Translator’s note: June 18 last month marked the 80th birthday of arguably Pakistan’s greatest poet alive, Kishwar Naheed, who has done for Urdu poetry what had been done earlier in Urdu prose by Ismat Chughtai. To many, she is no less than the Simone de Beauvoir of South Asia. To mark this occasion, I am offering my original translation of Ahmad Bashir’s sketch of Kishwar Naheed, which forms part of his book of sketches titled Jo Mile The Raaste Men (My Fellow Travelers), published in 1996 and which earned a fatwa for the killing of the author from a few ulema of Lahore. As the reader will no doubt discover, this particular sketch became notorious owing both to its author and its subject. It achieved a greater shelf-life after the late Intizar Husain wrote a column about it as it was read by Bashir at a literary evening, which made it a much sought-after item overnight from Lahore to London. With this translation, it is hoped that the life and legacy of the foremost Urdu feminist poet of her generation will be a subject of renewed interest and attention among the younger generations in South Asia. At the time of writing, Kishwar Naheed was regrettably diagnosed positive with the Coronavirus and is now in quarantine. May she live long and keep writing.
Janki Bai Ilahabadi was an eminent woman singer in the beginning of the last century, who was attacked with knives in jealousy by some lover and she got some 56 wounds which mutilated her face. Then she began to sing with her face veiled and at the end of the recorded songs, when she mentioned her name, she said Chhappan Chhuri Janki Bai.
When she used to study in college, the milk in her breasts began to agitate, upon suddenly seeing an adolescent child. She picked it up unthinkingly in her lap, then putting her in the swing began to make it stroll in the shade of the peepal trees on the Mall. In the nights she would spin half-baked ghazals for it and come into the bazaar after preparing a hank of thread early morning. For a long time nobody paid attention to her cut fingers. But then the drops of blood began to fly across to her brother’s dhobi-washed clothes, congealing and stinking in the process. The pedestrians congregated at this spectacle, so the brother said girl look, I know that you are the proverbial spindle, words emerge as a knife-edge on the whetstone of your tongue; but this is the question of family honour. So you go to his home by 4 pm today or sit in your home like noble women. And hearing her noble brother, she covered her face with the dupatta for the first and last time, she burst with laughter at his displeasure and rose to descend the stairs.
Hearing her, the child took its thumb out of its mouth, looked at her with amazement and said, “So soon?” But how can it happen? He put the thumb in the mouth and began to make sucking sounds chus chus. Then she laughed. She took the child firmly by its ear and taking the walking-stick of maulvi sahib, arrived at his home at 4 pm sharp.
Next morning her body was exhausted with weariness, her every joint was loosening but her grip over the child’s ear was still firm as before. She closed her eyes with happiness at this thought. The child surveyed her being with one-eye and leaving his ear in her pinch went out into the street to play gulli danda. Since that day, Zulaikha is looking for him, she has even forgotten the features of her Yusuf but carrying his relinquished ear, she peeps around all the wells of Canaan, she stops whenever she see someone with cut ears, but returns home with the onset of evening, disappointed and then begins to spin ghazals and poems.
Kishwar Naheed said to me “You should write the preface to my second book.” Now I had not read her first book and did not know her either; then my ears too were uncut. I said, “You ought to mention this to some poet or writer who knows you and your art and your village is chockfull of such folk. From Lahore to the dust of Bukhara and Samarqand.”
She gushed forth a fountain of laughter, then said, “Yes my village is chockfull of such types but none of them has journeyed to Tilla Jogiyaan. Their ears were cleaved inside the home, their goblets are empty, you don’t know me na; not even my art. Your ears too are uncut. That is why I asked you in that whatever you write, nobody will know anything from it and this is indeed what I want. You will have to gossip, the ceremony will become a bit interesting from this. I will also tell the names of those people with whom my scandals will be acceptable and some events too, which people will like.”
“But I don’t want to craft a scandal”, I said. “People’s wives will start obtaining divorces.”
“Arre no,” she said, advising, “Neither anyone obtains divorce nor grants it. This is my personal experience. Lives although become interesting with it, boredom is removed in fact scandal is indeed beneficial.”
“No bhai I do not craft a scandal against anyone.”
“So have it crafted with me.”
“There should be something indeed, or just willy-nilly with me?”
“Something is not important, I will just come into your office to stroke your knee, you prepare the photographer promptly,” and saying this she began to burst out in laughter most ill-manneredly.
Kishwar Naheed had appeared to me to be an extremely ill-mannered woman. And actually she is ill-mannered; it is not because she does not know good manners. She basically belongs to the self-reproaching Sufis; she wants that she acts in such ways in packed gatherings, which will be reproached by people. She does not agree to anybody, she challenges everyone, she tries that after she departs all the women and men slander her to their heart’s content; feel jealous of her, remember her with hatred but cannot forget her. The hatred which she creates for herself in the hearts of women ignites her feminine pride, but she leaps out of their circle and says “look I am not one of you!” She says to the men, “I am a challenge, I do not accept your strong bodies, I am not impressed by your understanding and sense; you are merely ear-cut children, you begin to weep and write stories after being hit with a slap, indeed you are nobodies”. And men run away rubbing their cheek or begin to do a dhamaal around her.
In the same manner Kishwar Naheed standing on a bridge between women and men makes both of them dance; she is not prepared to go into the circle of anyone.
Whoever she wants to befriend, she provokes them by various means and makes a hundred efforts so that they get irritated by her, hate her and abuse her; if she does not succeed at it, then she becomes restless. Then she digs into the matter with her questions in that who said what after me? She cannot bear that any gathering wind up without reproaching her. She faults the famous, imitates the elders, incites the juniors to audacity by soothing them. She denies the accepted moral values and she acts in such ways in just a single sitting, which create malice against her, kettle-drums of reproach beat. Her soul is thirsty, the desert within her cannot be satiated even with the greatest deluge of abuses, infact it expands further, her soul expands with it and gathers strength and her thirst increases further.
When I saw her for the first time, she was bouncing up and about. I thought she is a very ill-mannered and tattered woman, one should keep a distance from her, who knows what she might say. I drank the cup of tea and returned with my hands in my pockets. I did not say a single word that day but she could see the traces of amazement on my face, she knew that I am returning not considering her a ‘good girl’.
I kept thinking of her on the way. I did not like anything about her, any of her manners. I thought she is indeed not a woman, but androgynous, afflicted by the trouble of an inferiority complex, she forcibly tries to make herself accepted and there are many people like her. When I reached home, there was a taste like black grapes in my mouth. While ascending the stairs, I spat very forcefully to clear my throat, but a bitter, pungent, sour, sweet and dry skin of black grapes was stuck to my palate.
A few days later an idea came to me that I had very important task in that government department where Kishwar Naheed is working; it seemed that if I did not do that task, I will perhaps die. I quickly changed into my clothes and reached the office early morning. I had very good relations with its Head but reaching there, I totally forgot what that important work was for which I had come and I could also feel no special distress upon that. At this moment, a burqa-clad woman hiding a fried chicken and a large platter of egg halva within, entered the room bending and blushing and said to my friend, going red like a newlywed bride, “I have brought this for you.”
My friend taking the plate placed it in front of me. I excused myself. At this moment, a brown hand emerged from behind me and took away the chicken breast; then laughter burst like a cracker. I saw that Kishwar Naheed was standing on my head gnawing on a large piece like rustics. She handed me a large lump as if distributing loot. The head of department also began to laugh, the pomegranate face of the burqa-clad woman began to glow, even redder than before.
After she left, Kishwar Naheed told me that this woman is a wealthy widow. She is enamoured of the departmental head’s poetic and careless disposition but her love does not demand anything. Her love became contented with feeding him and making him drink. I took great pity on the poor woman but Kishwar Naheed stabbed this innocent love with the daggers of taunts. I had started to become angry in that why this girl does not tolerate soft and delicate and invisible things. What exactly is she? Is she envious of lovers? Antihuman and stone-hearted? Why is she always sitting poised for a freestyle wrestling competition with everyone?
One day when I heard myself cursing Kishwar abusively I could not believe my ears but she kept provoking me, kept laughing and was screaming like children. After some time, I became totally quiet. A slight wave of embarrassment began to rise; this was not my first experience of abusing girls but I began to think that I have no right to abuse Kishwar, my relations with her are expedient, it is possible that she would take exception but how would I know that she would not be offended. In the meantime she began to dial the telephone. When she took the name of the addressee, I knew that he is our common friend, dignified, serious, decent man, other than occasionally muttering in sleep and reciting good verses, I have not heard any defect within him.
Kishwar said, “See what abuses Ahmad Bashir uses for me.”
I said, “Be quiet, ill-mannered woman.”
“He says you are very so and so.”
I said, “Stop this nonsense Kishwar.”
“He says he will do such and such to your so and so.”
I said, “For God’s sake Kishwar.” She took a deep burst of laughter and said, screaming within the depth of breath, “He says he will f—- your so and so – “
I put a hand over the telephone and became red with embarrassment. She started bursting with laughter upon laughter; such that the room filled with her screams then I began to feel great physical weakness as if life was ebbing away from half my body. She calmly began making tea. I collected my senses, swallowed spit within my dry throat and requested with great humility.
“Look now don’t tell Yusuf, for my sake. I will be unable to raise the eyes before him.”
“I never hide anything from Yusuf, arre who knows before who and who your eyes are unable to rise!” and saying this, she began to laugh again.
Next time when she met me, she told me amidst laughs that I have told everything to Yusuf.
“What did he say?” I asked restlessly.
“He himself too abuses me a lot. Actually this the question of the completion of expression, he is a poet na. His own experience too is the suffering of the anguish of expression. It’s good that you are unaware of this anguish. You live a casual life and whatever you think you say it.”
I was angry at her backbiting and philosophizing. And then I read all those portions of Waris Shah before her which are cut to be taken out of good editions and returned home in a languid state. But after a few days I came to know that apart from the completion of expression she also has an ear disease; when her ears are stained with dirt then she telephones me, so I have to sweep her ears with my tongue.
I have reflected a lot but I could not understand: why does she listen to (all these) abuses? And then why does she repeat these abuses in front of informal friends? One reason for this is that her height is relatively short, her features are also ordinary and she feels it extremely but within this apparent weakness she is a wholesome and overflowing woman. It was her right that she would have been a complete statue of femininity in every manner. She gets angry over the stone-heartedness of nature. That is why she refuses to be a woman and by repeatedly challenging her male friends, she wants to be equal to them.
She hears and hurls abuses and acts in every way by which her feeling of being a woman is removed but she is unsuccessful at it. Then she contents herself with mere reproach in that even if people wish to ignore her by deeming her an ordinary woman, they will keep acknowledging her existence by reproach; saying “this is an ill-mannered woman, a strange woman, a fine woman, bhai wah” and from here her beauty starts to bloom. Had she been beautiful, then together with this feeling she would have been a very cheap woman.
Those were the days when I did not know that Kishwar is Yusuf’s wife. You will be surprised that there is some such person in the city but by God this is true and I testify that I am the only person in Lahore who knows the character of Yusuf as Yusuf. A friend from Karachi was visiting Lahore and both of us were going in Yusuf’s car to Yusuf’s house. On the same road, in a tonga which was going ahead of us we saw Kishwar. I caught her attention with a gesture and threw a burning cigarette on her but in the meantime the car overtook. I said to Yusuf, becoming obstinate, “She didn’t see.”
Yusuf said with indifference, “She has seen, she’s a real slut, you don’t know her.” After some time when I was sitting in Yusuf’s drawing-room talking of the weather, Kishwar entered from the kitchen with a tray carrying tea. I hesitated but immediately understood that Yusuf spoke the truth and I am an extremely stupid person but I carried on talking about the weather. I absolutely did not give the impression that I am surprised at anything. She kept listening to my talk with boredom and eating mithai for some time. Then she screamed to say, “Now stop this nonsense, talk of something useful.”
I said, “Why should I talk of something useful, why don’t you?” She said, “For me indeed a verse is something useful which is far off from you; there is film which you have abandoned to run away but I just remembered in your own film the special angle was the sexual angle of the aged hero. Well it was fine, I know many old men but they do not have any angle indeed, where did you dig up such an old man from?”
“So I did.” I said.
“From where? From within yourself na? You’re not that old man yourself?”
I made a very serious attempt to explain the character of that old man to her with reference to Freud and the experience of life. I feared lest I say something on this delicate topic which should not be said before Yusuf but she began to drag the matter and view the issue like a child by continually overturning it and the symptoms of this complex topic began to unravel. I was worried, in order to silence her I said, “Have you read the Kama Sutra?”
She said, “If you sit till dinner then I will narrate those pieces from it which appeared to me to be new even after 2,000 years. That is the real greatness of Pandit ji.”
Kishwar Naheed knows that people are bothered by sexual topics although much more important than these, political and social issues harass. She also takes advantage of this spoiled proportion of human consciousness and when all tactics to create curiosity in her own self fail or when she is tired and wants to gain a quick result, then she starts talking of sexualities; she is rather hasty in creating this impression that she has a taste for playing with snakes. The snakes too shed off their skin as soon as they see her but she is a lute; she has merely this much interest in the snakes in that they should wave and dance around her on a melodious tune. In the playing of the lute is also her buried desire that maybe that runaway child of hers returns, whose cradle she has kept empty.
Kishwar Naheed likes men a lot and especially those who are unique; those who are not unique, she merely takes pity on them. She also takes pity on people who look at her with sick eyes. She coaxes such folks, beckons near her and when they come near, she hits them. She says, “Why do you wander around me like moths around a flame?”
“Yes, indeed I am a moth burning in your flame,” one of her poet lovers responded.
“Really?” she asked mischievously.
“By God, I have been awake since many nights, I had fever too in which I started mumbling. But indeed your name was on my lips, my wife told me in the morning.”
“Tsk-Tsk,” Kishwar asks in amazement, ‘”So as it were, you passed by life in my love?”
“By God there is no rest for a moment, what should I tell you? I am in love with you.”
“So you love me, what do you want, be precise.”
“Nothing, I do not want anything, just want to be near you.”
“You are absolutely stupid, idiot you do not know how to love, you have never been in love, has your wife gone to her parents?”
“She was threatening to do so, not yet.”
“Nonsense. So far you could not even do so much as make her run away.”
“My heart isn’t attentive to anything. What to do. Do you ever think about me too?”
“Yes yes why not but you could not impress me with your knowledge and consciousness, your face and personality. Therefore you want to impress me by an ugly manner and you call it love.”
“You are weak and cowardly. You cannot even tell me the real object. Indeed your voice is breaking down” and after saying this she hands over a handkerchief which she takes out from her purse, which for a whole hour prior to this too has dried the tears of someone else. Then after offering the poor man water from a drain, she said, “O true lover, now do not come to me neither spin a yarn, I do not tell anyone.”
But she is such a horrible backbiter and goon that the minute the poor man left, she grabbed the telephone and made trunk calls upto Karachi to narrate all details along with feelings to people. Hearing one similar tale I said, “Kishwar first you divert people into coming near you, then you provoke them. If someone indeed does catch you what will you do?”
“Arre do I know that who will slip at which point, do I know who not to provoke, say did I ever provoke you?”
“But I consider you a useless woman, I do not have an inclination of any sort towards you!”
“I like this very uniqueness of yours, say do you have the courage to love?”
“Don’t talk nonsense.” I said.
But she never stops the nonsense.
(to be continued)
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He has previously written on, and translated the selected work of Kishwar Naheed. His most recent work is a contribution to the edited volume ‘Salt in Wounds: Poems of Kishwar Naheed’ (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2020). He can be reached at: email@example.com.