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COLUMN: ODE TO FATHERHOOD

February 17, 2019

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Many years ago, after becoming a father I proudly announced it to my friends. Someone close but senior in years grinningly remarked, “Ah! So from now on you will be there in the house for ancillary purposes. Indeed, that is what fathers are meant for.” These lines came back to me with vividness when I read the first part of Farrukh Yar’s long Urdu poem ‘Karaiz’, titled ‘Pehli Pohri’ [First Step]. A karaiz is, of course, an underground water channel for irrigating land in a desert or arid zones. My eagerness to read the whole poem in one go made me request Farrukh Yar to share all four parts, although he had told me that it is due to be published in book form later this year.

The generation to which Farrukh Yar and I belong — neither old nor young — has grown up and lived through unsettling times. Besides other trends and phenomena, gender relations and behaviour patterns are constantly being reconfigured and redefined. We see the occurrence of a fundamental change in consciousness about the lack of basic rights for women and girls, a recognition of the oppression they have faced over millennia and a desire to overturn the practice of their commodification which continues to this day. We have also witnessed the concerted struggle waged by both women and men against misogyny across human societies and some fruits that this struggle bore.

Feminism, of different ideological and political hues, successfully challenged age-old patriarchal structures, gaining more space for realising the rights and needs of women. Undoubtedly, a lot more has still to be achieved. This remains a long haul as a large majority of women and girls still suffers from gross injustice and unequal treatment at the hands of their families, societies, economies and states. Ironically, there is an ‘otherness’ for women observed even among the progressive scholars and politicians of the older generations who otherwise believe in an equal society irrespective of identity or class. But when it comes to approaching issues of and about women, their sensibility is strikingly different and much less evolved from men of their succeeding generations.

Subsequently, exploring the issues of masculinity has also appeared as a discipline of study and practice, to interrogate and establish how men are themselves oppressed as thinking and feeling individuals because of this inherently unjust and lopsided social order. Their emotional beings are perpetually crushed by the norms of patriarchy. There is an attempt made to sensitise men and boys not only about the treatment meted out to women in a patriarchal society, but also the weight they have to carry themselves in order to live up to the demands of their manhood.

However, the problem is compounded by the fact that it is men and boys who also have to bear the burden of catalysing this social and cultural change to correct the gender imbalance. Even after being convinced that they too are oppressed by patriarchy, men also remain the perpetrators of the same — if not as individuals in some cases, as menfolk in general.

These debates are essential to make this a just, equal and tolerant world where, not only women and men but, classes and nations can also seek progress and harmony. But we see that in the analysis of this particular debate on patriarchy, oppression and gender relations, something that remains lost is an appreciation of fatherhood.

I was intrigued to chance upon some work of the evolutionary anthropologist and writer based at Oxford, Dr Anna Machin. She has been doing some pioneering scientific work on human fatherhood and how it is completely different from the males of other species. She acknowledges that this is the most neglected aspect of human behaviour that is unique to us. The evolution and survival of our species over the past half a million years would have been impossible if the father in human beings had behaved the same way as males of other species — including the ones closest to us, such as different apes — do. Machin says: “This trait is human fatherhood, and the fact that it doesn’t immediately spring to mind is symptomatic of the overwhelming neglect of this key figure in our society.”

The evolution of our species would have been impossible if the father in human beings behaved as males of other species do.

‘Karaiz’, the long poem by Farrukh Yar, holds a dull pathos within its folds and quietly but determinedly challenges the neglect of this key figure in contemporary human society: the father and this trait — fatherhood — that he embodies. There are some poems in Urdu as well as other literary traditions where one eulogises or remembers one’s father or the role a father has played in his children’s wellbeing. I also recall a short story by Bano Qudsia, ‘Baap Parast’ [Father-worshipper], with a slightly different, but related theme. However, the father remains the secondary parent in most of our writing. In an hour of need or pain, it is the mother who is sought. Whether it is religious texts or literary works, the mother is the parent to be commended, respected and revered. As in art where the mother is celebrated, in science or social studies the role of the mother is duly understood and acknowledged. But the father is rarely the subject of observation. Machin points out in one of her essays that all scientific inquiry, and ethnography after ethnography, is focused on the family and the role of the mother in the family.

Therefore, what Farrukh Yar has done, using subtlety and understatement as the primary means for his expression, is an invaluable addition to the range of themes and sensibility in Urdu verse. The horizon of this particular poem — ‘Karaiz’ — widens substantially because the poet begins by hinging it on his personal ancestry, but soon transgresses and transcends any rules of matter and metaphor, time and space. He creates a nest and then flies away to perch on trees far and wide while singing sorrows that take us beyond the subject. But then he comes back to his nest to catch his breath. His nest is the nest of fatherhood.

The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His new collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell is forthcoming

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 17th, 2019