Faiz in Pondicherry

February 19, 2023

About a Punjabi poet, who wrote in Urdu and Persian, visiting the land of the Tamils

Faiz in Pondicherry


he environment I grew up in had left me a total stranger to Urdu, except for the usual conversation. Thus, I had read Shelly and Keats, rather than Ghalib and Iqbal; the name Faiz did not mean anything to me. My career in government service also did not move me much closer to Urdu of which I learnt only a little when as a magistrate, I was required to write the evidence I heard in the vernacular.

In early 1972, I had the good fortune of meeting Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Gradually, I got to know him better and started spending more time with him – not just during the day but also in the evenings – at Mrs Iqbal’s house or Khalid Saeed Butt’s. Listening to him and his poetry caused me great regret that I had let the prime of my life pass without the sublime feelings Urdu poetry in general, and Faiz’s in particular, generates.

When ZA Bhutto became president in December 1971, JA Rahim, the mentor and guide to many in the Pakistan Peoples Party, became the minister for presidential affairs, culture and agrovilles. I was one of the two deputy secretaries posted with him. Rahim used to live alone. Even though he was a bit stiff-necked, he liked discussions with younger people. So, I and my senior, Pervez Butt, soon found ourselves enjoying his hospitality.

A recurrent subject of discussion was the disaster in East Pakistan and the future of what was left of the country. Rahim firmly believed that it was cultural links that made a nation and lent it cohesion. He was keen to ensure that the best minds in the country took up the task of cultural bonding from Peshawar to Karachi.

One evening, Rahim announced that Faiz had agreed to spearhead the effort. I was quite at sea on what to make of that. As a civil servant, I could only comprehend that any activity would have to start with an organisation. This meant an office and pen and paper. But Faiz was arriving the next day and there was no place for him to start his office.

Our ministry was initially lodged in a few rooms in the Q Block of the Pakistan Secretariat. As such, we were guests of the powerful Ministry of Finance, the philosophy of which was being re-engineered by Dr Mubashir Hassan. He had provided Rahim with a well-appointed room opposite his own, on the fourth floor, hoping that together the two would shape a new Pakistan using what was then perceived as Bhutto’s magic touch.

The next day I was summoned to the minister’s room and introduced to Faiz Ahmad Faiz. After a short formal speech, Rahim told me to take “good care of Faiz sahib.” I escorted Faiz sahib to my room, wondering what to talk about with him. His relaxed gait and deep husky voice reminded me of the serene flow and the faint rustle of the mighty Indus. He looked calm, but his eyes gave away his restlessness. By the time we reached what would be our room, I was quite nervous.

He sat down on the sofa and, lighting a cigarette, asked, “koi chai wai milay gi?” He smiled, and the sudden unveiling of a prominent tooth radiated his warmth. It, instantly, made me fall in love with the man.

As days and weeks went by, Faiz sahib would stroll into the office unhurried and reflective. He would refuse to sit on the chair behind the desk, for it was too early for him to be sucked into the bureaucratic mode. His spirit still wanted freedom. Thus began a gala of chai and cigarettes. Having learnt where he had landed, his niazmands (admirers), started streaming into Room 423. The room being at the end of the corridor, the occasional peals of laughter did not raise a storm.

He would frequently ask about progress on official chores. He once told me, as if an en passant, that Pakistan had yet to be welded into a nation. Bringing a few million Muslims together, he said, did not make a nation. A blending of cultural facets of different peoples was required.

He was satisfied with the title – the National Council of the Arts - that I had crafted for the organisation. We then started the process of finding an office and a pen and paper for the newborn. Seeing me worry about how the Council would take shape, he remarked, “Aray barkhurdar, quomein in daftron say nahin bantin” (Young man, these offices do not make nations). Yet, he realised that an organisation had to be created and asked me to propose a deputy.

I thought of Dr Khalid Saeed Butt, my friend and former classmate, who, after obtaining a doctorate in comparative literature from Sorbonne, was languishing at an insurance company in Karachi. Faiz sahib vaguely recalled the name. I had him fly over, and after a brief interview with Faiz sahib, he was appointed as his deputy and given the title of director-general. Visibly relieved, Faiz sahib started writing down his ideas about what the Council would do.

By now, I had acquired a bit of understanding of what Faiz was about. While he instantly commanded reverence, he was easy to interact with and I started having little a chit-chat now and then. One day I asked him what his most recent composition was about. When he said it was about East Pakistan, I requested him to recite it. He looked surprised. “Young man; you don’t do this early in the morning and in the office. I will take you for lunch at the Club, and we will talk about it,” he said.

After getting into the mood at the Club, he recited a heart­ rending poem about what had happened in the land now known as Bangladesh. Hazar Karo Meray Tan Say (Beware of my body) talks about the massacre of an emaciated people and a heart full of bitterness and venom, thirsting for blood. The poem, written in March 1971, was a prediction that came true in the months that followed.

That desire, intense as it was, to get that piece of music took away my calm. I told him that the music was set around the words of a great poet from the Punjab, Pakistan, by the name of Faiz.

One day I asked Faiz sahib why he had complained so much about zindan (jail) in his poetry despite getting the First Class in jail. He looked agitated at what I now see as an offensive question. Realising, however, that it was merely a stupid one, he controlled his emotion and with clenched hands, said: “Mian, jail mein woh band kar daitay hein. Band!” Seeing me stunned, he calmed down and explained that for political prisoners, the First Class was pointless. It was not the physical restraint but the feeling that someone had a control over your body, and was trying to conquer your mind and soul was what produced a state of helplessness and suffocation.

Faiz sahib went away to self-exile in Beirut after Zia-ul Haq’s coup d’état. But he kept coming back. He would invariably stay with that wonderful lady, Mrs Sarfraz Iqbal. By now, she had moved from Pindi to Islamabad and bought a nice house on Bazaar Road opposite the Covered Market. Faiz sahib used to express great regret at the dictatorial rule in Pakistan, that had “turned the whole country into a big jail.”

The lack of freedom had driven him from Pakistan, but in Beirut, he longed for home. He said when one was not allowed to see one’s friends, kept away from the leisurely atmosphere of the Coffee House and could not smell the fragrance of its miti (soil), the yearning to go back became painful and created a huge void. The void is filled with frustration and loneliness. A free man in one’s own land has just the opposite attitude, even in the face of disaster. To explain his point, he narrated this: Beirut was constantly under bombardment of a varying magnitude. One day as he went along his favourite haunt, he saw an old man he frequently used to salute laying bricks on the wall that had been destroyed the night before. Faiz sahib asked the old man why he was building the wall again when it was known that such incidents would keep repeating. The man turned around and said, “It is my home. And I have hope”. Did Faiz Ahmad Faiz have any?

In November 1984, I was in a cabinet meeting when someone in a sober and calm voice informed me that Faiz had died. Might the government like to offer a condolence for a man the world acclaimed as a great poet? Being close to Zia, my boss, HU Beg, retorted loud and clear, “What poet? All he talked about was inqilab, inqilab” (revolution). There was a general endorsement from around the table. And then… one heard Zia’s “next item on the agenda.”


In 2017, I visited Pondicherry, India, that had been a French colony for over two centuries. Most people could speak French, apart from Tamil. Even the dhoti-clad advocates used to present their cases in the courts in French. Hindi/ Urdu was too distant a foreign language. One could not come across a conversation in that language of “the north.”

The bracing climate and the deep blue sea lent a certain elegance to the French Quarter. The roads still carried French names. I found some lovely old French-style houses with brilliant colours like mustard and maroon. The well-maintained statue of a French celebrity still reminded the onlooker of the French past. The Gandhi statue was, of course, Gandhi ji’s, but its décor and style had that delicate French touch. The lawns and grassy belts were well maintained, and the soothing surroundings gave it a touch very different from Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi etc.

One morning as I was having breakfast in the hotel cafeteria, I heard very soft music. I had done my yoga that morning and was perfectly relaxed. While sipping my tea, I thought I heard familiar words in that meditative rendition. After a few minutes, it happened again. Then, I recognised: it was Faiz. I had never heard that ghazal sung in that style, leisurely and in small pieces, with some of the words rearranged. I was quite perplexed: Faiz in Pondicherry.

I called the waiter and asked if he could get me a copy of the CD. It was difficult to converse with him, as he did not speak Hindi and hardly any English. Looking around and spotting a person, who looked authoritative and busy with his breakfast, I went up to him , asking for help in getting that CD.

“What is so special,” he asked.

I explained that I had heard something no one could have dreamed of in Pondicherry. His curiosity was aroused.

“Do you understand Hindi?” I asked.

“Yes, I do”. He replied in Hindi.

The desire to get that piece of music took away my calm. I told him that the music was set around the words of a great poet from the Punjab, Pakistan, by the name of Faiz.

“Faiz Ahmad Faiz,” he said.

“Yes. So, you know him?” Iasked.

“Yes. I am visiting from Mumbai. And where are you from? Pakistan?’ And extending his hand, greeted me with “As-salaam-o-alaikum. My name is Abdul Rehman Qureshi”.

He called the waiter, who expressed his helplessness in the matter. Then, in an authoritative tone, he asked for the manager. A USB was eventually brought to him and he inserted in his laptop, downloaded its contents, and then, taking another USB from his pocket, inserted it in the laptop. A couple of minutes later, handed the recording to me.

I could not use the USB on my iPad. Back home, when I hooked it up to my computer, I listened to a unique rendering of Faiz’s poem:

Donon jahaan tairi muhabbat mein haar kay

Voh jaa rahaa hai koi shab-i-gham guzaar kay

How did a Punjabi poet, who wrote in Urdu and Persian, get to the land of the Tamils to soothe their nerves in a rendition that continued for three hours, forty-five minutes and sixteen seconds?

But then it was the one and only Faiz.

The writer is a former federal secretary

Faiz in Pondicherry