Folding up her pitari of stories and conversation, Altaf Fatima has taken her leave from the stage, in the same quiet, unobtrusive and dignified manner in which she lived. No loud lamentations, only a sense of irrevocable loss and sorrow for the fine writer and respectable figure she was. Hers was a life of penmanship, devoted to writing and teaching and she left behind a formidable volume of work which will make people think of her long afterwards with fondness and admiration.
She is best known for her novel Dastak Na Do [Do Not Knock], the saga of a sprawling pre-Partition family with the chinky-eyed, rebellious Gaythi at its centre, one of the most spirited leading ladies in Urdu literature. The novel was serialised and televised in the early days of PTV and an abridged translation was published monthly in the Herald. Later, the novel was rendered into English as The One Who Did Not Ask by the London-based fiction writer Rukhsana Ahmad. Out of print now, it deserves to be in circulation again, especially as there is renewed interest in stories set around Partition.
In her introduction in the novel, Ahmad highlights the apparently “artless, apparently ingenious narrative, powered by the sheer energy of its story,” with a sophisticated mastery, “painstaking and precise” characterisation and a structure which “manages to hold together a vast array of characters and several complex themes, sometimes even inherently anomalous and contradictory positions.” It is the beauty of its chaste language and the subdued lyricism of its depiction, no less than the vivid characters, which draw many readers towards the novel. Tinkling his bicycle bell, the Chinaman in the opening scene realises the Tao of patient love by never raising his voice to ask.
Altaf Fatima, who passed away last week, never received her due despite a formidable body of work. But she was much too dignified a person and had too many stories to tell to let it bother her
Fatima belonged to a literary household from Lucknow where she was born in 1929 (not 1927 as is being erroneously stated elsewhere). A formative influence on her development as a writer was her mother, who happened to be the sister of Rafique Hussain who took up writing relatively late in a life spent switching jobs and shikaar [hunting], and died after leaving a handful of highly original stories. Later on, Fatima went on to write a vivid memoir Khizaan Kay Rang [Colours of Autumn]. She told me that she would like to add more chapters to it when I wanted to publish it, but this was another book which remained a dream.
Her childhood home in Lucknow was adjacent to the ancestral home of the writer and scholar Naiyer Masud, and she loved to recount her fond memories of the family. After coming to Pakistan, her family settled in Lahore and from here she completed her Masters in Literature and Bachelors in Education, taking up teaching as a career. She started writing at an early age and made fiction her forte.
Her first novel, Nishan-i-Mehfil [Signs of Lost Gatherings], was followed by the more successful Dastak Na Do and Chalta Musafir [The Traveller on his Way], which is a sensitive depiction of the events of 1971 from a Pakistani point of view. Patriotic to the core, she did not stoop to the cloying, jingoistic nationalism taken up by many intellectuals in that period. Khwaab Gar [The Maker of Dreams] was her fourth and final novel. She had started another novel with a historical setting, as she mentioned to me in one of our conversations, but I have no clue if it ever got completed and if it will see the light of day.
More than her novels, it was her short stories that brought out the best in her with their fine detail and elegant style. Woh Jisay Chaaha Gaya [The One Who Was Loved] was her first collection while the last, Deed Wadeed [The Spectacle and Sight] won the best book of Urdu fiction prize at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2018. A handful of her stories have been translated into English and are worth mentioning. Muhammad Salimur Rahman’s collection, The Naked Hens, is named after a story by Fatima and in the introduction he speaks of a gradual maturing of her art over the years, highlighting “her short stories, with their expressionistic manner and unfailing sensitivity [which] present her talent in a better light.” Another story in translation, Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind? lends its title to an anthology edited by Muhammad Umar Memon.
Another field in which she distinguished herself was translation. Harper Lee’s unforgettable To Kill a Mockingbird became Naghmay Ka Qatl in Fatima’s delightful rendering. She translated a number of other novels and stories as well. I particularly liked her translations of Latin American women’s fiction which were published as a special issue of the Adab-i-Latif. She asked me to publish this as a book and while preparations were made, there was a hitch, and it could not be.
I got to know Fatima in her twilight years and would visit her at her home which she named Kunj Gali [A Solitary Lane]. She lived in a frugal manner, but was very affectionate and welcoming. Later her health dwindled as her vision impaired and she had difficulty in writing, too. I wanted to compile a volume of her selected stories, but she somehow did not approve of the idea. For my less-than-successful venture in publishing, I reprinted two of her collections of short fiction and commissioned a translation for young adults of stories about young people in the Middle East, which turned out to be a delight even though it was not a commercial success. She contributed several stories to my journal Dunyazaad as well as letters about what she liked.
Rukhsana Ahmad spoke of meeting her and being “impressed by her dignity, her independence and her passion” — this is the same impression I have. Fatima was conscious of being ignored by the mainstream literati and official bodies, but she was neither bitter nor resentful. For me, she was like the title of her book: one who did not ask. She had no need to do so, as she had many stories to tell.
The writer is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 9th, 2018