The memories of East Pakistan’s dark period are vividly etched in her mind even today, though more than 40 years have passed. Dr Fatema Hassan, writer, poet and teacher, has turned her negative experiences into positive energy through sheer hard work and motivation, achieving her goals in life and making a niche in the literary world.
Her mother’s family migrated to East Pakistan from Kolkata (then Calcutta) after partition, but her mother came to Karachi after marriage where Hassan was born. When Hasan was seven years old her father took early retirement from the army and resettled in Dhaka . “Life was happy and uneventful but things began to change in the late 60s. The Bengali people never showed any hatred or dislike for non-Bengali speaking residents and we all used to intermingle and lived in harmony when I was in college; there were no problems at all.”
Hassan emphasises that it was a political party and the army that changed the mood of the Bengali people, and later the Bengalis began to feel the deprivations they faced in their own land perpetuated by those who belonged to the other wing. Otherwise they never thought of seceding. Even after the fall of Dhaka, there were Bengalis who loved Pakistan. “Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman before the fall said Pakistan Zindabad in his speech. It was the behaviour of the West Pakistani politicians that caused the break-up. Didn’t the leaders realise the developing situation? Our biggest tragedy was and is that we didn’t have good leaders to run the country. Today we are on the brink of disaster because of this.”
Her maternal uncle was a barrister who later became the attorney general of Bangladesh, and when the situation started to deteriorate, the family shifted to his house and lived their for a year after the fall of Dhaka. “But things became so bad that we had to leave. Coming to Karachi was not easy, we first went to India and then Nepal and from there to Pakistan. My uncle was influential that is why we got to these places in safety.
“Being accepted was not much of a problem, especially for us as we were Urdu speaking and our relatives lived here. Even otherwise most people felt welcomed at that time. The heartbreak of leaving a land I loved and had lived almost all my life in was terrible, but I found a place that I felt a part of immediately as it spoke my language and had the flag that was taken away from me there. I love Pakistan with all my being now.”
Having lived a life of luxury and protection, once in Karachi the family saw difficult times. Her father was the only earning member and it was very difficult to make ends meet. Hassan, the eldest of seven siblings, was an Urdu literature student in Dhaka and couldn’t get admission in the university as she came after admissions had closed; thus she ended up giving her BA exam as a private student. She did her MA in journalism and also worked to support her family.
As she used to write for Urdu magazines in Dhaka, Hassan continued writing here and joined a circle of young writers and poets which included Parveen Shakir, Sarwat Hussain, Ayub Khawar, Azra Abbas and Shahida Hasan. She participated in Radio Pakistan’s Bazme Talaba programmes, earning money through them, and also undertook copywriting for an ad agency during this period. “I had to put up a brave front as it was very difficult to keep up the pretence of everything being okay when actually everything was too bleak. The producers of Bazme Talaba gave me programmes and guided me, understanding my plight. People like Qamar Jameel, Zamir Ali and Ismet Zehra proved to be my mentors at the radio station.”
Radio Pakistan turned out to be a treasure trove for Hassan as there she met famous writers, such as Intezar Hussain, Dr Ahsan Farooqui and Munir Niazi, who became lifelong friends and caring elders. In 1977, soon after completing her MA, she got a job as assistant editor publications in the Sindh information department, and a few years later became the information officer for films. “In 1983, I was appointed deputy director, public relations training and research, of Sindh Employees Social Security Institution (Sessi) and became the director there later on. In between I was on deputation for katchi abaadi authorities as deputy director monitoring and public relations working for Unicef projects as coordinator. I retired in May 2012 from Sessi. Since public relations was my favourite subject and being in this profession for 40 years I chose the subject to teach in a private university as well as Karachi University.”
Hassan emphasises that the modernity that came with education in Bengal is lacking here as there is no depth in outlook, perhaps because the standard of education is not as high as it was in East Pakistan. As a teacher she sees her students lagging behind in knowledge when compared to other countries such as Iran, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
She had dreamt of doing her Ph.D. a long time ago and after all her sisters had been married she took a year’s leave without pay and completed her thesis. “I chose a very unusual and, in my view an important, topic: the first poetess of the subcontinent, Zahida Khatoon Sherwani (1894-1922) who was published in Urdu magazines and newspapers in her time. As she could not reveal her identity she used her initials Zay Khay Sheen.”
Hassan’s first collection of poetry Behtay huay phool was published in 1977 which reflects a period of unrest and problems that she faced after leaving East Pakistan. Her second collection was published in 1993 when she was married and is very different from her first book, reflecting a very settled and happy period as her husband was very supportive and caring. Her third book, a collection of short stories, came out in 2000 and focuses on feminine consciousness.
Hassan feels very strongly about gender inequality. In 1975, at the age of 22, she wrote a poem about a woman who wanted to be protected by her daughter rather than her husband. “The rise of fundamentalism in society is alarming and the situation of women is becoming worse, depriving them of education and their rights.” During the earthquakes in Kashmir and Ziarat and the floods in Sindh, she went to help the women there and was much disturbed by the attitude of the men towards the women.
They weren’t bothered about their feelings and what the women were going through physically. “It is sad and alarming at the same time. What happens if there is a war or a natural calamity and being uneducated what will they do when they find themselves alone?” Being an educationist now, her focus on this aspect has increased.
Hassan had never imagined leaving East Pakistan as her roots were firmly entrenched there. Whenever there is unrest here it takes her back to that traumatic period. “One night we had everything, the next morning everything was taken from us, our home, identity and belongings. We were at risk in our own home, experiencing an alien atmosphere all of a sudden. We need to take care of this country as I have experienced the terrible feeling of emptiness when East Pakistan was taken away from us. I feel for the Baloch, Seraiki and Hazara people and the minority communities when they go through bad times. The situation in Balochistan, today, is similar to that of East Pakistan. Unfortunately, we have not learnt from that terrible lesson.”
But Hassan feels that the experiences that she has faced have helped tremendously in bringing out feelings in her poetry. She proudly states that she has never bowed down to adversity and thus become a strong person and this is reflected in her poetry. “My aesthetic sense is also strong due to my upbringing in Bengal.”
Today Hassan’s focus is on education but she continues to write poetry with just as much vigour and enthusiasm as she did in the past, saying it is her lifeline.