The Indian subcontinent has produced many poets, shāyars, authors, playwrights and performing artistes, all masters of their craft. But, as is usually the case in societies colonized by external powers, it is the latter’s “culture” and other achievements that overshadow the accomplishments of the subdued peoples. It is therefore not surprising that Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and now Pax Americana – with its unique version of peace perpetuated by Hollywood and CNN – popularized Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, Yeats, Poe, Ibsen, Wilde, Mozart, Beatles, Harper Lee, Scott Fitzgerald, Frost, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley etc. On the other hand, relatively fewer people are familiar with the works of Kabir, Tagore, Mahādevi Verma, Munshi Premchand, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ghalib, Sadat Manto, Bādal Sarkar, Mohammed Rafi, Bhimsen Joshi and numerous other legends from the subcontinent, too many to be listed in this short piece.
Ahmad Faraz was one such famous poet. Born Syed Ahmad Shah in 1931 in Kohat (Khyber Pakhtunwa, Pakistan), he gained pre-eminence in the realms of Urdu shāyari (poetry). A Pashtun of towering personality, his nom de plume Faraz means just that – highest or elevated. But, wrote he self-deprecatingly:
“Merā shāyar, Pathan merā
Ahmad se Faraz ho gayā, khush nahin khāndān merā”
[Poet mine, this Pathān mine
(This) transformation from Ahmad to Faraz has made unhappy this clan of mine]
On the anniversary of his death (August 25, 2008), I would like to share a vignette of our meeting and the humility of this wonderful, simple man who had the world at his feet. I think it was in 2002 that Faraz visited Toronto. Janāb Ashfaq Hussain, a good friend of the distinguished shāyar had organized a mushaira (poetic symposium) on the occasion of the poet’s 70th birthday in Mississauga. Ashfaq is himself an eminent poet, recipient of Pakistan’s Presidential Pride of Performance award, an enthusiastic promoter of Urdu language and an authority on Urdu poets. At his invitation, my wife and I were honoured and delighted to participate.
Faraz remains one of my favourite poets from the time I chanced upon his poetry in the 1970s through classic ghazals like Ranjish Hi Sahi and Abke Hum Bicchade performed by the maestro Mehdi Hassan. It was therefore a great honour to meet this legendary poet in person. After introductions by Ashfaq, I hesitatingly said to Faraz sahib that people like me, who could not read Urdu, were left deprived of his published works and wondered if he might consider reciting and recording his ghazals and nazms (poetry forms in Urdu). There was a crowd jostling around to be photographed with him and being distracted, he did not respond. However, with a poet’s disposition and being a gentleman, he insisted on having my wife join him on stage, seating her by his side as an honoured guest through the duration of the mushaira.
All too short, the evening ended and he came over to relinquish my wife. I gave him my business card, reiterating how much we had enjoyed the evening and his poetry recitation. As we were parting, Faraz sahib thoughtfully told me that while personally he had not recorded audio cassettes, when travelling he habitually carried a few cassettes of his favourite ghazals sung by different artistes. He was going back to Pakistan in a day or so, but promised to have his hosts make copies and arrange delivery to me.
Several weeks went by and I forgot all about Faraz sahib’s promise. At work one morning, my phone rang and the caller extended greetings in chaste Urdu and introduced himself, “It is I, Ahmad Faraz. You may not remember me, but we had met at a mushaira some time ago.” He went on to profusely apologize for failing to contact me sooner, adding that an accidental fall had immobilized him. Faraz sahib reassured me that he had now recovered and, as promised, had arranged copies of two cassettes of his favourite ghazals which could be collected from the person whose coordinates he very kindly provided. We chatted for a few more minutes and since he was traveling home later that day, ended by wishing each other good health and the hope that we would meet again. I was in a state of utter disbelief that someone of Ahmad Faraz’s stature would not just remember but personally call, and, fulfil a promise to a person he had chanced to meet in a crowd!
Faraz’s ghazal sung by Ghulam Ali aptly echoes my sentiments:
“Zindagi se yahi gilā hai mujhe
Tu bahut der se milā hai mujhe”
[My life’s regret is only that
I found (met) you very late]
“Aur ‘farāz’ chāhiyeñ kitnī mohabbateñ tujhe
māoñ ne tere nām par bachchoñ kā nām rakh diyā”
[How much more adulation do you seek “Faraz”
Mothers are now naming their children after you]