The Idea of India
Unraveling Bitter Threads: Faiz & Seeing The World

The only man I have ever felt envious of was a ‘celebrity’ documentary filmmaker who once told an interviewer that his success was a result of his complete lack of introspection!

Introspection has been the bane of my existence.

I heard Faiz Ahmed Faiz before I ever read him. His poem ‘Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again’ – sung by the likes of Begum Akhtar and Noor Jehan is famous for its bold challenge to the Beloved (whether this is mortal or the Divine is usually left unspecific) to accept that his social commitment, his sense of moral outrage, is more important than even his love for him/her. Agha Shahid Ali in his book ‘The Rebel’s Silhouette’ called it ‘revolutionary’.

I did not know that when I first heard it. But if I ever have to explain how my life fell offs its well structured, predictable, conventional, safe, insular and material success oriented railway track to its current antithesis then I always begin by turning to this poem.

That which was then ours, my love,

don’t ask me for that love again.

Many have tried to explain the unraveling of what had so carefully been constructed for me, particularly those ‘friends’ and ‘colleagues’ who have continued on their paths and are now successful bankers, entrepreneurs, managers and what not. And I accept that their explanations may be truer than my own. I know that they are crueler.

I however believe that the seeds of doubt about the ideas and views of my life were planted when, just days after I had heard this poem, I saw something that affected me more deeply than I could have then imagined. The circumstances were so coincidental, between the hearing of this poem and the sight, that I can only look back and weave them into some sort of meaningful event. At the time though, I had no such awareness

The world then was gold, burnished with lights…

and only because of you. That’s what I had believed.

I heard a recording of the poem, sung by the famous Pakistani/Indian singer Noor Jehan, in the home of a private maths tutor. Abdul Rehman was a bit of a rebel, a radical teacher at the boy’s school I attended. Private tuition was essential because the school fees apparently only guaranteed us corporal punishment and verbal abuse. You had to pay someone extra to get to the education.

Abdul Rehman loved music and was not shy about playing it while we worked through of exercises and lessons. I remember him stopping us and asking us to listen to the words.

All this I had thought, all this I had believed.

But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love

The rich had cast their spell on history:

dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.

A few days after hearing the poem I encountered, while walking back from the local market, two small children, no older than five-years of age perhaps, holding hands and sifting through offal outside a butcher’s shop looking for something to eat.

Bitter threads began to unravel before me

as I went into alleys and in open markets

saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.

There are moment of one’s life that make such an impression that they become only more vivid with the passage of time.

I have never forgotten those two small children and the gentle way they held each other for support. Their uncertain steps, their dirt covered skin, their hair of a color that suggested something other than natural. And those eyes, eyes that cast a look that cut through all the desperately enacted civilized veneer of a middle class society living amongst so much deprivation, as they attempted to figure out what parts of the discarded entrails could be taken as food.

I stopped.

I looked.

I stared.

I remember a feeling of embarrassment at being the only one stopping to stare.

I moved on but acutely aware that I had seen something remarkable and that some barrier had been breached.

I saw them sold and bought, again and again.

This too deserves attention. I can’t help but look back

when I return from those alleys – what should I do?

That was over 20 years ago, but as Faiz said ‘I can’t help but look back when I return from those alleys – what should I do?’. Those  two children have never left me. It is with them that I begin to see the world more clearly, to understand my place in it, to question what passes for ‘life’ amongst the upper echelons of society and to explore the makings of our modern world and why it is the way it is. Perhaps most importantly, those two children, the dregs of Pakistan’s modernity, made me understand a country that I had until then loved unconditionally and defended thoughtlessly.

There are other sorrows in this world,

comforts other than love.

Don’s ask me, my love, for that love again.

(Faiz Ahmed Faiz, from Agha Shahid Ali’s translation)

I am thinking about all this because Gaza is burning. Hundreds are being killed on the basis of false premises and prejudiced values. Hundreds are being killed to serve the power aspirations of a handful of powerful people. Dare we question the obvious? Dare we begin to ask ourselves how we are part of this process where the struggles of the weak have become synonymous with ‘terrorism’, the oppressions of the powerful with ‘liberty and democracy’. I am thinking of all this because each hour our respectable and valued news organizations continue to fill the air waves and the digital highways with a world view defined by the powerful and justifications for mass slaughter and murder that require us to believe that we are on the side of the civilized for as long as we say nothing in the face of this madness.

I am thinking of this because I am thinking of the Palestinians and I am thinking back to an anecdote Eqbal Ahmed spoke about – a meeting between Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Edward Said in war torn Beirut in 1980. I am thinking about another poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who became a voice of his people and of their suffering. Faiz gave voice to the best that is in Pakistan, for which he was jailed, tortured and later sent into exile. The Palestinians too have been permanently been sent into exile. Or, better if I end this by quoting Darwish himself:

They fettered his mouth with chains, And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.

They said: You’re a murderer.

They took his food, his clothes and his banners, And threw him into the well of the dead.

They said: You’re a thief.

They threw him out of every port, And took away his young beloved.

And then they said: You’re a refugee.

(Mahmoud Darwish)

I envy the man with no capacity for introspection. It saves him from being a refugee from this world of powers that obfuscate it and manipulate it so that we believe it is a heaven, a civilized place where lives are lived with intentions and actions that serve the greater good. I am thinking about all this today, yet another today like so many thousands of previous ones and many more to come. Insha’allah.

Further Readings

Ali, Agha Shahid, The Rebel’s Silhouette

Ali, Agha Shadid, Rooms Are Never Finished: Poems

Ali, Agha Shahid, The Country Without A Post Office: Poems

Darwish, Mahmoud, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems

Darwish, Mahmoud, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, University of California Press

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