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Se dwelt among the untrodden ways

By Peerzada Salman

What were Fahmida Riaz’s accomplishments as a poet, as a novelist? Countless. Ironically, in her case, achievements in the literary world didn’t matter. That’s what she would tell anyone who, to her face, would speak highly of her creative output.

To Fahmida what mattered was: how many people you touched through your art, demeanour and intent. This is not to say that her art didn’t count. She was, first and foremost, an artist –– right out of the top drawer, at that.

But that face! Fahmida’s face was a giveaway. Her big, piercing eyes were its most prominent feature. You could tell if she was ecstatic; you could instantly sense if something or someone had hurt her.

Fahmida’s first marriage didn’t work. She had one daughter from that marriage. Her second husband, Zafar Ujan, like her, is a left-leaning activist. Seven of the most torrid years in their life as a couple were a result of their political persuasion. Gen Ziaul Haq was calling the shots at the time. Zafar was in prison. Fahmida fled to India (where her husband joined her later).

Fahmida has a daughter with Ujan. She also had a son, who died in the US in an accident. He was in his late twenties. Talk about tragedies of Shakespearean proportions. This was personal grief –– the death of a jawan son.

But Fahmida never lost sight of society’s shortcomings –– the economic disparities, the social unevenness, the political fault-lines… From her early days as a creative being, she had a socialist heart. The struggle of the working class was the focus of her attention.

In her collection of nazms Aadmi ki Zindagi there is ample evidence of that. For example, the nazm ‘World Bank’.

Be panah taqat ne
Ik nizam ki tajveez
Be shumar kamzoron
Ke liyey murattab ki
Be panah taqat ne
Is pe kitni mehnat ki
[Unbridled power
Devised a system
For the disenfranchised ––
The teeming disenfranchised
Unbridled power
Worked hard at it]

But how could she ignore the fact that she was a woman, and how could she have overlooked the gross gender bias that existed in society? So, no book of Fahmida’s poetry made more headlines the way Badan Dareedah (1982) did. It was the book that infuriated the orthodoxy. They were livid with the poet for using the kind of language that women in our part of the world were not supposed to use. This is where the feminist in Fahmida shone.

Unfortunately, the hullabaloo about the content of the book overshadowed the poet’s craft and the ability to create cascading verses.

Hum ne dekhi ajeeb ik naari
Sanvla rung jaamni saari
Aur baaton mein aisi chanchalta
Chhute rangon ki jaisey pichkari
[I saw a lovely girl
Wheatish complexion, wearing a
purple sari
Words came out of her mouth
Like colours from the water gun]

Fahmida was born in Meerut, a city in UP (India), a year before Pakistan gained independence. She came from a family that attached immense value to education. Even before partition, her father was working in Sindh for the betterment of the education system in the province. Therefore, after 1947, when the family settled in Hyderabad, the transition was seamless. Fahmida was a Sindhi to her fingertips. Her love for Sindh, its people, language and poets was unstinted and pure. She translated Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Shaikh Ayaz’s poems with the utmost dedication.

At the same time, the intellectual in her didn’t confine her creative pursuits to a single region. Her sonorous translation in verse of Maulana Rumi’s Persian work is of high literary merit.

Then there was the Fahmida Riaz who battled it out for the rights of the underprivileged, the marginalised. She struggled, nay fought, against dictatorship whenever it tried to impress its rule upon the people of the land. She lent her voice to organisations, such as the Women’s Action Forum, that worked for women’s well-being in the country. She would attend events in which the demands for the rights of the working class would be placed. She was a fighter — a fighter poet. She chose the road not many dared to take.

In the final few years of her life, Fahmida had also gotten disillusioned with the way things were transpiring on the sociopolitical front across the border. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism had perturbed her no end. What she wrote in reaction was nothing less than a masterpiece:

Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle
Ab tak kahan chhupe thay bhai
Woh moorakhta woh ghaamad punn
Jis mein hum ne sadi ganwai
Aakhir punhchi dwar tuhare
Are badhai, buhat badhai…
[You turned out to be just like us
Where had you been hiding?
The silliness, the vapidity
That consumed a century
Has, finally, reached your doorstep
Congratulations, many congratulation!]