Nisar Aziz Butt, who passed in the early hours of the 7th of February last week at the age of 93 in Lahore, was a great novelist of her time. She continued her creative journey as though it were a Sufi’s discipline. She belonged to that remarkable generation of women writers in Urdu, born between 1925 and 1940, which includes the novelists Masroor Jahan, Altaf Fatima, Jilani Bano, Perveen Atif and Khalida Husain; and short story writers Afra Bukhari, Wajida Tabassum, along with the aforementioned Bano and Husain.
With her passing, now only two of the last living representatives of that generation remain: Bukhari from Pakistan and Bano from India (four of whom, namely Fatima, Atif, Husain and Jahan had already passed away in the last couple of years).
She was praised by serious readers of literature but the critics did not give her novels the importance which she deserved. A very clear argument in this respect is that any critic of a knowledgeable novelist like Nisar Aziz Butt should have had knowledge that equals – if not exceeds – her own. This was something that only a few Urdu critics could claim to have. The second reason was the seclusion of the writer herself. The ways of publicity were beneath her and she remained busy, hiding her art like a prayer in some secret chamber of the self. To write and read was the objective of her life, whether she was sitting in some region of her native Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (then the North West Frontier Province) or en route on the busy highways of Karachi. Her destination always ended up being some library from where she enlightened her mind and heart. So much so that when she travelled to Europe, she admired the stairs of the libraries more than the shining shops there. This was the reason that the canvas of her novels indeed fully cover the world situation. The woman of her novels, instead of being a traditional character, does not emerge now as exploitative and then as a rebel, but views her character in society as an individual. We speak here not of a mere individual but a complete individual – one who does not need any favour as the ‘fairer sex’ or to follow every good or bad thing with her head bowed in obedience. In fact she is in charge of her own decisions viewed from the eye of her consciousness, needing no support.
The heroine of her novels does not pass the journey of life chasing after dreams, but she herself judges and questions life on a rational basis; even though to question is considered resistance against the established traditions of our society. But the women of Nisar Aziz Butt’s novels insist on viewing life in proximity, and understanding the outer and inner images of relationships. The most important quality of the main character of these novels, meaning the women, is the idea of such a heroine who does not allow her identity to be lost by being attached to someone’s secondariness.
Her first novel Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir (The Wayfarer Went from Town to Town) was published in 1956. In this novel the affliction of life and the journey from the exterior to the interior, and from the interior to the exterior, continues. The main character of the story Afgaar remains steadfast with great courage on fronts like illness, loneliness and death, but in places the darkness of despair around her becomes yet darker. In this very twilight, she cannot really distinguish even the relations she is attached to. In this struggle, the atmosphere of the novel together with the cold of the sanatorium begins to weigh down.
Butt’s second novel Ne Chiraghe Ne Gule (Neither A Lamp Nor A Rose) appeared at the beginning of the decade of the 1980s; in this novel an attempt has been made to view the rural society of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on a wide canvas. History from 1922 to 1947 has been covered here. This duration of 25 years is a period of political and cultural make-and-break. It is undoubtedly a great achievement of Nisar Aziz Butt to make the historic and political journey of that time along with its perspectives a part of the events in the novel.
In Karvaan-e-Vujud (The Caravan of Existence), a question has been raised on the permanence of existence. The effects of existentialism are to be found in this novel in a fully completed form. One reason for this is Nisar Aziz Butt’s direct study of French literature, and the second is the journey of the quest for self and the affliction of life of her characters, which is the bearer of existential thought. This novel can unhesitatingly be easily counted among the best novels of the world.
Butt’s novel Darya Ke Sang (Along the River), too, appeared as a cultural metaphor; in which the river along with life and its flow appears as a symbol for the continuity and changes of time. The reader begins to imagine themselves as a character of the novel at many places.
Along with with her novels, an important reference is Nisar Aziz Butt’s autobiography Gaye Dino Ka Suragh (In Search of Days Past). It is a difficult stage to fashion time passed upon oneself into words; then the stage of expressing the truth within it becomes even more difficult and needing patience when a woman is writing her autobiography. But Nisar Aziz Butt – whom Mumtaz Mufti gives the title of ‘female soldier’ – is undoubtedly a courageous woman who displayed steadfastness in every test of life with full dignity and grace. Her autobiography presents a full scene of historical, political, cultural and literary journey spread over two centuries. That society divided into two currents in colonial India – of being impressed with Englishness on one hand and opposition to British imperialism on the other – is fully reflected in this autobiography. Events move forward with their periodic continuity but the signs of time appear to be clearly marked on the lives of the characters; in which the clearest is that of the 1947 Partition, which changed geographical boundaries along with cultural values. The newborn nation was comprehending its existence when martial laws hurt its social and economic circumstances. In this situation, events like the 1965 war with India and the fall of Dhaka also changed the political scene of the country a great deal. The writer has recorded these events at many places in the plots of her novels both consciously and unconsciously. After studying the autobiography, one wonders whether Nisar Aziz Butt’s novels are indeed not themselves autobiographical.
Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org