Rarely does it happen that talent, discipline and self-esteem come together. Besides Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz is another example of someone who had all three qualities.
JA: I cannot say I spent any time with him, although the time I did spend with him is unbelievable. So improbable that I am relieved to say the incident was confirmed by Faiz Sahib’s daughter Salima Hashmi. She was a professor at the National College of Arts in Lahore and is a celebrated painter in Pakistan. If I had recounted this story to anyone without having her confirmed it with her father, no one would have believed me.
It was in 1967–1968. Faiz Sahib was coming to Bombay after a gap of almost twenty years, and there was a lot of excitement about his arrival. Faiz is coming! Faiz is coming! In those days, I was living in Kamal Studio, and heard about the grand mushaira to be held at Rang Bhavan, near St. Xavier’s College. It’s an open-air auditorium. I was totally dejected because I didn’t have the money to even travel to Rang Bhavan, leave alone buying a ticket for the mushaira. And Faiz was coming!
I was downcast and frustrated and sat drinking with a few friends in some drinking joint. I got quite drunk and decided to hell with it, I’m going to the mushaira. I went to Andheri station, took a local train without a ticket, got down at Marine Lines, and walked from the station to Rang Bhavan. There was no one at the gate as it was much after the start time. I slipped through the back door leading to the stage and managed to walk onto the back of the stage. I sat down on the row of bolsters placed behind the poets who were at the mic reciting their verse. When you’re drunk, you can’t hear too well, and you feel very sleepy.
The poets’ voices started to fade into the distance, and drunk as I was, I fell into a deep sleep, leaning against the bolsters. When I suddenly woke up, I realised the mushaira had just finished, and everyone was leaving the auditorium. I looked up and saw Faiz being taken towards a car. A huge crowd had surrounded him. I ran quickly towards them and shouted at the organisers: What the hell are you doing? Why can’t you control the crowd? Faiz Sahib, please come this way. Follow me. I took charge! I directed him to the car waiting for him, made him sit on the back seat, and quickly slid next to him.
Also read: Faiz Ahmad Faiz: The years that preceded Hum Dekhenge
With great authority, I instructed the driver: ‘Let’s go!’ A young man from the organisers’ team was sitting in the front seat and he assumed I was Faiz Sahib’s friend, so he told the driver to head to Hotel Gulmarg. And so this great poet and I talked about poetry till we got to the hotel. There, the young man asked whether Faiz Sahib needed the car: Shall we keep the driver, or let it go, Faiz Sahib? Let him go. Where will I go out now? Miyan, get the room keys for me. He called me ‘Miyan’ throughout our interaction because he did not know my name, and amazingly had not asked for it. With the room keys in my hand, we went upstairs, sat in his hotel suite, and ordered some whiskey. We were drinking and discussing the intricacies of the Urdu alphabet when Ali Sardar Jafri and Majrooh Sultanpuri arrived and joined us for a round of drinks. They assumed that Faiz Sahib knew me.
I hadn’t completely recovered from my earlier drunken state, and as I continued drinking, I started to feel very sleepy. I told Faiz Sahib I could not keep my eyes open, and he said: ‘Go inside and sleep.’ I went to the other room which had twin beds and collapsed on one of them. I had no idea when the others left. When I opened my eyes the next morning, I was stone-cold sober. I continued lying on the bed with my head covered by a sheet. I could hear a press conference in full progress in that very same room.
The main organiser of the mushaira, Kulsum Sayani, Ameen Sayani’s mother, was talking to Faiz Sahib and saying: We learnt you were not getting the NOC to visit India, so I called General Ayub, and I asked him what he was doing … Faiz Sahib, who is sleeping on the other bed? Faiz Sahib stuttered and stammered: ‘Actually, he is …’ He quickly changed the subject: When you called General Ayub a day earlier, they had already sent me the NOC …
Thank God because here your fans and admirers were dying to see you in person … who is this gentleman?
Faiz Sahib changed the subject again: He is … it’s the love of my fans and admirers that has brought me here. I am so grateful to them.
Their conversation continued in much the same way, and still hiding under the bed sheet, I decided to take the plunge. I suddenly got up and said: Faiz Sahib, main chalta hoon. [Faiz Sahib, I’m leaving] Haan Miyan, aap jaaiye. [Yes, Miyan. You can go]
And before anyone could say Faiz Ahmed Faiz, I was out of the room!
NMK: Wow! That was a close shave. Quite an amazing story!
JA: In 1977–1978, I went to Karachi, and that’s where I met Salima Hashmi for the first time. I told her about this incredible encounter—how I got into the car next to her father, had a drink in his hotel suite, the others arrived, I fell asleep and rushed out of there in the morning. She laughed and said: It’s typical of my father not to have the guts to ask you who you were!
When Salima-ji asked her father about this incident, he said he knew who I was, but he didn’t really. He was too embarrassed to admit it to her.
This excerpt from Talking Life by Javed Akhtar and Nasreen Munni Kabir has been published with permission from Westland Non-Fiction.