Alys Faiz lived her entire life, and continues to live after her death over a decade ago, in the shadow of her illustrious husband. It must have been difficult for a proud, fiercely independent woman to subsume her own identity into his and become, forever, “Mrs. Faiz”. For all of us, her family, though, she was always just “Mama”, a moniker that she bestowed on herself and insisted that everyone use as well. Technically, she was our grandmother but she would have nothing to do with us, her grandchildren, calling her ‘Naani’; so we called her ‘Mama’, the same thing her daughters called her. In fact, she was ‘Mama’ for everyone with whom she had a bond of affection. To everyone else, she was the imperious, stern, slightly scary ‘Mrs. Faiz’.
When we were growing up, there was a little decorative plaque hanging outside the room of our ‘Nana’ Faiz which said “Behind every great man is a woman telling him he’s wrong!’. We always thought that was funny. In retrospect though, it might as well have said ‘Behind Faiz is Alys without whom he wouldn’t be Faiz’. Nana admitted as much in his letters: that a lesser woman might have crumbled in the face of all the challenges that Alys had to face in her life.
While Faiz’s letters from prison, published on the insistence of his friend Mirza Zafar ul Hasan in the 1970s have now become lore, Alys only published her personal letters to Faiz in 1985, a year after he died. Perhaps she felt they were too intimate or that he would not approve (he was less than enthusiastic about his own letters being published earlier) or perhaps it was simply a way to assuage her grief at the passing away of her closest companion, the man who had been at her side (more or less, prison spells notwithstand- ing) for close to 50 years. While they have not achieved anywhere near the notoriety that Faiz’s letter’s published in his own Urdu translation as ‘Saleebain mere darichay main (‘Crucifixes in my window’) achieved, these letter have a unique place of their own in the time honored canon of ‘prison literature’.