Fahmida Riaz at the Lahore Literary Festival 2014 | Photo by Hamza Cheema
Fahmida Riaz at the Lahore Literary Festival 2014 | Photo by Hamza Cheema

[N].M. Rashid flicked through her first collection of poems and came up with a one-line review: ... "Choti si larki, chota sa dard." It was typical of him. Others took the 'choti si larki' more seriously. Her 'pathrr ki zuban' raised many literary eybrows but it was Badan Dareeda, her second collection of poems, that hit them like a ton of bricks. "Obscene!" "Shocking" - was the verdict of the literary pundits. For the common reader the book was nothing less than a celebration of the beleaguered individuals's resistance to drab uniformity and spiritual monotony - an attempt to find a link between an individual and a society which has less and less use for individualism.

Fahmida Riaz's persistent and enduring voice kept alive the prosecuted spirit of a generation of artistes. In 81, when chaos, imprisonment, death and destruction ruled Pakistan, she left the country. today, after six collections of poetry, an unpublished novel and seven years of exile in India, the little girl has grown and so has the pain.

The cases against Fahmida Riaz are reportedly of a serious nature and could have meant a lifetime in prison for her. But that perhaps, was not the objective. The idea seems to have been to silence a woman who refuses to be silenced.

In her first interview since her return to Pakistan, Fahmida Riaz talks to the Herald about politics, people and poetry. It is mellowed Fahmida, darning her twelve-year-old son's shorts and wanting to put the nightmare behind her...

Herald: What changes do you see in the country between the time you left and came back?

Fahmida: When I left there was martial law in the country; it is not there any more. There was no Mr Junejo when I went into exile, but he was there when I decided to come back. I left die to certain political conditions that prevailed in the country at that time, which were unbearable for a number of people. I went into exile in 1981 and those were the times of terror in Pakistan, but the state of affairs is very different today. There is so much more freedom now. The freedom of press enjoys today, for instance, is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan since the promulgation of the Press and Publications Ordinance, though they still hold their cars, like allocation of advertisement etc. But whatever freedom we have today is really praiseworthy.

Herald: What was the nature of the cases the government tried to implicate you in?

Fahmida: I think everyone must have read my open letter to Mr Junejo which appeared in the local press. Since those cases are not being dug up, it seems they have forgotten about them. Let it all be a nightmare, something that perhaps never happened.

Herald: But it did happen. It happened to quite a few others who stayed back and suffered.

Fahmida: It is a long forgotten story now. There were a few people who stayed, there were people who left. It can't be said that one is better than the other or anything. It was an individual decision. If there had been some rich affluent people who had supported me, I would probably not have left. Or if I was a different kind of person from what I am today, I would probably have stayed.

Herald: But there are some people in precisely the same circumstances who chose not to leave the country. Some of them are still in jails.

Fahmida: I didn't want to go to jail. I have never wanted to go to jail. I detest the very idea! Small and closed places make me nervous. I feel very claustrophobic. But that is not the point. Probably they would not have put me in jail, but the kind of humiliation I had to go through was something I couldn't bear. For fifteen months I went to court regularly and there was not a single hearing. I used to stay there the whole day, but let's not talk about it. I don't want to remember it.

Herald: During your exile, did you ever suffer pangs of guilt, feel that you had betrayed the people?

Fahmida: For God's sake, I did not betray anyone. I had to go because I did not betray. If I had betrayed I would have stayed peacefully. I had to go because they chose to victimise me.

Herald: Did you receive a green signal from the government before deciding to come back?

Fahmida: No, it was purely a personal decision.

Herald: What were your activities in India?

Fahmida: It is very difficult to sum up those seven years in a few words. I have written a novel which is lying with the publisher. That will tell it all.

Herald: Why did you feel the need to write in prose?

Fahmida: It was a kind of retrospection, perhaps. There were questions in my mind, and I wrote in pros to discover the answers. The poem, as you know, does not contain everything - like what processes you go through when you write the poem - that sort of thing. The main character in this little novel, or novelette, is a woman poet.

Herald: What is the literary scene like in India?

Fahmida: In India the situation is entirely different from that in Pakistan and I must say, far better. Actually Indian literature is not just confined to Hindi. Regional languages have made a remarkable contribution towards Indian literature. Some of the best books published in India during the past few years were originally written in Marathi and some other regional languages. Then there is a vast middle class which is still interested in good books, and people, despite all the economic pressures, have not given up reading. And that is why Penguin has set up a publishing house in India which is commissioning books, translating into English some of the well known masterpieces and even encouraging new writers.

Herald: What about the literature this side of the border?

Fahmida: I don't agree with people who say that readers in Pakistan are not interested in good books. There was this Indian book fair in Karachi a few months back and I saw lots of people buying books. The plain fact is that good literature is not being produced in Pakistan. Our well-known writers are, by any standards, mediocre - even when they are at their best. I am not sure but I think Urdu has not yet developed to a level where something comparable to to international standards can be produced in it. The state of Urdu literature in India is also not very encouraging. But as far as readers are concerned, they expect a lot from our writers and their writings. Their refusal to listen to Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi at the Faiz Mela is proof enough that they are not as ignorant as some of us take them to be.

Herald: How do you interpret that particular incident?

Fahmida: I, personally am on very good terms with Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. I still respect him. But it is also true that he had been praising all those generals and their wives. People except better from a person like him and when they don't get it, they react. It simply shows that they are alive to whatever is happening around them. Otherwise, I feel sorry for Mr Qasmi.

Herald: 'Badan Dareeda' was a landmark in your creative journey. how do you view that poetry now, in terms of form and content?

Fahmida: The form of those poems was not all the outlandish. they were all written in the accepted metric forms of paband and azaad nazm. The content was basically about the oppression of women, the constraints on them - not to express themselves. To tell you the truth, I don't look at that much work. One doesn't read one's own poetry very often. I don't know what I am supposed to feel about them. I certainly don't think that it was wrong of me to write about those subjects.

Herald: How do you feel your poetry has evolved over the years?

Fahmida: The answer to this, I am afraid, would be merely stating the obvious: one grows older. But I got more and more involved in political and social issues after my return from England. Look at it this way. My first collection of poems, Pathar ki Zaban, came out in 1967, when I has just left college. They are college-girl poems - romantic and sad and all that. Young college girls are still writing that kind of poetry.

Then after college one steps into what we call "practical life," which for a woman is marriage and in most cases in our society, an arranged marriage and motherhood. The poems of Badan Dareeda are expressions of the agony of this unnatural and illogical transformation of a young, independent-minded human being into an object in a pre-set framework, which she has not even chosen for herself. I could still be writing that kind of a poem today. However, what happened was, perhaps somewhat unusual. With all the strength I could muster, moral and physical strength really, I set things right for myself. And it did need a lot of strength, believe me. I was a mother too.

However, once you break free from the shackles that are destroying your personal life, that are allowing you no respite to think about anything else, once you have achieved the i,possible, or what seems to be impossible, then you discover the whole world outside your personal dilemma.Then you relate to society, to politics. You get more and more involved. There is something strange though. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, for instance, also wrote some "college boy" poems. One will find them in his first collection, Dast-e-Saba. However, no one refers to them anymore. But everyone keeps recalling the poems of Badan Dareeda, even Pathar ki Zuban. Perhaps because they were so controversial and the social scene that made them controversial is still inchanged.

Herald: You have been accused of obscenity. Do you think art can be obscene?

Fahmida: If it is really good art, it can never be obscene. The sculptures of Michelangelo are not obscene. But at times there are obscene pieces which their creators try to pass off as art.

Herald: You physical experiences have found a frank and free expression in your poetry?

Fahmida: I am a frank person. Even my political poetry is direct and frank. I think its simply a matter of one's temperament.

Herald: One finds in some of your poems, a deliberate attempt to harmonise body and soul.

Fahmida: Normally, what we call body and soul, or consciousness, are in harmony. Only circumstances hostile to-one or the other breed disharmony. The best poetry all over the world expresses the harmony between the two.

Herald: You have not written any ghazals after 'Badan Dareeda.' Why?

Fahmida: Ghazals belong to a culture which I'd say is more peaceful, kind of feudal culture where you can sit back and enjoy yourself, take your time reading and writing them. I personally feel I have never had enough peace to write a ghazal. Otherwise too, for the last few decades, the ghazal has ceased to have much significance and people are not saying much through the ghazal. Ghazals are so much more vulnerable to repetition. And writing a poem for the sake of writing is something I do not fancy. I like to give a sustained kind of expression to my thought. And most of my poems have a single thought running through them, that is why I do not write ghazals.

Herald: But Faiz wrote ghazals...

Fahmida: Faiz is more known for his nazms. But there is no hard and fast rule. I, for instance, like reading the ghazals of masters like Mir, Sauda adn Ghalib, but I don't like the ghazals of any other poet. Actually, for me, a ghazal has to be excellent. Something is missing now, though I don't know what it is. There might be a renaissance later on but, at present, the ghazal seems to be totally out of tune with the times.

Herald: Poetry, they say, is about seeing the invisible and then speaking the unspeakable. Do you find your poems are an adequate medium for communication?

Fahmida: I never finish a poem until I am satisfied with it. So, at the end of it, I do have this sense of satisfaction that I have said what I wanted to and in the manner I wanted to.

Sometimes I write poems that people ask me to write. There are people who say they cannot write until they get inspiration from within. But there are times when I have felt about a subject and not been able to write about it, and then someone asks me to write a poem and I usually manage to come up with poems which are satisfactory. So you see conscious effort doesn't necessarily make for bad poetry.

Herald: The critics, I believe, have not been very kind to you. What role do they play in your literary set-up?

Fahmida: Critics can help a reader understand a writer better. But to this day I have not read a single good appraisal, not even of Faiz.

Herald: Exile leaves a definite impact on the artist and his art. How has your experience affected your poetry?

Fahmida: This experience is reflected in my latest collection, Hamrakah and some of the poems of Apna Jurm Sabit Hai. It definitely left a strong impact on my mind. I will tell you something strange that happened to me in India. I had started to suffer from these very horrible mental blocks. I was afraid to travel alone, and someone always had to accompany me. That fear remained with me for nearly a month and a half, then suddenly it disappeared after return to Pakistan. For me, this was a great feeling - to be able to travel alone again without any inhibitions. One day, I hope to solve this riddle.

Herald: Why did you choose to go to India? Why not some other country?

Fahmida: Why India? Why not India? Everyone is going to India. I had not seen the country. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal. And we didn't have enough money to go anywhere else. But it's something I'd like to forget. It's really not that important.

Herald: What is important then?

Fahmida: It is important that elections be held in the country on the basis of a free and federal franchise and that the institution of democracy be established. And the democracy I am talking about should not be of a limited nature. Even Ayub Khan had his basic democracies, but it meant nothing. So, what is really important is that the process to establish the institution of the people through the ballot, which brings the real representatives of the people in the country should start.

Herald: What and whose purpose did the previous set-up serve?

Fahmida: I think it was a transitional period. I am not in the position to say whether it was really necessary but I think it didn't do much harm either. Probably it was meant to diffuse the tension. If we didn't have this transitional period, there might have been clashes. Because when a certain entity grips power, to give it at a stroke to another entity is much more difficult. It is possible that in stages the process becomes smoother; it was one way of avoiding the explosive transformation. So one cannot rule out some of the good points of the previous set-up and its validity to a certain extent. But one hopes that it really was a transitory period and leads to free and fair elections.

Herald: But people are clashing with each other anyway?

Fahmida: Yes, people are clashing. There are ethnic riots in Karachi. You ask me what has changed? In 81, there was no MQM and people used to think in the context of Pakistan and most of them felt that these were marginal questions. After all, muhajirs are a marginal entity as far as numbers are concerned. I myself am a muhajir, so the question becomes all the more important to me.

I had written a book called Pakistan Literature and Society and this book was viciously attacked in the Herald. I still feel that the Herald owes me an apology for that because the review was full of abuses and name-calling. I t was not a review at all. In this book I had written that muhajirs should stop beating about the bush. They should cease to hide behind the slogans of Pakistan and Islam. They should learn to speak up and they should should speak directly, not indirectly. That would free them of a number of illusions and misconceptions.

Herald: Do you think they have taken your advice?

Fahmida: No, I don't think my message ever reached them. But, like individuals, communities also have their period of infancy, childhood, adolescence and maturity. This is true for the whole country as well. What I feel is that muhajirs are probably casting off some notions of adolescence and moving towards maturity.

Herald: But adolescence is an age where one can be led astray. Do you think the muhajirs are moving in the right direction?

Fahmida: I don't think they are really headed in the right direction. What I personally feel is that we muhajirs have to reconcile ourselves to being a minority. There is nothing wrong with being a minority. There are all kinds of majorities and minorities in a society. For example, I am a sunni so i belong to a majority sect, then I am a Muslim so I belong to what you call an overwhelming majority. I am a woman, so I belong to a minority. The I am a muhajir so I belong to a cultural minority and I must accept it. They talk of unemployment among the muhajirs but there is unemployment among the Baloch, the Sindhis, and the Punjabis as well. If you are a poor Punjabi, or if you are a Sindhi without contacts, you are likely to suffer the same fate. We can not share only the privileges of a nation; we have to share its miseries too. It is mindless to say that muhajhirs should get employment. Everyone should get employment.

Herald: Do you subscribe to the 'conspiracy theory' as far as Karachi's ethnic riots are concerned?

Fahmida: In India, the tole of a government is very suspect, to say the least, in communal riots, The same phenomenon seems to be working here. People wonder who starts these riots. Is there a conspiracy? Actually, there is more than one factor. First, there are economic rivalries which are a result of unplanned capitalistic development. These problems exist in every capitalist developing country. Here, in our country, there is no development in the real sense of the word, but there is money - money which is to be grabbed. And to me, this seems to e a fight to grab the biggest chunk. People themselves are not organised enough to start these riots. They need agents provocateurs to start these things. This is true of India and it is true of Karachi.

Then the superpowers have a lot of vested interests in Pakistan and specially in Karachi. The presence of a large number of Pathans, who are not from the Frontier alone but Afghanistan also, is yet another unusual development and a major factor responsible for the persisting tension. As far as the role of the government is concerned, the provincial government doesn't have the sort of autonomy that is required to deal with such situations, and the centre, it seems, has more issues issues to attend to.

Herald: How do you view General Zia's latest political move?

Fahmida: It is difficult to predict anything at the moment. Going by past experience, the reflective reaction is not to believe in the promise of elections. But we do not seem to have any choices either. So as the political leaders say, hope for the best and be ready for the worst.

Herald: But the General has been surprising the nation ever since he took over.

Fahmida: Yes, he has been springing surprises. But I don't think politics is some kind of game where you outsmart people. It should have some rules and the most important thing is that it should have the backing of the masses. I personally feel that the time is approaching when the generals will have to make a choice between respect and power. Because in the lifespan of a country, there comes a time when the army like to be integrated with the people, to become an institution that people respect and not abhor as they do now.

Herald: Is the recent change a step towards democracy or away from it?

Fahmida: People in our country are never taken into confidence. They will never know the real reason why this change took place. Politics in our country has always remained a kind of riddle for the common people, which is very humiliating. In most civilised countries,the intelligentsia plays a part in enhancing awareness among the people; they are the opinion makers. But in our country we are reduced to playing the role of writers of whodunnits, always solving mysteries and putting together pieces of jigsaw puzzles, because all we get is fragmented pieces of information. So one is really not in the position to say what is going to happen tomorrow.

There are countries in the world where dictators or unpopular governments are ruling. But the difference between those countries and us is that we have had the taste of a popularly elected government. Democracy is a part of the ethos of our people. General Zia himself pointed out in an interview that our people prefer democracy to even a good government and he was absolutely right. There is great psychological truth in this. What people choose for themselves, they prefer to the best of rulers foisted upon them.

Herald: How do you think the attitude of the masses has changed over the last eleven years? Would you agree that the man on the street has become quite apathetic?

Fahmida: During the last decade, the common man has been subjected to tremendous economic pressures. They have made sure that all this time is spent worrying about his next meal. Our middle class has virtually been turned into consumers. This has given rise to corruption which knows no limit today. There was corruption even in 1981 but people used to be ashamed of it. Today, it has become a way of life. There is no shame left in our society. I know some people who left very good jobs in Pakistan and settled abroad. The irony is that they are washing dishes out there but they are happy because they are making a secure and honest living. At least everyone should have a chance to be honest. We have been deprived of that chance.

As far as the interference of the common man is concerned, it is justified to a certain extent. You don't expect them to come out on the streets every now and then when there is nobody to lead them. But this is a temporary phenomenon. Ultimately power lies with the people and the rulers are also aware of it

Herald: How do you view the role of the political parties over the last eleven years?

Fahmida: All the political parties have government agents in their ranks; anyone can see that. After seeing what these parties have been through, it is difficult to blame them. It is amazing that they have even managed to survive.

Herald: Now that you are working as a journalist, how do you view the state of journalism in our country?

Fahmida: Now we are enjoying a spell of press freedom which is very, very important. But it must also be said that if the government is not responsible and it does not matter to them what you write, then this freedom loses half its meaning at once. Freedom of press and a responsible, accountable government are complementary things and one without the other is simply meaningless.

But within the given framework, our journalists have managed to express the feelings of the people. Sometimes they have struggled even when the political parties have been quiet. In Pakistan, they have received lashes. In any other civilised country, this would be unimaginable.

Herald: Given our circumstances, should our poets be writing political poetry? Or do you think that all poetry is political at a certain level?

Fahmida: It is just another genre of poetry. I enjoy reading it and I think the people enjoy it too. There can be good political poetry and bad political poetry, as with other genres of poetry, I don't think all poetry is political or has to be political. We do not have to fit everything into a single system. If it is not political poetry, and it is good, then this is not a negotiation of the fact that there is political poetry which is also good.

Herald: Most of our creative artistes tend to mellow with the passage of time but your level of dissent has remained the same. How have you managed to remain so young in your poetry?

Fahmida: That's a compliment. I should thank you and hope that I will keep on writing like that.

This article was originally published in the Herald's July 1988 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.