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Translated by Abrar Hasan - Friday, December 27, 2002


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 self -confidence.  

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. 

KS: 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.   

KS: 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 life.  

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 era. 

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 one day.  

KS: 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.     

KS: 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. 

KS: 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. 

KS: 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 poetry.  

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. 

KS: 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.  

KS: 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.   

KS: 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. 

KS: 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.  

KS: 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 value. 

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. 

Some non-governmental 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 abhorrent. 

KS: 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. 

KS: 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.     

KS: 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 ….. 

KS: Thank you for giving me your valuable time. 

FR:  I should thank you for raising such interesting questions.

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