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Fahmida Riaz in prose

By Dr Naazir Mahmood

When Fahmida Riaz died in Lahore on November 21 at the age of 73, most TV channels in Pakistan portrayed her as an outstanding and prominent poet. Hardly any media coverage discussed her as an intellectual of high merit and a writer of short stories and novels as well.

Here the focus will be on her fiction and prose writing and her translations, as this is a relatively neglected aspect of her creative work. Ajmal Kamal’s ‘Aaj’ and Asif Farrukhi’s ‘Dunya Zaad’ deserve a special mention for publishing Fahmida’s fiction and translations.

One of the best pieces of prose she wrote after the death of Muhammad Khalid Akhtar appeared in ‘Aaj’ (volume 35). Though it is sort of an obituary, it gives us an insight into Fahmida’s own growth as a writer and the role Akhtar played in it. This role was not very different from the roles Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum had played in the early literary struggle of Parveen Shakir and Kishwar Naheed respectively. Fahmida describes how in the night after Akhtar’s burial she went to the graveyard and requested the watchman to open the gate so that she could pay her homage to him.

In her beautiful prose, she calls her friendship with Akhtar as one of the longest-lasting friendships in the history of Urdu literature, despite the fact that their genres of writing were not exactly the same. Akhtar excelled in humour and satire which were not Fahmida’s vocation. Fahmida recalls that she was still in her second year of college when her poems started appearing in ‘Funoon’, and that’s where she read Akhtar’s articles and book reviews. She admits that she instantly fell in love with the mind that could produce such magical prose.

Fahmida started writing to Akhtar and he responded with encouragement for the ‘the young friend and writer’. Thus began a communication and friendship that lasted for over three decades till Akhtar’s death. She says that in each letter, he would not only encourage her but also exchange his views on other writers such as Krishan Chandar and Manto, both being their favourites. This obituary of Akhtar by Fahmida is a masterpiece of Urdu prose that should be included in our Urdu literature curriculum because it sheds light on two of the greatest Urdu writes of the past 50 years.

Through this piece we get to know about the travails Fahmida went through when she launched ‘Awaz’. In 1979, when Bhutto was hanged she wrote in ‘Awaz’ that it was really the murder of democracy itself. General Zia and his courtiers got infuriated, multiple cases were filed against her and she was incessantly harassed by the state machinery. In those trying times Khalid Akhtar was her only confidante who helped her in whatever way he could. When Fahmida was released on bail, he helped her get a passport so that she could get out of the country.

Some more details about her struggle we get to know through her excellent short story ‘Kiya gulabi kabutar jeet gaye’ (Have the pink pigeons won?). This semiautobiographical story appeared in the 19th issue of ‘Aaj’ in 1995. The story starts with a narration of her visit to the then newly independent country of Kazakhstan, where she meets a pretty interpreter Gulnaz. This girl in her mid-20s, reminds Fahmida of Mullah Yousuf Ziai who was her next-door neighbour in Karachi in the late 1970s. With this highly engaging story, she discusses the political situation of Central Asia in the post-Soviet Union era.

Fahmida describes how her erstwhile neighbour Yousuf’s parents had migrated from Central Asia after the Soviet Revolution in 1917 to Xinxiang in China. Then they migrated again to Afghanistan after the communists took over in China in the late 1940s. Finally, after the Saur Revolution of 1978 they moved to the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and then to Karachi, where he became a prayer leader and – supported by the Pakistani authorities – also chairman of the salat and zakat committees in his neighbourhood in Karachi. Fahmida describes how her home was used by a left-wing party that struggled against the dictatorship of General Zia, and how the military dictatorship installed Deobandi mullahs in a Barelvi-dominated Karachi.

I met Fahmida Riaz for the first time in Delhi in the mid-1980s. At that time she was working on two books in English and Urdu. Her English book, ‘Pakistani Literature and Society’, was meant for Indian readers; it turned out to be a mediocre and superficial work that was neither academic nor creative. Her Urdu novelette was ‘Godavari’, of which around 100 pages was published in Pakistan in the spring issue of ‘Aaj’ in 1992. Later on this was translated into English by Aquila Ismail and published by OUP in 2008 with an introduction by Asif Farrukhi.

‘Godavari’ is also a semiautobiographical novel set in Maharashtra in the mid-1980s. A Muslim Pakistani family becomes a political asylum seeker in India. The protagonist is a woman called Ma, who interacts with Adivasis (natives), Bohri Muslims, communists, Hindus, and Parsis of various classes in Bombay, Delhi, and at a hill station in Maharashtra. Both husband and wife are left-leaning but get disillusioned by the internal strife in Indian society itself. The husband constantly looks for opportunities to flirt with local women and Ma has to take care of the children and also keep an eye on her philandering spouse.

Written in the backdrop of Hindu-Muslim riots in Bhivandi where Muslim textile weavers were targeted and massacred by the goons of Shiv Sena, ‘Godavari’ presents a unique insight into India of the 1980s, through the eyes of a Pakistani woman.

Apart from political literature, Fahmida has also written stories with a gender perspective. For example, her story, ‘Wo chali gayee’ (She has gone) published in the 25th issue of ‘Aaj’, gives an interesting twist to a family life where a girl leaves her home. The family mourns and the readers feel sympathy with the ditched parents. Towards the end of the story, the girl comes back and reveals that she had gone to the northern areas of Pakistan where she did mountain-climbing with a group of adventurers and had a wonderful time.

In another story, ‘Tikone ke daaeray’ (Circles of a triangle), published in the 11th issue of ‘Dunya Zaad’ in 2004, Fahmida delineates minor family squabbles that the Pakistani diaspora in the US indulge in. Despite being highly qualified and prosperous, Pakistani families cannot get out of their petty thinking in minor issues, and so stop talking to each other.

And now something about her translations. In the 14th issue of ‘Dunya Zaad’ (2005), Fahmida introduces Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s novel, ‘Ice’. In addition to the translation itself, she wrote an erudite introduction comparing the Left movement in Pakistan with that in Turkey. Her references to Dostoyevsky and other great writers of the world speak volumes about Fahmida’s wide reading and grasp of world literature. Similarly in the 18th issue of ‘Dunya Zaad’, she introduces Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate for literature.

There is much more to write about her poetry, but as clarified in the beginning of this column, here an attempt has been made to highlight her fiction, prose, and translations. She was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers Pakistan has produced in the past 50 years.