December 02, 2018


Fahmida Riaz, the poet, writer, feminist and activist who wanted to resist the darkness spreading fast around herself and her people | Arif Mahmood/White Star
Fahmida Riaz, the poet, writer, feminist and activist who wanted to resist the darkness spreading fast around herself and her people | Arif Mahmood/White Star

The evening of Thursday, Nov 21, 2018, draws the curtain on an era in Urdu verse — the era of Fahmida Riaz. Born in Meerut, India, in 1946, she grew up, studied and became socially and politically active in Hyderabad (Sindh) — the city she always considered home. Later, she spent some years in London, some in Delhi in exile, but mostly lived in Karachi. She died in Lahore and was buried in a local graveyard.

Riaz was among the most significant poets and writers of her generation and truly outstanding among those pioneering women of the 20th century whose writings jarred and jolted the South Asian Muslim mind and contributed to a new awakening. She was an avant-garde poet in Urdu who aesthetically explored and expressed the innermost feelings of a woman: dreams, desires, needs and sexuality.

Her earlier work in collections such as Pathar Ki Zabaan and Badan Dareeda brought her a lot of flak when the self-proclaimed custodians of morality declared her work obscene and her own character impious. Riaz was undeterred. This castigation would not suffice since innate nonconformity had developed in her a penchant for inviting trouble instead of seeking a stable life. She felt an aversion to the oppressive and unjust political and economic order that surrounded her. Riaz became overtly active with labour and democratic rights movements besides writing poetry and prose that challenged the powers-that-be. Her chastisers now included the custodians of the state.

The passing away last week of Fahmida Riaz, formidable poet, prose writer, translator, feminist and rights activist, marks the end of an era that she defined on her own terms

Riaz was made to pay a huge price for both her unfettered poetic expression and higher political ideals. The vindictiveness of the moral brigade had joined hands with the coerciveness of the power elite to make her life miserable and tarnish her reputation. She faced enormous financial constraints. For some brief stints during various PPP governments, she was appointed to manage the National Book Council, the National Book Foundation and the Urdu Dictionary Board. There, in whatever little time she got, Riaz concentrated more on the wellbeing of her fellow writers and colleagues rather than her own welfare. However, she is among the few — if not the only — poets against whom a programme was aired on state television, declaring her a foreign agent. How ironic and what a twist of fate that the then prime minister, who referred to her as a traitor, is now being portrayed as one himself by the state establishment. Riaz once said smilingly with that unique cadence in her voice: “They could only cause danger to my life, not to my property. Because I never had any property.”

Exceptionally well read in world literature, history and politics, she kept herself abreast with contemporary social and political developments to the last day and remained concerned with the human condition. Her Facebook blogs offered a running commentary for some years, providing insight into local and international events that impact our lives. But above all, Riaz was a poet through and through. Nothing could prevent her from consistently composing some of the finest contemporary poems in Urdu which appeared in her collections: Dhoop, Kya Tum Pura Chand Na Dekho Gey, Humrakaab, Aadmi Ki Zindagi and Tum Kabeer (a masterful elegy written for her son in the final years of her life). Her collected works (from 1967 to 2000) titled Sab Lal-o-Guhar were published in 2011. She translated the Sindhi verse of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Shaikh Ayaz and Attiya Dawood and the modern Persian verse of Forough Farrokhzad into Urdu. She also chose from some of the transcendental ghazals in the Diwan-i-Shams Tabriz by Maulana Rumi for their Urdu rendition. She wrote fiction and non-fiction regularly. Two of her novellas, Godavri and Qila-i-Faramoshi gained wide acclaim. She translated short stories from Persian and Sindhi as well. Her oeuvre is large and expansive.

Riaz is celebrated, but some of her serious work in verse still needs to be read properly and appreciated critically. In my humble view, her book Aadmi Ki Zindagi, also included in her collected works, is one of the most exquisite volumes of Urdu poetry written in modern times. It includes such powerful, aesthetically superior and elating poems as ‘Zaujain’ [Spouses] in six parts and ‘Aadmi Ki Zindagi’ in 17 parts. Now the task to collect her unpublished work in both poetry and prose remains.

At a personal level, the loss felt by my family and me is deep and irreconcilable. We travelled together on a couple of occasions and spoke to audiences from the same panels. Whenever in Islamabad, Fahmida Apa, as we fondly called her, stayed with us for weeks and months. Besides the artist Mobina Zuberi and Riaz’s uncle Waseem Zuberi, we were her family in the city she otherwise found indifferent and cold. As she grew old, I remember when going to bed she would insist on keeping all the lights switched on — not only in her own bedroom and bathroom, but in the whole house. She wanted to resist the darkness spreading fast around herself and her people. Her death brings an end to a sad and eventful life that enriched the Pakistani world of letters and resistance movements like few.

‘The Soft Fragrance of My Jasmine’

The soft fragrance of my jasmine
Floats on the breeze
Plays with the hand of the wind,
Is setting off in search of you.

The soft fragrance of my jasmine
Has curled around my wrists,
My arms, my throat.
It has woven chains about me.
It lurks in the fogging night,
Seeps through the darkening cold.
Rustling through the leafy thicket,
It’s setting off in search of you.

(Translated by Patricia L. Sharpe).

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 2nd, 2018