It was a little over a month ago that Aamir Faraz – the late Afra Bukhari’s son and now literary heir – had told me over the phone that his mother’s new short story collection Sang-e-Siyah (Black Stone) had just come out. I had wanted to review the book and also meet its octogenarian author to talk about her life and craft.
But on the afternoon of January 3, 2022, news began circulating on social media that Afra Bukhari had died. This news was unexpected, for she was not known to have been ill, even though she was, of course, 83.
Bukhari belonged to that remarkable generation of women writers in Urdu, born between 1925 and 1940, whose ranks included the novelists Masroor Jahan, Altaf Fatima, Jilani Bano, Parveen Atif, Khalida Husain, Nisar Aziz Butt, Razia Faseeh Ahmad, and the short story writer Wajida Tabassum. With her passing, only two from that generation remain: Faseeh Ahmad from Pakistan and Bano from India. Of the rest, all but Tabassum (who died in 2011) have died in the past four years.
From Amritsar to Lahore
Bukhari has said, “I wrote what I saw in society.” Rather than colours, she wrote in black and white, often bringing out the pain of the human condition, which we tend to ignore when we encounter it. She spent only the first few years of her life in Amritsar, where she was born on 14 March, 1938, before the Partition, but her birthplace stayed with her. “How is Amritsar now,” she would say, “I can see Amritsar.”
She never got to visit Amritsar again, but she remembered the Amritsar she had seen in childhood, and immortalised many of the people she had seen by turning them into characters in her short-stories.
My first meeting with Bukhari took place thanks to her son Aamir Faraz in 2006. An attractive and charming personality, with hair as white as cottonwool, and a strawberries and cream complexion. She spoke pure Punjabi. However stern her voice might be in her stories, in personal conversation her sweet Punjabi tone was the dominant one. In Lahore we met at the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, the Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musanifeen, the radio station, and her residence, sometimes with other members of literary circles.
After the creation of Pakistan, Bukhari moved to Lahore along with her family, where she lived the rest of her life. The penchant for writing ran in the family. One of her brothers, Riaz Bukhari had an interest in poetry. She began writing short stories for children during her education at the Government College, Cooper Road, Lahore. From 1959 onwards, it became a regular part of her life.
Chronicler of pain
After the death of her husband in 1978, family responsibilities kept Bukhari away from writing for a long while. She resumed writing in the 1990s, and, in 1997, when Pakistan observed the 50th anniversary of its founding, she wrote a story that she had kept buried in her head for over 50 years. The story, titled Miyaan Putro (My Children) embodies the sorrows of Partition. The grief of migration, relocation, exile, helplessness and ruination is laid out here uncompromisingly.
Before her fifth and final short story collection Sang-e-Siyaah was published in 2021, Bukhari had published four other collections: Faasle (Distances) in 1964, Nijaat (Salvation) in 1998, Ret Mein Paaon (Feet in the Sand) in 2003, and Aankh Aur Andhera (The Eye and the Darkness) in 2009. In addition, her stories continued to be published in Istiqlal, Taameer-e-Nau, Adab-e-Latif, Dastaango, Imroze, Savera, Afkaar, Mah-e-Nau, Nuqoosh, Seep, Al-Shuja, Sayyara Digest, Zebunissa, and Chilma, besides literary journals. Her first and only novel Pehchaan (Identity) remains incomplete.
Most of Bukhari’s stories capture the pain of women. She conveys the screams of a woman holding the small joys and huge griefs of small families. Her fiction elevates the agony of everyday living to a mythological level. Her skill with the language and the ability to induce a willing suspension of disbelief places the reader in the centre of the circles of social injustice, oppression, violence, exploitation, and patriarchy that women are subject to.
No wonder Bukhari was known as the “rebellious short story writer”. Later, the great literary critic, editor, translator and fellow fiction writer Asif Farrukhi compared the language of her short stories with that of Virginia Woolf.
Bukhari had to overcome the social and persona trauma of Partition as well as familial circumstances to become the highly-regarded writer that she was. As an author of short stories, her voice will outlive her death by a long margin.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022.