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"I BELIEVE IN HUMANISTIC PHILOSOPHY"
Interview with Kishwar Naheed
Translated from Urdu by Rubina Faisal 

 

SOHAIL:  I want to start our interview from your childhood. Would you please share a little bit about your family background?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL:  Tell me about your mother. What kind of a woman she was?

KISHWAR:  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 against it.

Sohail: What kind of relationship you had with your father? What kind of things you remember about him?

KISHWAR: 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 atmosphere.

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.”

SOHAIL: What kind of environment did you experience in school?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL:  Was your family religious?

KISHWAR:  Yes, very much. Except me, they are still very religious.

Sohail: What kind of traditions your family had?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL:  Were there any restrictions imposed on you in your school?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: What are your memories about migration from India to Pakistan?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL:   Did you know any relatives or friends in Pakistan when you came here?

KISHWAR:   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.

SOHAIL: What happened to your education during that period?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL:  What were your dreams at that time?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL: which College did you study in?

KISHWAR:  I started in Lahore College and finished my masters in the Government College.

SOHAIL:  Did your teachers encourage you in your literary and artistic pursuits?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL:   How old were you when your first collection of poems was published?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL:  How did your family react to your poetry?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL: What kind of job did you start after completing your education?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL:  Tell me something about Yousaf?

KISHWAR:  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 became normal.

Sohail: How many years did you spend with Yousaf?

KISHWAR: Twenty-four years.

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.

SOHAIL: Were you pressured to follow the traditions?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: Tell something about your children?

KISHWAR:  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.

SOHAIL:  How did becoming a wife and a mother affect your creative life?

KISHWAR: 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 died.

SOHAIL: What year was that?

KISHWAR: In 1984.

SOHAIL: How did your husband's death affect your life?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: Now tell me something about your writing style. You mentioned earlier that you write in the evenings. Do you write regularly?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL:   How do you feel after your finish your creation?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL:  After you complete your creation, do you enjoy sharing it with others?

KISHWAR:  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 friends.

SOHAIL: After creating so many poems, what inspired you to create prose?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: How did you get involved in women’s struggles?

KISHWAR: 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 struggle.

SOHAIL: You have been traveling all over the world and attending international conferences. How did those experiences affect you?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: Many women respect you, borrow courage from you and are inspired by you. How do you react to such women?

KISHWAR: Some people buy property; some increase their bank balances. I feel proud of those women who have joined me in that struggle.

SOHAIL: I know you are active in many social movements, have you ever participated in any religious or literary movement?

KISHWAR: 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 oppressed group.

SOHAIL: A lot of people know that you are quite compassionate towards writers. What are your views about writers’ struggle in Pakistan?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: 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?

KISHWAR: 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.

SOHAIL: What has been your main objective since you started working with the Board?

KISHWAR: 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 basic sciences.

I also focused on books written in Urdu for graduate and post-graduate levels. I believe that people should get education in their mother tongue.

I 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.

SOHAIL: What is your future plans?

Kishwar: 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.

SOHAIL: 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?

KISHWAR:  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.

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