems is Raqeeb Say (To The Rival in Love) also heavenly sung by Noor Jehan. In Urdu poetry the rival for beloved's affection is a loathsome subhuman character insulted at every opportunity. However in typical Faiz style he has only kindness and compassion for the man to whom he has lost his first love!:

Tu ne Dekhi Hai Wo Peeshaani, Wo Ruskhsar, Wo Hont
Zindgi Jin Ke Tasawwar Main Luta Di Hum Ne
Tujh Pe Uthi Hain Wo Khoi Hui Saahar Aankhain
Tujh Ko Maaloom Hai Kiyoon Umr Gunwa Di Hum Ne

Till this point it is an example of a lover losing in love telling the victor how lucky he is and accepting it with good grace, but then there is a twist:

Hum Pe Mushtarka Hain Ahsaan Gham-e-Ulfat Ke
Itnay Ahsaan Ke Ginwaoon Tu Ginwaa Na Sakoon
Hum Ne Iss Ishq Main Kya Khoya Hai,Kya Seekha Hai
Juz Teray Aur Ko Samjhaoon Tu Samjha Na Sakoon

Somehow Faiz suggests that the loser (himself) has also gained, but how is that possible?

Well the song ends here and we are left wondering what Faiz has learnt and gained but the poem continues and the next set of verses gives us the answer:

Aajzi Seekhi,Ghareebon Ki Himayat Seekhi
Yaas O Harmaan Ke, Dukh Dard Ke Maani Seekhay
Zer Daston Key Musahib Ko Sumjhna Seekha
Sard Ahon Ke, Rukhe Zard Ke Maani Seekhay

Once again Faiz Sahib has changed his defeat in love to something positive, something that makes him sensitive so he can feel the pain of the poor and helpless, he has expanded something personal to something universal. Such was his talent and passion.

And throughout his work there is always hope. Hope for a better future no matter how bad things are and how dark the night is.

Garr aaj tujh say juda hain tu kal lbaham hongay
Yeh raat bhar key judai tu koi baat nahin
Garr aajaooj pay haitaalaye raqeeb to kya
Yeh chaar din key khudai to koi baat nahin

Faiz was a man of many talents: poet, writer, editor, teacher, social worker, film maker etc. But above all he was a humanist and his philosophy is eloquently paraphrased in his acceptance speech for the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962:

"Human ingenuity, science and industry have made it possible to provide each one of us everything we need to be comfortable provided these boundless treasures of nature and production are not declared the property of a greedy few but are used for the benefit of all of humanity… However, this is only possible if the foundations of human society are based not on greed, exploitation and ownership but on justice, equality, freedom and the welfare of everyone… I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies will, after all, be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred and cruelty, the foundation of humankind will rest on the message of the great Persian poet Hafez Shiraz: ‘Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless..."

Agha Nasir in his book Hum Jeetay Jee Masroof Rahay, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the context of Faiz Sahib's poetry writes that Faiz Sahib considered his poetry as his ishq and his social and humanitarian activities as his kaam. And to quote from one of his poems:

Woh log bohat khushkismat thay
Jo ishq ko kaam samajtay thay
Ya kaam say aashiqi kertay thay
Hum jeetayjee musroof rahay
Kuch ishq kiya, kuch kaam kiya
Kaam ishq kay aaray aata raha
Aur kaam say ishq ulajhta raha
Phir aakhir tang aaker hum nay
Donon ko adhura chor diya

(Blessed were those whose work was their devotion [Ishq]
While we lived we kept ourselves busy
Spent some time in devotion and some in work
Work kept hindering devotion
And they kept quarrelling with each other
So at the end getting tired of all this tussle
We left both tasks unfinished)

Well Faiz Sahib you may have left the world without finishing your work and we are deprived of any more of your Ishq (I could not find an equivalent of Ishq in English) but the world no doubt is a better place because of you. God bless you, and may you rest in peace.