By Dr Khalid Sohail
Sohail: Can you share something about your
parents? What kind of people were they?
Shakila: My parents were wonderful people. My
dad was really nice. I was very fond of him. He was a
well-read man and was a well-respected lawyer of his
community. He had a good taste in literature and remembered
many couplets of Urdu and Persian poetry by heart. My mother
was a loving but traditional woman. She was caring but a bit
naive. She was not very educated and was
simple like most of the women of her time. She treated all her
children alike without realising that every child has a unique
personality and needs to be handled in a unique way. In some
ways she was quite strict. When I was hardly nine she started
asking me to hold my dopatta, my scarf, in a certain way. She
did not realise that putting too many restrictions on a young
mind hinders its natural growth. She meant well, but she was
not aware of the sensitivities of young minds and hearts. I
was more affected by those restrictions as a teenager because
I did not have any earlier. As a child I was free to interact
with my cousins; most of them were boys.
After the partitioning of India, I came to
Pakistan with my mom and started living in Karachi. That is
where I started my schooling. My dad had to stay behind
because of family and political reasons, so my older brother
took over the family responsibilities for a while. My brother
was a loving, but strict person.
Sohail: How were you affected by family
Shakila: Those restrictions made me doubt
myself and they undermined my self- confidence. I had many
questions in my mind, but there was no one around to discuss
them with. In those formative years small things make a big
difference. From my early childhood I used to love to read. I
would get children's books from the library and read them
regularly. I also enjoyed reading children's section in
newspapers. In the jang newspaper there used to be a
children's page. The same newspaper also had a children's
magazine called Bhai jaan [elder brother]; Shafi Aqeel used to
edit the magazine, but everybody called him bhai jaan. Those
were the years I started writing stories myself by my maiden
name Shakila Rahim.
Sohail: How old were you when you started
writing stories? And when did you finish your high school
Shakila: I was nearly eleven years old when I
started writing short stories. As far as my early (prior to my
marriage) education is concerned, I had to stop when I was
only sixteen. And I had only attended a few months in Sir Syed
College when my marriage was arranged. That arrangement killed
all my hopes and ambitions and dreams; dreams to be a writer,
a girl guide, an actor, a singer and many more, but I had to
give all of them up when my marriage was arranged.
Sohail: Did they not discuss with you before
arranging your wedding?
Shakila: No, there was no discussion. My
future was decided without any consultation with me. One day a
woman came to visit us. After a few days my sister told me
that I was getting married to that woman's brother. I did not
ask her anything about the groom. They had already decided
about my future. Luckily, my husband Rafiq turned out to be a
thorough gentleman. When he found out that I had a keen
interest in reading and writing, he encouraged me. Soon after
that my first short story was published and then many
Sohail: How old were you when your husband
Shakila: I was twenty-eight. After my
husband's death both sides of the family offered financial
support, but I turned it down. I did not want my children to
be financially dependent on family's support. I was afraid it
would affect them emotionally. In the beginning it was hard to
get a job because my education was limited. I had only passed
my matriculation. Meanwhile, I received an offer from Pakeeza
magazine. Since they were willing to pay, I accepted their
offer to contribute my short stories. After that I accepted
all the offers of magazines that were willing to pay.
Those days the issue of survival was so
important that I did not think of making a name in literary
circles. I was lucky to write for popular magazines. Those
magazines had a formula like Harlequin romances and it was not
difficult to write many stories in the same style. Later on,
many literary critics acknowledged that even those stories had
a literary quality. Those days I was known as a successful
writer of popular magazines. They needed me and I needed them.
We complemented each other.
Sohail: How did you manage to enhance your
education along with what you were doing?
Shakila: Alongside writing stories, I also
started studying for my exam. And when my older daughter
appeared in grade twelve examination, I appeared in those exam
too. After passing my intermediate exam, I started studying
for my bachelor's exam and after passing that I appeared in
for my master's exam. I was pleased to get masters in Urdu
Talking about those times is making me upset
as I am remembering all the sad things. It was very painful
because nobody had told my mother about Rafiq's death. It was
kept a secret.
She was sick and the whole family thought
that the shock would kill her. She was told that Rafiq had
gone to Saudi Arabia to earn a living. Since we were
financially struggling at that time, she believed it.
Every evening I used to feed my old mother
with my own hands. One evening while I was finishing my story
for Pakeeza - that day was the deadline for it - my mother
requested me to feed her. I asked her to wait for a few
minutes so that I could finish the last dialogue of the story.
Those days she had become irritable and used to lose her cool
easily. In anger she said, "I would like to be fed right away.
I cannot wait." And then she lost control, "What are you doing
here. You should go to Saudi Arabia and live with your
husband. I am afraid he has married another woman. That is why
he does not come to visit. Neither does he send you any new
clothes and jewellery. Even on Eid you were wearing white
clothes and had no jewellery on. That is not right."
I lost control and started weeping bitterly.
I had controlled my tears for two long years. I could not
control them any longer. My brother heard my cries and came
running downstairs. He hugged me and when he heard what mother
had said, he told my mother that Rafiq had passed away two
For a while my mother became speechless, then
we embraced and both cried.
Sohail: What is it like to be a single mother
Shakila: With two sons and two daughters, it
was pretty difficult. At the same time, not only was I young
but my daughters became teenagers too. You, being a
psychiatrist, can imagine what kind of psychological and
social problems a young widow faces in Pakistan. Men do not
respect single women especially when they become widows. I had
to be very discrete and protect myself.
Sohail: How old were you when you got married
and after the death of your husband were you not pressurised
When I got married I was sixteen and Rafiq
was thirty-two. He was a loving husband, so the age difference
did not bother me.
As far as the second marriage is concerned,
yes, I was under pressure and had many proposals but I turned
them all down because I did not want my children to deal with
Sohail: How did he die?
Shakila: He died of a heart attack. He had a
family history of heart problems, but before his heart attack
he had never complained of any symptoms. Rafiq's death has
been a mystery for me till this day. Recovering from the shock
of his death was a great struggle and I had to make a lot of
Sohail: In the beginning you did not remarry
because you did not want to expose your children to a step-dad
but why didn't you marry after they grew up?
Shakila: I did not meet anyone I thought
would be compatible with me. My children, especially the
eldest daughter wanted me to remarry but....
Sohail: What do you think of the progressive
and modernistic movements in Urdu literature?
Shakila: It is a general impression that to
be a progressive writer you have to denounce all aspects of
your religion and embrace socialism. But I do not believe that
to be progressive one has to be an atheist. The progressive
period in Urdu offered literature a new taste and colour and a
new style to create. Short story writers did some novel
experiments. Some writers were more successful than others. I
believe in new experiments as they open up new avenues, but I
am not impressed by all kinds of experiments. I never liked
those abstract stories of modernistic literature that have a
communication problem as I believe in communication and I do
not consider those stories successful in which communication
between reader and writer breaks down.
Sohail: When did you immigrate to Canada, and
what are your views about the Western lifestyle?
Shakila: I went to Canada in 1986 for the
first time and then I visited it a number of times until I
finally immigrated in 1998.
About western life style, I have mixed
feelings. Some aspects I like, others I don't. I like that
people in the West do not lie and cheat and take bribes in
their day-to-day lives. In the West people get the reward for
their labour. That is why they have a more just and peaceful
lifestyle. The aspect that I don't like is their immodesty.
But that is part of their culture. My like or dislike does not
Sohail: What are your views about those
Eastern people who are living in the West?
Shakila: They are facing a lot of problems.
Those people want their children to be introduced to the
Eastern values and life-style, which is very difficult but not
impossible. I have met a few families who have been successful
in this regard. Children who grow up in the West get in
conflict between Eastern and Western values and lifestyles.
Many of those children only speak English and do not speak
their mother tongue. And I feel that when children do not
learn their mother tongue they are deprived of their
tradition, religion and culture.
Sohail: Comparing the tradition of courtship
in the West the Eastern tradition of arranged marriage in
which the bride and the groom do not even see each other
before marriage, which one is better?
Shakila: I think we need not put too many
conditions on the institution of marriage. Marriage should be
based on love, sacrifice and compromise. I don't agree with
the bride and groom not seeing or meeting each other before
marriage. I think there should be mutual liking.
The young couple has the right to choose
should not exclude their parents and families. Young people
delude themselves into thinking that they are intelligent and
wise, but the reality is not like that. Do you think at that
age they are smart enough to make all the right choices about
their lives? I am in favour of young men and women meeting and
liking each other, but am against pre-marital sex.
I am also critical of how young men and women
in the West treat their older generation. They do not look
after their elderly parents.
Sohail: As a writer, how do you feel living
Shakila: I feel like a stranger here. I miss
my literary activities and creative friends of Pakistan. But I
have learnt a lot too. Living in Canada has broadened my
Sohail: Do you have any unfulfilled desire or
Shakila: I wished I were a successful
I believe a successful poet can say in one
couplet what it takes a dozen pages to say in prose. My first
poem main aur too[You and Me] was published in Jang newspaper
in Karachi. Some of my poems were published in Shair, a
respectable Urdu magazine of India. I have been writing poetry
since 1976, but most people are not aware of it. They see me
as a short story writer.
Also, I wrote light essays [inshaiays] also.
Professor Afaaq Siddiqi recently compiled my unpublished
writing in a book called Shakila rafiq...fun aur
shakhsiat[Shakila Rafiq...art and personality].
Sohail: Thank you for sharing your thoughts
and life experiences with me.
Shakila: Thank you, too, for your time and