Book Review: ‘O City of Lights’ by Khalid Hasan

Posted on June 19, 2007
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, Books, Poetry, Society
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Raza Rumi

The passions of Khalid Hasan, a noted journalist and writer, are well known. The life and persona of Madame Noor Jehan have been celebrated in his writings for years. He has translated several leading lights of Urdu literature including Manto, Abbas, and Faiz. However, it is Faiz who has been a prominent subject of Khalid’s writings due to his close association with him as a friend. In all these endeavours, Hasan has made an immense contribution to introduce the gems of Urdu literature to the English-reading world that, alas, includes many Pakistanis as well given the way the reading culture faces a near-annihilation in Pakistan.

Translating Urdu poetry is an exacting task and runs the risk of losing the cultural nuances as well as the richness of the myriad metaphors that Urdu has borrowed from Persian, Arabic and the local Indian languages. And translating Faiz is even more onerous as the beauty of his poetry lies in the infusing of contemporary life into the otherwise passe classical idiom of Urdu Poetry.

This is why most translations of Faiz have been quite lifeless except the ones rendered by the inimitable Pakistani English language poet Daud Kamal and a handful of others. The Oxford University Press and Khalid Hasan teamed up to produce a fascinating collage of Faiz’s poetry in English. This Volume entitled O City of Lights is not just a collection of Faiz’s translated verse but also includes accounts of Faiz’s poetry, stature and place in contemporary Pakistani history as well as snippets of Faiz’s life in his own words.

O City of Lights is roughly divided in two parts: the first part presents choicest prose pieces that include a detailed write-up on Faiz and a few interviews translated by Hasan. In addition, there is a fascinating sketch of Faiz’s childhood days where we learn how he acquired the habit of reading and the encouragement he received from his father to read books from the local library. The picture of Faiz that emerges is true to all the narratives concerning his personality: tolerant, magnanimous, humble and deeply humanistic. Like a quintessential devotee, Khalid Hasan can be a little apologetic. For instance, writing about Faiz’s stint at the Government’s war publicity department during the Second World War; and his eventual promotion to the rank of a lieutenant colonel, Hasan states:

“he [Faiz] felt that in the struggle against Nazism and Fascism, if a uniform had to be worn, then a uniform should be worn. Perhaps it was for his work during the war that he was given the Order of the British Empire”

While this explanation is a rational one, it nevertheless glosses over the fact that there were several strands of opinion within undivided India; and native resistance against Nazism was neither widespread nor a popular cause. The Second World War, is also viewed as a major cause for famines in India and the use of Indians as fighting fodder for an essentially imperial war. This digression is not to criticise Faiz’s decision to work for the colonial government. This vocation can be seen as a milestone in his poetic journey and his later emergence as a symbol of resistance to authoritarianism and injustice in post-independence Pakistan. Perhaps Hasan could have analysed this a little more dispassionately. The other chapters in the prose section of the book are equally illuminating. The transcript of Faiz’s conversations with Muzzaffar Iqbal bring forth Faiz’s insights on poetry, culture, politics and much more. Responding to a question on how he writes, Faiz remarks:

“A ghazal first requires the emergence of a rhyming scheme in one’s consciousness. One builds on it. For a nazm, one has to think. It is like artisan at work. It has to be built – The basic image must be right. The music has to be right. No false notes.”

Another piece for which one has to thank Hasan is the inclusion of a chapter, “Faiz Looks Back” based on the poet’s travels in the Soviet Union. This piece elucidates the influence of Russian literature, Marxism and the broad location of India in global imperialism. This is an important account as it serves a useful background to understand much of Faiz’s progressive poetry and political struggle.

Part II, comprising poems, presents perhaps the best collection of Faiz’s poetry including the outstanding translations by Daud Kamal published over two decades and now out of print. The hallmark of this volume is inclusion of original Urdu versions alongside the translations. Kamal (1935 -1987), a professor of English literature at the University of Peshawar, is one of the most prominent English language poets of Pakistan. The first poem “The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl” was written by Faiz for a short documentary on Moenjadaro that “was never produced”. In Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia and Africa time past is time present- And in the past – the past which neither man nor history remembers -There was no time. Only timelessness.

In Faiz’s own words, Kamal concentrated on the “imaginative and interpretative rather than literal rendering” of his selected poems and added an “effective poetic dimension of his own creativity”.

Another beautiful poem in the selection is the Subha-i-Azadi (The Morning of freedom August 1947): “This stained light, this night bitten dawn – This is not the dawn we yearned for”

“O City of Lights”, Hasan has added more translations of Faiz’s work that were not included in the earlier translations by Kamal. In all, Hasan has included 43 pieces of Faiz’s timeless verse. The range includes “An Elegy for the Rosenbergs” “My Heart My Traveller” “Africa Come Back” “Heart Attack” and “On Return from Dhaka”. While the quality of translations varies in terms of the tonal quality and lyricism, the essence of Faiz’s verse is well communicated. Hasan’s choice is also well considered as he is careful to pick samples that represent the best of Faiz – from political and the personal and the immortal mix of the two that Faiz so effortlessly achieved. Hasan admits the limitations of translation in his editorial remarks. In particular, ghazal is a difficult medium to transport into another language. This is why most of the new translations are of poems and Hasan succeeds in his mission. Dasht-i-Tanhai is well delivered:

In the forest of lonliness, beloved,Tremble the shadows of your voice, the mirage of your lips.

Another creative efforts is Sipahi ka marsiya (Elegy for a Soldier) written against the backdrop of the senseless Indo-Pakistan 1965 war. Hasan also gives a good account of the poem in part I and recounts how the Pakistani right maligned Faiz for not being patriotic enough during the war. But Faiz’s vision was humanistic, argues Hasan, transcending narrow divides as the elegy was universal in its subject and appeal.

What was once your kingdom, Is now a wasteland; And on the throne of inequity, Sit mighty tyrants. But why are yousleeping so quietly upon the dusty earth? Wake up, son My obstinate son, Wake up.

The greatest advantage that Hasan possesses is close association with the poet spanning over decades. That obviously has endowed him with an uncanny understanding of the overall context. Indeed, Hasan’s contribution in putting together this volume is tremendous and perhaps unparalleled. One only feels that accounts of Faiz’s life must also examine some of the contradictions that have been highlighted by a few commentators. Often such remarks result in literary duels (the most recent one being the distasteful outbursts by the Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi lobby a few years ago and the subsequent war of words) and argumentation for the sake of it. A few aspects that remains under-studied relates to the endemic personal relationships of Faiz with notable members of the Pakistani establishment that flourished and the ‘stardom’ that overshadowed Faiz, the poet, as detailed by Qurratulain Hyder in her sketch on Faiz. These are areas of literary investigation and hold deep linkages with the sociology of Pakistan. Hopefully, the future biographers will shed some light on this. There is no question that Faiz has inspired generations and provided a literary banner to the various streams of progressive thought and action in Pakistan. Hasan also focuses on the strength of Faiz’s character as he remained undaunted by silly allegations of being an agent of the “Indo-Soviet lobby”. Hasan convincingly argues that this “lobby”was a piece of fiction and a myth perpetrated by the vested interests in Pakistan. That Faiz was the only recipient of the Lenin prize from Pakistan irked many in the establishment who did not like what the poet had to say about the rights of workers and people.

For the “English medium” youth- increasing in numbers – this book should be an excellent introduction to the ideas upheld and cherished by Faiz, and of course to the splendours of his poetry. It is hoped that the translations would inspire them to understand and appreciate the original masterpieces. Faiz’s poetry will continue to warm our hearts and tickle our collective conscience. It is a must-read book for all those who love Faiz and his poetry.

- A version of this article also appeared in the monthly Herald.

22 Comments on “Book Review: ‘O City of Lights’ by Khalid Hasan”

  1. ahsan says:
    June 20th, 2007 1:40 am

    According to the title, this post is a book review. I find it too longthy as a review.

  2. Mustafa says:
    June 20th, 2007 7:27 am

    A good review – yes a little long. I think I will get this book? Can someone tell me when it was published?

  3. Zia Hashmi says:
    June 20th, 2007 7:44 am

    Best thing about reviewing a book is that reader gets to know the key highlights of the book. And this one has indeed looked at some imporant aspects of faiz besides reportedly rendering good translation of faiz’s poems.

    Nevertheless, an aspect quite intriging was the overlooking of an imporant facet of Faiz Phenomenon i.e Faiz association with the establishement. Thanks to this book review, now i have to buy a book or two to understand more about this. No doubt the book review was a worthwhile effort.

  4. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    June 20th, 2007 10:16 am

    Raza Rumi has provided a detailed and educated review of the book by Khalid Hasan on life and poetry of Faiz. The book and this review will help further introduce Faiz to the readers verse in English but not in Pakistani Urdu language. Faiz is a literary giant and had he not been in the Soviet and Communist/Socialist international political camp he would have been a Nobel Laureate. He was a political poet and it is not clear that he was totally comfortable with the idea of Pakistan. His poem Subha-i-Azadi (The Morning of freedom August 1947) written shortly after the independence of Pakistan to some degree reflects his political thoughts on that subject. Even though coming from a modest and conservative family of Sialkot (a city in Pakistan) Faiz rose up the social ladder of Pakistani establishment. At one time his British wife and daughters Salima and Moniza were at the heart of ‘high society’ in Lahore. In that respect one does see a disconnect between his socialist agenda and his wanting to be part of the ‘establishment’ at the same time. The book by Khalid Hasan according to Rumi also failes to explain that side of Faiz. However Rumi has a rich style but in his writings he often confuses the geographical entities of ‘Sub-Continental India’, the ‘British India’ and the present day ‘Republic of India’. In the balance it is a good review.

  5. GSR says:
    June 20th, 2007 10:17 am

    is this publication available internationally as well?

  6. Mohib says:
    June 20th, 2007 10:21 am


    I think the length of the post is apt considering the nature of the subject. Also, you have done a nice job in terms of reviewing the book, congratulations!

    I am not sure if you have read Agha Shahid Ali’s translations of Faiz but I enjoyed reading those.

  7. GSR says:
    June 20th, 2007 11:00 am

    but in his writings he often confuses the geographical entities of ‘Sub-Continental India’, the ‘British India’ and the present day ‘Republic of India’

    Mr Alvi– I dont’s see why all these three geographical entities can’t be seen as “one”.

  8. a. says:
    June 20th, 2007 11:09 am

    thanks for a most excellent review – I am so excited to hear about this new publication. It sounds very thoughtfully put together and also academically solid (e.g. publishing translations and Urdu originals side by side).
    I love Pakistaniat for keeping people up to date on publications and literary events of note!

  9. a. says:
    June 20th, 2007 11:12 am

    one suggestion: it would be wonderful if the publishing house and date of publication (and maybe no. of pages) could also be included in the book review for those interested in buying a copy.

    many thanks!

  10. Shueyb Gandapur says:
    June 20th, 2007 11:27 am

    A good, detailed and informative review by RR. I would like to read this book more to know about Faiz’s life and times, interviews and write-ups on him.

    The mention of some of the contradictions in Faiz’s life, missing from the book under review, has made me wanting to know more on the subject.

  11. mystic says:
    June 20th, 2007 7:03 pm

    Khalid Hasan’s website for who are interested in unbiased journalism

  12. shirazi says:
    June 21st, 2007 12:47 am

    We are living in an era that an be characterized by the term ‘ket ur rijal’, I think. That said, Khalid Hassan’s voice is very strong in this din. I say, “We should listen to him.â€

  13. ahsan says:
    June 21st, 2007 4:05 am

    Dear Editor

    A part of comment concerning this post has been deleted. I request you to delete the rest:

    “According to the title, this post is a book review. I find it too longthy as a review.”

    along with my name. Thanks.

    BTW: The word Urdu is of Turkish origin.

  14. Indscribe says:
    June 21st, 2007 5:08 am

    Enjoyed reading the review. I don’t think it is lengthy. Newspapers and magazines do have constraints of columns and cms, so where can one write without being extra conscious about word limit of 400/500/600 words per story. If at a blog like Pakistaniat, one wouldn’t take this liberty then where else? In fact, I expected a couple of English translation of Faiz also along with this post.

  15. Ali says:
    June 21st, 2007 1:02 pm

    Raza Rumi’s article posted above is a rare example of a book review that actually adds to an understanding of both subject and writer rather then a simple regurgitation of content with an opinion or two thrown in. While it is long, it is never repetetive and has been a pleasure to read. Faiz has been misunderstood often by both admirers and detractors. Now it seems we have to thank not just Khalid Hasan but Mr. Rumi for introducing historical clarity and sifting fact from fiction, rumour and heresay. Faiz, undoubtedly one of the greats of Urdu poetry, deserves as much. Great read!

  16. June 22nd, 2007 12:59 pm

    Raza, as always, you have done complete justice to the subject matter. While I agree with an earlier comment that reviews are meant for readers who might consider purchasing the book after reading the review, this is not true for those of us in Pakistan as there are hardly any translations of Faiz and other major Urdu poets for us to be so choosy. For example, Mohib has mentioned Agha Shahid Ali’s translation and I have been looking for it in Karachi for a very long time and have not been successful. I have however got something which, atleast to me, is a much better translation of Faiz which is V.G Kiernan’s translation of select ghazals & poems. It includes

    I love Khalid Hasan and a book on major public figures of Pakistan by Khalid Hasan called SCORE BOARD is highly recommended.

    Raza – Khalid Hasan’s write-up on Noor Jehan seems to have originated from SCORE BOARD although when it appeared in the local magazines (Friday Times), it was much more detailed and for Noor Jehan fans like myself, it was a real treat.

    One hears that Faiz has a volume of work in the English language and articles were written by him on Pakistani identity, culture etc and these appeared in the Pakistan Times (Khalid Hasan worked for this publication before he became press secretary to ZAB) I wonder if there is any thing available in the market that contains these articles

  17. June 22nd, 2007 2:03 pm

    Mr. Rumi obviously has liked the book but he appears uncomfortable with the author’s occasional apologetic attitude towards Faiz. But it is understandable. Other than being a “quintessential devotee”, Mr. Hasan was also a good friend of the poet. In such circumstances, it is not easy to be uninhibitedly critical.

    I have never read Faiz and the review has made me eager for him and for this book. However I feel the review could have been a little longer. For a Faiz-illiterate like me, I would have liked Mr. Rumi to write more on the life and times of the poet. But then perhaps it is expected for the readers to be familiar with Faiz and his works.

  18. ASLAM says:
    June 25th, 2007 1:29 am

    Wonderfully written review. Dying to read the book.

  19. W. says:
    June 27th, 2007 7:55 am

    Dawn Publications recently published an excellent collection of Faiz’s poetry as well – his work alongside translations by various translators, including Arshad Mahmood, who was also fortunate enough to share a close personal relationship with Faiz and visitied with him and his family often as a young man. It comes accompanied by two CDs, one with his poetry that has been set to music by many Pakistani singers, the other with poems read out by Faiz. Lovely compilation, very well-produced.

  20. KomalK says:
    June 27th, 2007 9:51 am

    All the comments here and the review is very intriguing. Anyone know how I can purchase this book. It is not available on Amazon or any of the other leading bookstores in the US.

  21. kh.Umar Hassan says:
    July 2nd, 2007 8:03 am


    I am Kh.Umar Hassan S/O Kh.Asif Hassan. If i am not wrong you r son of Dr.Kh Noor Hussain Ex District Health Officer Sialkot.My grand Father’s name is Kh.Abdul Wahid (Retd) Sr.Head Master & Dy. inspector of schools. I hope u will be fine in your health. If you r the same person. So plesae mail me. According to my knowledge you r the journalist in Daily Times in New York city.

    Thanks & best regards.

  22. Raza Rumi says:
    July 2nd, 2007 11:05 am

    Mustafa, A, Komal and Aslam
    You can find this book in the Pakistani bookstores and also through Oxford University Press’ outlets. If you are outside Pakistan, then you can contact OUP and I am sure they will make the necessary arrangements for sending it to you.

    thanks for reading and commenting :)

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