The Gift of The Poem: A Personal Reading of Hum Dekhenge

A remarkable linguistic interpretation of Hum Dekhenge in the context of the recent anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill

In 1981 when Faiz Sahib and Begum Alys Faiz were staying with me in Canada, my friends and I arranged a mehfil.

We had spent the decade of the 70’s in the intense cold and the semi loneliness of our bleak prairie landscape. The starkness was bearable thanks to the ‘happiness lehar’ sent out by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s books of poetry and recordings of his ghazals by Mehdi Hasan. We mostly read his romantic verses from his first collection, ‘Dast-e-Saba. That evening, I took him and Begum Alys Faiz to the home of an old school friend of mine from India, Rajiv Malhotra. He sat by the fireplace, among an adoring audience of expat Indians and Pakistanis. Next to him was a sparkling glass of amber liquid and between his fingers the glowing tip of a cigarette; outside the world was covered with snow. The first farmaish was the iconic Faiz ghazal which we all had hummed for two years; whether driving a car, cooking, cleaning or shovelling snow. ‘Gulon mein rang bharey baad-e-naubahar chaley’. Taking a sip of his scotch, with his shy smile, he spoke ‘O that one; that’s Mehdi Hasan’s Ghazal’. He went on to explain that he had ‘given’ this poem to Mehdi Hasan because it was his voice which had turned it into a global favourite.

Salima Hashmi, his daughter, once explained why his poetry had become so popular, when many others wouldn’t sell. She said that poetry, by its very nature, belonged to an oral tradition. When it is set to music and is telecast or broadcast in manifold digital ways, it seems to take over from the written page. When one thinks of the great Sufi poets, no one reads their poetry; it was recited and learnt by heart over generations, even by totally illiterate masses! Perhaps it is in the nature of poetry from this part of the world to rule over the imagination through the power of its sound. Faiz Sahib himself was a total devotee of Bulhe Shah, or, in other words, the oral tradition. He felt that the oral tradition was ultimately superior to anything he himself had to offer.

Today when I hear this one poem of Faiz Sahib being sung in the streets of India, I have a strong sense that Faiz (from another sphere) is saying, ‘I give another poem, this time to the rising tide of youth in 21st Century India. To posterity I give my poem Hum Dekhenge’.

Faiz’s poem has become the anthem of the movement of non-cooperation led by youth and women everywhere in this country of 1.3 billion. Beginning with our own ground, Jamia, and next door Shaheen Bagh, it is heard in Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Bengali, Tamil, Assamese and other versions, thereby establishing its universality in a multi-lingual land. It also marks the seamlessness of borders and boundaries in all realms of art. When sung at IIT Kanpur it created a storm. Powers across the right-wing spectrum were on the warpath against this rendering. Why? Because it was written by a Pakistani, that its language was Urdu, that it forecasted Inquilab.

Coming now to the words and the context in which Faiz wrote this poem. Those were the darkest days in Pakistan; Ziaul Haq’s military rule had throttled all dissent. Many of the best and brightest were serving prison sentences for daring to speak out. Faiz himself was either in prison or in self-imposed exile. Some of his most poignant poetry written behind bars is collected in Zindaan Nama (Prison Memoirs) from various prisons. The words Faiz wrote in Zindan Nama were a cry for Freedom just as the song of African Americans “O Freedom” which, sung by Odetta in the 1960’s, became a universal anthem.

The children of the 2020’s stood defiant in the face of the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Population Register and National Register of Citizens, saying in the face of the powers ‘Hum Dekhenge’. “We will live to see the promised day.” It was this assertion which struck fear in the hearts of people who wielded batons, tear gas and pellet guns. They dreaded and hated the youth who said that they will see the promised dawn which was struggling to break out. The words ‘Lauh-e-Azal’ create suspicion in their untutored minds because of their sound. Urdu? Arabic? They neither know nor care that the word ‘Lauh’ means ‘slate’ and the word ‘azal’ means ‘eternity’. Freedom is written on the slate of eternity and we will live to see it. Freedom from what? Azadi from what? Hunger, unemployment, oppression, violence, anarchy, patriarchy, on and on.

The poem continues. A day will come when mountains of violence will vanish like clouds of cotton. ‘Rooiee ki tarah ud jaenge’. The earth will reverberate. It will tremble beneath the feet of us, the oppressed. Lightning will blaze above the heads of our oppressors. Its shafts will flash, crackle. Nature will become the metaphor for revolution and in this universal chaos the slogan An-al-Haq will rise and rise. This will be your slogan this will be my slogan “I am Truth”.

The slogan An-al-Haq has been raised by philosophers of every faith in the world.

The lines that follow the above have been twisted by right ideologues beyond recognition. They are stigmatised as ‘anti national’ ‘hurting religious sentiments’ et al. Ignorance of language and history is never challenged in a court of law. No bench will sentence someone who deliberately creates communal hatred by distorting language. Who cares that ‘arz-e-Khuda’ in the poem refers to Kaaba, the ultimate pilgrimage for Muslims. Who cares if it is the pre-Islamic idols which are referred to in the lines ‘Sab buth uthwaye jayeinge’, ‘All idols will be lifted from the Kaaba’. And then the lines about the poor inheriting the earth: ‘Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-Haram masnad pe bithae jayenge’, ‘We who sat on the margins the mosque (Masjid-e-Nabavi) will be placed on the dais’. That means power will belong to the people. Then the lines, ‘Jab taj uchchaley jayeinge aur takht giraye jaiyenge’, ‘The tossing out of crowns and dismantling of thrones became anathema for the powerful’. Finally the lines ‘Aur raj karegi khalq-e-Khuda jo mein bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho’, ‘Power will devolve to the people of God, which is you, which is me’.

Faiz wrote these lines as an anthem for the oppressed of his land promising them the ‘time’ which is bound to come, sooner than later. He may have known that he was writing an anthem for the oppressed of the world. Poets, according to Greek philosophers, are prophets. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s prophecy is now resounding through this country through voices of youth. It became a time for celebration. The harder the blows fell on the heads of students the greater was the dread in the heart of the perpetrator.

So here is to Faiz, to Aishe Ghosh, to Gauri Lankesh, to Sudha Bhardwaj, to Gautam Navlakha to Varavara Rao.

Hum dekhenge!

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