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Monday, June 20, 2011

Two Loves — Faiz's Letters from Jail

“… for having once married a wonderful woman is a far greater distinction than having once edited a good newspaper. And, of course, producing no newspaper can compare with productions like Cheemie and Meezie. So every time you come I feel prouder of all of you than before.” — Faiz Ahmad Faiz - Letter from Jail to Alys

From Salima Hashmi’s Introduction: “Very recently sifting through many papers of documents being shifted to Faizghar (the small Faiz Museum in Lahore) I came across a plastic bag containing some scraps of paper. On a closer look, they appeared to be some of the jail letters; in poor shape but still readable … under her [Dr. Asma Ibrahim] careful supervision the process was carried out and twenty-five letters werte conserved. The decision to publish them to coincide with the Faiz Centennial seemed to be a fitting tribute to Faiz.”

What a lovely tribute this book is to one of our greatest poets. His period in jail was amazing in that it brought about loads of poems. But very few people could understand how he did all this in prison. Here, though there are only a small amount of letters from the collection he sent out, Faiz’s writing tells you of the way he and his friends lived. Those who have been through Faiz’s letters translated into Urdu
(Saleebayñ Meray Dareechay Mayñ), would be glad to see some of the original letters in English.

A lot of work went into the putting up
Two Loves, specially making sure that the original work is scanned and reproduced here (though the ‘Photoshop’ or equivalent effect has gone overboard, at times) along with the typescript text. Kyla Pasha needs to be thanked for making sure that she got almost all the stuff right. It was a labour of real love that put this 10” x 14” hardcover volume together.

Among other textual inputs in the book we have
Freedom Unbound: Faiz’s Prison Call, a tribute by Ayesha Jalal. Lots of people, today, would enjoy reading this to understand what happened in that case. In addition, three translations of prose pieces — by Syed Sajjad Zaheer, Major Ishaq, and Faiz — by Salma Mahmud, as well as an introduction to the transcription by Kyla, are wonderful to read. 

In addition to the 25 letters, of course, there are some photocopies and photographs. The first include letters by Salima (Cheemie) and Moneeza (Meezie) that I enjoyed a lot. 
The photographs of the jail, some taken recently, are a treat for many who may never have seen the way Faiz was forced to live. The family pictures are beautiful. Two Loves is a book that is really worth getting!

Faiz writes a lot about his life in jail, but never seemed to state (in life) how great a writer he was. In one letter, too, he says:
“For the first time after many years I have some justification because I am writing. Not writing enough it is true but still something is better than nothing and it is difficult to write poetry at will. Moreover even a few lines take a long time to mature and meanwhile your mind is excluded from other useful activity. This only happens to second rate writers like me whose productions tools are rather feeble and inadequate but there it is.”

Of course, he knows - as one can ‘see’ in this line - that he is going to be a great poet: “In the morning I awoke with a strange happiness in my heart and I wrote what I enclose with this letter [a poem he attached]. I was astounded to find that it took me hardly anytime at all and I had practically finished when we went down to breakfast. I am still feeling rather intoxicated with it and am beginning to fear that perhaps some day I might end up as a poet after all.”

But, finally, Faiz does accept his situation:
“Sorry to have kept you waiting ‑ explanation is enclosed. For the last few days I have been completely wrapped up, writing or trying to write … I feel particularly pleased with this one because 'I don't mind telling you' (to borrow Majid's pet phrase) that nobody else can write like this today and for a long time nobody will. This is not because of vanity regarding talent — mine is very limited and so many others possess more talent than I — it is merely a question of the capacity of taking pains, particularly in descriptive writing where the temptation to follow the line of least resistance and accept any cliché and any approximation to the image in your mind and have done with it. The reader, of course, can never tell how much effort has gone into each word, the final word that emerges after innumerable mental rejections. I am sure that you are laughing now because I am preening myself so much but I must do it some time.”

There is a mention of a book that we all waited for, but never got. Faiz says:
“I am at the moment busy compiling an anthology of Urdu verse from the beginning to the present day ‑ one of my age‑old ambitions. I work at it regularly for 2 or 3 hours every day and although it is a long job and will take many months when it gets done it will be something worth talking about. I can't hope to complete it here but if I can get the duller part done here I hope the momentum will carry it through later.” I wonder if any more ‘scraps’ that Salima finds will reveal some of its possible contents.

Despite being in Jail, Faiz is always thinking of the people of his country. At one point he says he wants people to celebrate life:
“It may sound funny to talk of festivals when people have little to eat but that is all the more reason why they should have some colour in their lives. There is, of course, the question of who will bell the cat which I cannot answer.”

But his greatest love, apart from his country, were his family: “Your presence and the laughter of the little ones still lingers here and I feel the happier for it. Only now that you are gone innumerable things come to mind that were left unsaid because it is so difficult to talk within a time limit. The mind is so preoccupied with the ending of the allotted time that one cannot make full use even of the little time that there is. It cannot be helped. Some day the barriers will come down and the long lost freedom of mind and body will return. Meanwhile there is nothing for it but to wait and to take comfort in the thought that we are sound and whole and that the life beating in our veins will some day triumph over the wilderness of its chains, which, however strong and irksome, are still lifeless and dead.”

For Salima, he has this to say: “What a lovely picture it is (the one with the servant girl 'unity of the proletariat and the intelligentsia' as Bunne calls it) and as I sit down on my table I contemplate it often, trying to read her future from her face. I think I have begun to see a good deal of it now. In her face there is not a streak, not a line of meanness, dishonesty or bad temper. It is open like a book. So I know what she will grow up into ‑ a frank, open, trusting, jolly, affectionate person but albeit silly like her father with no understanding whatsoever of the world's wiles. This means that she will hurt herself often and will be frequently imposed upon but she will retain her happy smile all the same and will never be really unhappy.”

I am happy to have this book with me, despite its small problems that could have been avoided with a little effort. In a book of under 300 pages, there were over 35 typos. Many of these would have been ‘caught’ by a simple spell-checking routine, specially the ones that were related to double-spacing and similar things. However, the ones that were mistakes in reading or re-writing could easily have been found after the first reading of the scripts. I saw then on many pages and found them without looking for them. The last page of the book even had ‘Salima Hahsmi’ … in her bio. Is this Sang-e-Meel … or the Editors? I suspect they both should have taken a look at it and changed it where they could. (A personal thought was that perhaps an empty page or a photograph - after Kyla’s Introduction - just before the letters begin, would have been nice.)

But, once again, I must repeat what I’ve said earlier: Get this book! It’s a treasure trove of good writing, family matters, life in jail, and much much more.

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