An all-embracing man
Faiz Ahmed Faiz taught at the MAO College, Amritsar along with Mahmuduzafar, who was a member of the Communist Party of India. It was the period of 1930s when communist inspired progressive writers association was formed. Faiz was part of it along with Sajjad Zaheer and other writers.
Later the Second World War started between democracies and the fascist dictatorships of Germany and Italy; the left in India chose to support the democracies, particularly when Soviet Union joined the Allies and it became for them the people’s war. But before that, during a short interval of Hitler and Stalin partnership, communists in India were neutral and called the war an imperialist war, which left a black mark on them among political activist who were fighting the British.
Faiz joined the propaganda setup of the Government of India and donned the military uniform. After the war he became active in journalism and was appointed the Editor of The Pakistan Times which started its publication just before independence from Lahore. The founder and owner of the paper was a left oriented politician, Mian Iftikahruddin, who encouraged the entry of communists on the staff which soon made the paper very popular as it was promoting social and economic causes with Faiz at the head of it.
While active in journalism, Faiz was also selected to represent the trade unions as a delegate at the tripartite conference of International Labour Organisation at Geneva. Prof George Fischer, who was active in the French resistance, was representing France as a labour delegate. Both Faiz and Fischer became very good friends. Fischer later became a well known author and academic at the scientific institute in Paris. He is still alive at 94 and remembers Faiz fondly. I had a chance of staying with him at his villa in south of France along with Faiz Saheb during the 1970s. During these visits to Fischer one day we, including Faiz, went to dine at a restaurant which used to be a regular eating place of Lenin in the days of his exile.
The amazing quality of Faiz which I noticed was that he never liked to argue. Once A Rahim, a pro-communist Lahore publisher, who was known to him kept on pushing him to make comments on the Sino-Soviet conflict. Rahim himself was very critical of Russia. Faiz quietly listened to him for some time and then said, “Kya Wahabi ho gaye ho, Bhai?’’ That was his typical way of reacting to unnecessary provocation.
When I joined Government College, Lahore, I was living in the Quadrangle Hostel where Sufi Tabassum was the superintendent. It was common knowledge among the residents that Faiz Saheb, Sufi Saheb, along with Dr Taseer regularly gathered at (Patra) Bokhari Saheb’s house, the principal’s lodge on the campus for a convivial evening. I knew Bokhari Saheb and wished to meet Faiz in those surroundings but an occasion did not arise. He was the Chief Editor of The Pakistan Times and I wanted to write on student affairs. Later on I got the chance of seeing and meeting him in 1951 at close quarters at Agha Hamid’s wedding on Davis Road, Lahore, where I lived next door. Agha Saheb was the prime minister of the Kalat state at the time. I noticed that most of the time Faiz, Agha Hamid and the chief secretary of Punjab M S A Baig were sitting together and enjoying the party. If I remember correctly, Faiz also recited some of his poems. The following morning he was arrested, accused of treason in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
I still, often wonder whether the two important functionaries of the government knew what was going to happen to their companion that evening. Faiz spent more than four years in jail and when he was released, after staying for some time in Lahore he left for Karachi to become the Principal of Sir Abdullah Haroon College. Karachi gained what Lahore lost.
I left for England in 1961 and it was there that I had the chance of knowing him well. He was always invited during his visits to London by the BBC Urdu service to recite his poems. Later on we would sit with him in the club and spend hours talking. One day we came out of the Bush House and were waiting for a taxi when a Pakistani from Lahore saw us and recognised Faiz. He approached us, and after introducing himself insisted on take us out to dinner at a restaurant he owned. Faiz in his usual way accepted the offer as he hated to say no to anybody.
It was in 1989 that I got a call from a lady staying at the Holiday Inn in Karachi. Naomi Lazard who got my address from a common friend was invited by US information services to speak on Faiz in 12 cities of the subcontinent in 24 days. She was fed up with this busy schedule and tired of staying in hotels. I asked her to stay with me which she gladly accepted but said that she would do so after doing her last assignment at Bhopal in India.
She had translated Faiz by then and become friends with him. She had met him at the East West Center in Honolulu. When I asked what she and Faiz Saheb, both leftists, were you doing in that shady place, she laughed and said that they themselves discussed this. It was an international literary conference being held there where both had been invited. When she came to stay with us and spend more than a month traveling with me to Lahore and Islamabad, she told many stories about Faiz.We have become very good friends and we remain in touch.
Yesterday in the middle of this writing I got a call from her from New Hampton in USA. It was good luck. I asked her to refresh my memories about the anecdotes she had told me about Faiz. The following morning I got an email from her which I want to share with Dawn readers as it is. She writes the following anecdote:
“Faiz was asthmatic. When he walked he coughed and wheezed. Walking upstairs was especially difficult. In the wisdom of the conference managers he was assigned a room on the top floor of the East West Center where we were all housed. Faiz said nothing, he was not a complainer. It was three flights up. But I couldn’t bear to hear his laboured breathing on the stairs. I went to the supervisors of the establishment and offered to exchange my room for his. They did better than that. They gave him a room, as I remember, on the ground floor. Much better.”
Then we went to an acupuncturist. I went first because he was so sceptical. I went for a reconnaissance visit to test it and report back. It went well. I didn’t actually need it but it was so pleasant I fell asleep while the needles were stuck in me. Then Faiz went and I think it helped him. He had various problems, the constant wheezing, the heavy cough.”
“One night we decided to get away from the East West Center and eat dinner at a restaurant. The maitre d’ was Pakistani. He and Faiz exchanged some words. I don’t remember anything about the meal except that when we got up to leave a small crowd of Pakistanis came toward us. They had heard from the maitre d’ that Faiz was there. From that moment on there was always a crowd of Pakistanis who lived and worked in Hawaii accompanying Faiz. Many of them were on the faculty of the university. They became a sort of honour guard for Faiz, a very lively and interesting honour guard.”