Skip to content

This stained light, this night-bitten dawn

By Ali Madeeh Hashmi

It was 1947. It had been six years since the publication of Faiz’s first collection of poetry, “Naqshe Faryadi” (“The Lamenting Image”) in 1941. Faiz’s poems would appear here and there in magazines and newspapers and he remained as popular as ever among poetry lovers but rumors were spreading that he had decided to give up poetry and concentrate on a career in journalism. The rumors were not unfounded. After leaving the army, Faiz had immersed himself full time in his editorial work and the newspapers he was heading, Pakistan Times and Imroze had achieved significant recognition and respect as a result of his efforts.

Editing two newspapers was a tiring job and consumed a lot of Faiz’s time. Fortunately, at home, his wife Alys was managing household affairs with her customary efficiency. Faiz had rented a small house in Lahore. It was old and run down and he could have afforded something better but it was near his place of work so they had decided in its favor. Alys had learned enough Urdu to converse easily with the neighbors and could manage day to day responsibilities such as grocery shopping and dealing with domestic issues on her own. She would visit her mother-in-law often and remained aware of Faiz’s (and her) responsibilities towards his large family. In addition, she had assumed full responsibility for taking care of their two young daughters. Faiz thus had complete freedom to concentrate on his work. Not just that, Alys herself was very interested in newspaper editorial matters and, being widely read, she would often write short pieces on matters related to education for the newspaper. She had taught in Indian schools for several years and was well aware of the problems with education that existed all over. In later years, her interest in writing for Pakistan Times was to prove very useful when Faiz was behind bars for several years. Alys became a full time employee of the newspaper and was able to support the family with her income while Faiz was incarcerated.

In the spring of 1947, Alys’ parents came to Lahore. It was their first visit to India. The war was over and they wanted to see their younger son-in-law and their two granddaughters whom they had never met. From Lahore, they were planning to go to Srinagar to see Alys’s older sister Christabel and her family and Alys was looking forward eagerly to the trip. She tried to persuade Faiz to take a few days off work and accompany them but to no avail.

Even by Indian standards, the summer of 1947 was unusually hot and unsettled. ‘Partition’ was the word on everyone’s lips. In Lahore, where Muslims were in a majority, there were daily processions with green flags and slogans of ‘Azadi Zindabad’ (‘Long Live Independence’) and ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ (‘Long Live Pakistan’).

Alys received the news of partition and the emergence of the new republic of Pakistan in Srinagar which had become a part of Indian Kashmir while Sialkot, Lahore and the family were now in Pakistan.

Communal violence had already become commonplace in the months leading up to August 1947. On 15 July 1947, the Indian Independence Act 1947 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom stipulated that British rule in India would come to an end just one month later, on 15 August 1947. The Act also stipulated the partition of the Provinces of British India into two new sovereign dominions: the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan.

The new border sliced through two of the most populous provinces of India: Punjab and Bengal.

The Punjab’s population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. However, it was felt that a carefully drawn border could minimize the dislocation that people would experience.

But it was not to be.

Massive population exchanges occurred between the two newly formed states in the months immediately following Partition. Once the lines were established, about 14.5 million people crossed the borders to what they hoped was the relative safety of ‘their’ religious majority.

On the sub-continent as a whole, some 14 million people left their homes and set out by every means possible – by air, train, and road, in cars and lorries, in buses and bullock carts, but most of all on foot – to seek refuge with their own kind.

It was the largest human migration in history. The newly formed governments of India and Pakistan were completely unequipped to deal with migrations of such staggering magnitude, and massive violence occurred on both sides of the border. Many of the refugees were slaughtered by an opposing side, some starved or died of exhaustion or illness.

Estimates of the number of people who died range between 200,000 (official British estimate at the time) and two million, with the consensus being around one million dead.

The agony of partition was mirrored in the famous dirge by renowned Punjabi writer and poet Amrita Pritam (1919-2005). The poem is addressed to the Punjabi poet Waris Shah (1722-1798), who had written the most popular version of the Punjabi folk love-tragedy, Heer Ranjha.  It appeals to Waris Shah to arise from his grave, record the Punjab’s anguish, and turn over a new page in history. It is one of the most widely read poems in modern Indian literature, equally popular in both Indian and Pakistani Punjab:

“Today, I call on Waris Shah, “Speak from inside your grave,”
And turn over to the next page in the book of love,
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote and wrote elegies

Today, a million daughters cry, and call out to you, Waris Shah!
Arise, O commiserator of the grieving! Gaze upon your Punjab,
Today, the fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.”[1]

Despite the rapidly deteriorating law and order situation, Faiz managed to make it to Srinagar. He did not want Alys and the children to travel alone. The violence and slaughter were continuing unabated and the way back to Lahore led through some of the worst affected areas. They came back to Lahore via Amritsar and then Rawalpindi and, fortunately, did not have to witness any of the carnage that was raging all around.

Faiz’s editorials in Pakistan Times from those days were filled with rage and sorrow about the needless slaughter of innocents and full-throated appeals for humanity and empathy.

And in a letter to Alys, while she and the girls were still in Srinagar, a saddened Faiz wrote “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 their freedom and liberation”.

As the horror of partition gradually receded over the ensuing months, peace returned and poets picked up their pens once again.

It was Faiz, however, from whose pen sprang one of the earliest and most memorable tributes to this bloody chapter in the history of the subcontinent. This is how one author later described it “On June 3, 1947, the partition of the subcontinent was announced. A few days later, summer vacations started… (We) came to Srinagar in August. Across the river from our houseboat was a large mansion, ‘Harmony’, where Dr. MD Taseer and Faiz’s family were staying. Two or three days after August 14, Faiz sahib arrived there. I met him the next day at Taseer sahib’s house. Faiz, who always used to be somewhat hesitant in front of his elders, especially Taseer sahib and Bokhari sahib, remarked that he had started a poem in Lahore and finished it by the time he got to Srinagar. At Taseer sahib’s request, he recited it for us.”

The poem was titled “Subh-e Aazadi” (‘Dawn of Independence’) and it was to become one of the enduring symbols of partition.

“This stained light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not that long awaited day break
This is not the dawn in whose longing
We set out  believing we would find, somewhere
In heaven’s wide void
The stars’ final resting place
Somewhere the shore of night’s slow-washing tide
Somewhere, an anchor for the ship of heartache.”

Faiz ended the poem with these lines:

“Night’s heaviness is unlessened
The hour of the heart and spirit’s deliverance has not yet arrived
Let us go on, that goal has not yet arrived.”[2]

The people in Faiz’s circle of friends who first heard the poem were “transfixed, especially Dr. Nazir Ahmad (Faiz’s old friend , later Principal of Government College, Lahore), who kept repeating the poem after Faiz finished reciting it. In between, Taseer sahib also requested Faiz to repeat some verses two or three times.”

The initial public reaction to the poem was decidedly mixed. In fact, Faiz, by gently combining lyricism with political comment and expressing his sorrow about what had happened (and perhaps his apprehension about what was to come), raised hackles on both sides of the political divide. Those on the Right scorned the poem for not celebrating independence enthusiastically. This, according to them, was not the time to cry over the anguish of ordinary people but to be happy that freedom was finally at hand.

Those on the Left were not too happy either. Faiz’s friend and Marxist historian Syed Sibte Hasan wrote: “Both those on the Right and the Left protested (about the poem). Those on the right said outright that it was a betrayal of the cause of Independence and that Faiz was against Pakistan. His enemies were also upset that he had not criticized the Radcliffe Award outright in the poem. They could never understand the depth of the metaphors, ‘stained light’ and ‘night bitten dawn’.

The critics on the Left said the poem was too vague, claiming that if the title was removed, it would be impossible to tell if the poem was about Independence. They also protested that the romantic symbols had lessened the impact of the poem. These people are happy to extend permission to Mirza Ghalib to describe the truth in terms of wine and cup but are unwilling to extend the same to Faiz sahib.

Defending Faiz, one critic wrote, “It is surprising that those who were criticizing Faiz never managed to see in it his deep, undying love for his land, especially at a time when the wounds of the Radcliffe Award (Partition) were still raw, when our (Pakistan’s) leaders were bemoaning the cunning and betrayal of the British about this ‘moth eaten’ Pakistan.”

‘Subh e Aazadi’ was written on the occasion of Pakistan’s first birthday. From 1947 till his death in 1984, Faiz composed a total of eleven more poems to celebrate either Pakistan’s Independence Day or Republic day. In all of these poems, Faiz spoke lovingly and sadly about his land and its long suffering people, their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, their dream and their disappointments. There is also, in these poems, both an expression of solidarity with his land and its people and also a challenge by the oppressed against their oppressors. The beauty of these poems (and Faiz’s poetry) is their melody and their message of hope although many of them also reflect the agony of the poet in the face of life’s painful realities. Faiz, though, was always vociferously opposed to despondency at the national level. For Faiz and his fellow travelers on the Left, despair was always the cardinal sin. And so all of these poems exhibit courage and hope for a better tomorrow.

It has been more than three decades since Faiz’s death in Lahore. “Subh-e Aazadi” remains as relevant as ever, sixty eight years after Pakistan came into being. If anything, the sorrows and agonies of Faiz’s native land have intensified and perhaps this time it is Faiz, like Waris Shah, who is being asked to ‘speak from inside his grave’. What would he have to say if he was still alive? In his own words, “(A writer) is committed to his country and his people. As a guide, philosopher and friend, he must lead them out of the darkness of ignorance, superstition and unreasoned prejudices into the light of knowledge and reason…he is committed to the entire human community living in his time. He must learn and help his readers, to identify its friends and enemies in the contemporary world, those who seek to liberate, ennoble, enlighten and enrich the lives of their fellow beings through the agency of a just social order, and those who seek to enslave, exploit, corrupt and debase the weaker and less fortunately placed to perpetuate their privilege of power”[3]

This is Faiz’s message to all of us who are striving to create a better world.


Ali HashmiDr. Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a psychiatrist, writer, and translator. He is the grandson of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust Pakistan ( and President of Faiz Foundation Inc. USA. His forthcoming biography of Faiz Ahmed Faiz will be published later this year.

[1] Translation by the author

[2] Translation by the author

[3] “Writers, Where Do You Stand” in ‘Culture and Identity: Selected English Writings of Faiz’. 2005.Oxford University Press. Karachi.


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

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this very enlightening piece on daagh daagh ujala.

    I always believed that the background to this nazm was the CPI’s categorization of the freedom as a sham (“ye azaadi jhooti azaadi hai”.) It is quite a revelation to know that it was inspired by the events happening around him and not because of Faiz toeing the CPI’s ideological line.

    On a different note, in India the popularity of this nazm was limited to left activists till 1997 when it was recalled in context of the partition, and India’s increasing disparities following the turn to neo-liberal economics since 1991.

    May 16, 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: