When I reached her daughter’s house in Karachi to meet the eminent Urdu language poet and writer Shabnam Shakeel, she looked a little exhausted, perhaps due to the journey that she had taken from Islamabad. Although the interview had been scheduled ahead of her arrival in Karachi (she’s based in the capital), she keeps her word and welcomes me with fond affection, as if she has known me for years.
Such is the humane nature of Shakeel: a woman of high aesthetics, manners and strong values, and yet a soft, discerning soul. “I have not written a lot of romantic poetry,” she confesses. Her take on life seems more pragmatic and sagacious than romantic, which is reflected in her poetry.
A verse from her perceptive poetry strikes a chord,
Naam kee khwahish humain kerti hai sargarm’e amal Is amal se bhi magar baezaar hojaatay hein hum
(The desire for fame does make us work hard But then we grow tired of it as well)
However, far from growing tired Shakeel’s writing a book these days that she talks about excitedly. “I am documenting the women singers of the ’40s: Roshan Ara Begum, Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, Malika Pukhraj, Amirbai Karnataki, etc,. It is about their art and life spent in promoting this art. I have remained very careful in keeping the sense of respect intact throughout the book. It is not a glimpse into their personal lives.”
This book will be a diversion from her other books based on her poetry and literature. One of Shakeel’s first books, Shab Zaad, was a collection of her ghazals, followed by Iztarab, another poetry collection; Na Qafas Na Ashiana was a collection of short stories. Musafat Raigaan was yet another poetry collection. Shakeel also wrote some life sketches, Taqreeb Kuch Tau that were quite well-received.
“I remember Mushfiq Khwaja Sahib wrote to me then that the Khakay reflected my own life as I represented the intellectual culture of yore. I told him that it was my love for the literary personalities that I had seen visiting my home in Lahore.” Hasrat Mohani Ka Taghazul was also an acclaimed book.
A recipient of the Pride of Performance award in 2004, Shakeel has mostly lived in Islamabad ever since she got married to a civil officer. As she breaks the discussion to remind her daughter to confirm her ticket back to Islamabad, Shakeel displays a sense of duty towards her husband in spite of her daughter nagging her to stay in Karachi a little longer. “I have to return as he gets agitated if I am not around,” she says devotedly.
Born, raised and educated in Lahore, she left her home city, for the first time, after marriage for Islamabad to start a new life. She taught as lecturer at the Queen Mary College, Lahore, then at the Lahore College for Women Univrsity; Government Girls College, Quetta, and after that at the Federal Government College for Women, F-7/2, Islamabad.
Shakeel cherishes the years when she worked and balanced a social and domestic life simultaneously, and quite amicably. “After marriage I realised that my husband was not very keen on my participating in mushairas,” she recounts. Shakeel did not want this to become an issue and so decided to retreat so that it didn’t interfere with her newly married life.
“I did not recite poetry in mushairas nor have had them published for almost 10 years,” states the poet, not regretting her decision a single bit. “People sometimes tell me that it was a mistake but I don’t consider it to be one. I wanted my feet to be well grounded as far as marriage was concerned. My children and marriage were more important for me,” she deems.
The soft-spoken Shakeel’s sense of priority soon yielded to an opportunity. “I think it was 1979,” Shakeel tries to recollect. “A mushaira was organised in Quetta by Qalam Qabeela organisation in which eminent poets like Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Perveen Shakir were also invited. At a gathering, Qasmi Sahib asked me why I had stopped writing poetry the way I wrote before marriage. I told him I had obligations to meet. He understood what I meant. He then spoke to my husband to seek his permission for me to participate in the mushaira. My husband allowed me to take part at Qasmi Sahib’s request.” That broke the sabbatical for Shakeel and she soon sent a ghazal from her unpublished collection to Fanoon magazine, the editor of which was Qasmi Sahib himself.
Shakeel found a “congenial environment for writing poetry” right in her home with her father, eminent thinker and Urdu poet, Syed Abid Ali Abid as her main source of inspiration. “The courtyard in our house welcomed many an intellectual of that time who sought my father’s company,” she reminisces.
“Faiz Sahib, Dr Taseer, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Syed Abdullah, Dr Nazeer, Patras Bokhari, etc,. were Agha’s (as Shakeel calls her father) frequent visitors. I considered them my chachas. As the huqqas made the gurgling sound while they puffed away the smoke, they discussed, debated and even argued but in the most humble and civilised manner,” she adds. Such discourse and discussions coupled with voracious reading groomed Shakeel as a sensitive and perceptive poet and writer.
“I used to sit in a demure corner of the courtyard and remained all ears to the heated discussions that sometimes took place till the early hours of the morning. I must confess I never heard these renowned personalities making caustic comments against each other.
“That signified the tolerance and mutual respect in that era, when people argued but refrained from getting down to causing personal attacks. They were not concerned with your background. They were interested in your views and ideas,” she beams at the thought of the yesteryear.
Shakeel accepts that personal details make interesting reading, “But we need to be cautious in not sensationalising people’s personal lives,” she sums up her background and grooming as a literary personality.
“As a matter of habit, I tend to hide the name of the author and then read. The names of poets or writers don’t easily come to my mind but I remember writings and poetry that are retained in my mind forever,” she says.
The poet’s most cherished memories of Lahore’s once vibrant literary scene now seems far down memory lane. “There is a sense of emptiness in Lahore now; a lot of people have left us.” As she expresses poetically,
Lahore peechay rehgaya hum baawafa magar Is sheher e bay misaal se aagay nahi gai
(Lahore may have struggled to keep pace, but we, the faithful, have not moved beyond the city that is truly unrivalled)
That sense of belongingness and simplicity Shakeel does not find today. “People look for short cuts to achieve wealth and fame which I am quite weary of. There is a sense of ad hocism in every aspect of life. Things look effervescent,” she feels. As Shakeel shuns the use of English words in everyday conversations, she snubs globalisation to be a myth. “What good is it for us as Third World people? Our language and culture will become extinct, and the thought is frightening,” she says.