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#Sundayreading – Prison letters from Faiz Ahmed Faiz to his wife

‘Someday I might end up as a poet’: Prison letters from Faiz Ahmed Faiz to his wife
Notes written by the iconic subcontinental writer during his four years in jail for backing a Left-wing coup attempt.



The daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the subcontinent’s iconic bard, discovers letters exchanged by her mother and father.

Since being Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter has given me privileged access to the family archives, I have become an accidental archivist. In 2009 I embarked upon the Faiz Ghar project to set up a small museum in a house leased to us by a friend and admirer of my father. We commenced sorting through Faiz’s belongings, papers and books. It was not a massive collection by any means, owing to his nomadic, rather Spartan, but interesting life, that began on February 13, 1911, and ended on November 20, 1984. My mother Alys was instrumental in saving and sorting what little there was: a smart grey lounge suit, a cap, his scarf, his pen, and a reasonably large cache of letters, certificates and medals.

After my mother’s death in 2003 all these things had been packed away in cartons in my house, waiting for just the sort of opportunity that the Faiz Ghar project afforded. Sifting through the papers, I came across a plastic bag containing some scraps. On closer look, I deciphered Faiz’s writing, and the unmistakable stamp of the censor from the Hyderabad Jail, where Faiz spent part of his imprisonment between 1951 and 1955 for his role in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy – a Soviet- backed coup attempt against Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. These few letters were in poor shape, but readable. It is surprising that they have survived at all. Alys and Faiz had moved to Beirut in 1978. On return, all seemed to be in order in the house – except the cupboard, which had been attacked by termites. That cupboard contained Faiz’s letters from jail, which were later preserved with the help of Asma Ibrahim, transcribed by Kyla Pasha, and published in 2011 under the title Two Loves.

A postcard from Faiz to his wife Alys.
Prison poetry

The letters offer a close look at Faiz’s correspondence with Alys over the years, especially from prison in the early 1950s. I persuaded thephotographer Arif Mahmood to identify and photograph my father’s cell, which I remembered, having been allowed to visit it once. The occasion was Eid. The prisoners’ families had been allowed into the inner sanctum of Hyderabad Jail, and into the courtyard, where in the centre, stood a courtroom. Faiz’s trial had been held there in camera, with no one but the accused, judges and lawyers present; the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case Act forbade any public access to information about the proceedings.

From his jail cell, on 25 March 1952, Faiz wrote to Alys:

I think pain and unhappiness are distinct and different things and it is possible to go on suffering pain without being really unhappy. Pain is something external, something that comes from without, an ephemeral accident like a physical ailment, like our present separation, like the death of a brother. Unhappiness on the other hand, although produced by pain is something within yourself which grows, develops and envelops you if you allow it to do so and do not watch out. Pain, no one can avoid but unhappiness you can overcome if you consider something worthwhile enough to live for. Perhaps I am becoming pedantic again so I shall leave it.

The weather here is exactly as you left it – only the nights have become a little colder and the days slightly warmer. I am in good spirits and better health and thinking of you and the funny faces with all the love there is in my heart. Kiss the little ones for me. All my love. Faiz

A day after Independence Day, on 15 August 1952, Faiz in all humility wrote about his poetic gift:

Your letter came today. I feel happy today after a mild attack of a blue period lasting over a few days. It must be the weather. It is more like spring than summer. The mornings are vaguely cool and disturbing like the first breath of love and the sun in the early hours brings more colour than heat. In the evening the breeze seems to bring the breath of the sea and the skies seem to close not on drab prison walls but on distant palm-fringed beaches … And it is said like all beauty that is within your sight and beyond your grasp – like all beauty you know to be an illusion.

Yesterday, we had a change. The prison gateway was festooned with lights, red blue and green and four loud speakers blared forth radio programmes in cracked discordant voices. The lights and colours – the din felt more like Anarkali than Hyderabad jail and for a long time I could not sleep. In the morning I woke up with a strange happiness in my heart and I wrote a poem which I enclose. I was astounded to find that it took me hardly any time at all and I had practically finished when we went down to breakfast. I am still feeling rather intoxicated with it and am beginning to fear that perhaps some day I might end up as a poet after all.


Faiz’s poignant letter from 8 October 1952 reads:

Beloved,

This morning the moon shone so brightly in my face that it woke me up. The jail bell tolled the half hour after four. I sat up in my bed and at the same moment Arbab [a fellow prisoner] in the bed next to me also sat up and smiled at me. He went back to sleep at once but I got up and sat in the verandah opposite my cell and watched the morning come.I heard the jail lock open and shut as the guards changed the key and chains rattle in the distance and the iron gates and doors clamp their jaws as if they were chewing up the last remains of the night’s starry darkness.

Then the breeze slowly rose like a languid woman and the sky slowly paled and the stars seemed to billow up and down in pearly white pools and sucked them under. I sat and watched and thoughts and memories flooded into the mind.

Perhaps it was on a morning like this that the moon beckoned to a lonely traveller a little distance from where I sit and took him away into the unknown and the traveller was my brother.

Perhaps the moon is at this moment softly shining on the upturned faces, painless now in death, of the murdered men in Korean prison camps and these dead men too are my brothers. When they lived they lived far away in lands I have not seen but they also lived in me and were a part of my blood and those who have killed them have killed a part of me and shed some of my blood. Albeit they are dead, as my brother is dead and only the dead can adequately mourn for the dead. Let the living only rejoice for the living.

Perhaps someday I shall be able to put this morning into verse and I have threatened Arbab that if I do, he might become immortal by being in it.

Heat and dust

These handwritten letters that my parents exchanged are fascinating repositories of the turbulent times when the British Empire was being dismantled in the subcontinent. In a letter from 1943 in Delhi, in the midst of the Independence movement, Faiz said:

Darling

Delhi heat is coming into its own with 100 during the day and dust storms in the evenings but the nights are cool. Further heat is being engendered by the discussion, the talk of communal riots etc. I have twice visited the Imperial Hotel lawn in the evening in company with Morris Jones, and the atmosphere here needs a Voltaire or Swift or some equally great satirist to describe it. Every giggling ninny is a political expert these days and the Foreign Correspondents I bet are having the time of their lives. Woodrow Whatt (the MP) asked me to lunch the other day. He insisted on talking politics and I insisted ontalking about Freda Bedi [British-born teacher of English who participated in Gandhi’s Satyagraha], so there was a stalemate.

In 1947, the tumultuous year when Partition took place, Alys wrote from Srinagar:

 Dearest,

Haven’t heard from you yet but Taseer tells me that he had a telegram from Chris to say you have arrived … The expected disturbances fortunately did not materialise but there has been a new flare-up in the last two days involving 13 deaths. These were however, individual cases … no general panic. To make up for this there has been a terrible fresh outbreak in Amritsar and conditions there, I am told, are utterly indescribable. The Radcliff(e)Award came up and you must have seen it.

The Muslims have got their Pakistan, the Hindus and Sikhs their divided Punjab and Bengal, but I have yet to meet a person, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh who feels enthusiastic about the future. I can’t think of any country whose people felt so miserable on the eve of freedom and liberation. Both morally and politically the British could not have hoped for a greater triumph.

A day later, Faiz responded from Lahore,

Darling,

Arrived here safely the day before yesterday. For once, safety has some meaning, for if I had been a Hindu or a Sikh I could never have got beyond half-way. The situation in the West, however, bears no comparison to what has happened and is happening in the East. It seemed so unreal and far away as long as I was in Srinagar, but it has all come back and is far, far worse than anything I had feared and imagined. From early morning till late evening one hears nothing but tales of horror and even though one ties shut one’s mind and one’s ears tight against them there is no escape from the horror or tragedy that surrounds one from every side. To be alone and ponder over it all is an unbearable pain and one has conceived a horror of being alone with one’s thoughts.

It is difficult to see a path or a light in the gloom but one has to maintain one’s reason and one’s courage and I shall certainly maintain. I am glad you are not here although Lahore is peaceful for now, it resembles more a deserted wilderness than a populated city.

Faiz on Gandhi

At the height of the Kashmir conflict in 1948, Faiz flew to Delhi for Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. In his editorial in the Pakistan Times dated February 2, 1948, Faiz wrote:

The British tradition of announcing the death of a king is “The king is dead, long live the king!” Nearly 25 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi writing a moving editorial on the late C R Das in his exquisite English captioned it as “Deshbandhu is dead, long live Deshbandhu!” If we have chosen such a title for our humble tribute to Gandhiji, it is because we are convinced, more than ever before, that very few indeed have lived in this degenerate century who could lay greater claim to immortality than this true servant of humanity and champion of downtrodden. An agonizing 48 hours at the time of writing this article, have passed since Mahatma Gandhi left this mortal coil. The first impact of the shock is slowly spending itself out, and through the murky mist of mourning and grief a faint light of optimistic expectation that Gandhiji has not died in vain, is glowing.

Maybe it is premature to draw such a conclusion now in terms of net result, but judging by the fact the tragedy has profoundly stirred the world’s conscience, we may be forgiven if we may store by the innate goodness of man. At least we can tell at the top of our voice suspicious friends in India that the passing away of Gandhiji is as grievous a blow to Pakistan as it is to India. We have observed distressed looks, seen moistened eyes and heard faltering voices in this vast sprawling city of Lahore to a degree to be seen to be believed.

We have also seen spontaneous manifestations of grief on the part or our fellow citizens in the shape of observance of a holiday and hartal. Let our friends in India take note – and we declare it with all the emphasis at our command – that we in Pakistan are human enough to respond to any gesture of goodwill, any token of friendliness and, last but not least any call for cooperation from the other side of the border. Earlier we have indulged in a bit of optimism – and that for a very good reason. In India, sedulous and we believe sincere, heart searching has been going on ever since the tragedy took place. The Government of India too seems to have at long last realised that they are sitting on top of a volcano. And above all, a small incident in Bombay in which a Hindu mob broke open the office of the Anti-Pakistan Front on Saturday and reduced its furnishing to smithereens is we believe, realisation – thought tragically belated – of the fact that Muslims are, after all, not the sinners – not to say the enemies of India. A large section of Hindus have discovered where their enemies reside and what political labels they flaunt.

Salima Hashmi is a Lahore-based artist, cultural writer, painter, and anti-nuclear activist. She is Dean of the School of Visual Arts & Design at Beaconhouse National University. She is the author of Unveiling the Visible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan(2005), and illustrator of A Song for this Day: 52 poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

This article is adapted from a presentation at the first-ever meeting of archivists from across Southasia organised in 2012 by the Hri Institute in Bangalore and was first published in Himal Southasian in March 2013.

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