I did this interview in Punjabi with the Urdu poet Ahmad Farāz for my book Humsukhan – conversations with fellow writers which never saw the light of the day. Farāz used to be in London in transit to western Europe and North America where so many Pakistani political exiles had sought asylum and were leading reasonably easy life. Those were the optimistic days.
18 October 1985. When I meet Ahmad Farāz in a pub in Piccadilly London, we both talk of the news just in of hanging of a South African poet Benjamin Moloisi at the age of 30.
Switching on the tape recorder I ask Farāz: From where shall we start? He starts with a quote from his poem: Qalam surkhroo hai/ ki jo mai ne likha/ vohi aaj main hooN/ vohi aaj tu hai…My pen is placated/ I am what I have written/ I am still the same/ and you too haven’t changed.
Does that mean a poet is answerable to himself primarily; society and ideology come later. Farāz has also written: Merey qalam ka safar raigaaN na jayeyga…The journey of my pen shall not go in vain. He goes on in chaste Punjabi: ‘The journey which involves commitment and some noble cause is not in vain. You can’t get the reward in your life time. In South Africa Benjamin has been hanged to death. They can’t stop people’s unrest with such atrocities. People’s journey never goes in vain. Tears shed in blood or in ink are never lost for nothing.’
But the commitment with what? With the political movement or with the Party or with the ideology? Farāz being close to the PPP has to say: No man is isolated and no individual is important. His only strength lies in his thinking, which takes concrete shape in the form of the movement. You are in it in the front line or in the back seat. You get the feel of a vast multitude. Otherwise no individual is great for me, how great he may be. A poet is not confined to his own experiences; he recreates others’ experiences as well.
But no politician is honest; they keep on changing their colours. They have to. That’s the name of the game. To this Farāz replies: In spite of his simplicity and sincerity a poet knows where political leaders deviate.
Is it a necessity or sheer opportunism? ‘In fact a poet is always the leader. He is with the vanguard leadership and with the rank and file as well. He plays dual role at the same time. When there is something wrong, he’s followed by his inner voice. So there is no need to feel disheartened. One can be silent to observe, to recoup. But personally I have no guts to lead the movement.’
I did not know that Farāz did not write in his mother tongue Pashto. I don’t want to put him on the spot and instead ask him indirectly: whose language is Urdu in Pakistan? He does not like my ‘strange’ question but goes on: ‘Urhdu’ (he pronounces Urdu as Urhdu and the word likhari –writer– as Likharhi which sounds to me as Khilarhi – player) doesn’t belong to any specific region of Pakistan; it’s the language of some inhabitants of Karachi. What follows is what I really want to know: ‘My father Agha Barq was a Farsi poet. His friends who visited our house wrote in Urhdu and the girl I first met knew some romantic Urhdu couplets. I started writing couplets in Urhdu for her. I had to work in Karachi Radio where all the staff was from Lucknow and Delhi. I didn’t speak Urhdu well enough, but my written Urhdu wasn’t bad though. It can’t work in Pashto. Now it is quite hard to go back.’
Farāz defends the feudal poetic form ghazal thus: It is naïve to think in terms of nazm or ghazal. The bread is bread whether it is triangular or round-shaped. All the progressives have written ghazal. What’s the point being against the form? The fault doesn’t lie with the form but with the poet. Then why Josh Malihabadi didn’t write ghazal? Farāz answers: He was against it from a literary viewpoint. The ghazal is self-contradictory – the clichés are inherent in it e.g. sāqi, qafas, bulbul. That way it is just a formula. Bad poetry is written both in the nazm and ghazal forms. Josh and Noon Meem Rāshid were weak ghazalgos. The progressives gave a new life to ghazal. It had become stale. A genre loses its vitality, if it doesn’t get new blood. In ghazal you have to say all in just two lines. It didn’t suit Josh. He keeps on filling words in his nazms without any imagination. The poem doesn’t rise vertically. Faiz and Rāshid brought great themes in ghazal. It is not limited in itself, the poet makes it so. A good ghazalgo writes good nazms. No epic poem surpass this couplet by Ghalib: kahāN tammanna ka doosra qadam… It was Ghalib who wrote: Safeena chāheeye iss bahr-e-bekrāN ke liyey/ Beqadrey zaraf nahiN hai ye tungnāyey ghazal… [A vessel is needed in this endless ocean// the unbounded ocean cannot be contained within the narrow bounds of the ghazal. Interesting that bahr is used for both ocean and metre] and Punjabi is not that developed yet to reject any poetic form. You write in all the forms. One day a Mir will appear in Punjabi. (Majid Sadiqi’s Punjabi translation of Farāz is titled PartāN – Layers).
The people’s poet comes up with a sexist example: ‘Ride the ghazal like you ride a woman. Take up the reins in your hands. As the Prophet said: Your wives are a tilth (for you to cultivate). Go to your tilth as yee will.’
Then we travel a long way to Southall in west London where he is staying with his brother. The house is deserted though whiskey and later food appears mysteriously.
Now Farāz is a bit high and stands up abruptly to bring a framed colour picture showing him shaking hand with Faiz and a femme fatale is standing by Farāz. The picture makes me sad. I have never seen Faiz so old as he appears in the photo. Farāz says that it is the last photo taken of Faiz. Then he goes into its minute details. He is eager to talk about the woman. To change the subject I ask him whether he has written any sensual poetry. He recites his couplet: vo ik rāt guzar bhee chuki magar abb takk/visāl-e-yār kee lazzat se toot-ta hai badan…That night passed long time back/But my body still aches with the relish of my lover…and declares that he believes in the intensity of life. ‘Poetry is like manhood. Never separate the ethics of poetry from the beauty of life.’ Then he picks up the collected poems of Faiz and reads his Punjabi poem aloud: ajj rāt ikk rāt dee rāt jee ke/ asāN jug hazārāN jee kia e/ajj rāt amrit de jām vāNgu/ inhāN hoThāN ne yār nu pea liaa e. Living to the full just one night/I have lived a thousand years/I sipped the body of my lover with my lips/as if it was the goblet of nectar. He adds: you can’t find such sensuality in the whole of Urdu poetry. Faiz becomes his own māshook lover in his poetry: Subah hoyee to voh pehlu se uThā ākhir-e-shub/ vo jo ik umar se āyā nā gayā ākhir-e-shub. The dawn approached and the one who woke up lying next to me// Had not arrived/nor left me for ages.
I see some sense of estrangement and frustration in visāl –meeting with the lover– in Faiz’s poetry. Farāz doesn’t want to listen to me and starts talking again about that woman in the picture. Now he tells me that she is a Sikh and is an air hostess. I interrupt: Faiz or Farāz? He tells me: I won’t talk about my self. Then Faiz or Jalib?
‘Yes, on the one hand you talk to the people face to face. That way Dāman and Jalib are very close. On the other hand is Faiz – subtle, soft with new Farsi-tinged imagery. He is poets’ poet.’
Most of Urdu progressive poetry seems to be written by the same poet. It’s full of clichéd imagery – zulm, jaddojahad, dār-o-rasan, shaheed, khoon and zakham. Farāz himself is heavily influenced by Faiz and Sahir. Without dropping names I raise the question of evolving new imagery and style. He likes the idea and fully agrees with it. But, he says, ‘there is one problem – we can’t frog-jump. We like to continue the tradition because our readership is still uneducated.’ Is it?
About the sound of language, he says: ‘Urhdu’s beauty lies in its plasticity inherited from Farsi and softness of Hindi. No word is soft or crude. It all depends on its usage. A poet has got very few words in his stock. I was in prison for a while. After the release, I had search for words while talking to others. If you don’t converse, words tend to leave you. Words are birds, who don’t like to perch on dry trees.’ He confides: you can’t write every day. You feel drained after writing a poem. Faiz used to translate Iqbal during his dry periods to ‘keep his weapons in shape’. A ghazal can be written while sitting in a moving tonga, but a poem needs much more meditation!
Farāz has also written nātiā qalām. ‘If Faiz could write on a man like Suhravardy, why can’t I write on the Prophet?’
Then why was the Rasul against the poets? The poet gives comes up with this face saver: Because he said: it is those poets straying in evil, who follow them; sees thou not that they wander distracted in every valley? And that they say what they practise not?
Our conversation comes to an abrupt end which had started with the notion of poet’s commitment. We both are drunk. I switch off the recorder.
Translated from the original in Punjabi by the author. September 2008. The recording can be availed in the Sound Archive British Library