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— Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star.
— Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star.

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.”

Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star.
Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star.

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).

Not long ago one evening, Ishtiaq discussed her life and work with me as we sat in the living room of her home in a prosperous middle-class neighbourhood where she has lived since moving back from Japan where she spent her childhood. In what may sound like one of her high-achieving protagonists, 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, speaking in rapid, short sentences.

The second of six siblings, Ishtiaq’s childhood reading comprised Enid Blyton and Ishtiaq Ahmed. Over time she moved on to popular fiction by Razia Butt, Bushra Rehman, Riffat Siraj, Sidney Sheldon and John Grisham. But she was never encouraged to write. “Writing does not run in my family,” she says. “But as far as I remember I was good at writing school essays. From class sixth onwards I would write short stories during the summer breaks and ask my friends to read them. Then in class eighth I wrote a complete novel and even designed its cover.” Before she embarked on her short-lived engineering career 13 years ago, Ishtiaq sent her first short story to Khawateen Digest. It was published, starting what became a long-standing association that continues to this day.

Unhappy that her long working hours were not leaving her enough time to write, Farhat engaged in some honest self-reflection. “I told myself that I should do what makes me happy,” she recalls. Soon she quit her job and penned two novels in short succession — writing on large, lined sheets of paper, a routine she continues to practice — and mailed them to Khawateen Digest, which was more than happy to publish them. At the same time, taunted by sceptical relatives for taking what they saw as a financially risky decision of quitting her job, Ishtiaq did her masters privately in International Relations and like her hard-working heroines, combined writing with teaching O-level students.

With a full-fledged career as a novelist, Farhat now only occasionally teaches and her focus is on writing — “an intensely lonely and painful process,” she says. “I become irritable and go through mood swings. And it becomes worse when I get stuck in a story.”

The first draft is always shown to her sister Huma who also advises Farhat on her story lines and characters. “The idea for Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu was Huma’s. She suggested that I write about a girl who comes to live with her in-laws after her husband’s death.” Calling Huma a “good resource,” Farhat says that she and her sister share the same wavelength. “She gives me a reader’s perspective which I find valuable.” Based on her sister’s feedback, Farhat makes amendments to the draft. Most of her works are revised at least thrice before being sent to Khawateen Digest, which publishes them episodically.

Discussing her inspirations, Ishtiaq says that Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s verse “Woh jo qazr rakhay thay,” triggered a thought about a grandfather’s and a granddaughter’s relationship. “The first scene that appeared to me was a woman on her wedding day asking her nanna to forgive her mother. From there on I built my story. For Bin Roye Aansoo, I first conceived of Saba’s character and her possessive love for Irtiza.”

It was inevitable that Humsafar’s popularity on television would come up for discussion. The script for the drama took more than a year to develop and the producer Momina Duraid guided Ishtiaq, new to script-writing, through the process. It was on Duraid’s insistence that Ishtiaq developed Sara’s character for the televised version of the novel (she is only a minor character in the book). Duraid also made some other suggestions which were incorporated in the television series, such as making Khirad answer back to her mother-in-law and stay with her estranged in-laws during her daughter’s heart surgery. Ishtiaq says she found Duraid’s input productive — eventually. Initially she disagreed with the changes but then realised that “Momina is good at tying up loose ends.”

While Ishtiaq was a popular writer prior to Hum TV’s production of Humsafar, there is no doubt that the televised version of her novel catapulted her to nationwide (and even international) fame and the pressure to match or surpass that success is present with every subsequent television production. But Ishtiaq doesn’t seem too stressed about it, calling it “a part of the game.” Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu, which followed Humsafar, did not get the same ratings, something that Ishtiaq partly puts down to the selection of Adeel Hussain to play Aabi. She feels that the viewers wanted a young man with dimples, though she herself feels that Hussain did a good job with the role. Many hopes are pinned on her upcoming drama Bin Roye Aansoo, her third novel to be televised. The producers, she says, are looking for it to be “a bigger dhamaka than Humsafar.”

Redoing her novels for television requires a lot of hard work. “In a novel I can say something about a character in one line and that can be enough to define the character. But on television, conveying what that one line conveyed can take several scenes. For instance, in the book Humsafar I mention that Khirad has a big ego and wrote maybe two lines to explain this further. But in the serial I had to write several scenes to show this character trait. Then some characters, that are only minor ones in the novel, have to be either rewritten or fleshed-out for television. Sometimes I have had to create a character that never existed in the book. For instance, Yameena does not exist in the novel Mata-i-Jaan.”

And what about feedback from her publishers? While glad that her stories have never been rejected, Ishtiaq does hesitantly agree that there is lack of critical input from her editors. It is through trial and error that she developed her writing skills, she says.

With Rihaee, currently on air, Ishtiaq has ventured into original script writing. Directed by the well-known television and film director Mehreen Jabbar, the drama serial is jointly produced by Momina Duraid and Kashf Foundation, a micro-finance organisation. It focuses on child marriage, gender discrimination and economic empowerment based on real-life stories provided by Kashf Foundation. The serial is a departure for Ishtiaq, taking her away from her comfort zone of romance to harsh depictions of domestic and child abuse: “I thought I couldn’t do it but Momina insisted that I did. She said that I am good with emotions and will be able to bring that intensity into the story. So I took it up as a challenge.” And by doing so Ishtiaq has gained a new fan following, people who have not read her books.

For now, Ishtiaq remains committed to writing romances but with a twist — she wants to explore the possibilities of falling in love for the second time. She put a question to her Facebook followers about falling in love again and was surprised by the answers: “Some replied that second love is a comparison of sorts. People inevitably compare their second love to their first. Others gave religious references, such as the Prophet’s love for Bibi Ayesha.”

I pluck up the courage to ask whether she wants a partner with the attributes her novels’ heroes boast of. She answers frankly that she does: “I don’t believe that one must get married after a certain age. I don’t want such a marriage. And I am ready to stay single till I find such a person.”

For now, though, more writing and more ambition is on the horizon. “I will continue to write simple, emotionally intense stories,” says Ishtiaq. “Even in the West popular fiction has never been respected. Look at Sidney Sheldon, Dan Brown and John Grisham. They have never been respected by the literary people despite their tremendous popularity. And that’s okay.”