Every year around mid-August, with some degree of fanfare, the civil awards are announced by the government of Pakistan, with due notifications from the people in highest authority who, I suppose, get to sign on the dotted line without actually reading or pondering possible meanings. Glancing through the headlines this year, I dutifully read the list of distinguished men and women who will be duly presented the awards — including the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz — in March 2020. I did not want to miss out any name and also wanted to check how familiar I was with some of their work.
The Tamgha-i-Imtiaz is conferred on men and women with a record of distinguished service in particular fields, including literature. I was appalled to discover that this time — with the exception of two writers no longer alive — not a single writer, scholar or poet has been considered worthy of the honour. This glaring omission is yet another part of the government’s wilful neglect of this vital area of Pakistan’s creative consciousness. From sportspersons to musicians and physicists to educationists, so many categories have been given due recognition — all very deservedly, I daresay — but what happened to the writers? Were there no writers of stature who deserved this kind of recognition? Have they disappeared from the public view only this year?
Taken at face value, it also means that there are virtually no writers and poets in Pakistan who deserve recognition, not even at the level recognised in other fields. If this is true, then this implies a grave national crisis. If there is such a paucity of writers, then this should be a cause of national embarrassment. Where have all the writers suddenly gone this year? Have they become extinct like the dodo bird, or simply Disappeared (with a capital D) to earn the label of ‘Missing’? The top brass should sit up and take notice. Or perhaps they can simply light a fire under the so-called cultural bodies set up in Islamabad, miles away from the reality of Pakistan’s literary activity.
This year, the late Ibne Safi has been awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz posthumously. Better late than never! At least they have woken up to the phenomenal following the writer had in his heyday many decades ago. The other writer recognised is Fahmida Riaz, given the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz as a posthumous award. This is too late and too little. She should have won such honours decades ago when she blazed a new trail through her creative expression and courageous approach. Difficult circumstances could not make the marvellous poet budge from the courageous stand she took on many issues, refusing to bow before the powers she did not agree with. I wonder if these learned bodies were waiting for her to die before conferring such honours. Are they doing the same with other writers, willing to recognise their merit, but only posthumously?
In her tumultuous life, Riaz had received the Pride of Performance and the prestigious Kamal-i-Fun award as an outstanding poet and writer. Ideally, her name should have been considered for a higher award and that, too, in her lifetime. It is ironic that in the editorial of his just published issue of the magazine Aalami Urdu Adab, the recently deceased Nand Kishore Vikram incorrectly speaks of Riaz as having been awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz. It just seems natural that she should have been the recipient of many awards.
It is worth reiterating that Riaz was an iconic presence in Pakistan’s literary history who changed its course in many ways. She emerged as a poet and short story writer in the pages of the journal Funoon, edited by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. Her second collection of poems, Badan Dareeda [Torn Body], remains one of the most significant books of our time and age. Lyrical, gentle and at the same time bold, this was Riaz’s personal voice addressing subjects such as pregnancy, physical reality and her refusal to accept the doll-like image which society upheld before her as a model. As she went on to write about broader themes, the personal and the political were never disconnected in her approach. Later on, she returned to fiction and, to my mind, she was one of the most daring and innovative fiction writers of the day. She read and related with literature from multiple traditions. She translated from Rumi, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Shaikh Ayaz, Naguib Mahfouz and Forough Farrokhzad, among others, and — through her nuanced translations — enriched the contemporary scene. Another area of distinction for which she deserves accolades were the books she wrote for children and younger readers, introducing them to historical and traditional personalities such as Sheikh Saadi and Ibn-i-Khaldun. A brave stance on issues of her concern and substantive work characterised Riaz’s literary career and these need to recognised and honoured as such.
Taken at face value, it also means that there are virtually no writers and poets in Pakistan who deserve recognition ... this should be a cause of national embarrassment.
Riaz remained connected with the current literary scene and she encouraged younger writers and poets. She would not have been happy in a situation where official recognition of merit — whatever benefits it may bring — is denied to those writers and poets who are actively pursuing their calling and remain committed to their vision. By failing to recognise their presence, the official establishment is really failing, not only towards literature, but towards society as a whole.
As a postscript, I should add how this makes me apprehensive. I was the recipient of the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in the year 2005. I request for this to be declared Premature Posthumous, anticipating the eventuality of my by-no-means-uncertain death and the fact that I must have been alive in 2005. Otherwise how will I ever show my face to Riaz when I see her in the realm of the unknown or the Island of Dr Moreau?
The columnist is a critic and fiction writer and was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz for his literary work in 2005. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 8th, 2019