Lyric poetry has long been the most popular literary form in South Asia and the Middle East; poets rather than novelists became the unacknowledged legislators of the new nations that emerged after the breakup of European empires in the mid-twentieth century. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of people would attend mushairas, public recitals of Urdu poetry, in North Indian towns. At my provincial university, I knew many connoisseurs of literature who rarely read novels but knew by heart the poems (in Hindi or Urdu translation) of Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.
The most famous member of this socialist Literary International was Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose centenary falls this year. Faiz’s more romantic Urdu poems were set to music by some of South Asia’s most gifted classical singers. It didn’t bother his Indian admirers that he was a citizen of Pakistan, with which India had fought three wars since 1947. Faiz, a journalist and newspaper editor as well as poet, had emerged from the cosmopolitan 1930s of undivided India—the time when many writers vigorously campaigned for freedom from colonial rule even as they embraced the modern literary forms of Europe. In the 1980s, Faiz’s elegiac cadences recalled the idealism once shared by people on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan.
Many of these hopes of a fresh postcolonial beginning never recovered from the partition of India in 1947, which, coengineered by the departing British and power-hungry Hindu and Muslim politicians, led to the worst violence in South Asia’s memory. Shortly before unfurling the Indian flag on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spoke grandiloquently of India awakening, “when the world sleeps,” to “life and freedom” and moving to its “tryst with destiny.” These were hollow words to the partition’s many victims. Faiz expressed a widespread bewilderment and outrage over the official mood of celebration when he wrote, in one of his most admired poems:
These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light—
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it…
Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:
Light has forever been severed from the Dark;
our feet, it is heard, are now one with their goal.
See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss;
we must surrender any utterance for the Beloved—all yearning is outlawed.
But the heart, the eye, the yet deeper heart—
Still ablaze for the Beloved, their turmoil shines.
In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
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