Fahmida Riaz: A neglected genius

Whilst my earlier piece on the IMF programme and the tremendous discussion it has invoked deserves a rejoinder, I want to write on a completely different subject this week. I am perturbed by the fact that thousands of jobs have been recreated for those who were rightly or wrongly dismissed in the earlier dispensations; there is silence about one luminary, a towering one at that, who lost state employment twice. Fahmida Riaz’s name is yet to appear amongst the reinstated ones.

Following the physical departure of the leading Urdu poets – Qasimi, Munir and Faraz – Fahmida Riaz is arguably the greatest living poet of Pakistan. Controversial though this statement might be, her originality and path-breaking poetry has yet to find an equal in the turbulent waters of the Pakistani cultural river. It is hardly surprising that Fahimda Riaz has been targeted all through her otherwise illustrious creative career by state and society alike. She was branded as unpatriotic when she had to run for her life in the Zia-ul-Haq days and live in exile. In India, she was termed as a Pakistani agent since she criticised the communal tensions that the Indian state had encouraged.

Fahmida Riaz reading her poems in Islamabad Fahmida Riaz reading her poems in Islamabad

Her bold poetic expression was considered indecent in a country where pornography, heroine and arms are sold on every street. And, where stage plays with “hot” mujras and explicit sexual innuendo are patronised by official cultural institutions in the name of commercial viability. Fahmida was sometimes labelled as a non-believer when she questioned the clergy; at other times a communist when she talked of social justice. Even last year, a group of Karachi-based “intellectuals” chided her for eulogising a letter by the fourth Caliph Hazrat Ali (AS) as a model for good governance. This time she was a reactionary and a “toady.”
She had to deal with a society that was unshackling itself of the colonial hangover and still continues to do so, where the mullah, the mighty arms of the state, oligarchies of vested interests flourish with ease; and all independent voices have to be silenced, co-opted or crushed. And, the hapless poets especially those outside the ambit of officialdom are the soft targets of such cultural cleansing. […]