15 February 2023

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

I first heard of Faiz Ahmed Faiz when Arjuna Parakrama gifted my mother, his English literature teacher at school, a copy of ‘Rebel’s Silhouette,’ a collection of his poems translated into English by Agha Shahid Ali. I can’t remember the year but it must have been more than 25 years ago because I still remember reading out a poem that I had translated into Sinhala to some undergraduates at the University of Peradeniya. They attended that university in the late nineties.

Faiz became a source of inspiration, confidante, teacher and friend. He taught me or rather inspired Agha Shahid Ali to teach me that it’s alright not to know Urdu and that even as we are separated by time and space, we are one in sorrow and hope.  

So his lines stayed with me. And  was comforted and strengthened by his assertion, ‘your feet bleed, but something surely will bloom in the desert simply by walking across it.' Or words to that effect; I’m sure the line Ali came up with is better and that the original in Urdu probably far more effective.

So I’ve walked as others have, do and will, with Faiz as a companion. And we met in strange places, sometimes unexpectedly. He would walk into conversations. He would drop into my mind just to leave behind a word or two. He painted landscapes that were political and economic, always taking care to place in true dimensions that are incurably human, in pathos, in guilt, in redemption and in integrity.

One day I would share his detention and he would show me how to bend the iron bars of a cage. One day he would arrive as a book mark or as a page in the book of resistance. There were times we discussed love and hard choices.

Once, towards the end of the last century, I met him at a demonstration somewhere in Pennsylvania. We listened together to Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed at the Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York on June 19, 1953.

I would later meet Faiz in Islamabad. This is how I noted the encounter that took place in July 2011.  

‘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.’

And I am glad I did. More than 11 years later, in the serendipitous republic of literature, Faiz returned. I met him in a residence for writers which Beena Sarwar had helped create. I had forgotten the name. She was just Beena Sarwar of ‘Sapan,’ South Asia Peace Action Network. Our mutual friend Marlon Ariyasinghe had suggested that Sapan invite me to take part in an online celebration of love where South Asians scattered all over the world and yet citizens in the Republic of Literature that the likes of Faiz had forged could read, sing and discuss things close to their hearts.  A serendipitous post in the WhatsApp group created for expected participants brought it all together. Someone posted something on Faiz and I looked for what I had written about the Islamabad encounter. And that was when I re-met Beena Sarwar.

She had been the founding editor of the paper in which that article I commented on appeared: News of Friday (which later became News on Sunday).

‘[Faiz] was a friend of my parents and his daughter Salima is one of Sapan's founder members and advisors,’ she said.
And today, I am in awe at the ways in which deserts are made to bloom simply because bleeding feet are ignored by those who are determined to walk the desert. And today, I am convinced that the most exquisite perfumes in this world are made from the fragrances extracted from poetry, the resolute hearts of poets and the fingertips of those they inspire and empower.  

Faiz had been silent for years, but that’s how it is. Poets arrive when needed. That’s all we need to know.
['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road