In the last week of June, Zambeel Dramatic Readings staged a reading of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Alys Faiz’s letters to each other during his incarceration in Hyderabad Jail during the early 1950s after the events surrounding the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
The event was interesting from an artistic point of view: the actors Nimra Bucha and Khalid Ahmed, to the accompaniment of some beautiful sarangi music, read the letters like a loose narrative. This is different from people reading the two collections of letters -- Saleeben mire dareeche men: ayyaam-i aseeri ke 135 khutoot, Faiz’s own Urdu translation of his letters to his wife, published for the general readership in 1971, and Dear Heart: to Faiz in prison, Alys Faiz’s letters to him, published in 1985 -- on their own.
To those of us who have been in the habit of arguing that Faiz’s jail accommodations were fairly luxurious as compared to those of the less eminent Pakistani prisoners (indeed, in one letter, Faiz jokes that he can’t imagine how he would maintain his current standard of leaving upon leaving jail), and even more so in comparison to the way political dissenters were dealt with in Soviet gulags, these letters must give pause in that they convey an idea of the toll associated with confinement and enduring uncertainty in the day-to-day family life of a man, woman, and their two young children.
The intimate mood of the narration was interrupted, however, by the recurring thought that the words being read out were indeed Faiz’s own, but they were not the actual words he had written from jail to his British-born wife. One wonders why Zambeel didn’t consider it fitting to present readings of both letters in the original English, rather than presenting a sometimes incongruous blend of English letters and Urdu replies. Perhaps it was because the Urdu translations were thought to add a necessary touch of romance that may not be conveyed through English alone. But who is to say that English cannot be as exotic or mundane as Urdu, and as representative of a certain kind of South Asian experience?
Faiz’s words in his Urdu translation are consciously beautiful, and in many places heavily redolent of his celebrated Urdu verse; yet, his English letters reveal another side of him. The exchange between Faiz and his wife conveys similarly intense feelings of joy and listlessness, with a far lighter, more commonplace, and, therefore, perhaps more effective and attractive touch in the English letters than came through in Zambeel’s dramatic readings.
Like many ‘educated’ men of his times, Faiz was quite comfortable with English language, perhaps more so because of his particular conjugal circumstances, and he used the language in particular kinds of ways that can look even more interesting to us today. For example, to imagine him ‘in the jug’, as he puts, has a special kind of appeal, totally lacking in evocations of ‘aseeri’ in the Urdu translation. The quality of the English letters appears to be far superior to the Urdu translation on most counts, and brings to us the non-official, non-public voice of Faiz the poet, since, interestingly, Faiz’s original English letters were never published during his lifetime (only the Urdu translation was edited and published, and the English letters did not appear till 2011), and a great section of them have now been lost to termites.
The other issue is that of dramatic rendition. While readings of poetry can be wonderfully individual and tailored to the reciter’s personal style of recitation, one would imagine that the character and personality of the writer is kept in mind when reciting his/her letters (especially those dating to the modern period, where the audience has already been able to form an image of the writer from video recordings of interviews) rather than following some flat format of good recitation. Most readings from Ghalib’s letters are inevitably disappointing, since they range from the booming to the mournful, with the playful quality of his words being seldom well-conveyed. Then, although Zia Mohyeddin’s recitations of creative fiction are justifiably famous, his rendering of Faiz’s English letters at Asia Society, New York, was done in a cut-glass British accent that is quite difficult to associate with Faiz.
While Zambeel’s rendition of Alys Faiz successfully conveyed much of the stress and anxiety that one would associate with such a protracted period of separation of Faiz’s family from him, the mood of some of the drier, tongue-in-cheek statements that one could sense in Alys Faiz’s words and associate with her interviews did not always emerge in the intense, sometimes even deferentially loving depiction of her.
In addition to other things, Faiz and Alys Faiz’s letters to each other are also an interesting mirror for observing gender relations in a couple that adhered to socialist philosophy during the 1950s.