Alys Faiz’s story is the story of a lifetime of commitment. From being a young woman who wanted to fight alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, she became the woman behind revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz; Alys now finds herself still angry at the social injustice in the world, still fighting on behalf of the oppressed in her regular columns for Viewpoint and She, as well as in her work with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other organisations.
Alys campaigned for the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in 1961 and for peace in the Gulf thirty years later, in 1991; Alys collected signatures for peace in 1952 and again for peace in Afghanistan in 1988.
A single interview cannot possibly do justice to her extraordinary, varied and active life. Hers has above all been a challenging life, involving adaptation to an alien culture and society; living with a man whose greatness and political commitment led her to make huge personal sacrifices; carrying on his work in the loneliness of bereavement.
Yet Alys Faiz has no regrets and prefers to tell of the difficult times via hilarious anecdotes, using her acting training to further liven up the store with mime and mimickery. The white hair and Alys’ claims that she is now ‘tired’ are deceptive: there is a quickness of eye and hand that betrays a wicked sense of humour, an eternally youthful streak and an obvious powerful personality. Undoubtedly, these were the characteristics, which have made her a survivor.
Q. You’ve always been politically active. Was your family interested in politics?
A. They were Conservatives.
Q. So how did you end up a Communist?
A. I didn’t end up; I began! I was always a bit of a loner. I used to like to go out for walks on my own on the weekends. And one fine day I found myself in Clerkenwell, where I saw Marx’s house. I went in and John Stratchey was lecturing on socialism or something. I sat down and listened. That was the beginning.
Q. How old were you at the time?
A. About 18. And then I joined the Party.
Q. You joined straight away.
A. No, no, I went to a rally. I’ve forgotten what kind of rally it was; and then I joined the Communist Party.
Q. Was this the time of the Spanish Civil war?
A. That was a little later.
Q. How did that affect you?
A. I used to go on all these demonstrations with Stephen Spender, Mulk Raj Anand. I wanted to go to Spain, but I was not allowed to. But Mulk Raj Anand went.
Q. Were you ever involved in any underground activity?
A. That was unnecessary. I did some illicit mailing for India. I got caught out because my typewriter was identified. There was a newsletter, Imprecor, the International Press Correspondent; it was banned in India – almost everything was banned in India. I used to send it to an address in South India and it would get to Taseer (Dr Taseer, married to Alys’ sister Chris). It was pretty harmless.
Q. You had a lot of Indian friends. How did you meet them?
A. They were all at Cambridge with Chris. Victor Kiernan, Taseer, Mulk Raj Anand. Then there was the Bengali crowd. Taseer and Dr Nazeer Ahmed used to come to our house. So my mother knew them. She was very tolerant in that way. She thought they were very colourful gentlemen! Then I started working for Krishna Menon in the India League.
Q. Doing what?
A. Addressing envelopes, keeping files of correspondence.
Q. How big was the anti-colonial movement?
A. I don’t know how big it was. They had a small office in the Strand. I used to be terrified of Krishna Menon: he was a terrifying person. As people got arrested in India, we used to make files on them – rigorous imprisonment. And I remember my friend Connie saying, ‘What is this ‘rigorous imprisonment’? They must mean ‘vigorous’ ’. So we started putting ‘vigorous’ on all the files. And, of course, he came down on us like a ton of bricks.
Q. So you went to the subcontinent to stay with Chris for a while. How did you meet Faiz?
A. We were in Amritsar then. Taseer was the Principal of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College. All the people that came to Taseer’s house were political people, writers and poets. They would gather on Friday nights, spend the night reciting poetry, discussing the whole night; bedding was spread in the drawing room.
Q. It was quite a bohemian existence wasn’t it?
A. No, it was an academic existence. Bohemian in the sense that people used to come and borrow kurta pyjamas, but that was part of the social life then. Our life may be bohemian by English standards, yes. But by Indian standards, it was just being welcoming.
Q. And you met Faiz there?
A. Faiz used to come to these gatherings and then we grew a little closer. He always called me ‘Ally’. We would sometimes go out walking in the evenings and read poetry; he would recite Shakespeare. I liked him.
Q. Was it love at first sight for you?
A. No, not at all.
Q. When did you begin to realize that you were serious about him?
A. I think when Taseer started objecting. At that time, Faiz’s family was very poor; they’d gone through the riches and there were a lot of people in the family he had to support. And they would not have wanted me to marry into such a family – they wanted a Chaudry who would bring in some land. Taseer thought I couldn’t pull through with that kind of family; that I would not be comfortable; that it would be a hard life.
Q. How did your parents react to your wanting to marry Faiz?
A. Well, when I wrote to them about it, I got a letter from my father: ‘What can we say? These are times of war and by now you must know your own mind, I’m sure. Go ahead and you have our blessings.’
Q. When did your family first meet Faiz?
A. When they came here in 1947, for a year. They liked it. They were here for Christmas. My father had bought all the Christmas fare. The family cook, Barey Mian, had managed to prepare a turkey and Christmas pudding.
We were just coming down to our meal, when in comes sister-in-law, brother-in-law, just to see what we were up to. Then they plonked themselves down. My parents didn’t like it one bit! They thought our privacy was intruded upon.
The only thing that really shocked my father was that I had no money in my bank account. ‘You must learn to look after yourself more’, he said.
Q. How did Faiz’s family react?
A. They liked it, of course – all the young ones. Having an English Aunty was something of a status symbol, something different. When Faiz’s mother finally said ‘yes’, she was quite nice.
Q. Did she take a long time to come around?
A. It took a year and a half. We’d decided that we’d wait. Well, there were many offers for Faiz. He used to go and see the girls and come back and say, ‘She’s too fat… She’s got glasses’ and so on. Then one of his sisters, Maryam, took up my cause, ‘The boy’s unhappy and they’ll have lovely children.’
Q. Did your mother-in-law put any conditions to the marriage?
A. Yes: that I should learn to read and say my namaz. That was quite exciting. I did it when I was expecting Cheemi – I had a mullah who used to come and turn all the pictures to the wall; and he taught me to read the Arabic prayer.
The other condition was that I should become a Muslim at the marriage and should have an Islamic name. I was named Kulsoom. I would speak Urdu with her — what other means of communication did we have?
Q. When did you learn Urdu?
A. Faiz used to tell me, ‘you must learn the language as quickly as possible or you’ll be unhappy. You’ll always think people are talking about you’. I started learning it before I was married, when I was in Amritsar, staying wih Taseer. There was a Professor of History, Moebul Hassan. I started teaching him French and he began to teach Urdu.
Q. Did you ever feel any hostility, towards you because of your nationality?
A. Yes. We were living in a little flat in Delhi at the time. Tilly, the German wife of Dr Saleem-uz-Zaman, the scientist and I went out in a tonga. I was in my sari, and somebody threw a huge brick at us. It lodged in the framework of the tonga, otherwise it would have hit one of us and would have knocked us out.
The army came to me — a sergeant in his shorts and red legs, and asked if I would like to go to the Fort for protection. I refused. I said ‘This is my home. I have my husband.’ Of course later, after Partition, when one used to go out, little boys would call out ‘Mem! Mem!’ But one gets used to it.
Q. When you first married Faiz, what did you think your prospects would be? After all, he was poor, a poet.
A. When we first married, it was quite difficult. He was earning 150 rupees as a teacher at the Hailey College of Commerce.
Q. How did the war affect you personally?
A. He joined the army. That was the time the Japanese were advancing; Calcutta was being bombed and the party took a decision… So then we went to Delhi and there I remember standing in the garden and one of our friends, Omer, came to me and said, ‘You’re a traitor. Why have you sent Faiz into the army?’ He was quite nasty. I didn’t even answer. I was terribly upset because some people didn’t understand the circumstances under which Faiz had gone into the army.
Q. What was your wedding like?
A. Taseer and Chris were in Srinagar – Taseer was the principal of the college there. It was obvious I was to be married there. Faiz came with a baraat; there were just three of them: Faiz, his brother and a member of the Communist party, Naeem. I saw him in Lucknow three years ago, at the mushaira in Faiz’s honour and he said to me ‘Only one of the members of the baraat is alive now!’
Q. Did you have a dowry?
A. Yes, I had a lovely wedding sari — maroon and gold — for which my mother had sent the money from England. Salima has it now. She wears it on occasions. Faiz brought some suit; I wore it on the valima; red, typical Punjabi. Of course, it couldn’t have been too expensive — he didn’t have that much money.
The wedding was lovely, because it was in the Queen’s summer palace. The wedding was conducted by Sheikh Abdullah; he and Taseer were great friends. I remember him standing there and he asked me in three different languages: English, Urdu, and I suppose, Kashmiri. The grandmother of these Rafi Peer boys was there and she said, ‘This is no marriage: there’s no bong, bong, bong!’ A huge dining table was spread with all this food and afterwards there was a mushaira; Josh was there.
Q. How did Partition affect you?
A. After that terrible massacre in Ramgarh, I went with Salima (and Moneeza her second daughter) to Simla. It was quite wretched to be separated from Faiz. I also worked in the refugee camps.
Q. Faiz was Editor at The Pakistan Times. Were you also there?
A. I worked from home. I was the original Aapa Jaan — the first children’s page in the country. And I also started a women’s page.
Q. Any conflict with your boss?
A. There was no question of a clash!
Q. What was Faiz like to live with?
A. Easy, disciplined. But it was difficult to live two lives – living with a poet, and also being a housewife and mother.
Q. Did Faiz help you and your mother-in-law to adjust to each other?
A. He used to say to me, ‘You can’t change my mother and she can’t change you. You both have to come to a meeting point, where you beg to differ’, and we did. Then I began to be able to joke in Urdu, and I used to make her laugh. . .
Q. Then came Faiz’s arrest in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case in 1952. You were with two small children, no money, in a foreign country … How did it feel?
A. Faiz was always telling me it was going to happen: ‘We’ll be fighting on the street corners…’ ‘Oh shut up’, I would say! We had some beer in our flat. Suddenly, we heard some knocking downstairs. I got up and went to see: there was this row of police. I said, ‘Faiz, there’s a lot of police here; it must be a raid. What could it be?’ I said, ‘We’ve got some beer.’
We were so stupid! We rushed around looking and found one bottle, but we couldn’t find the opener, and killed ourselves laughing, trying to open it on the doors. Anyway, we got it open and threw it down the commode, but there was no water! Finally I had to go down and let them in. They came up and stood around. How sorry I feel for the children. Moneeza couldn’t understand.
Q. Did you ever regret your or Faiz’s commitment?
A. No, I didn’t. We had political arguments, about certain attitudes… But we sorted them out. I would bear a grudge, resentment; Faiz wanted to accept. He would say you can’t blame them for what they did.
Q. Did you ever despair?
A. I cried sometimes, but I am a Brit. I mean, there’s something in your upbringing: you do have a lot of resilience and lots of courage. I was determined not to be embarrassed, belittled by these people.
My salary was 420 rupees — char sau bis! I bought a bicycle and had a big straw hat and used to go along the Mall and Hall road. The policeman would stop all the traffic and wave me on. I became quite famous on the Mall.
I didn’t despair; I don’t know… I used to feel frightened sometimes.