By Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui
Cover-1In what may sound like one of her high-achieving protagonists, Farhat Ishtiaq has an engineering degree from the NED University. Except that unlike her characters, she was miserable in her chosen profession while writing was something she was always interested in. “There is a strong perception [in our society] that writers and poets are financially insecure and hence writing cannot be taken up as a profession,” she says.
There is nothing apologetic about Farhat Ishtiaq: “If I create fantasies in my books and readers are happy reading them, what’s the harm in that?” she asks. Dismissing the criticism of writing socially regressive fiction, she says she will leave the depiction of ‘reality’ to others: “Many people are writing about reality and social issues but this is what I want to write and will continue to.” For those unfamiliar with Ishtiaq’s work, she is the best-selling author of 13 novels, two of which have been televised — Humsafar, which was a major success and Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu.
In long-drawn-out stories about love, suspense and family relations, Ishtiaq creates Mills and Boon type fairy-tale characters with virtuous emotions. This latter trait is essential to the world she creates in her books. Be it heroes such as Aabi in Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu and Ashar in Humsafar, or heroines like Saman in Bin Roye Aansoo and Maha in Safar ki Shaam, each of them possess khoobsoorat soch (uncorrupted thoughts), khoobsoorat dil (pure heart), khoobsoorat zehan (beautiful mind) and khoobsoorat chehra (good looks). And not only this, but her central characters are also brainy and highly educated. Zoofishan in Woh Joh Qarz Rakhay Thay is a “brilliant” student of journalism, Humair in Safar ki Shaam studies at IBA and is a “genius” and Khirad in Humsafar completes her masters in mathematics after her marriage to Ashar.
Given the readership Ishtiaq enjoys, this formula clearly works. Not only do her books sell a lot, her fans generously express their admiration for her in letters to her editor at Khawateen Digest, where her books are serialised, and on her Facebook page (it has more than 54,000 followers). She is called “the queen of love” and tributes such as “ur one of world’s best writer” (sic) and “hy api ap ka likha tu ik ik word heart touching hota h keep it up mashallah” (sic) clutter the page.
Even some of the criticism is nothing more than a veiled compliment. For instance, Fizza Malik, a second-year pre-engineering student, found Humsafar’s story unrealistic but her criticism reflects Ishtiaq’s ability to capture her readers’ (and television viewers’) imagination with her characters: “Ashar’s character was so unreal it created unrealistic expectations,” said Malik. “All the girls in my college would say that they want a guy like Ashar.” Like many, Malik read Humsafar after it was dramatised for television last year, attaining record television ratings and gaining worldwide attention among Urdu drama watchers. In fact, it is safe to say that Humsafar has become a byword for successful television productions.
At the same time, there are those who are scathing in their critique of the worldview projected in Ishtiaq’s work. Many critiqued Humsafar in newspapers and blogs for perpetuating gender stereotypes, rewarding submissiveness and punishing ambition and independence in women. A blogger who blogs under the pseudonym Karachi Feminist wrote a post titled ‘The Terrible Appeal of Humsafar’, arguing that “It is sexist justice that soothes the hearts of patriarchal vigilantes, and keeps us on because we want to see the mother-in-law shamed, humiliated and thrust out, and moral purity rise to the top in the reunion of Khirad and Ashar.”
But Ishtiaq’s long-time editor at Khawateen Digest, Amtul Saboor, feels that her stories also tackle themes of struggle, materialism and explore relationships other than romantic as well. “On the surface, the story of Dil Say Niklay Jo Lafz is about an orphan falling in love but actually it is a story of the struggle of a self-made person. Khirad (in Humsafar) is a woman with self-respect, which is why she leaves her wealthy in-laws and husband after they mistreat her. Woh Jo Qarz Rakhay Thay is about a granddaughter’s love for her grandfather,” Saboor argues. She also finds Ishtiaq different from her other contributors as in her novels she celebrates small joys and occasions, again mirroring her readers’ aspirations and emotionally engaging them. In fact, Ishtiaq’s readers tend to become so involved with her characters that, Saboor says, “When Aabi in Mata-i-Jaan died, they wrote in letters requesting Farhat aapi to write a sequel to the book in which it emerges that Aabi was actually in a coma.”
Kamran Asdar Ali, who teaches anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, in his essay ‘Pulp Fictions: Reading Pakistani Domesticity,’ explores the popular fiction produced in Pakistan, particularly the digests. Acknowledging the genre’s “deep social and cultural links to the development of the modern Urdu short story and also historically to the specifically women-oriented narratives of late-19th- and early-20th-century North India,” he points out its similarities with Western romances, portraying women in “traditional roles as daughters, wives, and mothers, and ... as sexually naive, passive, and submissive in their relationships to men.”
The popularity of digests is uncontested. Figures quoted by Asdar in his paper show that “the number of magazines published in Pakistan grew from 214 in 1993 to 406 in 2000 ... Women’s digests such as Pakeeza or Dosheeza have monthly circulations of 60,000 copies reaching an average of 300,000 adult readers, far more than the first run of the most respectable literary publications.”
Ishtiaq’s 13th and latest novel, Jo Bachay Hain Sang Samait Lo, is hailed by readers as reflecting her evolution as a writer. The plot revolves around parental favouritism and its repercussions. Set in Rome, Italy (where Ishtiaq spent some time during her father’s posting in the city), the characters are fully sketched out without loose ends. This is a departure from her earlier works where the criticism was that sometimes characters disappear from the middle of the narrative. She has also written meticulous descriptions of Rome that her readers say make them feel as if they are present in the city. On the novel’s Facebook page, Ishtiaq’s fans have superimposed excerpts from the book with pictures of Rome. Some have even designed online greeting cards using Liza’s and Sikander’s names (the central characters in the novel).