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Fahmida Riaz – “Her dreams of the future”

Barricaded Islamabad enveloped by the ghosts of national gloom has one little corner of hope. The Pakistan Academy of Letters, under its dynamic and committed Chairman, Fakhar Zaman, continues to weave narratives that still inspire. Even when the bitterness of our grim present affects us all, Fakhar Zaman was forthright in his views on Pakistan, its future and most importantly, its literary tradition. The venue was the book launch of Fahmida Riaz’s novel Godavari that has been translated into English. Fahmida Riaz is better known as a poet but her unique prose is lesser known. Her short stories and novels are extraordinary pieces of literary works rendered into sheer poetry. Often it is difficult to determine the genre of her ‘prose’ works as the lines between watertight compartments blur and fade away, only to reappear as a gentle reminder to the readers that our author is experimenting in her inimitable style. 

Godavari was published last year by the Oxford University Press and Fakhar Zaman organised its launch under the aegis of PAL only to ensure that there are many indigenous, native voices in English that have yet not caved in to the pressures and inducements of Western publishing houses. Godavari is a deceptively simple story of a few characters visiting a holiday hill resort in Maharashtra a little before the communal riots that shook Bombay and India in the 1980s. But deep within its lines, sub-textual connotations and shifting moods lie tales of discrimination, communal hatred and the unfettered spirits of its universal female characters. The heartening aspect of this book launch was that there were a few dozen enthusiasts present on the occasion, and a few powerful […]

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. […]

Hazrat Ali’s letter on governance and citizenship

The common stories about Islam or Muslims have to do with the chopping of arms and killing of infidels. We are told that Muslims had a great empire, after many conquests and subjugation of the ‘infidels’. And what have we learned in the textbooks: Ali (AS) was a brave general with a legendary sword? Have we heard this:

Do not close your eyes from glaring malpractice of officers, miscarriage of justice and misuse of rights, because you will be held responsible for the wrong thus done to others. In the near future, your wrong practices and maladministration will be exposed, and you will be held responsible and punished for the wrong done to the helpless and oppressed people.

Fahmida Riaz is Pakistan’s premier female poet. She became a sensation in the early 1970s when her bold, feminist poetry created a stir in the convention ridden world of Urdu poetry. Riaz was expressive, sometimes explicit, and politically charged. She created a completely new genre in Urdu poetry with a post-modern sensibility. Later, she remained prominent with her defiance of General Zia’s martial law, her exile to India and the continuous evolution of her fiction and poetry.

Since the late 1990s, Fahmida Riaz has discovered Jalaluddin Rumi, the 12th century Turkish poet and jurist, and now an international celebrity. Her recent publication “ Yeh Khana-e aab-o-gil” is a unique translation of Rumi’s ghazals in the same rhyme and meter. Since her navigation of the Rumi universe, she has explored another dimension of her individual and cultural consciousness, where the influence of Islamic scholars and Sufis is paramount.

Last winter, she read a letter by Hazrat Ali bin Abi Talib (AS), the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), while browsing a translation of Nahaj ul Balagha (a collection of sermons, letters and sayings of the Caliph). Later, in an email, she related to her friends across the globe how angry she felt for not knowing about this letter all her life, and how the real jewels of Muslim history were concealed generation after generation.

At the time she was preparing for a Conference at Heidelberg, Germany. Lo and behold, she made a dramatic speech about Ali’s (AS) letter at the international moot. Thereafter she showed the text of the letter to Dr Patricia Sharpe, a US-based writer who was impressed by it and immediately paraphrased and uploaded it to on her website under the title Good Governance Early Muslim Style.

Ali (AS) had written a comprehensive letter  articulating principles of public policy for the guidance of the newly appointed Governor to Egypt, Maalik al Ashtar. In this fascinating directive, Ali (AS) advises the new governor that his administration will succeed only if he governs with concern for justice, equity, probity and the prosperity of all. There is a timeless applicability of this famous letter. Selected passages from the text are reproduced below:

Religious tolerance: Amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you [and] are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than yours, [who] are human beings like you. Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human beings are inclined to; they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly and unintentionally without realising the enormity of their deeds. Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you . […]