Persistence of Memory –Culture and Partition in the Poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

By Salman Kureishy

“Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.” John Berger “The Hour of Poetry”

In September 1965, India and Pakistan went to their first full scale war. Faiz, then a fifty-four-year-old, was in Karachi. As war raged, he penned a remarkable poem, Blackout. It was a lament; A lover groping in darkness, in search of a lost love, evoking a culture that once was, and a desire for wholeness that Partition and this war seemed to foreclose.

Salman Kureishi on Faiz

At the time, in the same city, as a thirteen-year-old boy, I was experiencing my own darkness, in a more visceral sense. I was stuck with my family in Karachi. My father’s and mother’s siblings had migrated with their parents to Pakistan after Partition. My father chose to stay in India. My mother, in an advanced stage of cancer, had come to visit her brothers and sisters.  She died there soon after the war ended. My memories from those days in Karachi are full of literal blackouts, air-raid sirens, hiding in bunkers, as war raged, and the skies thundered with the sound of fighter jets. Faiz’s poem Blackout is deeply resonant of the fear, anxiety, and pain we experienced.

These  memories resurfaced recently as I read Aamir  Mufti’s, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture. In the chapter: Faiz Ahmed Faiz: Towards A Lyric History of India (p. 210), Aamir makes a stunning argument: that the main theme of the lyric poetry of Faiz was the meaning and legacy of Partition.

In Blackout, Faiz mixes images of Muslim and Hindu sacred origins as a symbolic defiance of the Partition. In the lyrical and romantic poem Ya’d’ (Memory or Remembrance), the pain of separation from the beloved (Jan) and exile (fira’q & hijr) also represent a yearning for the pre-Partition problematic, undivided self. In these lyrical poems, Faiz constantly raises questions of ‘home’ and ‘exile’, that defy the space of separation of the two nation-states.

My mother lies buried in Pakistan, my father, in India. The last time my father was in Pakistan, he could not find her grave. Blackout evokes that sense of loss. Faiz helps me grieve in a language I love, the only language I can feel in my bones a language that too has become homeless and is perilously close to obscurity and oblivion; its fate not so secure even in the home the nationalists designated for it.

Salman Kureishi on Faiz

Thanks to Aamir, Yad and Blackout do what great poetry does. They remind me that my personal tragedies are  a very small piece of the much larger, deeper tragedy of Partition.

Salman Kureishi on Faiz

longer version of this post was published in Kitaab.org in Dec 2020.

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Salman was born in India. He has studied and worked in India, United States, Dubai and Canada, where he currently lives. He has a Masters’ degree in engineering, and a Doctoral degree in human resources development. He currently works in the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies as a Program Director in Business & Professional studies. Teaching and life-long learning are the primary focus of his professional work. Salman follows political, social and cultural events globally. Poetry in general, and Urdu and Persian poetry in particular, are a few of his other passions.

Click here to read a poem inspired by Faiz: Yaad – Inspiration from Faiz and Others

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