Khalid Sohail (KS): Fahmida Riaz Sahiba, it seems that, viewed
across societies and historical periods, a writer, poet, or an artist, whoever
raises a voice of protest against injustices has to pay a high price for
dissenting. You too protested against the political, economic and social
injustices of your society. What price did you have to pay?
Fahmida Riaz (FR): You see, one does have to pay a very heavy
price. It is ironic that the very group whose cause the writer is espousing
often disowns a writer. In recent times you can observe this in the case of
black writers. They stood out as a sore thumb in their own community. As a
general phenomenon, the downtrodden community disowns its own protest voices for
a long period of time. If it ever identifies itself with these voices, it is
after, so to speak, the writers have been bled to death.
I see women as one of the victimized groups. The writers
among them stand out as being different from the rest. Women as a group seemed
to be confused by these writers – they do not quite seem to comprehend their
writers; they often regard these writers as aliens or representing a bizarre
phenomenon, far from being their spokesperson.
My first book, Pathar ki
Zabaan (Tongue of Stones), was well received when it appeared.
Perhaps its romantic themes, reminiscent of the university years, which were
more in the traditional vein of Urdu poetry, did not represent a threat. I was
lucky to have received the bouquets from all quarters. It certainly bolstered my
Real troubles began with the
publication of my Badan Darida (Torn Bodies), which expressed
ideas that broke from the past. Even its vocabulary, let alone the newness of
its thought, confused and alarmed the readers. Men and women alike branded me
for lewdness, castigating me for my use of words like pistaan (woman’s
breasts), which were not then commonly used in Urdu literary writings. These
injunctions related little to the newness of my ideas. I could have understood
the condemnation of women from the upper class --because such women have few
worries and little to do. Their most arduous responsibilities are to lord over a
brigade of servants. I was hurt more deeply as the rejection came from all
quarters, including from working class women, the very class whose victimization
I was aiming to expose. Yes, I had to pay a huge price. My depression was
severe; I moved out of the city, taking up factory work in rural areas where I
could move about incognito and unhurt. This is the price, which a woman writer
had to pay in my society.
KS: But were there groups that did come
to your support?
FR: I looked for such groups. In 1973, I returned to Pakistan from
England. The seeds of democracy that were sown through our protests against the
military regime of Ayub Khan in the late Sixties bore fruit with the holding of
elections and the introduction of democracy. Socialism was in ascendancy in the
Third World. Around the same time, Bangladesh was born, in the context of a
protest against Pakistani nationalism, as part of a resurgent movement of
regional nationalities and identities. I was an ardent supporter of these
movements, as part of my involvement with the leftist ideologies. Having lived
in the Sindh I could observe regional inequities from close quarters: it was
evident that those in power were unfairly treating the nationalities of Sindhis
and Balochis and these groups were losing visibility. I was dubbed as being “
pro China”. At the time there were two schools of leftist thought. One focused
on gaining equal rights for the different ethnic or communal groups making up
the provinces of Pakistan. The other stream regarded the emphasis placed on
communities as a distraction from the more important issue of securing rights
for the poor class as a whole.
I viewed both these inequities as equally important to
combat. I searched for political groups that were fighting for the rights of
Balochis and Sindhis. My poems in their support stood out: no other Urdu poet
had touched on these issues. The irony was that I do not myself come from either
of these two communities but from the ethnic group that had settled in Pakistan
after migrating from India, the so-called Urdu-speaking (Mohajir) group. My
poems in support of Sindhi rights aroused the ire of my own ethnic group, which
was viewed as a political rival to the Sindhis. I had to endure alienation and
animosity even from my own family. But I had faith in the correctness of my
ideology. Yes, during this period, I did get support from the Balochi and
Sindhi groups whose cause I had championed.
In the introduction to your book “Dhoop” (Sunshine), you wrote
that in Pakistan our language, Urdu, was rendered linguistically lame through a
conscious and massive effort to cleanse it of the Hindi words. It is impossible
to limit a language to a specific religion. A language precedes a religion, on
the one hand, as it must exist before a religious text can use it and, on the
other hand, a language itself cannot, like an individual, become a convert or a
follower of a religion.
FR: It was evident that this “purification” movement was the product
of the narrow ideological environment we lived in. As it happens, Urdu
is not indigenous to any of the regions of Pakistan. I was opposed to the
movement to paint this language in religious colors by ridding it, so to speak
“purifying” it, of its Hindi heritage. I made a deliberate attempt to employ
Hindi words in Sunshine.
One group of feminist writers of the West think it necessary to take a
distance from religion because, in their view, religions do not offer equal
rights to women. The Catholic Church, for example, cannot elect a woman to serve
as a Pope. In Islam, a woman cannot lead a prayer service that includes men.
This group of writers views religion as a product of the patriarchal system.
What is your view?
FR: Well, I see women, in general, as having a more realistic
worldview than men. They are linked more closely to the more elemental (organic)
aspects of life than are men and they are more attuned to perceiving life more
intimately. It is true, indeed, that it is the patriarchal system, which has
been in existence for millennia that is at the root of many religions. But, so
has the matriarchal system. In the Hindu religion, especially, one can find many
remnants of the matriarchal system – witness the important role the Hindu
pantheon accords to some very powerful goddesses. It is true that the three
Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are products of a
patriarchal system, but not all religions owe their origins to this system.
Nor were all the products of a patriarchal system
necessarily bad. We cannot condemn all its outcomes -- its beautiful
architectures, the high literature it produced, or its lofty music.
Moreover, what is a Man to a Woman other than a father, a
son, and a part and parcel of her soul? Why should I, as a Woman, reject all
that He has produced? It would be a bizarre world indeed if it was populated by
women alone, certainly not one that I would want to inhabit. After all, we are
the products not of our mothers alone, but also of our fathers. Don’t we give
birth to daughters as well to sons? So, I do not reject religion simply because
it comes from a patriarchal system. I, too, am a product of a man. I see his
imprints in my face, his mind shaping mine, his habits surfacing in my daily
It is true that there are many inequitable and stifling
aspects of the patriarchal systems. It is these we need to fight against. This
struggle is continuing in the West. We in the East are fighting this battle too
because we share the same historical time with the West, but we are doing so at
different levels. We are not fighting this battle at the same as the West
because our particular economics and modes of production belong to an earlier
There are hopeful signs, though, of a change in the
patriarchal system – recently a girl in a Toronto mosque mustered up courage to
openly challenge that women should be relegated to praying in the back rows. I
see women making their way through the front rows and ultimately to the pulpit
Your attitude to men is one of a sympathetic understanding rather than
one founded on hatred or bitterness. Does this come from the role models you had
in your life that encouraged co-operation rather than confrontation or from an
attitude that you came to cultivate through your own insight?
FR: Well, you know, Khalid that being a woman in my society limits
contacts with men, especially for the women from the middle-class background. I
had rather limited opportunities to observe male role models and I can say that
few had much of an impact on me. You know that girls, too, have almost no
opportunity to meet boys. These opportunities are missing even outside the home,
even in the setting of girls’ school hostels (where boys are not permitted to
visit). I am not speaking just of the opportunities of physical contact but of
the much wider social interaction.
There were many excellent
writers, though, who had much impact on my life coupled, of course, with my own
innate orientations and thinking. I am afraid that what I am now going to say
may not please many women. You see, there are so many accents on motherhood. If
this instinct is of such fundamental value it follows that women would want to
create the most productive, supportive and nourishing environment for their
offspring. For else, why would one want to produce a child in the first place
without ensuring its successful growth and development? I regard a
non-confrontational, problem-solving attitude as important equipment for a
child’s development. I had my first child when I was 22. As a mother, I do not
see how a winner/loser mentality based on confrontation can be a productive
approach. I admire one of Buddha’s marvelous sayings: “in a conclusive victory
the two sides should win equally”.
Success or victory for one of
the parties in a conflict is unlikely to be sustainable as it merely serves as a
recipe for engendering further conflicts.
You have recently published From the Open Window, a book of
translations of the Iranian poetess Farogh Farrukhzad’s poems. How did you get
to know her; what inspired you to undertake the translation?
FR: In the collection you mention, I have included a poem at
the very end that pays homage to her. I discovered her through her poetry, from
a volume I received as a gift from one of my close friends, Zeeshan Sahil. I
already had some of her work with me previously but I just could not put down
this particular volume. It had a powerful impact on me and my translation just
flowed of its own momentum. I collected her other works – they overpowered me. I
was glad I had not read her before penning my own thoughts for Torn Bodies.
There was so much similarity in our thinking that I would have regarded my own
writing as a mere repetition of thoughts that were already well expressed.
Your rendition of her work is in verse, not simply a prose translation. I
regard translations as creative works in themselves but some writers do not
consider it so. What’s your view?
FR: Well, you see, I think that a sort of a minor miracle
takes place if there is a good meeting of minds between the author and the
translator. I felt something like this when I translated the Sindhi poet, Sheikh
Ayaaz, some 400 of his poems. I got into a trance-like state as I was trying to
express in Urdu what he had said in Sindhi. I think that, by its nature, the
act of translation is like paying homage to another writer. The process of
translation lifts one out of one’s own limits and establishes a mental link with
another being. The sharing of thoughts, its ecstasy, its rendition in one’s own
mother tongue – to me these are genuinely creative acts and experiences.
What was your childhood like, the languages you learnt, the literary
environment you breathed?
FR: My parents had left their birthplace in UP, India, and settled in
the Sindh province, well before the partition of India (1947). My father was a
graduate of from the Aligarh University, one of the lucky Muslims who could
afford such education in those days. There was much unemployment among Muslims
in the 1930’s and my father chose to migrate to the distant city of Hyderabad (Sindh)
to take up high school teaching. Incidentally, I was myself born in Meeruth (UP)
though, as my mother had moved back to her maternal city for the delivery.
My early childhood years were
marked by the death of my father, when I was about five. The principal legacy my
father, being a teacher, had left comprised of books. In reading his books I
used to speculate about the type of man he must have been. My mother came from a
relatively well-to-do family, the daughter of a senior official in the
provincial civil service (Deputy Collector). She was educated by tutors at home,
who taught her Persian, Arabic, Urdu and a bit of English. Among the tutors were
Hindu Pandits – teaching from a veil or purdah. From them she learned
Persian classics, such as Saadi’s Gulistan and Bostan. These helped her to
cultivate a poetic bent of mind and a taste for critical appreciation of
She knew thousands of couplets
by heart – and I was reared on these verses -- many long Mathnavies as
well -- long poetic compositions, which are unfortunately now lost. In the
tradition of the time, they were kept alive by the oral tradition and reflected
deep interest in poetry in UP. It was her habit to wake us up in the morning
with children’s songs, such as the couplet from Ismail Meeruthy: Uttho beti
aankhain kholo – Bistar chorro or munh dho lo!
I, too, acquired the taste of
reciting poetry aloud. My mother corrected me if I made mistakes in meters or
rhyming. So I learnt the basics of poetry from her – something she came to
regret in later years when she saw my writing!
Being fatherless and poor, I
experienced firsthand the many harsh realities of life in early childhood. I
began writing when I was in the 9th or the 10th grade.
This was the time when Faiz Saheb was in prison in the city of Hyderabad, a time
when we were beginning to hear murmurings of a student movement against the
government. Later, when I was studying at the college level, I distinctly
remember the time (after the 1965 war) when several NSF students, including
Meraj Muhammad Khan, were exiled from Karachi for leading a movement against
Ayub Khan and his Ordinance banning student participation in politics. This
myopic policy of deporting students from one city after another was creating an
uproar against the government at the national level and we too, the students in
Hyderabad, participated actively in the agitation.
The Communist Party had been
banned in Pakistan since 1954. As a legacy, much of the socialist literature
during my college days was contraband. It was very difficult to acquire this
literature and one had to keep such material secret if one could find any. Even
reading Faiz’ s poetry had to be under covers. I came across a book called
Notes from the Gallows, written by a Czech communist who was hanged by the
Nazis, and I read it in torchlight under a blanket. Things changed dramatically
and Communist literature became freely available after Bhutto Saheb came to
power and close ties were developed with China.
What was the language of instruction during your school years – was it
Urdu or Sindhi?
FR: Well, in general, Urdu was the main medium of instruction but
Sindhi was a compulsory element of the curriculum up until Grade 8. I recall
with great affection our Sindhi teacher, a lovely man who happened to be a
Hindu, who used to feed ants each morning! But quite suddenly the teaching of
Sindhi to non-Sindhis was discontinued – and our Sindhi teacher lost his job.
What sort of reaction did you encounter in your home and from your school
colleagues when you first began writing poetry?
FR: There was not much of a negative reaction from my mother during
those early days, as she did not take my writing seriously. Her main concern
was my studies -- that I should study science and take up medicine. Outside the
home, too, a female poet aroused curiosity and interest, not derision.
You referred to Notes from the Gallows – how and when did you get
interested in the English literature?
FR: Let me say, first of all, that there was a considerable amount of
progressive thought available to us aside from the English literature. We had,
in Urdu, the writings of people Like Faiz, Minto and Krishan Chander – the whole
legacy of the progressive literature came to us. People of different religions
had written in Urdu and produced classics giving expression to the highest human
values. It was a powerful transmitter of secular thoughts. I tell my Hindu
friends that for a 16 year old Pakistani girl like me Krishan Chander became the
symbol of a Hindu., and Rajendar Singh Bedi became the face of a Sikh. How could
I possibly treat a Krishan Chander or a Bedi as my enemy just because they had a
different religion than mine?
Much of the Urdu literature I
read at this time dealt with the blood-letting of the partition days. In one
masterpiece after another, it unmasked all the ugliness and madness of genocide.
It eulogised the primacy of innate human values and captured the human spirit
that can rise above religious and communal frenzy even under the most trying
conditions. How can you forget Mozeel, who risks her own life to save
that of a Sikh by masquerading him as a Muslim; how can you forget In Cold
Flesh (Thanda Gosht)? They left an indelible mark. This genocidal period did
pass away, as all epochs do, but the sad part is that we have not produced
literature of such high caliber since.
Let me turn to the circumstances that made you leave Pakistan and what
brought you back to the country?
FR: Well, I left the country on two occasions. Each time, as it
turned out, for a period of seven years. For the first time, it was my marriage
that took me to the United Kingdom – my family had got me married when I was 20
or so. Most of the poems included in Torn Bodies are a product of this
time. With the break up of my marriage I returned to Pakistan. There I met and
married a Sindhi gentleman who was working for the Haaree (day-labourer)
peasants, which also signaled my growing political awareness.
The whole political scene went
topsy-turvy with the imprisonment of Bhutto (Zulfikar Ali). While we were
critical of Bhutto’s dictatorial approach we were not quite prepared for the
brutal Martial Law regime of Zia ul Huq that replaced him through a coup. I was
publishing a journal by the name Aawaaz (Voice) at the time. The
Huq regime petitioned for 14 counts of indictment against my journal – one of
them, a 1924 British Penal Code article concerning treason, carried the death
penalty. It was a most difficult period for me. I had two more children by this
time. Time and again I was required to appear at the Court to sit through the
hearing that did not come but was simply postponed for another date. We suffered
through this trial for some 18 months. My book, Will You See the full
Moon? reflects this period. Around 1970, my husband had joined
the people’s Party and was working with Benazir (Bhutto). But then he too was
arrested and this landed me in total chaos. Many political workers were seeking
refuge in exile at the time and I too left the country, for a second time.
It was then that I received an
invitation from India to participate in a Mushaira (public poetry-reading
session). I had been to India a year earlier and had stayed with Amrita Preetam
-- a lovely friend. On this second occasion, I took two of my kids with me. I
was under increasing pressure from Pakistan. I could see nothing but darkness
ahead; there was no one in Pakistan to even offer a bail for me – all my
journalist friends were themselves incarcerated. I thought I could stay in India
for a while and see through Zia’s rule. That look longer and longer, as Zia
continued in power, bolstered by the support of Western nations, especially for
his role in the Afghan affair.
I was in deep difficulties with
nowhere to turn to. My children were growing up. I decided to stay in India for
a while. It gave me an opportunity to see India from the inside. For the first
time I got a taste of Hindu communalism, of which I had had no prior experience
in Pakistan. It gave me some understanding of why Pakistan was created. I am not
saying that what happened was necessarily the right thing. I still think that
the best thing is for people to learn to live together. When I hear about some
people demanding a separate province for the Urdu-speaking population (Mohajirs)
I feel like asking them: “How long will you go on dividing yourselves into ever
smaller groups – after all, can one not live together?” It was an important
period of my life. At the same time, it brought new strictures against me –
living in India, the ‘enemy country’, was one of the biggest crimes I could have
committed in most Pakistani eyes.
Much of your writing that appeared in the journal Aaj, refers to
Karachi’s problems – what do you think of the political situation there?
FR: Khalid, I am basically a democrat at heart. The dictatorship of
Communism does not suit my temperament. The break up of the Soviet Empire did
not cause me anguish. If parts of the Empire were put together forcibly it was
only natural that they would want to become independent. Nothing wrong with
that. I had an opportunity to visit Kazakhstan with a literary delegation during
the Bhutto regime and in fact wrote a story about the visit. For me the
important thing is that the population of the Soviet Union itself rejected the
Communist system. Some of my friends argue that the demise of the Soviet system
was caused by an international conspiracy. I do not quite think so – a change
of such a magnitude cannot just be the result of a conspiracy. A conspiracy can
make a marginal difference, it can serve as a facilitator for a change for which
the conditions are ripe but, in my judgement, it cannot cause a major change.
It is true that I stood for a
classless society but I had to re-examine my views after the Soviet debacle. We
were unaware of the defects of the system that from a distance appeared to us to
be faultless. I was forced to ponder over my socialist views that had served as
a basis for the political struggle we were waging in Pakistan. We were left
stranded without a credible ideology. At the same time, political authorities in
Pakistan were attempting to eliminate political parties from the scene. Perhaps
a consequence of the vacuum, the political movements in support of
regional/ethnic rights in Pakistan at the time took on the ugly form of fascism
– they forgot about human rights and got ensnared in group intolerance. Making
money, not through legal means but by corruption, became the overriding dominant
The whole situation was very
ugly – intolerance divided people into ever narrowing circles. Writers with a
conscience could not possibly identify fully with any of the groups and yet each
group demanded their total allegiance. Let me give you the example of the two
major political groups in the Sindh, MQM and the People’s Party, one was touting
the cause of the Sindhis, the other of the Urdu-speaking group. But I asked:
When you fight for the rights for the Sindhis must you deport the Urdu-speaking
population or put them into camps? When the Mohajirs were losing thousands of
their young men to prison or to nightly assassinations I wondered if they did
not remember that the Sindhis too were the victims of similar atrocities at
another time? These smaller groups had forgotten that they faced a common enemy
that was denying political and human rights to all. They had forgotten the goal
of democracy, even the word “ election”. The Afghan War had further hardened
these divisions into smaller groups. For people with a conscience it became
impossible to join any of these groups.
organizations, the NGOs, did spring up but their work was conducted in English
and they tended to alienate the bulk of the population. Only the rich classes
could participate in such organizations, as you can see, for example, in various
human rights groups -- that have representations only from the inhabitants of
the prestigious Defense and Clifton suburbs. I myself come from the middle class
but in pursuit of my classless ideology I made serious attempts at “declassing”
myself by joining the working class. Only later did I realize that this attempt
was doomed to failure – a class is represented not solely by the symbols of
income and other material comforts. It is also represented by the mindset one
has developed, one’s ideas, the books one has read – and their imprint is not
easy to erase. I have revised my view of the role of the middle class: I used to
consider it as the craftiest of the groups, the opportunist par excellence. Now
I feel that the middle class has a particular and important role of spearheading
adoption of new ideas ahead of other groups. In our society, unfortunately, the
champions of new ideas come from the rich class. I am afraid I could not
contemplate associating myself with this class; I find its lifestyle quite
What was the nature of your association with the Waada organisation?
FR: As a woman, and a writer, I am painfully aware of the problems
women face in Pakistan. I wanted to set up an organisation dedicated to women’s
issues. The first draft for this organization was prepared during the period of
Benazir Bhutto’s government. But then she left Pakistan and it was difficult to
get the establishment registered. This was because I was maligned with many
criminal labels. In some editorials I was called a terrorist. One of the
allegations made by the Nawaz Sharif government against Benazir was that she had
a person like me in her employ!
Nonetheless, I managed somehow
to secure Waada’s registration. Its work started in earnest when I lost
my job for a second time. We published a volume on women’s legal rights, which
was widely appreciated. But then the Shariaat Bill came up, the
Constitution itself became ineffective and all our good work was laid to waste.
You are among the few Pakistani writers who have had the opportunity to
travel and live in Europe and North America. What was your overall impression
from this experience?
FR: When I was in Europe I cam across Eric Fromm’s Escape from
Freedom. I took its basic principles as a model for my book Adhura
Aadmi (The Incomplete Man). Let me mention one impression from my
Canadian visit. In my exchanges with some of the Pakistani-Canadians I was
struck by their penchant to castigate the “White” West for its racist past again
the black people and the Asians. I reminded them that racism was too simple an
explanation and that White people did not have its monopoly. For one thing, the
Western nations were equally ruthless with each other, and the Jews could hardly
be regarded as blacks. On the other hand, the Asian nations have been just as
harsh on other nations within Asia.
I look at a human being as
human being – neither black nor white, neither Hindu nor Muslim. An individual
can have multiple identities. I am a Muslim, a brown-colored person and I have a
particular mother tongue. One simple label, such as White, cannot summarize the
many facets of language, culture, history and religion that a person can have.
A simple term like “Asian” covers a multitude: the Hindus and the Muslims, the
Bengalis as well as the Punjabis. I met a Saudi woman who identified herself as
a Hijazi. Well, I have reached the conclusion that there is a unity in the
diversity of humanity and there is diversity in its unity.
Now, a final question: I sometimes feel that the decades of the 30s, 40s,
and the 50s have thrown up giant-sized personalities. One can cite, in politics,
personalities like Gandhi, Churchill or De Gaulle. In literature you had people
like Faiz or Sartre. In contrast, the Seventies and the Eighties seem only to
have produced mediocrity?
FR: Well, Khalid may be we are too close to the personalities of our
time – they may in due course be recognized as giants by the next generation. I
think, too, that we are living in a transitional epoch of structural breakdowns
and reconstruction. There are live currents underneath what we can begin to see.
You will observe the inkling of a new morning if you talk to the young, and you
will not be disappointed. Our generation might appear to have lost its way, and
it may appear directionless. But it seems to have spawned search for a new
direction. There is much greater awareness of environmental dangers among the
youth today that was not there in my generation – my daughter keeps reminding me
of the environmental damage my smoking can cause! We are truly in a transition
period. I am going through a life phase when people hand over their legacy to
the next generation – what we received was better than what we are leaving to
the next generation. It remains to be seen what the next generation does with
our legacy …..
Thank you for giving me your valuable time.
FR: I should thank you for raising such interesting questions.