Not a Bit Tamed
Fahmida Riaz defies easy descriptions and repressive regimes with much the same nonchalant ease. She is a poet, short story writer, essayist, translator, feminist, social activist and crusader. A voice to reckon with in the world of Urdu literature, she has a substantial body of work. Her poetry collections include Patthar ki Zaban, Badan Dareeda, Mitti ki Moorat, Dhoop, Poora Chand, Kya Tum Poora Chand Na Dekh Paaoge, Hamrakab and Aadmi ki Zindagai. She has published several collections of short stories and novels such as Godavari set in India and Zinda Bahar Lane based on Bangladesh, translations from Sindhi poetry as well as some marvelously nuanced prose writings such as Zinda Bahar -- a travelogue-cum-autobiography-cum-history of the Indian subcontinent. Other prominent works include: My Crime is Proven, Statue of Clay, Adhoora Aadmi, and Sun, Stones that Speak. A vocal opponent of General Ziaul Haq’s military rule and the repressive Hudood Ordinances, she was hounded by the government and forced to live in exile for seven years. She was given the Himmett-Hellman award by Human Rights Watch, New York, in 1997.
Has the rebel inside you mellowed?
I never thought of myself as a rebel. A poet, a writer has a different mental framework. One writes what one feels strongly about. I feel strongly about so many things even now. But with the passage of time one discovers certain aspects to even old notions. One is less stubbornly sure. Take religion, for instance. Earlier, I thought it was a human invention. Now I tend to think, may be it was a discovery.
Do you regard yourself as a feminist?
Very much so. But feminism has so many interpretations. What it means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities. They have to achieve social equality, much like the Dalits or the Black Americans. In the case of women, it is so much more complex, I mean, there is the right to walk on the road without being harassed. Or to be able to swim, or write a love poem, like a man without being considered immoral. The discrimination is very obvious and very subtle, very cruel and always inhuman.
Tell us a little about the feminist movement in Pakistan.
It began with the very inception of Pakistan. Begum, Ra’ana Liaqat Ali, the wife of our first Prime Minister, set up the All Pakistan Women’s Association with the aim of educating and economically empowering women. Pakistani women were well on their way towards emancipation, but emancipation had to come gradually. Let me add that in Pakistan, a large number of Muslims who migrated from India had already broken the shackles of the feudal system under which they had lived in UP, Central Provinces, Bihar, etc, before independence. Migration gave them a certain dynamism. They were not against women’s emancipation. An increasing number of urban women were educating themselves and joining the work force. The situation in Pakistan was very similar to India in those early years, except that the area comprising Pakistan was much less urbanized than India. The leaders of the independence movement like Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Hussain Shaheed Suharawardi, were liberal minded and in those early years, people were enthused by their ideals Being the overwhelming religious majority, we also did not suffer from what may be termed “the Minority Syndrome”. Muslims in Pakistan could reform their society without fear of losing their identity. This sort of thing happens to minorities; they are fearful of losing their identity and so do not initiate reforms. I know of a well-educated Sindhi Hindu family in Larkana, who sent their daughters to India because they could not find suitable Brahman grooms in Pakistan, only to be ultimately married to non-Brahmans here in Delhi. What was unacceptable for them in Pakistan became acceptable in India where they were not a religious minority.
The greatest setback that Pakistani women received was during the Zia regime that coincided with the Afghan Jihad. I do not know if the Indian intelligentsia realizes that the entire West supported this backwardness that was forcibly thrust on Pakistani society. I often tell them that had someone poured in so much money and arms against it, the movement for Reformation, for instance in England, could never have succeeded.
The good that came of all this was that in response to the repressions imposed by Zia, Pakistani women became very active very rapidly. They set up the Women’s Action Forum, and later many other NGOs joined the fray and took up the cause. Let me also add that President Musharraf is trying hard to reverse the process that was initiated during Zia’s time. For a change, we have a women-friendly Head of State. However, recently he said something quite indefensible to the Washington Post in America [referring to a rape victim who subsequently sought political asylum in another country to escape the wrath of her tormentors], but one has to see what he has actually done and not only what he has said.
A woman, a poet, a socially conscious person living in a society that has more than its share of repressive regimes – how do you cope with this triple whammy? Does one or the other of these cave in?
I think all these attributes that you give me so generously, thanks for these compliments, emanate from one another. They exist as a whole. So if one caves in, the others also go with it. I learnt this when I lived in India. It is a wonderful Indian philosophical formulation that the layers of existence are so rooted in one another that if we change one the others also change.
As for how I have done it, well, my dear girl, I have had to live in exile, had my passport confiscated, was so black listed that my family and I nearly starved for years. And I have survived to say that perhaps all this now belongs to the past. Four years ago, one of my poems caused such a furor here in India, it was incredible. It had shattered me. This time I had come trembling with fear only to discover that so many people liked and loved that very poem! My God! I wept with joy. So they finally understood it was a love poem for India! I am lucky. Some people understand that finally.
Did you consciously set out to write political poetry? Was it some sort of reaction against the sentimental conventional, in a sense “conformist” poetry that women poets of that time such as Zehra Nigah were writing?
One does not set out to write a certain kind of poetry. I think the driving force in my being is …well, justice. So in the bigger picture, as they say nowadays, these were inter-related issues. No, no, I have not chosen to write differently. Except, of course, choosing the diction and the way one says a certain thing. In that area, all poets strive for individuality.
Let’s talk a little about your poems themselves… Some of your most ideologically driven poems are also some of the most beautiful, most poignant among your oeuvre. How do you manage this co-mingling, this coming together of ideology and poetry?
Are they? Thanks. I suppose one should be totally sincere in one’s art, and uncompromising. There is something sacred about art that can not take violation. One should read extensively to polish expression. I read Platts Urdu-Hindi to English Dictionary like a book of poems. I love words.
I am struck by the use of Hindi in your nazms. Living in Pakistan, where and how did you pick up Hindi? Was it also a deliberate decision to not use the more stylized, literary, Persianised equivalents preferred by earlier poets.
Well, since we live in Sindh, I thought we should try to bring Urdu closer to Sindhi. It was also some kind of nostalgia. But then I got all these words from early Urdu poetry and modern poets like Miraji. I could not read Hindi before I lived here [referring to her seven-year exile spent in Delhi] and that was in 1981. All the Hindi diction poems were written before that. But I use Persian and Arabic words liberally when I want to. I think that is the joy of Urdu. Whichever way, it remains Urdu.
Your collection, Badandarida, created a furor because of its uninhibited exploration of female sexuality. Is there anything in that collection that you would re-write now, or would you write in the same unabashed way?
Do you mean in the same shameless way? (laughs). I think I may yet have something to say in that direction. Writing is easy. No problem there. Afterwards you face the music. Well, I seem to have survived all that. The furor dies down after a while. The poem lives on.
In the past, you have been vocal and passionate about a whole host of issues. What is the issue dearest to your heart today?
Rakhshanda, they are the same issues.
Can a poet, or a creative writer, truly make a difference to society, to the way people think or the way governments work?
Everything makes a difference. It may not be immediately perceptible. How else do you think society changes?
Interviewed by Rakhshanda Jalil for The Hindu, 6 Novemeber 2005)