I want to start our interview from your
childhood. Would you please share a little bit about your family background?
I belong to a Syed family of UP [Utterpardesh].
I was brought up in the city of Bulandshehr. There were no celebrations when I
was born. Childbirth was a common occurring in our family. I have two elder
brothers, two elder sisters and one younger brother. I was in the middle of two
brothers. That is why in my habits and hobbies, I was just like a tomboy. I used
to be punished for my actions. May be those were the events, which prepared me
mentally for the coming obstacles and hardships in life.
Tell me about your mother. What kind of a woman
She was a revolutionary woman of her time. She was one of those women, who were
educated at home while her brothers went to universities and became judges and
magistrates. She only received basic education and studied Quran without knowing
its meaning as she did not understand Arabic. My mother never discussed her
family matters with us. She was a serious lady. She was not satisfied with the
system around her in which her father said to her “If you educate your daughters
you will never be welcome in our home”. She accepted the challenge and never
went back to her father’s home. And when my father told her that he wouldn’t
assist her financially in educating her daughters, she responded, “Whether you
help me or not, I will make sure they get good education”. She couldn’t afford
to send us to a regular school for some years but she continued our studies at
home. We started our regular school from the 5th class and I passed my
matriculation from the same school at the age of fourteen.
I learnt from the experience of
my mother that when a generation’s revolution ends, it sets the stage for the
next generation’s revolution. So my revolution started after my matriculation
examination. I wanted to get more education but my family and community were
What kind of relationship you had with your father? What kind of things you
remember about him?
I remember going to meet him in the jail with my brother. He was the secretary
of local Muslim League. I also remember that whenever my parents had a dispute
among them they used the children as messengers. Though there was no exchange of
harsh words or apparent fights but their silence reflected the tension in
When I was in first year of college I started creating poetry. People suspected
that I copied someone else’s poetry. Those days I remember a discussion with my
father. He called me and said “ No one in our family has embarrassed us like
this. Stop writing poetry and start leading a responsible life.”
What kind of environment did you experience in
It was an English medium school. Most of our teachers were Christians. In school
I socialized with Christian teachers and Muslim and Hindu students. In that
school, I not only learnt English but also dances. I got introduced to Hindu,
Muslim and Christian traditions and celebrated Christmas, Holey and Deewali. We
also took part in Shiite and Sunni religious traditions like Moharrum. There
were no walls of prejudice and discrimination between different sects and
religious communities, the way we see now.
Was your family religious?
Yes, very much. Except me, they are still very
What kind of traditions your family had?
Ali Garh was the center of culture and civilization. My uncles and brothers
received their education in that atmosphere. My mother, grandmother and my aunts
used to attend the poetry gatherings but travelled in covered carriages [dolleys].
My mother always observed purda (stayed segregated from men). I remember
once when she had to see a doctor and he wanted to check her pulse, she covered
her wrist with dough, so that he could not see the colour of her skin. When she
travelled in the carriage dolley , family used to put a rock, so that the
carriers would not know how much she weighed. And whenever a plane flew over our
home my mother and aunt went inside so that no one could see them without a
veil. These incidences give you an idea what kind of atmosphere I grew up in.
When I was in class eighth or ninth, I received an offer to be a part of a radio
program. When my mother came to know about it, she wept a lot and said to me “
You belong to a noble Syed family. Neighbors must not even hear your voice. If
you went to the radio station then the whole city will hear your voice”. She did
not give me permission and I couldn’t participate in the show.
Were there any restrictions imposed on you in
We used to go to school on a horse carriage, a tonga, which was covered
by a sheet from all sides. When we migrated to Pakistan, the conditions
gradually improved and we were allowed to go to school on a bus.
What are your memories about migration from
India to Pakistan?
I have very painful memories of that period. Although our city Bulandshehr was
never attacked but my father and uncle had to go to jail for their beliefs and
convictions. Many girls from our town who studied in Aligarh University were
abducted. One of them came back. When I saw her, her feet were soaked in blood,
as she had been running for a long time bare footed. When she reached home she
fainted. The whole village gathered around her. I cannot erase the image of her
feet from my mind. One of my cousins who lived in Delhi also disappeared. The
family thought he was murdered. Later on we found him but he had lost his mind.
He never recovered.
Did you know any relatives or friends in
Pakistan when you came here?
Yes my mother’s and father’s relatives were here. We were the last ones to
migrate. By the time we decided to migrate the political situation had become
worse. Gandhi and Jinnah had asked people to stay where they were and not cross
the border. After we came to Pakistan we lived with our relatives for three
years before we found our independent residence.
What happened to your education during that
I studied at home and passed the examinations of munshi fazal and
adeeb fazal. Those days I read a lot. I used to go looking for good books.
What were your dreams at that time?
I wanted to register in a university but my family members were against it. I
wanted to be a lawyer. But my relatives said, “For God’s sake, don’t become a
lawyer”, so I enrolled in economics.
which College did you study in?
I started in Lahore College and finished my masters in the Government College.
Did your teachers encourage you in your
literary and artistic pursuits?
I was disappointed in most of them. They used to give us notes hoping we would
remember them by heart. They didn’t inspire us or quenched our thirst for
knowledge. When my textbooks did not satisfy me, I started books of my own
liking. I learnt a lot from scholars like Ghulam Mustafa Sufi Tabassum and Ehsan
Danish but they did not teach us in our classrooms. When I wrote poems I started
attending literary functions. Those days, people used to have serious
discussions about art and literature unlike today, when, there is more focus on
scandals. In those meetings I paid attention to dialogues about literary
criticism. That was my informal education.
How old were you when your first collection of
poems was published?
I was nineteen when lab-e-goya was published. I had to tolerate many
mental tortures before its publication and faced many objections. No one was in
my favor. Nobody was sympathetic to my cause. I felt scared, as there were no
other women around me who were as daring as I was. I felt attacked by everyone.
People criticized my poems. The only person who supported and encouraged me in
that hostile environment was Abid Ali Abid.
How did your family react to your poetry?
My family never liked me writing poetry and their attitude has not changed over
the years. Rather than being proud, they are ashamed of me. They believe that a
woman from a holy Syed family should not write the things I write.
What kind of job did you start after completing
My employment was intimately connected with my marriage.
Yousaf and I were class-fellows. We used to go to different colleges together
and attend the poetry recitals, the mushairas. People were aware of our
friendship. But then people turned into a scandal and my family found out about
it. My family threatened me that if I did not marry him right away they would
disown me. So I had to decide. I gave Yousaf a choice, to get married or end the
relationship. So we got married and I moved in with him. That was the only way
for me to leave my family. When we got married, Yousaf had only two and a half
rupees in his pocket. The next morning I left home looking for a job. It did not
take me long to find a job. I knew a man from literary gatherings. I approached
him. He liked my poetry. He helped me find a government job. Those days I used
to work, study and look after household responsibilities.
Tell me something about Yousaf?
He was my class fellow. He was very fond of literature. He did his M.Com and
later on found a job.
SOHAIL: How did you moving out affect your relationship with your family?
KISHWAR: For the first two years the relationship was severed, after that they
Sohail: How many years did you spend with Yousaf?
SOHAIL: Tell me about your married life?
KISHWAR: It was neither too good nor too bad. It was a test of my patience. We
could never develop a good understanding of each other. Our communication was
poor. He had hard time dealing with his friends and relatives who were not in
favour of his wife working. He used to say, “ I do not have objection but my
family is not happy”. Such a conflict created tension in our relationship.
Were you pressured to follow the traditions?
I always felt that pressure. But I soon realized that even if I stop working,
they would still be not happy. They would have another objection. So I decided
to follow my heart and not worry about family expectations. In that difficult
journey my poetry was my companion, my confidant. My poetry never betrayed me.
Tell something about your children?
I have two sons. One of them lives in Spain and other one in America. I wanted
to bring them up according to my values but they got caught in the family
conflicts. They came under the influence of my in-laws. They never developed a
keen interest in books and literature. They always focused on materialistic
things and preferred them on ideals. Now that they live in the materialistic
world of the West they say they are appreciating their mother’s values. But I am
not sure whether they are telling me the whole truth.
How did becoming a wife and a mother affect
your creative life?
I never did my creative work during the daytime. During the day I did my job or
looked after children and household duties. In the evenings I write.
When I evaluate myself as a wife and a mother, I realize that I
failed. It was because there was a major conflict between my values and the
values of my social environment. When I look around, I find that spouses lie to
each other. I tried to build my relationships on the foundations of honesty and
sincerity, but I could not do that. My husband never understood me fully and
finally the building of our marriage collapsed.
SOHAIL: Was Yousaf sick before he died?
KISHWAR: He suffered from Ulcerative Colitis. Then he was offered a job in Saudi
Arabia. He was there for a year and a half before he had a heart attack and
SOHAIL: What year was that?
KISHWAR: In 1984.
How did your husband's death affect your life?
There was no change in my life after his death. I am a realistic person. I had
realized the change far before his death. I had started my journey of
independence even in his life. I spent my whole life in looking after my
children but when they grew up they started making fun of my ideology. It was
hard for me to accept that. I was quite tense for two years. My books helped me
through that difficult time in my life.
When people start a new journey they are unaware of the future. Relationships
keep on changing and evolving and we need to be ready for those changes. This is
my philosophy now.
Now tell me something about your writing style.
You mentioned earlier that you write in the evenings. Do you write regularly?
Since I started writing prose, I write regularly. I have not experienced a
writer’s block. I also read regularly. Sometimes I read early in the morning,
sometimes late at night. As far as poetry is concerned, it is unpredictable. I
have written three poems in one day and none in the whole month.
How do you feel after your finish your creation?
In my first book I shared my feelings that when I gave birth to my first child,
it was hard to believe that merely blood drops will create such a beautiful
child. I feel the same about my creations. For me creation is a painful process
like experiencing labor pains. It was never a happy experience for me. I am not
like Zafar Iqbal who can write a ghazal while riding a bus. I can never do that.
I have to be alone in my room to create. For me it is a serious activity.
After you complete your creation, do you enjoy
sharing it with others?
No, I never did that. In the beginning I used to share with my husband but it
used to criticize them a lot, so I stopped sharing them with him. Later on,
like other people, he also used to read my poems after they were published in my
book. I leave my poems in my desk’s drawer. I am not a professional poet. I do
not enjoy reading them again and again. Occasionally, I share them with my close
After creating so many poems, what inspired you
to create prose?
It was in 1980s when I started translating The Second Sex written by
Simone de Bouvoir. In that book there was a discussion about women’s
exploitation that did not exist in Urdu literature. That book affirmed my ideas
about women’s struggles. Before translating that book, I was criticized by many
people in Pakistan. That book reassured me that there were many women in other
parts of the world who thought like me. I did not feel alone then.
How did you get involved in women’s struggles?
I was myself a victim of oppression and cruelty. I was the only female in the
government. My family forced me to get married. I was the only woman in my
family who was forced to look for a job. When I decided to fight for my rights,
I did not get the support but later on I realized that there were other women in
the same boat. I met many struggling women and many came to me looking for
advice. I supported them the best way I could. Gradually I realized that I could
support the women’s movement by writing books and getting involved in their
You have been traveling all over the world and
attending international conferences. How did those experiences affect you?
I developed a lot of self-confidence. By attending international conferences, I
became aware of the common struggles of all women all over the world. You would
be surprised to know, maybe not you, because you are a psychotherapist, that the
husbands and fathers of working class women all over the world have similar
attitudes and prejudices.
Many women respect you, borrow courage from you
and are inspired by you. How do you react to such women?
Some people buy property; some increase their bank balances. I feel proud of
those women who have joined me in that struggle.
I know you are active in many social movements,
have you ever participated in any religious or literary movement?
It is an interesting question. My family is religious minded but I have secular
and socialist ideology. I never liked any religious organizations whether
Jewish, Christian or Muslim. They all act against other religious organizations.
I believe in humanistic philosophy. I never agreed with socialistic slogans. For
me there is not much difference between religious fanatics and communist
fanatics. They are both extremists. I believe in social justice. I don’t even
belong to those groups who believe in art for art’s sake. I always tried to
write for the oppressed and the under-dogs. I am one of them and at this time
two third of the world population is suffering because they belong to the
A lot of people know that you are quite
compassionate towards writers. What are your views about writers’ struggle in
Writers in Pakistan face three kinds of problems:
A, Financial. Most writers in Pakistan are unemployed and cannot earn their
living through their writings. Our government does not accept responsibility for
our writers. The government holds writers responsible for their problems.
B, Censorship. Writers are not allowed to express their opinions openly. Their
books are banned and writers have to fight for their rights.
C, Evolution. The society is not growing, not evolving. That is why books are
not sold. We have to find better ways of publishing and distributing books.
I have made an observation about your lifestyle.
Unlike other writers, who only socialize with other writers, you interact with
singers, musicians, painters and other artists. Were you like this from the very
beginning or you developed that lifestyle later on?
KISHWAR: It was a later development. When I got involved with radio and
television programs, I met a number of artists. One of them was Shakir Ali. He
believed that artists from different backgrounds should work together. He used
to invite them in his house. After 1975, when he died, people started gathering
in my house. When birds fly into a garden, they go to those branches where they
see nests. When writers or artists come to Lahore from other cities or
countries, they call me and I help them meet other writers and artists.
The famous poet Sufi Tabassum
also had a circle of friends. When he died, his friends also started coming to
my house. I believe every city needs a person that people can trust.
SOHAIL: I am aware that you have started working with
Urdu Science Board. I have seen some beautiful books published by the Board. How
did you accept this responsibility?
Basically I am an administrator. If you post me in the irrigation department,
then I will do my best in that department. If you appoint me in the police
department, I will make sure that people do not land up in jails. As far as
publishing books is concerned we need to address people’s needs. After I took
that job, I found out the needs and then published books accordingly. Before I
joined this department people were not aware of the department, and now
everybody in the country knows about it.
What has been your main objective since you
started working with the Board?
I am aware that people in Pakistan do not have a scientific attitude towards
life. We also lack children’s literature. So I tried to publish books about
also focused on books written in Urdu for graduate and post-graduate levels. I
believe that people should get education in their mother tongue.
also tried to get international books published in Urdu. Those are three
objectives I tried to achieve since I came to the Urdu Science Board.
What is your future plans?
I always keep on planning things. These days I am writing my biography and also
about the social and political changes of my era. I think 20th century is the
most important century of the history. Many psychological and social changes
have occurred in this century. We are the products of Second World War. I want
to write what India and Pakistan went through after the Second World War.
As far as women’s struggle is concerned, I am
trying to build hostels for women. I also want to establish centers where women
can learn non-traditional crafts. We have already laid the foundation for that
building. The first floor is also erected. I am hoping the building will be
complete by 1995.
I am also working on developing courses for
Women’s Studies in the universities, but before we do that we need to prepare
books for those courses.
Alongside all these activities we also have to
fight against increasing fundamentalism in Pakistan. Socially and politically we
go one step forward and two steps backwards. It is a long journey and we have a
long way to go yet.
I know you have to go to another meeting. Let me
ask you one last question. A lot of people consider you a successful person. In
your own eyes do you consider a successful woman personally and socially?
No, I don’t think so. If the new generation had taken life seriously we would
not be dealing with Martial Law and Black Money in Pakistan. Both these things
have corrupted our national character. Now people like me are in minority who
believe in personal integrity, freedom of expression, social justice and mutual
respect. Now we don’t carry torches in our hands. Pakistani culture has become
shallow and hollow. People surround us with weak personalities. As long as we do
not choose the path of economic and political progress and struggle for a bright
future, I will not consider myself successful.