The City From Here

By Anjum Altaf

The amazing thing about Faiz Ahmed Faiz is that you can never leave him behind. Witness how he emerged in the midst of the recent protests in India with ‘hum dekhenge’ being sung in half a dozen languages to the point where flummoxed authorities were forced to treat a man, dead for a good 35 years, as a threat to national security.

These days the title of one of his poems, ‘yahan se sheher ko dekho’ (Look at the City from Here) has gotten into my head and is driving me insane. That is because, if you think about it, the ‘here’ in the title can blow your world apart. What it is telling you is that the city looks different from ‘here’ than it does from ‘there.’ And, knowing that can forever change the way you look at your city.

I was recently part of a panel where the participants laid a lot of stress on Faiz as the poet par excellence of hope. Personally, I don’t relate to that as the lasting value of Faiz’s poetry; to me his major gift is that of awareness. Once again, the ‘here’ and ‘there’ have salience. Faiz in the twilight of one’s life works his magic differently than he did on first encounter with someone leaving his teens behind. Coming across ‘mujh se pehli si mohabbat meri mehboob na mang’ (Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again) can be the first of those perplexing and shattering experiences that make one see a world much larger than one’s self.

Awareness, followed by the desire to change the world, is what motivates the lovers of Faiz. There is, of course, the solace at the inevitable setbacks on the way and the hope that all is not lost. But hope, without the awareness and the courage, is just an opiate. At my age, I wish more to engage with Faiz and ask him ‘hum kya dekhenge’ and ‘hum kab dehkenge.’ What do we need to do to reach that ever-receding destination? How long do we have to keep walking on bleeding feet through these deserts before the flowers bloom?

All this has been churning in mind ever since I received an otherwise innocuous email from a group to which I belong. Some members had hit upon the idea of putting together an e-book documenting their experiences during the prolonged lockdown due to the coronavirus. Two of the questions in the survey they circulated were the following: 

  • What new hobbies, activities have you tried, e.g. baking bread, gardening, learning a language?
  • How are you amusing yourself/yourselves? What movies do you watch/recommend? Books to read? What else?

I was barely getting to terms with these questions when I came across an interview with Adil Rashid, a Muslim member of England’s cricket team in which he complained that “cricket can come in the way of one’s religion” while citing his inability “to perform the Hajj pilgrimage because of a hectic schedule as an example.” He added that “The last 10-15 years, I have been away every Ramadan playing sport and doing cricket training. We were always on the go but this Ramadan there are no excuses. We can keep all 30 fasts, we can read and learn more, maybe another language, so it has been a blessing in disguise.”  

If you look at the city from ‘here,’ the lockdown during the pandemic is a “blessing in disguise,” an opportunity to “amuse” oneself, to learn a new language or to bake a fresh bread. If you look at the city from ‘there’ you are walking 500 kilometers in the sun, pulling a pregnant wife in a cart, and carrying a child who dies within a stone’s throw of home. If you live in the system to which we have adapted ourselves, here is here and there is there and never the twain shall meet. 

Another of Faiz’s poems — ‘kahaN jaoge’ (Where Will you Go) comes to mind:

iss ghaRi ae dil-e-awaara kahaN jaoge
iss ghaRi koii kisii ka bhi nahiiN rehne do
koii iss vaqt milega hi nahiiN rehne do
aur milega bhi to iss taur ke pachtao ge
iss ghari ae dil-e awaara kahaN jaoge

Where will you go at such a time
Everyone is for his or her own self
No one will hold your hand
And you will regret it if he does
Where will you go at such a time

Hope by itself has failed us at this time and it is cruel to ask those trudging out of the cities to be hopeful. Awareness and courage is what we need to reject this invisible world that has become visible before our eyes and is staring us accusingly in the face.

We have seen the city from ‘there.’ Can we bear any longer to see it from ‘here.’

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019. Karachi 2020. This opinion was published in Dawn on May 27, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


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