Remembering A ‘Rebel’ – Fahmida Riaz

If there is one word that describes Fahmida Riaz, it has to be a ‘rebel’. A woman who has always been true to herself, fearless and outspoken without cavil. Her poetry is what has made her rightly famous. Yet the irony of her literary persona cannot be ignored: she is also under-published, for pirated editions of her earlier works sell and a major anthology of her poetry was published after a gap of twenty years. Her prose was not available in bookshops for years until the Oxford University Press started publishing it in recent years. Yet she has been translated widely across the globe. A voice that mixes the East and the West, the sacred and the profane leaving at least two generations enchanted. Perhaps a milestone of my life has been knowing her and in no conventional manner. I am young enough to be her son, devoted to be her shaagird (sans literary spark) and mesmerized to be her follower. Well, almost.

Writing about her life and works in not easy either. There are layers of her persona which require a lifetime of research. Not unlike the dialectic of the Arabian nights, her mind and emotion work at various levels; and so has her rather eventful life traversed: odd and straight, rough and mellow, moody and banal. From the ordinariness of a middle-class household to working with haris (landless peasants) in rural Sindh, from the spotlights of literary events to the ignominy of an unfortunate exile in India. She has imbibed the electricity of life like nobody I know and drunk the poison of existence to the fullest. A single evening with Fahmida is akin to living a tale through and through where a poet – admittedly self-absorbed – takes over and sets the rhythm of time.

Fahmida Riaz was born on 28 July 1946 in an educated and cultured family in the city of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, considered as ground zero for the Indian Revolt of 1857. Her family later moved and settled down in Hyderabad, Sindh following her father’s employment in tone of the first educational institutions for Muslims in Sindh. Her father – Riaz-ud-Din Ahmed – was an eminent educationist, loved by his colleagues as well as students. Her mother was well-versed in Persian and Urdu classics. However, Fahmida’s father passed away when she was only four years old, leaving the burden of managing the household on her mother, Husna Begum.

Once in college, Fahmida Riaz took over a share in these responsibilities and started to work as a newscaster at Radio Pakistan, also using this time to graduate from Sindh University. During this period, her poems began to be published in literary journals. This was also the decade of the students’ uprising in Pakistan, with Fahmida became deeply involved in it. Later, in early 1967, through an arranged marriage, she moved to the United Kingdom. The publication of the first volume of her poems coincided with her marriage and a new phase began in her life.

Raza Rumi recites Fahmida Riaz’s ‘Tum Bilkul Hum Jaise Nikle’

In London, Fahmida worked with the BBC Urdu Service. At the same time, she studied in the famous London School of Film Technique (the only other Pakistani who had studied there before her was Mushtaq Gazdar). In this cosmopolitan institute, she made many friends. During her stay in London, the counter-revolution in Chile and the massacre of Bengalis in East Pakistan had a deep impact on her. Unfortunately, her marriage did not work and a divorce led her back to Pakistan, where Riaz found work at an advertising agency in Karachi. By this time, Fahmida had started to mature as a poet, potential for which she had begun to exude from a very early age. She had written her first poem at the age of fifteen and had a collection to her name by the age of twenty-two.

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 curiously modern sensibility. Her work, despite its inventiveness and challenging of conventions, did not compromise pure literary merit. Her collection ‘Badan Dareeda’ became a new marker of a self-assured woman’s angst as well as confidence. Here was a passion unfettered by taboos.

Her famous poem ‘Bosa’ (Deep Kiss) celebrates the beauty of love:

Deep myrrh-scented kiss,
Deep with the tongue, suffused
With the musky perfume
Of the wine of love: I’m reeling
With intoxication, languid
To the point of numbness….

One can easily imagine how the guardians of middle-class morality among the literati reacted to lines such as:

After love the first time,
Our naked bodies and minds
A hall of mirrors,
Wholly unarmed, utterly fragile,
We lie in one another’s arms,
Breathing with care
Afraid to break
These crystal figurines.

But this was not a passionate lover that her voice represented. It also dealt with the process of procreation and its complexities. In ‘Come Give Me Your Hand’, the modern woman addresses the man whose child she is nurturing:

..touch my body
and listen to the beating of your child’s heart….
Let your fingers know its body….
Let me kiss these fingers of yours
Let me kiss each and every finger tip
Let me touch your nails with my lips
Let me hide my face in this palm for a bit….
How you have transformed me!
Within me was a haunting darkness,
A limitless, endless space
I wandered around aimlessly.
Yearning for a taste of life….
You filled my womb in such a way
That light pours forth from my body.

(Translation by Patricia Sharpe)

She had returned to Karachi with the determination marry a man of her own choice and devoting her life to bringing about social change in Pakistan. She was isolated amongst the mainstream Urdu writers because of her insistence on the rights of sub-nationalities, but found friends among Sindhi and Balochi writers and even young political workers. In Karachi, she initiated ‘Awaz’, a politically charged Urdu publication. During this time, she met Zafar Ali Ujan,a Sindhi left activist and married him. Soon they had a daughter Veerta and a son, Kabeer.

Her unconventional and robustly progressive publications put her at loggerheads with the Zia regime, which attempted to implicate Fahmida Riaz and her husband on multiple charges, including those of sedition. One of her fans however, came to her rescue and provided her with bail. Using this window of opportunity, she, together with her sister and children, fled to India for a self-imposed exile that lasted seven years. Her husband joined her after his release from prison.

Across the border, Fahmida was appointed poet-in- residence at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. During her exile, her poetry flourished and found a new South Asian dimension and imbibed influences from her complex interaction with India. Exile did not bedraggle the fighting spirit of the indomitable Fahmida, who discovered a newfound cause to raise her voice against the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. As was the case back in Pakistan, this put her at poles with her hosts, many of whom were quick at jumping to ludicrous conclusions. Claims that she was a ‘Pakistani agent’, stirring up factionalism in India was typical of the demagoguery she had witnessed back home.

Her poem ‘Naya Bharat’ remains a testament to how religious fundamentalism is plaguing the Indian spirit. Comparing the polity with her home country, she addresses the Indians and complains how they turned out be‘just like us’.

Your demon [of] religion dances like a clown,
Whatever you do will be upside down.
You too will sit deep in thought,
Who is Hindu, who is not.
Keep repeating the mantra like a parrot,
Bharat was like the land of the brave.

(Translation by Khushwant Singh)

My favourite poem from this phase of her expression remains ‘Purva Anchal’ which was written during a journey through Eastern UP (India) as she looks through the train window while passing through the lands where Buddha, Kabir and other sages once walked. Fahmida laments:

Brick and stone
Reduced to rubble.
Mosque and temple
Still locked
In the same old squabble.
Every brow
Disfigured by a frown


Listen to Kabir,
Who pleads with you:
Wars of hatred
Do no honour to God.
Both Ram and Rahim
Will shun a loveless land.

(Translation by Patricia Sharpe)

Her muse had matured and like Buddha’s true disciple, enlightenment was descending on her – An enlightenment fashioned by a holistic understanding of civilizations, nations and communities. The lines of these poems should be popularized across South Asia and wherever there is conflict, hatred and competing gods.

When two are locked in conflict
And ready to lose their lives,
Neither can win in the end,
Unless both do—and equally.
A battle lost by either
Will be fought and refought
Until both are destroyed
And both are equal losers.

(Translation by Patricia Sharpe)

The rise of Benazir Bhutto in 1986 saw the return of Fahmida Riaz to Pakistan. During Benazir’s first tenure, Riaz was appointed Managing Director of the National Book Foundation, and then given a post at Quaid-e-Azam Academy during her second tenure. In between, she was constantly on the state radar, termed as an ‘Indian agent’ and denied government employment.

Her turbulent relationship with the state invokes memories of poets such as Daman, Jalib and Faiz. Pakistan had, by the 1990s, turned into a polity infested with conflict, sectarianism and deeply penetrated conservatism promoted during the rule of military dictator General Zia ul Haq.

Fahmida’s poem ‘Mantra’ deals with the Indus River (Calm- breathing, mighty River/Deeper than the secrets of the heart), and shuns sectarianism:

…only with a vicious dogma
That calls the land my enemy,
The river my foe….
Far beyond the farthest sky
Lives God, an alien, not of this earth.
How can I love and hate
At his command?
How can I, born of the soil,
Renounce it?

(Translation by Patricia Sharpe)

Fahmida Riaz has served as a vanguard in the feminist struggle in Pakistan. Challenging male dominance in the subcontinent, she has published several stories, translations and the deconstruction of criticism of feminist work. One famed poem, ‘Chadur and Char-diwari’ is notable for its startling imagery and boldness. Addressing the patriarch, Fahmida opens the poem with questions as to why a chadur is being imposed on her and other women.

I am not a sinner nor a criminal
That I should stamp my forehead with its darkness.

The poem uses stark images of women’s travails in our society and makes forceful points in a truly original diction and rare sensibility. Perhaps a resonant voice of every Pakistani (or even South Asian) woman is what the poem ends with:

Bring this show to an end now
Sire, cover it up now
Not I, but you need this chadur now.

For my person is not merely a symbol of your lust:
Across the highways of life , sparkles my intelligence
If a bead of sweat sparkles on the earth’s brow it is
my diligence.

These four walls , this chadur I wish upon the
rotting carcass.
In the open air, her sails flapping , races ahead
my ship.
I am the companion of the New Adam
Who has earned my self-assured love.

(Translation by Rukhhsana Ahmed)

Today, Fahmida Riaz is Pakistan’s leading poetic voice and perhaps the most undeterred. The freshness of her diction combined with her intellectual courage has set new standards in Urdu literary expression.

For instance the poem,‘Aqleema’ looks at the predicament of Cain and Abel’s sister:

But she is different.
Different in her gut
And inside her womb….
Aqleema has a head, too.
Let God speak to Aqleema sometimes
And ask her something.

(Translation by Patricia Sharpe)

It is a pity that Fahmida is better known as a poet and her unique prose is lesser known. Her short stories and novels (Godavari, Zinda Bahar among others) are extraordinary pieces of literary work. Often it is difficult to determine the genre of her ‘prose’ as the lines between watertight compartments blur and fade away, only to reappear as a gentle reminder to the reader that our author is experimenting in her inimitable style. She wrote Godavari when she was in exile in India during the 1980s.This was the time she had a relatively safe environment. However, this was also a time when she was uprooted; and was disappointed with the promised secular land because of its deep-seated biases, its roving communal demons and above all, its typecasting of Pakistanis. Therefore, Godavari emerges as a tale of exile as much as it is about the marginalization of women and India’s lower castes. In the recent years her short stories have turned semi-autobiographical and indicate a new trend in her style.

In the late 1990s, Fahmida Riaz discovered Jalaluddin Rumi, the twelfth-century Turkish poet and jurist, and now an international celebrity. One of her recent collections, Yeh Khana-e aab-o-gil,is an outstanding translation of Rumi’s ghazals in the same rhyme and meter. From citing the Nahj al Balagha to countering rigid feminist/political stereotypes defining Pakistani state-led narratives, she has maintained an eclectic approach towards not just the style of her writing, but also towards the intellectual and philosophical content therein. These lines from her poem, ‘Condolence Resolution’ are self-evident:

Don’t be distressed if I am left unburied
If the priest denies me the final rites.
Carry the remains to the woods and leave it there.
It comforts me to think that the beasts would feast
At my bones, my flesh, this strong red heart,
They would feel no need to screen my thoughts.

Their bellies filled, they’ll clean their paws
And their sinless eyes will gleam with a truth
That you, my friends, dare never express:
‘She always said what she had to say,
And for all her life had no regrets.’

(Translation by Patricia Sharpe)

As a provider in her household, Riaz had to find work. The last government of Pakistan People’s Party (2008-2013) after much hesitation found employment for her at a dictionary board in Karachi. This vocation was short lived as the hyperactive Chief Justice placed a ban on government contracts to people over the age of sixty. The Oxford University Press rescued her and since then she has been working for the publishing house. This has been a fruitful engagement as Riaz has published more fiction, translations and books for children.

Pakistan has to treasure her writings for she is not just a poet or a writer. She represents much more; perhaps the withering soul of Pakistan endangered by bigots and warriors. What a fortunate country we are to have icons like her: celebrated not for their family, dynasty or power. But for the sheer force of creativity, beauty and tenacity to resist.

It’s an excerpt from Raza Rumi’s book ‘Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts

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