A long time ago, there was a Muslim middle class in India. With one or both parents educated and the father employed in government service, the daughters of such homes were encouraged to read and write and the family took pride in literary accomplishments. One such family was that of the Bronte sisters of Urdu fiction, Ayesha, Khadija and Hajira. Of the three, Ayesha died in comparative anonymity while Khadija and Hajira lived on to enjoy great name and fame as master storytellers and created a niche for themselves in the world of Urdu afsananigari.
Hajira, who died recently at the age of 82, exemplified that world of Muslim middle class with the ease of one who had lived in it. Unlike Rashid Jahan (her predecessor) and Ismat Chughtai (a near contemporary), she chose to tell her stories in a simple and straightforward manner with no overt attempt at being bold or provocative. The progressives, who encouraged the participation of women in all walks of life, had a fair sprinkling of women writers amidst their ranks. While the stories of Rashid Jahan and Ismat reflect the currents of contemporary thought and the testimony of strong-willed, outspoken, independent-minded women who were often at odds with the men in their lives, the generation that followed them wanted to wanted to present a ‘slice of life’ without necessarily finding the need to shock or startle their readers. Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Hajira Masroor, Khadija Mastoor, Siddiqa Begum Seoharvi, Shakila Akhtar, and Sarla Devi each did this in their way but Hajira and Khadija scored over their contemporaries for greater command over their craft.
Born on 17 January 1930 in Lucknow in a home that was lit by the lamp of new learning (the nai taleem movement spearheaded by men like Sir Syed Khan) she grew up, surrounded by books and literary journals. Her father, a doctor in the British army, died very young leaving his family in a state of genteel poverty. The royalties earned by the two sisters, though frugal, sustained the family first in their years in India and later when they moved to Pakistan. As the sisters’ fame grew, so did the royalties and soon both Khadija and Hajira were not merely established names but earning reasonably well from the fruits of their literary labours. Hajira, in fact, became the first editor of a literary journal when she took to editing Nuqoosh as co-editor with Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, creating a record of sorts.
While Hajira no doubt drew upon her experiences as a middle-class Muslim woman, unlike Ismat Chughtai with whom she was often compared in the early years, the constant overwhelming presence of the writer’s larger-than-life persona is missing. Hajira is never haavi over her subject. Her strength lay in creating character and evoking ambience; the early stories were especially liked for the whiff of qasbati life they carried and the picture of forgotten corners of the Awadh region they painted with such authenticity. A story like Hai Allah, which drew her early acclaim from critics and readers like, established her reputation. Undoubtedly written from a women’s perspective, stories such as Chori Chhupe, Bhag Bhari, evoke a world view that could only have emerged from a woman’s pen. While it is true that her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context; the story about a mad woman on the last railway station in the story called Pagli (later made into a film called Aakhri Station) being one such example. Possibly, under the early influence of the progressives, she and her sister Khadija chose to write socially-engaged, purposive fiction rather than the romantic, domesticated fiction that had been popularized by writer such as Hijab Imtiaz Ali and others. However, the ideological fervor and socially-committed zeal as well as the topicality that earned some progressives the tag of propagandists never a found a place in Hajira’s measured, controlled, defined world.
In later years, in an interview for Radio Pakistan that can be accessed on YouTube, Hajira reacts strongly to the interviewer’s suggestion that she wrote women’s stories. Making a distinction between zanana adab (writing for women) and khwateein afsana nigar (women writers), she makes amply evident her displeasure for labels and compartmentalization. Pointing out, quite rightly, that literary critics ought to be concerned with literary merit (or its absence) rather than the gender of the writer. At the same time, she conceded that while both she and Manto witnessed the partition, but its depiction would vary vastly not merely due to their difference of gender but also of perspective and circumstance. In the words of a critic, Hajira knew how to lance the festering wound of a sick society, but she also knew how to apply a soothing balm.
Inexplicably, the pen that had written so effectively and prolifically for so long, stilled itself for the last thirty years of her life. Becoming the Greta Garbo of the world of Urdu letters, Hajira not only became a recluse but chose to refrain from literary activity in any form whatsoever. By all accounts, the bonds of domesticity and housekeeping over-rode other bonds – those she had forged with the literary community over a span of nearly 40 years. If this is so – and frankly not having met her I cannot say what dictated her decision to not write – it does make one wonder if, somewhere somehow, tradition wins over modernity when it comes to successful woman? That a writer who has been consistently hailed as a feminist writer should choose to bask in the shade of an eminent and successful husband foregoing her own hard-won name and fame? Would a man – any man – forsake a career, a lucrative and successful one, as a writer over domesticity? What compels a woman – no matter how willingly – to abandon something that lies at the heart of her being? Does a woman set such impossibly high standards for herself that she chooses to abstain rather than miss the mark of her own raised bar?
In an interview to veteran journalist, Asif Noorani in 2002, Hajira had declared her intention of one day writing her memoir. Unfortunately, she chose to end her self-imposed exile by walking into the endless night without having done so. Possibly it is left to the successive generation of women writers to walk the fine line between tradition and modernity, domesticity and worldly success, individuality and multiple role-playing to reach a space where the twain can meet.