My Encounter with Ahmed Faraz

Faraz with Noor Jahan, the singer

As students in the early 60s in Peshawar, we often saw Faraz on the university campus. He taught Urdu. He had already become a poet of some repute, but, among students, he was equally known, if not more, for his bohemian lifestyle.

Peshawar University, built at the foot of the Khyber hills, was then 5 miles away from Peshawar city. It still is, but now you cannot tell where the city ends and the university campus begins. The city has expanded into a huge ugly sprawl.

Saddar was the happening part of the city. It was to Peshawar what Mall Road was to Lahore.

In the evenings, the students from the university would descend upon Saddar to watch movies, to gossip in the cafés, or simply walk up and down the short stretches of the main Saddar Road and Arbab Road, watching people. The Greens Hotel, on Saddar Road, was the watering hole. It served the popular Murree Beer and other drinks in a bar tucked away upstairs. (Prohibition came later, in 1972 when JUI came into power in the province with Mufti Mahmood as its Chief Minister) A few hundred yards down the road from the Greens, the upscale Dean’s Hotel retained its colonial architecture and continued to serve mulligatawny soup and caramel custard — and, of course, drinks, in a more refined setting.

The Capital and Falak Sair were the two cinemas that showed English movies. Silver Star on Saddar Road and Café Alig on Arbab Road were the two popular cafés. Across Café Alig, on Arbab Road, was the big bookshop, London Book Depot, and close to it, in a narrow street, was Bandbox, the curiously named dry-cleaners. Medicose, on Saddar Road, was the well-known chemist, and a couple of shops removed from it was the popular Bata shoe shop, whose top-of-the-range men’s dress shoes were priced at Rs 33.99. Why wouldn’t they price them at 34.00, we always wondered. We were too naive then to know modern marketing techniques.

Not far from these places, on the main Saddar Road, there was the bus stop for the college buses. Across the road from the bus stop, was this little paan and cigarette khokha (stall), which did a brisk business in the evenings. Ahmed Faraz often stopped at this shop. He would come riding on his noisy motorbike, stop in front of the khokha, buy his cigarettes and paan and speed away. The alacrity with which the vendor stepped out of his khokha to hand Faraz his cigarettes or paan suggested that Faraz was had a running account with the vendor or the vendor was a fan of the poet — perhaps both.

Waiting for my bus one evening, I watched as Faraz rode up to the khokha to get his “fix”. He stopped his motorbike in front of the khokha. Without switching off the engine or getting off the bike, one foot resting against the curb for balance and his hands clutching the bike handles, he kept revving the engine up and down as if he were at the start of a race, rearing to take off. Familiar with Faraz’s routine, the vendor quickly prepared a paan and, instead of handing it to him, carefully slipped the wad directly into Faraz’s expectant mouth, like a mother would feed her toddler. With the paan safely in his mouth, Faraz released the clutch of his motorbike and roared away into the dusk. Such a hurry! Probably, he had promises to keep.

Several years later, I encountered Faraz in a different setting. He, already a teacher with some seniority (I don’t remember his exact academic rank), was appearing for an exam in a different subject, probably English. The Forest College hall was the examination center, and I happened to be the “examiner”.

Having just returned from the US, I had started teaching at Peshawar University. One of the jobs the university teachers did, and probably still do — for extra money, of course — was to act as superintendents and invigilators at different examination centers during the summer holidays. I happened to be the superintendent that summer at the examination center at the Forest College hall.

A superintendent was responsible for the overall conduct of the examination in the hall with a number of invigilators assisting him in supervising specific rows of examinees. At a typical center, there would be 60 to 100 examinees in different subjects. A few minutes before the start, all doors of the hall would be closed, the superintendent would read out the rules, the question papers would be distributed, and the examination would commence on the dot, in total silence. The silence was broken only by the whirring of ceiling fans and the shuffling of pages of the answer-books — or the clearing of the throat by nervous examinees when they felt they were running out of time.

There was a long list of rules that governed the conduct in the examination hall, but the three cardinal rules were: No cheating. No noise. No smoking. If anyone broke any of these rules, the superintendent was authorized to terminate his exam and send him out of the hall. And that was that.

Fifteen or twenty minutes into the exam that morning, when the usual hush descended on the hall, I smelled cigarette smoke. When I looked around, I noticed Faraz puffing on his cigarette and a pack of Three Castles (a popular brand of cigarettes then) lying on his table. The invigilator of the row politely requested Faraz to put out the cigarette but Faraz paid no heed to him. Much to my dismay, the smoking ball landed in my court.

I approached Faraz gingerly and reminded him of the no-smoking rule. He looked genuinely puzzled as if wondering why we were making such a fuss over something so insignificant. He said he could not write the paper without smoking. In other words, he wanted us to make an allowance for his handicap and perhaps, we thought, for his seniority and status. I told him politely that if he insisted on smoking we would have no choice but to terminate his exam and send him away. After some back and forth, Faraz went quiet for a while, then without arguing any further, put out his cigarette and proceeded to write the paper with increased frenzy, making up for the time he had lost during the argument.

I do not know how well did he do in his exam, but down the years, when Faraz’s fame soared and I, too, began to appreciate his poetry, I felt a bit of remorse over denying Faraz his fix when he needed it most. But then I would console myself with the thought that I was simply enforcing the rules, and that I denied him something that was not good for him, anyway.

Fast forward to 2005–6. The venue is the picturesque Pakistan Air Force (PAF) club perched on a hilltop in the Margalla Hills, Islamabad. The club premises look clean and orderly. About 30 odd guests, both men, and women are gathered at an afternoon reception organized by the PAF Finishing School for Women. At the school, they teach a variety of subjects ranging from culture to communication to culinary skills, and from landscaping to literature. The only thing common among the people gathered in that room is that they had lectured at the school at one time or another, or were involved in its administration. (I used to teach Communication). The new director of the school is speaking, explaining the program for the new semester. Everyone listens attentatively.

A few minutes into the speech, the smell of cigarette smoke wafted in the otherwise totally non-smoking environment. I turned around to locate the source. It was none other but Ahmed Faraz, oblivious of his surroundings, puffing away at a cigarette. No one stopped him.

After the director’s speech, while everyone was having tea, I approached Faraz, introduced myself, and, pointing to his cigarette, jokingly reminded him of the incident in the Forest College hall many years ago. I don’t know if he remembered it but he laughed and gave the impression that he did.

“میں دو چیزیں نہیں چھوڑ سکتا ، ایک سگریٹ اور دوسرا داڑھی” ​

was his reply. “I cannot do two things: Give up cigarettes or grow a beard. (There is an interesting pun on the Urdu word “give up”).

The last time I saw Faraz was in 2008, at the Marriot Hotel in Washington DC, at a mushaira during the annual gathering of Pakistani-American doctors (APPNA). He shared the stage with Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, Gopi Chand Narang, and few other literary people. The mushaira lasted till late into the night. Faraz sat there, without smoking. (Obviously, he was aware of the rules in the US against smoking in closed spaces.) Instead, he occasionally sipped from what looked like a glass of water.

When his turn came to speak, he recited, in his deep resonant voice, several of his popular poems from memory, to thunderous applause from the audience, and requests for more. Finally, when the mushaira ended, I noticed Faraz hurriedly walking to his room. Perhaps, he was dying to have a smoke. But, in the maze of the hotel corridors, he was unable to locate his room. He tried the key on several rooms but the doors wouldn’t open. On inquiry from the hosts, it turned out that Faraz had checked in at a different hotel, across the street, but had totally forgotten about it.

Faraz was such a restless romantic.