The Liberating Walls of the Ghazal Nirvana

This piece aims to quite literally walk you through a ghazal — Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Filling the Flowers with Colour) — penned by Pakistani Marxist poet  Faiz Ahmed Faiz in 1954 while he was in Rawalpindi’s Montgomery prison for his communist beliefs. Walking with you is  Ali Sethi, a young classical singer who breathes life into the poetry with his soulful modern rendition of Faiz’s ghazal. A journey in itself, every paragraph of the writing corresponds to a couplet from the ghazal, juxtaposing Faiz’s Urdu poetry with Ammar’s English narration. For these reasons, it might make sense to read the ghazal’s translation beforehand to be able to connect the poetry to the prose. Although the Urdu used may be understood through context, there is also a glossary at the end with translations for all the Urdu vocabulary used in the passage.

Life, with its sparkling vibrance, reincarnates death, with its forlorn desires.
Sethi, with his soothing voice, revives Faiz, with his forgotten dreams.

Sethi inhales.
The air diffusing through his nostrils belongs to the same gulshan where the gentle breeze
signalling the arrival of spring – the baad-e-naubahar – once brushed against the blushing
red petals of the tulip and the blushing red cheeks of Faiz, filling both of them with the
exuberant rang of hope – one that promised a livelier tomorrow, a brighter bahaar.

Sethi walks.
His feet move through the debris of Montgomery prison; he walks through walls. This is the
same ground where Faiz’s qafas – his cage – once stood, udaas as ever, pleading to the
zephyr – the sabaa – for his beloved’s name to, even if just for one instant, echo outside
these towering walls that slowly suffocate him… for God’s sake, if not his own.

Sethi closes his eyes.
His vision fades into darkness. His body trembles: palpitations in his heart, shivers in his
legs, tremors in his voice. A void of emptiness replaces his pounding heart and the ground
beneath him vanishes; he transcends the space-time continuum. He struggles to maintain
his balance as the debris underneath his feet rises to fall into place. Solid, gray concrete
surrounds him on all four sides.

He is in Faiz’s qafas.

Sethi’s eyes remain shut.
The rays of the morning sky yearn for them: they find it hard to resist the temptation of
sun-kissing his yawning, brown pupils. His body tries to intercede with his heart; his spirit
issues a flat refusal. After all, what is that subh worth, whose aghaaz brings not the
kunj-e-lab – the ever so warm shade of his beloved’s lips, the only abode of constancy
amidst life’s cold realities. The orange mass of fire and luminance above, worn out by the
wearisome wait, morphs into the red horizon until all that remains in the dark sky are
scattered specks of light and a lone crescent. The air Sethi respires is devoid of any
semblance of sentient life. The shab is bleak; the idyllic musk that once radiated from each
lock and curl of his beloved’s sar-e-kakul has vanished, almost permanently, from the
material realm of his four-walled world.

Sethi seeks.
After all, where else could Faiz be found than in his very own world? He raises his head to gaze at the three short steel rods on the wall, which rest firmly inside the only window in the cell, obstructing the moonlight as it desperately tiptoes its way towards Sethi’s eyes. Squeezed shut, he gazes into the murky depths of the night-sky, scouting every smudge and sparkle for a distinct glow of red – the colour spectrum’s designated harbinger of Faiz.

Sethi speaks.
Or at least, he tries to speak – to whisper a hello from the other side – but his words fade into the distant nothingness before they escape his frail lips. A voice enshrouds his auditory facilities, then fades behind him. There is an impulse to turn around – after all, the cramped confinement behind him holds much more to see than the animate abyss in front. And yet, he does not. He can not. For he knows that his impulse is sparked, not out of compassion for the lamenting heart – the ghareeb dil – whose muffled whimpers he heard, but out of an inexplicable urge to hear the same voice, the same naam which embodied the dard ka rishta this feeble soul could never part ways with, the same naam which was to trigger, at this desolate hour of the sombre night, a vicious self-repeating cycle of the same memory, the same moment – the eve of separation, the shab-e-hijraan.

Sethi opens his eyes.
Objects begin to appear. Shapes form. The floor vanishes from beneath him, the walls from around him. The debris lays still at his feet, as if it had never moved from its place. Every image Sethi sees is as bleak as it is real; the concrete world is unnerving. He stares, long and hard, at the remains of the qafas he seemed to have spent a silent eternity in. He is in denial: this is not how it ends. He falls to his knees. He buries his face in the rubble. His eyelids snap shut.

The remains remain. They bear no rise, they see no fall. He feels no floor, he sees no wall. In the seclusion of the shadows, a spectre sways. A silent smile, sharp yet still, suddenly stimulates Sethi’s senses.

This is the end. This is the aqibat.
Fear not the tears, the ashk, Sethi sahab, for they are what imbue this moment with life.

gulshan – garden
baad-e-naubahar – the breeze (baad) of new (nau) spring (bahaar)
rang – colour
bahaar – spring
qafas – cage
udaas – dejected/sorrowful
sabaa – zephyr
subh – morning
aghaaz – beginning
kunj-e-lab – bower of lips
shab – eve
sar-e-kakul – head (sar) with long hair (kakul)
ghareeb dil – poor heart
naam – name
shab-e-hijraan – eve of separation
aqibat – end/conclusion

Singing with the heat of what he imagines and foresees, Muhammad Ammar is the nightingale of the garden that is yet to be created. That said, he’s also a first-year Bennington student hailing from Pakistan whose passions include Politics, Public Action, Theatre, Music and Literature/Writing, with an especially soft spot for the soulful Urdu language. Expect to see him fervently opposing the political influence of extra institutional actors (hello Military and Mullahs!) or chanting (and simultaneously breaking down) Urdu poetry to stir up love, heartbreak and revolution!

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