I had the closest relationship as a student with Patras Bokhari, Dr. (MD) Taseer and Sufi sahib
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
In 1974, Radio Pakistan invited a galaxy of Pakistani literary luminaries to interview Faiz Ahmed Faiz, then at the peak of his popularity and fame and, for the first time in his life, on the ‘right’ side of a Pakistani government. The popularly elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had appointed Faiz as the Cultural Advisor to the government in 1972 and in this capacity, Faiz played a central role in creating both the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) as well as the folk museum ‘Lok Virsa’. It would be hard to find a public figure in recent years who has been as generous as Faiz in sharing details of his life and work. This was not because Faiz liked talking about himself. In fact, he termed this a ‘favorite occupation of bores’. He was aware though, that curiosity about his life was a natural part of the popularity and fame that he had achieved at an early age. He was also acutely aware that many of his fellow writers and poets, some (in his opinion) perhaps more talented than he, had not received even a fraction of this recognition. In addition, Faiz was aware that, by virtue of his talent and his work, he was the ideological representative of millions of ordinary working people in South Asia and the world.
This rare interview, being published for the first time, is another window into Faiz’ life and work. It covers a wide variety of subjects, from the form and content of a ‘ghazal’ to the creation of a ‘nazm’, the inner life of an artist and its interconnection with social and political realities, the vague notions of a Pakistani ‘nation’ and its impact on Pakistan’s social and political conditions, all of this and more is discussed in depth. In addition, some new nuggets of information about Faiz’ childhood and early life are also unearthed. In spite of some probing questions by the panel which includes Sufi Ghulam Mustafa ‘Tabassum’, veteran journalist Hameed Akhtar, Professors Sajjad Baqir Rizvi and Qayyum Nazar, Dr. Anis Nagi, Ijaz Batalvi, Munnu Bhai and Intizar Hussain, Faiz’ tone remains soft and conciliatory. This was an integral part of his personality which made him such a magnet for his legions of admirers and it is also a key to his enduring popularity as Pakistan’s foremost poet.
This article is the first in a series.
Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum: Faiz sahib, whenever you are mentioned, the listener conjures up an image of a mature writer and a stylish poet. However, this one aspect of your complex personality has become so prominent that others, which are in no way of lesser importance, have been naturally suppressed. People interested in your poetry are also desirous of discovering something about your origins. We have some people gathered here today for this very reason. We have Hameed Akhtar, Professor Qayyum Nazar, Anees Nagi, Professor Baqir Rizvi, and some friends of yours, Ijaz Batalwi, Munnu Bhai and Intizaar Hussain. Our purpose today is to talk a bit about your personality which will reveal some facets of your poetry for us.
Faiz: I am at your service.
Hameed Akhtar: There is disagreement as to whether a formal education is a necessity for a poet. Regardless of that, people would like to know about your early life and education, the environment in which you had your education, so that we may talk afterwards about your poetry.
Faiz: My first teacher was Molvi Mir Ibraheem Sialkoti. His mosque was near our house, so I learned alphabets and the first qaeda from him. Subsequently I attended his Quran classes for years. He used to teach after the Fajr prayer. This was my initial education. So he is my first teacher. After him my second teacher was a famous teacher of Sialkot whose name was Molvi Atta Muhammad. I had not gone to the first, second classes. I had studied at home for 9, 10 years, so I learned the elementary books of Urdu from Molvi Atta Muhammad, and along with it read ‘Gulistan’ and elementary books of Persian. When I entered school in sixth, seventh class, my father took me to Shams-ul-Ulema Molvi Mir Hassan and requested him to take me into his tutelage. He looked at me and asked me to recite a particular gardaan (a recitation of words related to a particular alphabet). I did so, and he accepted me as his student. When I finished school, I used to go to Molvi Sahib’s mosque. His routine was that after the afternoon Asr prayer he would shift from his living quarters to the mosque and there the students would form a circle around him. There were students from diverse places such as Khorasan, Kabul, Turkey, studying a variety of subjects such as Hadith, Fiqah, and I would also sit there at the end, studying the Arabic alphabet. The picture still exists in my mind. Subsequently I spent the first two years of college in Murray College, Sialkot. Shams-ul-Ulema was the Arabic teacher there as well, so I had the honor of being his student again. Urdu was an optional subject in those days, worth 50 marks, and even those were not counted. Molvi Yusuf Saleem Chisti also came to that college.
Sufi Tabassum: He was your teacher as well?
Faiz: Yes, I remember him because he started the tradition of mushaira (poetry recital) in the college, based on a given hemistich, and it was there that I recited my first ghazal, and he appreciated it so much that I suspected that there might be a risk of my becoming a poet. *laughter*
Qayyum Nazar: Faiz Sahib, do you remember any verse from your first ghazal?
Faiz: I did not remember any of it, but a friend of mine, Faqeer Mohyeddin (late) wrote a book ‘Anjuman’ in which he mentioned that he met Molvi Yusuf Saleem Chishti somewhere and he remembered a particular verse. The other verses of the ghazal are forgotten, but this is the one:
Lab band hayn saaqi, mujhe aankhon say pilaa day
Woh jaam jo minnat kash-e-sehba nahi hota
These are the elders I remember from my early education. After that I went to Government College in Lahore, and Mr. Langhorn was an English teacher there. I was under the impression that I have great command over the English language. When I started studying under him, all that I had learned previously he dismissed as rubbish. *laughter* He declared that I knew nothing, so I started learning the language anew and believe that I gained much insight from him. Then in Literature there is Patras Bukhari. I had the closest relationship as a student with him, Dr. (MD) Taseer and Sufi sahib. This was probably in 1928.
Qayyum Nazar: Did you also go to Islamia College, because Taseer sahib taught at Islamia College?
Faiz: It happened that I met Taseer sahib around the same time. I met him in the first mushaira that happened at Government College after my admission. Bukhari sahib was the president. Taseer was there as well, along with (Abdul Majid) Salik (late), Charagh Hassan Hasrat and Pandit Hari Chand Akhtar.
Sufi Tabassum: So it was a full house?
Faiz: Yes, a full house. Hafeez Jalundhari was there as well. The point is that all the teachers were present, so I got introduced to them in that first mushaira. Afterwards Taseer sahib invited me to their company and I got to meet Salik sahib and Sufi sahib. The situation was such that there wasn’t much learning during college hours but more so outside college. Taseer sahib had a library in his house, which was open to all. Any person could take a book or inquire if he had a question to ask. Entry into Bukhari sahib’s house was relatively difficult, but a few special students had the permission – not like the freedom of Taseer sahib’s house, but after informing him and taking his permission we could visit. I used to visit him, and in those days he started a circle which is called Majlis-e-Iqbal but was previously named Majlis-e-Urdu. Every month there used to be a gathering in which students read out their essays and poetry, and the senior people there used to express their opinions on it. It was very educational. Then there was the house of Sufi sahib where people used to gather in the evening. Near the end of college days the boys who had passed BA were almost treated there as teachers. So whatever I learned, I learned from these people.
Qayyum Nazar: Sufi sahib used to teach, perhaps, Persian or Urdu in those days, and neither of these were your subjects, so did you get to meet him separately?
Faiz: No, actually Sufi sahib came when I was in MA; he was in training college. We had, however, met when I was in BA. In those days, it didn’t matter what was taught in college. In the evening gatherings at Sufi sahib’s place, whatever the query or problem one had, he could ask the teachers there. It was a collective arrangement in those days. Students of Government College would go to Taseer sahib with their questions, and Islamia College students would approach Bukhari sahib with their queries, and similarly any bright or interested student from FC College and Diyal Singh College. In Oriental College there was Molvi Shafeeq (late), in Islamia College there was Taseer sahib, here there was Bukhari sahib. Both teachers and students used to be kind of inter-college.
Sufi Tabassum: I was just going to say this that if a student of FC College found out that there was a Philosophy professor visiting Islamia College, he would leave his college and go there instead.
Faiz: Yes, and no one would stop them.
Hameed Akhtar: Faiz sahib, the Arabic degree that you obtained and your studentship with Shams-ul-Ulema, what was the reason for that?
Faiz: One reason was that Persian was spoken in my household and I thought why study a language that I can learn at my house.
Sufi Tabassum: How come Persian was spoken at your house?
Faiz: This was because my father spent a significant portion of his life in Afghanistan. He was associated with the court of Amir Abdul Rehman, the grandfather of Amir Abdullah. When he returned, a few women from there came with him. The oldest of them we used to call Amma Jaan, she was the caretaker of the house, and the second whom we called Aapa Jaan was like our elder sister. Technically they were servants but in reality they were responsible for all the administration of the house. They didn’t know Punjabi, so they spoke Persian, and we were forced to speak Persian with them. There were one or two Afghan families in Sialkot as well, and we use to converse in Persian. Although now I feel difficulty, in those days I didn’t feel the need to learn it formally as I had learned it at home. Also, it was generally thought that those who studied Arabic had a better chance of going into Indian Civil Service (ICS). *laughter*
(to be continued-Courtesy The Friday Times, Lahore.)