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Faiz: Fire And Silk – Bringing Faiz alive for the contemporary reader

By Vinita Agrawal

“The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved” (Faiz, 1943)

Born in Sialkot in 1911, Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a renowned Pakistani poet who wrote primarily in Urdu. His poetry has been acknowledged by critics and readers as embracing a spectrum of emotions – from patriotic fervor to social injustice to intense romantic love to gut-wrenching loneliness. The luminous arc of his writings is a reflection of his own restless life – for Faiz was sent to jail twice because of his political leanings. He was unapologetically Marxist and, therefore, labeled as a revolutionary and a rebel in his country and accused of fanning a ‘Culture of Resistance’. It is distressing to note that in the period that Faiz was put behind bars, investigation centers in Lahore Fort subjected internees to third degree methods of interrogation. As a reaction to all this, Faiz spent considerable years of his life in exile. He lived in Beirut for several years. Perhaps it is because of these harsh realities of life that Faiz’s poetry resonates with angst against oppressive regimes, compassion for the poor and the deprived. His words inspired fiery emotions of defiance, outrage, righteousness, and outspokenness.

One of his iconic motivational verses is “Bol ke Lab”:

“bol ki lab aazaad hai.n tere
bol zabaa.N ab tak terii hai
teraa sutawaa.N jism hai teraa
bol ki jaa.N ab tak terii hai
dekh ke aaha.ngar kii dukaa.N me.n
tu.nd hai.n shole surKh hai aahan
khulane lage quffalo.n ke dahaane
phailaa har ek zanjiir kaa daaman
bol ye tho.Daa waqt bahot hai
jism-o-zabaa.N kii maut se pahale
bol ki sach zi.ndaa hai ab tak
bol jo kuchh kahane hai kah le”

(Speak! For your speech is free as yet
You’re free to express your thoughts, don’t fret
Say what you want to say
Your words are not curbed, not yet anyway
Your body unbroken, your life unshaken
So don’t hold back, vent your words, be brazen
The furnaces of oppressors are blazing high
Dangerously hot, the iron, ominous, the sparks that fly
The locks of their making are opening now
The chains are beginning to spread and how
So speak up! Time is short
Before your tongue and body are reduced to naught
Bring out the truth when it is still alive
Let whatever you want to say be said, and thrive)

The most alluring qualities in Faiz’s early lyrics – bold lines, taut narratives, and carefully  chosen rhetoric – also mark the poems that he wrote towards the end of his life. He passed away in Lahore on November 20th, 1984 and the following is the last ghazal he penned, just a few days before his death:

“bahut milaa na milaa zindagii se Gam kyaa hai
mataa-e-dard baham hai to besh-o-kam kyaa hai

ham ek umr se vaaqif hai.n ab na samajhaao
ke lutf kyaa hai mere meharabaa.N sitam kyaa hai

kare na jag me.n alaav to sher kis maqasad
kare na shahar me.n jal-thal to chashm-e-nam kyaa hai

ajal ke haath ko_ii aa rahaa hai paravaanaa
na jaane aaj kii feharist me.n raqam kyaa hai

sajaao bazm Gazal gaao jaam taazaa karo
bahut sahii Gam-e-getii sharaab kam kyaa hai

lihaaz me.n ko_ii kuchh duur saath chalataa hai
vagarnaa dahar me.n ab Khizr kaa bharam kyaa hai”

(Even though what life gave me was never enough, I carry no regrets
Pain was my constant companion, no matter more or less

I’ve spent a lifetime enduring these, my dear
Pleasure and pain are entities you needn’t explain or assess

What use is poetry if it doesn’t set the world on fire
What use tears if those fires they don’t suppress

Death comes with a decree in its hand
What the verdict holds, is anybody’s guess

Let the party go on, rejoice, replenish the wine
Sorrow lasts forever, the wine shall last no less

People walk by your side only out of sheer decency
In reality our figureheads have been exposed, their hidden motives expressed)

Here he expresses with a deepened pathos, a great deal of the life lived, the pain endured, the fiery iron brand of poetry written, the reality of death, his own mortality and the shallowness of the political regimes of his times.

If one were to compare the two verses above, one would notice that the breadth has widened, but the tone remains distinct; the earliest and most recent poems mirror one another, sometimes uncannily so. Perhaps his earlier works had the penetrating quality of a word lancet designed to prod awake the reader from his indifference and stupor while Faiz’s later work gathers the wisdom of years and lays them out like a velvety tapestry – rich with meaning but also inlaid with embers of bitter cynicism – so that this time around the reader not only gets inspiration but also a lesson of life.

But more than Faiz’s consistency of tone and insistence of subject matter, it is his vision, at once haunting and lucid, that has marked his poems from the first. His imaginative obsessions continue to astound as they span the arch of time. The elements of those obsessions – love, beauty, beloved, sensuality, solitude, separation, night, patriotism, madness, pain, the mob, the wine and, above all, the moon – are now gloved in softer tones, yet with colder precision.

Faiz was influenced by Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbal in his writings. This legacy perhaps has a hand in achieving a blend of the classical and the contemporary in his poems. Faiz’s weave of the metaphor in his lines is complex and borders on the intellectual but on close and multiple readings, it opens vistas of meaning that are unforgettable.

When he says, “Aaj bazaar main pa ba jolan chalo”(March around the streets today with your feet in shackles), the image of a crucified Christ springs to the mind. Similar is the impact of the following couplet:

“yeh jafa-e-ghum ka chara, voh najaat-e-dil ka aalam
tera husn dast-e-iisa, teri yaad rooh-e-mariyam” 

(The resolution to the beloved’s oppression, the panacea for the heart’s salvation
Your beauty like Christ’s hand, your memory like Mother Mary’s countenance)

In addition to his play of complex metaphors, Faiz is a master of double entendre. Lines loaded with meanings that go far deeper than the obvious. For example, in the relatively simpler but extremely popular ghazal, “Raaz-e-Ulfat”, he writes:

“aas us dar se TuuTatii hii nahii.n
jaa ke dekhaa, na jaa ke dekh liyaa” 

(My hopes are perpetually anchored to her threshold
Irrespective of my surrender or abstinence)

The couplet takes on a heartrending universal echo if one interprets the dar as not just the threshold of the beloved but rather the threshold of God to which we bow in a state of perpetual hope. Definitely a layered meaning there.

There is a deeper political insinuation in this couplet:

“dast-e-sayyaad bhii aajiz hai kaf-e-gulchii.n bhii
buu-e-gul Thaharii na bul-bul kii zabaa.N Thaharii hai”

(The hunter’s hand is as helpless as the florist’s palm
Neither has one been able to prevent the scents of flowers from spreading nor the other from arresting the bulbul’s voice)

Faiz was unforgiving of suppression of free speech and repression of political dissent. In the following powerfully penned couplet, he writes:

“wo baat saare fasaane me.n jisakaa zikr na thaa
wo baat unako bahot naa-gavaar guzarii hai”

(That which I did not touch upon in my story at all
That omitted bit was extremely unacceptable to the listeners)

This is certainly a sarcastic innuendo on doctoring and censorship of views and thoughts by dictatorial regimes.

Keeping aside political ideologies, Faiz made it clear that he had genuine regard for faith – whatever it may be, for belief in the divine and for the mystical, albeit simple act of praying. Here are a few lines from his nazm, “Dua”:

“Aiye hath uthaen ham bhi
Ham jinhen rasm-e dua yad nahin
Ham jinhen soz-e mahabbat ke siva
Koi but ko khuda yad nahin.”

(Come let us all pray
We, who do not recollect the rituals of prayer,
Who uphold in our minds no idol, no God other than our burning passion for love.)

This is considered to be one of the most iconic secular prayers in the world today and can be adapted as an anthem for peace and goodness, to be proclaimed by one and all, irrespective of nationality or religion. Such was Faiz’s all encompassing compassion for humanity.

That said, it needs to be iterated here that Faiz blazes in full glory when he writes about pathos, pain, love, and loneliness. His ghazals that embody these crucifying emotions shine like gold – timeless in value and perpetual in luster. The echoes of missing someone, the delicate confessions of love, the melting impact of the beloved’s beauty and the aching heaviness of separation in love are embellished in Faiz’s work, unforgettably and matchlessly.

My own personal favorite of all of his works is “Tere gham ko”, though “Gulon mein rang bhare”, “Aye kuch abr kuch sharab aaye”, and “Tum aye ho na shab-e-intezaar guzri hai” are truly standout romantic ghazals of all times.

For Faiz, separation from one’s beloved is not something that stretches only between the two people involved. Instead it encompasses the entire universe, clings to the stars, ravages the skies, and gores the moon. Faiz has the ability to make metaphors for conditions; for example, hijr or distance is not merely the non-proximity between two lovers but the homelessness of being – the final wandering, the final journey.

“Maqam Faiz koi rah mein jacha hi nahin
Jo koo-e- yaar se nikle to soo-e- daar chale”

(Nothing ever appealed to Faiz more than the beloved’s house
When he left her abode, he walked straight to the gallows of death)

Faiz excelled in all forms of the poetic craft, whether ghazals, nazms or songs. One of his well-known nazm is “Sheeshon Ka Maseeha”, a longish, whole-hearted poem advocating an egalitarian society. He urges people to shed their lethargy, take the side of justice, and fight against exploitation.

“Tum nahak sheeshay chun chun kar
daaman mein chhupaye baithey ho
Sheeshon ka maseeha koyee nahiin
kya aas lagaye baithey ho”

(It’s futile to collect the bits and pieces
And gather them in your hem
Glass has no savior
It’s pointless to hope for miracles)

Faiz published several collections of poetry during his lifetime, some of them are:

Naqsh-e-Faryadi (1943)
Dast-e-Saba (1952)
Zindan-Nama (1956)
Dast-e-Tah-e-Sung (1965)
Mere Dil Mere Musafir

He was the first Asian poet to receive the Lenin Peace Prize, awarded by the Soviet Union in 1962.  In 1976, he was award the Lotus Prize for Literature. He was also nominated four times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. These achievements highlight the supple span of his poetic achievements to date and testify to his place as one of the greatest poets of this century.

It would be a befitting tribute to Faiz to end this essay in the master’s own words which reveal how much remains unsaid despite making an attempt to describe the exquisite craft and depth of his poetry, though these words were written in the context of his disappointed return from Bangladesh in 1974:

“un se jo kahane gaye the “Faiz” jaa.N sadaqaa kiye
anakahii hii rah ga_ii vo bat sab baato.n ke baad” 

(I swore I’d confess today the things I really wanted to say to her, Faiz
But they remained unspoken and unsaid despite talking about many other things)

Here is a re-creation of my all time favorite ghazals from Faiz, “Tere Gham Ko”:

“Someone take my pain away, my ardent lovers are no more
They walked alongside me on my path once, but are no more

The night of waiting lies crushed beneath her coquetry and peeve
My well-wishers melted away when a mask of complacence I wore

I’ve ceased to dream of togetherness or confess my pains,
Ceased to share my stories or indulge in complaints
In your reign over my heart, these controls are no longer like before

I was publicly maligned, mercilessly tagged
Defiant, these insults and stains to your gathering I wore

Those willing to die in the name of love have gone
What use of ropes and gallows, the guilty are no more.”


Vinita AgrawalVinita Agrawal, author of Words Not Spoken, is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Her poems have appeared in Asian Cha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, among others. She was nominated for the Best of the Net Awards 2011, awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014, commendation prize in the All India Poetry Competition 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest twice. Her poem is among the prize winning entries published in the British Council’s Museum Anthology 2014. Her current manuscript of poems has been accepted by the Finishing Line Press, Kentucky, USA and is due to be published this year. She has acted as judge for poetry competitions held by prestigious international journals like Asian Cha and others. Her website: Email:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Only serious and honest poetry can uplift the world and Faiz did this in an excellent way. Thanks for writing about his poetry!

    May 16, 2015
  2. It’s a deep pleasure to write about Faiz, Hither Kusum. Thanks for reading and enjoying this. He truly was the most serious and honest poet of his time.

    January 6, 2016

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