reviews and essays

Faiz for Dummies

By BILAL TANWEER | 1 June 2011


STEP 1: Get yourself born into a middle-class family in Karachi where books are considered the least useful of all forms of pulped wood—including pulped wood itself. Ensure that your father, who used to read Jasoosi Digest until a few years ago, now reads only Aurad-o Waza'if (Book of Daily Devotions and Prayers). Ideally, your mother should be an expert on all kinds of waza'if, big and small.

STEP 2: To really get going, however, you need even more discouragement. Pick an inauspicious moment, such as right after your parents' shouting match over your mother's shopping habits. Ask your father with great trepidation if he has a book of Faiz's verse. Hear him tell you flatly: "Beta yeh sha'iri to bhand, mirasiyo'n aur kanjaro'n ka kaam hai; tumhara iss se kya lena dena?" ("Son, poetry is for wags and pimps—what do you have to do with it?") Please note that while saying this, he will have his gaze fixed on a handsome saas on TV conniving against her sexy bahu.

STEP 3: Now go to the nearest bookstore (which also sells cheap plastic toys and boardgames to keep the business on lubricated tracks) and ask the bookstore owner—a man most accurately described as a talking heap of flab piled on a chair, reeking of paan—if he has Faiz's book of verse.

"Poetry?" he will ask, scowling (ignore this). He will then wipe the paan dribbling from the corner of his lips, cock up his chin to balance the red saliva floating inside his mouth and say, "Only schoolbooks here. And Islamic books. Oh, and cassettes too. What do you want?" Say uncomfortably, awkwardly: "Err… I'm looking for poetry."

"This has nice poetry too." He will try to sell you Junaid Jamshed's new Naat album.

STEP 4: Go all the way to Urdu Bazaar and locate the book. Now you have it resting calmly in your hands. To be perfectly honest, you don't feel good about this. The title reads something in difficult Urdu: Nuskha–baa'ye… Bye? Your Urdu is exhausted already. Perhaps it's some Persian phrase. Or Arabic? Who knows. And how will you ever know? Feel desperate. Think about what made you like Faiz in the first place. And what does faiz even mean? Does it mean anything at all? Why are we all here? When is the next Big Bang? Help.

Feel stupid. Pause. Breathe. Listen to the car stereo outside playing ‘Jhalak Dikhlaja' at full blast. You understand everything in the song. Your Urdu is not so bad after all. Feel better.

The price of the book is disturbing. You did not realise Urdu books could cost this much. The last you spent on Urdu books was eight annas for a slim and sleek booklet of Amar Ayyar's adventures. This was over 12 years ago. And 600 rupees seems like too much money for any form of pulped wood.

Pause. Think about how many McChicken deals you are forgoing for this ‘something' you might not understand anyway. Stare at the cover for clues and answers.

The salesman comes and stands so close that you can smell the odour of his sweat. He thinks you're a lifter. Feel oppressed. Decide to buy it. While walking out of the bookstore, suppress all thoughts relating to money and value for money.
Repeat staring at the cover.

<em>Being intimidated: Survival tips, tricks and other essentials</em>

Carry the book on your bus trip home. Open it at a random page and encounter the words barq faroza'n and sar-e vadi-e sina in the same line. Feel your heart slipping down to your belly. Slam/shut/drop the book immediately. Stare some more at the cover. You vaguely sense the picture of a man. It is a man. A white silhouette on the glossy all-black cover. His elbow rests calmly on a table and his limpid hand is holding a cig. This is the poet. Introduce yourself, say hello.

Phatta pajama, latka izarband
and other frustrations of poetry

After one week of browsing, take heart from the fact that, objectively speaking, you know at least 70 percent of the words in every poem (ka, ke, yeh, woh, idhar, udhar, yahan, wahan—everything counts). Boost your confidence further by devising the following rule: I know the best, shut out the rest. It sounds awesome. Hell, it even rhymes. High-five yourself.

It won't go according to plan though. Another two weeks and a bit more serious browsing later, you are still stumbling. ‘Ishq minnat kash-e qarar nahi/husn majboor-e intezar nahi', err… WHAT?! But to be honest, what's really been stabbing you is the constant suspicion that the poet's messing with you, that there is a meaning lurking underneath which you're not getting to, that you won't get to—like, ever.

Worry: how do you get to the meaning of poems? Look at your tousled hair in the mirror. They remind you of the squiggly marks on the page. Both are a mess. Both need a cut. Despair, but resist the temptation to fling the book against the wall, out of the window or into the stove. Think of alternatives. Like presenting the book to a friend. Or using the pages as arty wallpapers. Immediately dismiss the idea as ridiculous. It might make everybody think you have a thing for Urdu poetry. You don't want to be the poster boy for the phatta pajama, latka izarband, khula girebaan, bikhray baal poet for the rest of your life. Just when you are about to give up hope, the dogs show up.

yeh galiyo'n ke awaara bekar kutte
ke bakhsha gaya jin ko zauq-e gada'ee
zamane bhar ki phitkar sarmaya un ka
jaha'n bhar ki dhutkar un ki kama'ee

There's something here that gets bulbs flickering in your head. You think of the bunch of street dogs that live in the garbage dump at the end of your lane. They are regularly pelted with stones by the kids for straying on the road; they yelp when a stone smacks into them. Quite often they're run over by cars too. Their carcasses stink up the whole neighbourhood when that happens. Ah, you know what this guy is talking about! He's talking about everybody under the jackboot of power. Yeah, you can do this!

na aaram shab ko na rahat saveray
ghilazat mein ghar naliyo'n mein baseray
jo bigrein to ek doosray se lara do
zara ek roti ka tukra dikha do
yeh har ek ki thokarein khane wale
yeh faqo'n se ukta ke mar jaane wale

yeh mazloom makhlooq gar sar uttha'ye
toh insan sab sarkashi bhool jaaye
yeh chaahein to duniya ko apna bana lein
yeh aaqa'on ki haddiya'n tak chaba lein

Imagine a dog's teeth gnawing at the bones of his master whose innards he's just ripped out. See the wounded dogs of the garbage dump raiding your neighbour's house at night—leaping over the walls, ambushing the entrances, guarding all escape routes. Imagine gnashing teeth outside your window. Imagine their fury.

ko'ee inn ko ehsas-e zillat dila de
ko'ee inn ki so'ee hu'ee dumm hila de

Five seconds after the initial shock of the poem has subsided, feel euphoric. Yes, you get it. You want to go singing it to the dogs and everyone else in the streets—you don't even care if they call you a phatta pajama, latka izarband sha'ir. You begin to memorise it and lo, ho: you find a slew of other stuff that you can read and understand and memorise: Sheehsho'n ka maseeha ko'ee nahi'n and Tum apni karni kar guzro and Kuch ishq kiya, kuch kaam kiya.

Discovering the dictionary

But look here, honeymoons are bound to be over. You'll be muddle up soup again, soon. It will happen thus. Look forward to it.

You'll be sitting in a group of three boys and two girls. You like one of the girls, and it seems to you that all of them boys also do. She's one of those quiet sorts, who attract attention by being indifferent to everyone around her. She looks at you continually, smiles often. The boys are talking cellphones and stuff. She asks what you do in your spare time. You weigh the options and take the risk. You tell her you read poetry. She says, "Oh really?" Act cool and smile. Follow it up with a suave pause. Say, yes. Smile again. (Think to yourself: that was a first ball six.) Notice the other two boys seethe with envy. Launch into reciting Bol, ki lab azaad hain tere. It's among Faiz's best-known ditties and she won't make faces even if she doesn't understand a word of it. It takes you less than a minute to get through it. An awkward silence will follow. Nobody knows how to react to stuff like this. One boy even gets up and leaves. She looks at you and smiles. (She's making good eye contact, yeah). What's sutwan, she asks. What's what? Sutwan. Look at her face like a man who has forgotten his wallet after running up a tab of Rs 5,000 at a five-star hotel. Smile awkwardly; say you knew what it meant but forgot. Hear the sound of shattering glass.

This leads you to a miraculous and life-altering discovery: the dictionary.

Dasht-e Tanha'ee
and other anthems of one-sided affairs

Flings, flirtations, heartaches and heartburn aside, it's absolutely crucial to schedule your first real, hardcore heartbreak just around this point. You must have no will to communicate with the world and, more importantly, to do any real work. Sit alone in your room, unwashed face and untoothbrushed mouth and all, and brood over the question: why me why me why me. Your media player is playing your media library on shuffle and suddenly out comes the voice of a tired old man reading something you know. Look closely. Zia Mohyeddin is reciting Faiz. That one bit—

na-rasa'ee agar apni taqdeer thi
teri ulfat to apni hi tadbeer thi
kis ko shikwa hai gar shauq ke silsile
hijr ki qatl gaho'n se sab ja mile

—sends knives hacking through your heart. He's reading hum jo tareek raho'n mein maaray gaye.  

After this, you find Iqbal Bano and her enchanting rendition of ‘Yaad: Dasht-e Tanha'ee (‘The Desert of Loneliness, The Wilderness of Solitude').

dasht-e tanha'ee mein aye jaan-e jaha'n
larza'n hai'n, teri awaz ke saa'ye tere honto'n ke saraab
dasht-e tanha'ee mein duri ke khas-o khaak talay
khil rahe hai'n tere pehlu ke saman aur gulab

Think how wonderfully these images (awaz ke sa'ye, honto'n ke sarab, pehlu ke saman aur gulab) are perched on the thin line between reminiscence and longing. Think of what duri ke talay would look like: imagine distance as a horse galloping between you and the lady love (even if she's in the house/balcony next door) leaving dusty, desiccated steps in its wake. Imagine roses blooming on those steps. Think of how weird that image is—a rose blooming out of the dusty desiccated step of distance. Each step of distance carries with it a rose of embrace.

Read: Manzar

Rah-guzar, saa'ye, shajar, manzil-o dar, halqa-e baam
baam par seena-e mahtab khula, aahista
jis tarah khole ko'i band-e qaba, aahista

Pause. Read again.

You cannot believe what you just read: the moon has dropped her robes, softly, and bared her breasts on the edge of the rooftop. Wonder: why has nobody noticed this? Or if they have, why haven't they said anything? Feel excited: Faiz has just brought the sexy back to poetry.

halqa-e baam tale, sayo'n ka thehra hua neel
neel ki jheel
jheel mein kisi patte ka hubab
ek pal taira, chala, phoot gaya, aahista

Imagine: below the roof, a still, blue lake of shadows where a bubble of a leaf floats. This is a sequence from a dream. And then, in the next line, the bubble bursts, softly.

bahut aahista, bahut halqa, khunak rang-e sharab
mere shishe mein dhala, aahista
shisha-o-jam, surahi, tere hathon ke gulab
jis tarah dur kisi khwab ka naqsh
aap hi aap bana aur mita, aahista

Softly, your glass gains the wet of the colour of wine. The glass, the decanter, the roses of your hands—all contours of a distant dream which erases itself, softly. Hold your breath. It's marvellous. You haven't seen/felt such a thing in your ‘real' life. Feel impoverished. Cheated.

dil ne dohraya ko'i harf-e wafa, aahista
tum ne kaha,'aahista'
chand ne jhuk ke kaha
'aur zara aahista'

Suddenly the images of distant dreams are now all images of intimacy. The heart whispers the promise of love. You say, "Softly." The moon breathes down, "Yet more softly."

You don't understand this entirely, but it's beautiful. Realise this: he who appreciates the beautiful doesn't always understand what he's appreciating. Think how much it's like praying—one doesn't know the mystery that one's bowing one's head and heart to.

Chalo phir se muskura'ein
—the luscious musicality of Faiz

To be honest, some of Faiz's poems sound so much like a lullaby your eyes glaze over—

chalo phir se muskura'ein
chalo phir se dil jala'ein
jo guzar ga'ee hain baatein
unhein phir jaga ke laa'ein

But then there are these lines too:

kisi rag mein kasmasa'ee
woh kasak kisi ada ki
ko'ee harf-e be-murawwat
kisi kunj-e lab se phoota
woh chanak ke shisha-e dil
tah-e bam phir se toota

You pause to note the alliterations of kisi rag mein kasmasa'ee/ woh kasak kisi ada ki in the lines and the rhyme of "phoota" and "toota". But this one auditory image—kasmasa'ee/ woh kasak kisi ada ki—short-circuits your thoughts and sparks neurons all day. You gradually realise that in one respect the genius of the man lies in the sheer musicality of even his flattest lines. Everything lifts and soars on these wings.

Making Faiz your forever companion

Allow the book (Nuskha haa'ye wafa, you have figured that title out, finally) to lie on your bedside table. Catch glimpses of it in your dressing table mirror while brushing your hair in the morning. From the oblique angle of your mirror, Faiz seems to be looking straight at you from the side of the frame, smiling.

Say hello.   


Bilal Tanweer’s fiction, poetry, essays and translations have appeared in GrantaVallumCritical MuslimThe Caravan, and Words Without Borders. He has an MFA in Writing (fiction) from Columbia University and was selected as one of Granta’s New Voices in 2011. He teaches creative writing at LUMS, Lahore.




65 thoughts on “Faiz for Dummies”

Amazing!! Absolutely!!!

As someone who has had a love affair goign on with Faiz for quite some time now, I can totally appreciate the insights you have presented.

I have read and re read Nuskha Hae y Wafa so many times I can recite at least one verse on every page from memory.

Can u please share the whole text of the poem "Jis Roz Qaza Aye Gee"??

Would love to read more of your essays.

Hilarious! and so true. If it were’nt for Victor Kiernan’s Poem’s By Faiz, I would never have overcome the hurdle of my Mummy Daddy/ O’Level International Baccalaureate education with Easy Urdu……

I really hate the fact that I am too stupid and lazy to learn other languages and will therefore never be able to experience what must be entire worlds of great literature and poetry, forever closed to me. Your description is so good that it’s almost painful – "ha, ha, here is something beautiful you will never see." Oh well. (Of course there are translations. Vladimir Nabokov, I think, observed that "translator" is another name for "traitor". He cites a funny and tragic example of a respected American poet translating a word in a Mandelshtam poem as "curved streets" when the word really means "prostitute", thus making hash out of the whole poem. So much for translation.)

Bilal, lovely piece of creative writing. You have done a real service by giving the urban "mummy-daddy" types some encouragement to pick up Urdu poetry. Even those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in Urdu reading and writing households are required to reach for a dictionary (or for a lucky few a long distance literary father!). I love Faiz’s "Kis tarah aaye gee jis roz qaza aaye gee" from "Shaam-e-shehr-e-YaraaN" but "ba-hangaam-e-r’heel" and "az kiraaN taa ba kiraaN" still required getting up from the couch and looking it up. There are ample rewards for the effort.

Maia, I like Agha Shahid Ali’s translations of Faiz in "The Rebel’s Silhouette." You can also find some Agha Shahid Ali translations of Faiz online.

Damn, more books i now have to buy. What’s a good translation? I’m not slack on foreign languages, but i’m not learning just for one poet. Thanks to whoever posted this on metafilter.

Beautifully written! Enjoyed it to the hilt. Though my initiation with Faiz happened in very different circumstances, I thoroughly loved reading this piece.

Thank you for sharing this Bilal! I enjoyed the humour and tone of your writing. It makes things so much more accessible and definitely less intimidating. I’m definitely getting my Faiz on this week!

dear bilal sahib

I am a 75 years old…retired person…listening to audio and video ghazals day in and day out [over over 8000 ghazals on my computer]. At this age…in the evening of my life…my love for urdu poetry remains young. All ghazals of the inimitable & immortal Faiz…in audio video formats…are with me. Of late I have been trying to impose English translations on vidoes playing ghazals of Faiz. You will be surprised to know that for one of his ghazals [ a qitaa] i had only an audio sound-track. No one has ever sung that…so, no audio/video in the market. I collected some photographs aptly…approximate I mean…suiting each line of that ghazal and created my on video with english translation thereon. {Please note the english translation is completely my own. All this because I have studied Urdu [written (published also) 3 poems] upto 8th class as I was a student of Jama Milia-funded muslim school.,

Alas! Despite my strenuous efforts on websites…efforts that consumed and sapped my energies as I sat through many a night from 10 at night [when all at home went asleep] till 7-8 in the mornings!..I could not get English translations for 3 of Faiz ghazals…and all the three I love most., One stanza from his otherwise very simple poem….I could not get Eng. Translaation. Online Urdu to English Dictioneries failed to give me meanings of some words used in this little stanza! For all these 4, I even emailed many online scholars who indulge in translations of Urdu ghazals into English. But none has ever responded. I, at my heart, do understand the meaning and sout-spirit of these 4 ghazals and I can put some “not-spoetic” translation of my on the videos but that effort will rob them of their beuty and charm.

Thus, per force, I am addressing this long mail to you in the hope that, perhaps, you may help me.
The 4 ghazals of Faiz are:

1. Bahaar aayi hai gulon ki baat karo
Gul-rukhon ki baat karo..ghuncha labon ki baat karo

2. Hum musaafir yun hi masroof-e-safar jaayenge {I have instructed my children to play this ghazal
{when I am on my death-bed. A masterly written
{creation of Faiz saheb}
3. Kab yaad mein tera saath nahin
Kab haath mein tera haath nahin

4. Chalo phir se muskaraayein { the stanza which has defied any translation is like this:
Chalo phir se dil jalaayein {kisi shaih nashin pe jhalki
{wo dhanak kisi qabaa ki
{kisi rug mein kasmasaayi
{wo kasak kisi adaa ki
{koi hurf-e-be-murawwat
{kisi kunj-e-lab se phoota
{woh chhanak ke sheesha-e-dil
{tah-e-baam phir se toota}

yours sincerely

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