G - I

George Alys

Alys George (Kulsoom Faiz)

 

Alys George was born on September 22nd 1914. She joined the British Communist Party at the age of 16. By the mid-1930s, she found herself working with Indian Communists and this led to her serving as private secretary to the left-wing nationalist leader in London, the charismatic V. K. Krishna Menon.

 

She was drawn to settle in the Indian sub-continent partly by her support for Indian self-determination and also, more practically, by her wish to visit her sister, Christobel, who had married Dr M D Taseer, an Indian doctor. They had settled in Amritsar and Alys went there in 1938 (some sources say 1939). The outbreak of the Second World War resulted in a more prolonged stay in the Indian sub-continent than originally intended, which then extended to the rest of her life.

 

She met and married Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984) in 1941 (though some sources unaccountably put this as much earlier). The ceremony in Srinagar was presided over by the renowned Kashmiri nationalist politician Sheikh Abdullah. Having been a lecturer in English, Faiz was briefly a senior officer in the British army. But it was as the most renowned progressive poet of the Urdu language that posterity knows him. Faiz was the first Asian poet to receive the Lenin Peace Prize, awarded by the Soviet Union, in 1963. (Victor Kiernan – see separate entry – was the translator his works into English.)

 

The Communist Party of India positively encouraged its members who wanted to opt for Pakistan after the partition of India to do so, in order that progressive politics could be nurtured there.  Thus, Faiz and Alys quickly associated themselves with the Communist Party of Pakistan and subsequently lived in various parts of country but mainly in Lahore.

 

Alys also started working for the Pakistan Times in 1950, principally looking after its sections for women and children. Her weekly column in the Pakistan Times children’s page carried the by-line of `Apa Jan’, or elder sister. Apart from looking after physically challenged children in Karachi, with other mothers, she also founded a children’s theatre.

 

Faiz’s overtly political poetics led to his arrest in a ludicrous and trumped up case in 1951, when the Pakistan government claimed a Communist plot to overthrow it. Despite advice to return to London with the couple’s two daughters, Alys refused. Her letters to Faiz during the four years he was in prison were later collected and published as `Dear Heart’. 

 

She joined the Pakistan Times’ regular staff in 1951 and also started the newspaper’s reference section. Alys Faiz taught special children in Karachi when her family settled there in the late 1950s. She started working for Unicef when Faiz moved to Islamabad.

 

When Faiz went into exile in Lebanon during the long stint of military rule in the 1970s and 1980s, Alys followed him but kept up her journalistic writing, especially for the Pakistan women’s magazine, `She’. A collection of her dispatches from Beirut during the civil war was published as `Over My Shoulder’. She joined the progressive weekly journal `Viewpoint’ after the family returned to Lahore.

 

Faiz died in 1984 but Alys did not withdraw from public life. In 1986, she became a dedicated member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. When old age and poor health finally caught up with her, this frail British woman had become a legend in the country she had adopted as her own. She died in Lahore on March 12th 2003, aged 88. As befitting a person whose life straddled politics, journalism, literature, and the people, her funeral was attended by hundreds, from among the most powerful in the ranks of government to the small children of ordinary Pakistanis.

 

The daughters of Alys and Faiz have both had successful lives; Moneeza became a TV producer and Salima Hashmi an eminent artist.  Both sisters had adopted Islam as a virtual condition of being able to marry the men they loved and Pakistan out of love for the country. By tradition, Alys was given a Muslim name, Kulsoom, at the time of her marriage, but she always remained Alys to her friends and Alys Faiz to her admirers. Her sister, Christobel, was known always known as Bilqis Taseer. Her son – and Alys’ nephew - was the Pakistan Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, famously assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to the tightening of Pakistan's blasphemy law.

 

Sources include: The Times April 5th 2003; The Dawn March 13th 2003