11 July 2011

I met Faiz Ahmed Faiz outside a restaurant in Islamabad

Poetry does not placate the anger of the world, Pablo Neruda once said.  Drops of verse or love are just not enough, he said. It requires rather a resolute heart, he offered. I’ve often wondered though whether an unyielding heart, steadfast purpose and such make poetry and love irrelevant. I’ve also wondered if metaphor and heart-yield are not necessary antidotes to stop such determination from bleeding into tyrannies in the process of dethroning despots.  

Many things must come together for freedom to win a few more square inches for love and poetry. One man is not a front. Poetry does not make revolutions. Poets never end oppression and consecrate liberty, equality and justice. They may hold up the occasional placard and some may even be pushed themselves towards the barricades being stormed, but in the main, they just write the life that surrounds them in ways that make their fellow creatures wonder what their lives are all about. Poets make people rethink the true conditions and dimensions of their numerous incarcerations. They open eyes to pathways that were always there and offer invitation to walk the forbidden avenue.  Just by making note of eye that is shut, gaze that’s distracted and streets undeserving of abandonment.

All kinds of things can help divest an individual of reluctance. It is hard to say that successful revolutions would have failed had they not been called for in some way by words turned in particular ways. I once asked, ‘didn’t you know that the revolution begins with poetry and that it ends with the abandonment of love?’ I am no longer sure. Today I ask, ‘is it not true that revolutions begin with love and end with the abandonment of poetry?’ I ask if love and poetry are synonyms. I ask if there isn’t something pernicious and even counter-revolutionary in treating poetry as means to an end.  Love too.

Today, I am thinking of poets. No, I am thinking of ‘poet’. Singular.

I met him a couple of days ago outside a restaurant in Islamabad. The restaurant was small and crowded. Cheap. It was located in a mini-mall by a busy street. I felt claustrophobic. I felt incarcerated. I didn’t want to break the walls. I wanted to breathe. So I stepped out. And that’s when Faiz Ahmed Faiz came to me. 

He was plastered on a windowpane.

It was a shop that had been shut down, perhaps for repair. There was no sign over it. The windows were covered with pages of newspapers, neatly pasted on the inside. He was singing yet another anthem of resistance, using the voice of someone called Beena Sarwar. I don’t know if the person who placed Faiz in the middle of news reports about terrorist attacks, political scandals and news gone stale was making a statement. I don’t know the name of the newspaper that carried the article. All I know is that I didn’t expect to meet Faiz in Islamabad that afternoon.

Beena Sarwar was writing about a panel she was moderating the ‘Left Forum’, earlier called the ‘Socialist Scholars Conference’ she tells us. The panel was titled ‘Anthems of Resistance’ and took its name from the book on progressive Urdu poetry by the same name, she said. 

I had never heard of this ‘Left Forum’. I didn’t know of a ‘Socialist Scholars Conference’. I am neither a leftist nor a scholar. Socialism as a viable proposition pertaining to social arrangement has over the years acquired many question marks. It is nevertheless an idea that inspires in many ways. I knew Faiz, like all great poets, have inspired many and many schools of thought and many ideologies as well, some that take up arms against others  -- poets never know the destinations to which their words travel. They can never tell which hearts will residence their preferred metaphors, which sword-blades are sharpened by the whetstones they can be translated into or whose blood will be shed by which minds that murmur their lines. A forum of socialists, socialist scholars, scholars of socialism and fellow travellers can be chaired by Faiz. So too a gathering of fundamentalists or do-gooding imperialists, one observes.

Beena reports of Andy McCord speaking to the political context of Faiz’s poetry and day in March 1951 when the poet was arrested. De-classified papers, McCord had said, testify to how the US authorities feared Faiz: ‘Warwick Perkins, the US Counselor, said that an intellectual group is a much greater threat to security’. I suppose one should read ‘security’ as ‘license to plunder resources, create and protect markets, exploit labour etc. Perkins had titled Faiz: ‘the most dangerous Communist of (the) time’. McCord, according to Beena, had observed that even if the Americans (of the US) had not been behind Faiz’s arrest, ‘they were certainly pleased by it’.

That arrest had heralded a massive crackdown on progressives. There were mass arrests of progressive writers, journalists, students, teachers and thinkers, including Beena’s father ‘then a medical student and leader of the Democratic Students Federation’.

Bilal Hashmi, a student of comparative literature of South Asia had apparently stated the obvious: ‘Faiz is a poet who transcended national boundaries’. Bilal had pointed on the poet’s ‘deep interest and involvement in the struggles of newly independent nations’.

Faiz didn’t belong to anyone and therefore he belonged to everyone, to read, adore, embrace, find inspiration in, to be empowered by, to cherish, find succor in, to love and to abuse. Then, now and perhaps in tomorrows we cannot yet envision as well.

Faiz raised questions as much about what was happening around him as about who he was. His words make us ask ourselves who we are. I haven’t mapped out the entanglement of love, poetry and revolution and I doubt I ever will. In fact I tend to think that certain intricacies are best left entangled. I saw Faiz in Islamabad and I was reminded of a question I asked a long time ago: ‘Did you know that pavement stones are agitating to become drops of poetry to be flung at the oppressor?’

Today, having reflected on the incomparable words of Siddhartha Gauthama upon seeing a depiction of the vanquishing of Mara crafted on rock in the Taxila Museum, I ask myself whether we derail change (‘revolution’ if you wish), by throwing poetry in all directions except at ourselves.

I ran into Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Islamabad. Someone called Beena Sarwal and an unknown show-owner (perhaps) facilitated the meeting. I am not planning to toss poetry around. I will spend some time with a poet, let his poetry caress me and perhaps raise a cheer to hope in these days that are no different from those of his incarceration and empowerment.

Love drops are good. Poetry too.  
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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am glad you stepped out. We need breathing space. There is no need to break walls. No need for destruction. All there is to do in life is understand ourselves, understand fellow humans and to step out and breathe.

This one is beautiful. I wish you had the leisure you had in 2010/2011 to write as beautifully as you did then. The now pieces are hurried, information-driven and lack the honesty and poetry found in the Morning Inspection ones.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Information-driven, yes. That's always the case. Hurried, yes. Even back then when I wrote 'The Morning Inspection' I wrote quickly. Back then, I wrote 11 articles a week. Six for the 'Daily News'. That's 'The Morning Inspection'. The other pieces were hardly poetic. Back then I didn't have a blog, so people saw some, but not other pieces I wrote. 'Honesty'? Over time I've realized that the word is used as accusation when political opinions don't coincide. :)

Anonymous said...

Well I wasn't accusing you of anything... just trying to get you to write the way you did for the Morning Inspection. There is a difference. I was one who read almost every piece ever since I was introduced to it in 2010 until the column closed.

As for political honesty, I haven't come across any journalist more honest or more endowed with logic and an ability to see the bigger picture than you.

sajic said...

A new piece after sometime? I cant remember reading it before-its beautiful.Opinions. Each man is entitled to his own-it doesnt mean that those who differ are dishonest.
Perspectives change though,with time.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

No, an old one.