‘The soft fragrance of my jasmine
Flowing on the current of wind
Playing in the hands of wind
In search of your body’
May the writer, poet, short-story writer, novelist, translator and our mentor Fahmida Riaz, who turned 72 on the 28th of July last month, live long and prosper. While I do not have the ability to comment on her art, I feel this is a necessary tribute keeping in view that she is not in the best of health these days. While I was in Karachi recently, despite my best efforts, I was unable to reach her.
In the current background of Urdu poetry, the voice of Fahmida Riaz is distinctly recognised. During the early years of the decade of the 1960s, when the aforementioned poem and others began to be published in a literary journal like Funoon under the editorship of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, a clear tone, ringing and full of lyricism and a very sensitive style, established its impression, which became deeper and gentler with time. And now Fahmida Riaz is rightly regarded amongst the foremost poets of modern and contemporary Urdu poetry.
Fahmida Riaz was born in 1946 in the Indian city of Meerut. She got her initial education in Hyderabad and began her poetry right from the time of college. Her first volume of poetry Patthar ki Zuban (The Language of Stones) was published in 1967. The illustration of the coloured and desirous feelings of a young girl had seldom been done with such poesy before. A novel and stunning destination for this literary journey arrived in 1973 when the publication of Badan Dareeda(The Torn-Bodied) created a sensation in literary circles. Such self-confidence coupled with feminine speech and tone appeared as a rebellion to some people but this book proved to be an important milestone in modern Urdu poetry. During this time, Fahmida Riaz resided in London.
The themes and narrative style of these poems did startle a few people, but these poems were also reflective of far-reaching changes in contemporary Urdu poetry, which were felt gradually. Along with courage in the selection of themes, the persona of the poet’s personality which appears in these poems is different from traditional poetry.
A poem like Chador aur Chaardivaari (The Veil and the Four Walls of Home) remains one of the most effective Urdu poems against the oppressive politics of the Zia era
On one hand these poems seem like the soliloquies of a woman passing through the stages of self-awareness, who has the spirit to give a form of expression to her body and life by making it the foundation of her poetic experience; on the other hand, the style and wordings of these poems are elegant and delicate, as if feelings have found the most suitable language.That is why these poems are seen to be decorated with a new manner of feeling, despite being extremely personal and individualistic. They are full of a perception of societal reality and guarded towards universality.
In many poems, for example Guriya (Doll) or Muqaabla-e-Husn (Beauty Contest), she raises her voice against the deception which is performed with a woman in the name of love. She continued to tear the curtain off, decrying a society in which a woman is forced to become dumb and lifeless like a doll, because men have fixed this very favourite role for them. Men demand from women to become such a form of lifeless beauty, which is not possible in reality.
So what if my hips gyrate like whirlpools
The head also has the jewel
The piece of heart was below the breasts
But the price I have put on these
Do not evade me like this in fear
When you stop measuring me
Do also measure an organ of yours!
Fahmida Riaz’s poetry of that period is also clearly seen to be using tradition as symbolism, whose sources are the holy scriptures. With these sources, she portrays the centuries of oppression on women. In her poem Aqleema, the eponymous sister of Abel and Cain insists on expressing her opinion. This poem, a frank expression of sexuality, refers to the Biblical tale in which Cain slew Abel when his sacrifice of a goat was not accepted by God. In some versions, Cain had desired his sister Aqleema for himself although she was forbidden to him.
After her return home, her collection Dhoop (Sunlight) was published in 1976. A manner of political consciousness and protest is prominent in these poems and a conscious attempt has been made to bring the language of poetry nearer to Sindhi and conversational Hindi.
In the same period, Fahmida Riaz took up the responsibility of editing of a magazine called Aavaaz (Voice). Several cases were instituted against this magazine – there were a number of accusations during the era of martial law and the dominance of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. Poems like Khaana Talaashi (House Search) and Kotvaal (Magistrate) are representative of this period. A poem like Chador aur Chaardivaari (The Veil and theFour Walls of Home) was also written during the same time. It can be taken as one of the most effective Urdu poems against the oppressive politics of that time. But thebeautiful last lines of this poem give us this feeling that despite the intention of political protest, the ideal dream of femininity has not left the poetess.
These four walls, this chador be blessed for the decayed corpse
My boat will proceed with open sails in the open spaces
I am the fellow traveler of the New Man
He who won my trusting company!
When conditions worsened, Fahmida Riaz went into exile in 1981 and went to India. During this time, she was affiliated with Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and wrote a book on the literary situation in Pakistan Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? (Will You Not See the Full Moon?), which is a prose poem consisting of seven chapters. This book was initially published in the Hindi script. This long poem tells the tale of the mental anguish and struggle of a sensitive and conscientious artist in an atmosphere of oppression and violence. The eminent English short-story writer Aamer Hussain has especially mentioned this long poem in the preface to the English translations of the poems of Fahmida Riaz and has written that the poetess has achieved the dimensions of an epic in this poem. This poem reminds him of that brave and sympathetic bearer of painful lyricism, the great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, who begins from the delicate expression of desires and touches, arriving at majestic statements of resistance against oppression and superiority. I feel that Fahmida Riaz’s journey is also moving towards such destinations, where she has learnt to carve the rubies and pearls of poetry with tears and pain and sorrow. Given that 2018 marks the bicentennial of Karl Marx, her heartfelt tribute to Karl Marx will not be out of place and can be cited here:
Neither a messenger’s avatar, nor the guardian of the world
A human like me, with an agitated beard
He too was alive on the Earth, it is an ancient tale
He died since long, long time passed, that aged Christian
The cycle of fate remains, pieces of permanent birth
Are dancing in the circle, their faces changing
Everyone is busy, everyone has a life of their own
Every pauper is thinking in the world in his own way
The seeing eyes see what is going to happen
The fire is beating from east to west
He too stands at some turn of the path
Perhaps he sees how much dust has time spread
I saw this photo a hundred times, but now I stand still
I tremble after biting my lip, when I think for a moment
What a man was born…
So much have you left behind!
Wherever the sun rose tearing the black earth
Men took your name, restless
Time never stopped for anyone as it is, but this too has happened
The flying century stopped for a brief moment to turn, look at you
A human generation has thought about you often
A century has raised its hand to salute you
(Fahmida Riaz on Karl Marx)
Fahmida Riaz returned home when the events in the country took a new turn and the prospects for democracy emerged. She was employed in government service for a short while after her return and then she set up a non-governmental institution, which published several books for children and women. A collection of poems written during exile Apna Jurm Toa Saabit He (My Crime Stands Proven) was published in 1988. Some old and new poems came forward under the title of Hum Rikaab (Fellow Traveller) and her entire poetry up to that point was published with the title Men Mitti ki Moorat Hun (I Am An Earthen Idol). Political disorders, the desire for internal and external union and the literary quest of human life can be witnessed in her new poems, which were collected and published as Aadmi ki Zindagi (The Life of Man). A new collection Mausamon ke Daire Men (In the Circle of Seasons) is under compilation. She has gathered together her entire poetry to date in Sab Laal-o-Gohar (All Rubies and Pearls). A new collection of her poetry was recently published under the title of Tum Kabeer… (You Kabeer…).
The fullest expression of Fahmida Riaz’s poetic ingenuity is to be found in her translations
The fullest expression of Fahmida Riaz’s poetic ingenuity is to be found in her translations. From Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra of Latin America to Manglesh Dabral of Hindi and her contemporary Sindhi poetess Attiya Dawood, she has rendered their selected poems into Urdu. But as a translator, she had paid particular attention to three poets and these translations have come forward in book form. She translated the selected poetry of the famous Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz, published as Halqa Meri Zanjir Ka (A Link of My Chain). A selection and translation of the extremely creative Farsi poetess who died young, Forough Farrokhzad, Khule Dareeche Se (From An Open Window) was published in 1998. Recently she translated 50 ghazals from the Divaan-e-Shams Tabriz of Maulana Jalauddin Rumi in the form of Urdu ghazal, which was published as Khaana-e-Aaab-o-Gil (House of Water and Clay) and became the focus of the attention of admirers and critics.
Fahmida Riaz also wrote short stories in her initial period along with poetry. In the last 10-12 years she has devoted greater attention to prose. A collection of her short stories has been published under the title Khat-e-Marmuz (The Mysterious Letter). She also wrote a book with the title Adhura Aadmi(Incomplete Man) with respect to the ideas of renowned psychologist Erich Fromm, and literary and critical essay as well, in recent years. She wrote three books Zinda Bahaar, Godavari and Karachi, by joining the warp and weft of travel, personal experience, observation and legend. In these three novels, Fahmida Riaz has styled a new form to express the historical and political problems of three South Asian states – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – by kneading her personal anguish and sorrow; a literary form which is solely associated with her and a creative exploit in itself. In 2017, she released a well-received historical novel on the life and times of the 5th-century Persian Zoroastrian socialist revolutionary Mazdak, Qila-e-Faraamoshi (Fortress of Oblivion), which a few discerning readers may read as a thinly-veiled autobiography of her own struggles, ideals and dreams. Without vacating her place in the ranks of poets, she has achieved a prominent position in prose. This distinction is rarely enjoyed by any other writer of this era. Fahmida Riaz’s literary journey is expressive – from lyricism to creating stories.
In the ancient folklore of the Indus Valley, women play a seminal role as heroines, whether in love, sex or the fight against tyranny and patriarchy. Some of these tales have been immortalised by the likes of Waris Shah (Heer-Ranjha) and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.
Bhittai refers to the Sat Surmiyoon (Seven Heroines) in his famous Risalo which include Lilan, Momal, Sorath, Nuri, Sohni, Sassi and Marvi. Bhittai has devoted a sur (poem) to each surmi. In February this year, my friend the poet and essayist Harris Khalique referred to the late Pakistani feminist and human rights icon Asma Jahangir as the eighth surmi. In a similar vein, Fahmida Riaz may also be anointed as the ninth surmi. I am confident that had Bhittai been alive in our times, he would have written about Nau Surmiyoon (Nine Heroines) and devoted a sur to Fahmida Riaz, a proud daughter of the Indus Valley.
Her poem Taaziyati Qaraardaaden (Condolence Resolutions) might serve as a fitting testament and tribute to her eventful life and legacy:
Friends! Just do me this favor
Do not be unjust to me after death
Do not award me any certificate of religiosity
Do not say in the force of eloquence
Actually this woman was a believer
Do not rise to prove loyalty to country and nation
Do not try that the authorities own my corpse at least
The invectives of the mean are my honours
Whether they may not come up to the pulpit
My lovers are no less
The beginning of reality is hidden in life
And dust and breeze are my confidantes
Do not go about insulting them
For the goodwill of the censors
Do not make the corpse apologise
Lest I cannot be shrouded
Do not worry
Leave my corpse in the jungle
So comforting is this thought
The beasts of the jungle will come for me
Without testing my thoughts
My bones and my flesh
And my heart like a glittering ruby
They will be happy to devour everything
They will lick their lips
And in their obedient eyes will shine
What you might not say
This corpse belongs to a being
Who said whatever she wanted
Was never repentant lifelong ‘
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently teaching in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel ‘The Weary Generations’. He can be reached at: email@example.com