Befitting way to bring Faiz alive – Reviewed by Rakshanda Jalil

WHILE Urdu literature itself is rich with many diverse genres and styles, sadly the tradition of critical literary biographies is missing. What we have are largely hagiographical accounts of: great writers, with little or no attempt to place their life and work in a larger perspective. Fortunately, a new breed of scholars, often not from conventional academic backgrounds, are doing a fine job of accessing Urdu texts and writers and placing them before a wider audience by using English as a link language.

What is more, by adeptly juggling the opposing demands of literary criticism and popular taste, they are making Urdu texts and writers accessible to a more diffuse audience, one that might relish Urdu literature but is (a) either unable to read it in its original, or (b) is not confined to classrooms or the world of academia.

One such writer is Ali Hashmi, a doctor and a practising psychiatrist who also happens to be the grandson of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. In this biography of Faiz, who was undoubtedly the most powerful poetic voice to emerge from the subcontinent, Hashmi writes with an unpretentious ease and unassuming affection for his subject. As he says:

“Writing a biography is never easy. The writer naturally begins with an opinion about his or her subject and this colours the material he chooses to present, whether negative or positive. Remaining impartial is an admirable goal but rarely possible in practice. …If one has a personal or family connection to one’s subject, avoiding the pitfalls outlined above can become all the more difficult.”

Hashmi sets out to provide a “bird’s-eye view” of the poet’s life, describe some of the high points of his life and work and simultaneously provide a historical framework for both his major literary works as well as Faiz’s ideas and ideals. Underlining the narrative is Hashmi’s own admiration, not as a loving grandson but as someone who similarly cherishes those very same ideas and ideals. Faiz described himself as a ‘humanist socialist’; and, indeed, this book gives ample testimony to that description.

The idea of social justice remained dear to Faiz all his life. While it illuminates his entire poetic oeuvre with translucent shafts of light, his prose works too are hard-hitting and passionate, urging his readers to find common cause against injustice, exploitation and a host of social and political issues. Faiz wrote, prolifically and compellingly, on the events that shaped the destiny of the sub-continent: The night-bitten dawn that came after the dark night of the Partition, the assassination of Gandhi, the bloodbath in East Pakistan, etc. He wrote, with equal passion and a sense of profound sorrow and solidarity for events across the globe: Palestine, Namibia, Chile and the awakening in Africa and Asia.

While Hashmi touches on all this as he attempts to place Faiz in his time and age, his greatest strength as a biographer is also by virtue of his birth. He makes full use of the wonderful oral archive available to him through his mother and aunt – Faiz’s daughters Salima and Muneeza — as well as other accounts of Faiz’s close friends and comrades.

Divided into two roughly equal parts, The Way it Once Was comprises a biographical section written by Hashmi and a selection of poems translated by Shoaib Hashmi who, incidentally, is the poet’s son-in-law.

The translations, which Shoaib Hashmi freely admits are “an act of self-indulgence”, are accompanied by the originals in Devnagri script, making these 52 poems accessible to bilingual readers. But what makes this book a collector’s delight are rare photographs, news clippings and letters culled from the collection at Faiz Ghar in Lahore. Taken together, they reveal an altogether different side of the poet’s persona, the human being behind the Great Poet. His gentle face, with those large limpid eyes, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes smiling, open a window into his soul like no words can.

(Rakhshanda Jalil has completed a study of the Progressive Writers’ Movement; she blogs at

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