Founded By Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman

Thursday, November 20, 2004 -- Shawal 07 , 1425 A.H.


A journey of milestones

It is not very often that a poet or a writer, gives so much that one gets to know him or her so intimately. In literature, the more one reads, the more one enjoys his or her work, as it builds a reader-writer relationship. To seek out the person behind the enjoyable literary writings was the purpose of this interview.

Shakila Rafiq has written extensively; her first novella was Dard hay apna saathi (1976), a collection of short stories Kuch dair pehlay neend say (1987), Khushboo kay jazeeray (1989), Qitaar main khara aadmai (1998) and then there was Ismat Aapa (2001), which received a great deal of attention in India and Pakistan. Her last book was Aasman talay (2002), and now her next book is expected soon.


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 restrictions?

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 education?

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 more.

Sohail: How old were you when your husband died?

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 literature.

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 years ago.

For a while my mother became speechless, then we embraced and both cried.

Sohail: What is it like to be a single mother in Pakistan?

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 into remarriage?

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 a step-dad.

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 sacrifices.

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 matter.

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 in Canada?

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 intellectual horizons.

Sohail: Do you have any unfulfilled desire or dream?

Shakila: I wished I were a successful poet.

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 aur shakhsiat[Shakila and personality].

Sohail: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and life experiences with me.

Shakila: Thank you, too, for your time and effort.