Kishwar Naheed is Pakistan’s leading poet and a feisty political person as well. She has been mostly on the wrong side of the political establishment. Her late husband, Yousuf Kamran, a poet in his own right, was arrested under the martial law regime of Zia-ul-Haq. Naheed was placed under surveillance and, in a media interview, she said the Zia-ul Haq regime forced her sons to leave Pakistan. She spoke to Scroll.in on the Partition.
You were born in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, and…
I was born in 1940 and I was seven years old when the Partition happened.
Didn’t your family come to Pakistan in 1949, two years after the Partition?
My abba [father] was arrested for distributing sweets at Pakistan’s birth. He was secretary, Muslim League, Bulandshahr, and he remained in jail for two years. From my childhood, I became familiar with the meaning of jail.
What do you mean?
Not only did I see the arrest of my father, my husband, Yusuf, was jailed during martial law in Pakistan. There was also a ban on my book and there was the possibility of my being arrested. I would go to visit Yusuf in jail. So jail has been an aspect of my life.
Did you go to meet you father in jail?
Though I was a little girl then, I would accompany my brothers who would take meals to my father in the jail.
Was your father a full-time activist or employed as well?
He was in the transport business.
What was life like in the two years your father was in jail?
We were four sisters and three brothers, and we were all studying. I used to go to a convent school, where all teachers were Christian, but for two. One was a Hindu who would teach Hindi. The other was a Muslim who would teach Urdu.
Before 1947, there were shortages because of World War II. The food was rationed; each family would get just a bottle of [cooking] oil, a bag of flour, etc. We children would be asked to get into the queue to secure the ration. This was because children were given the ration quicker than others.
How was this connected to the Partition?
When the Quaid-e-Azam [Muhammad Ali Jinnah] wrote in the papers that the Muslim League needed money and people should contribute, my father and mother told us that we should send our pocket money to him. We children did that.
I also remember that every afternoon and evening, my mother, in fact all Muslim women, would take out a fistful of flour before kneading it. We children would then go from house to house collecting the flour, and then deliver it at the local Muslim League office.
Bulandshahr then had two parts – upper and lower. The upper part consisted of Muslims, mainly Sayeds [who are said to be descendants of Prophet Mohammad]; the few Hindus there were largely business people. They were friends of my father, and they would through our father, though still in jail, inquire about our wellbeing.
Were there threats of violence?
No, there would be rumours every day that Hindus are going to attack our locality. I remember that the boys would go on the roofs of their houses, with bamboo sticks, to keep guard, to ensure the assailants were confronted as soon they entered the locality. There would be shouts that they are coming from this direction or that direction. Those two years, between 1947 and 1949, were like living through qayamat [end of the world].
But you didn’t encounter violence, did you?
In those two years we learnt that all members of one of our phoophi’s family [father’s sister’s family] had been killed in Delhi. All our relatives in Aligarh were done to death. I was told many of their girls were abducted.
The one vivid memory I have is of this Muslim girl from Bulandshahr who was a student in Aligarh. That girl had gone missing. It was assumed she was dead. But she returned to Bulandshahr subsequently. I still remember the scene: she lying in the bed, surrounded by women, bleeding profusely from her feet. That image I still can’t forget.
These experiences were part of my childhood. I am today because of what I experienced between 1947 and 1949.
Thereafter, how and when did your family decide to go to Pakistan?
When my father came out of jail, we decided we would take a train to Pakistan. But abba’s Hindu friends insisted that we should take a flight as trains were often attacked and children abducted. They said we should come down to Delhi and take a flight to Pakistan.
What was the journey like from Bulandshahr to Delhi?
I don’t remember how we came to Delhi, whether by bus or train. But what I distinctly remember is that we stayed in a house near the Yamuna. My father’s Hindu friends took the responsibility of ensuring we reached and lived safely in Delhi.
In those days airfares were exorbitant. To raise money for the flight, my mother had to sell her jewellery. The funny thing was that I was made to wear a burqa. But when the time came to purchase air-tickets, the family came to know that the fare for children below 12 years was half of that of adults. Then I was asked to take off the burqa [laughs heartily.]
What kind of impact did these childhood experiences have on your consciousness?
In Bulandshahr, we Muslims, Christians and Hindus used to be together all the time, mornings and evenings. We would go to each other’s house. But we also had a deep fear inside our hearts that we could be abducted anytime. I couldn’t overcome my fear even in Lahore. At night, I would be petrified that someone would come to whisk me away.
Did you and your friends in Bulandshahr discuss the Partition?
We knew something had happened, but we didn’t know why the Partition had taken place. All that we knew was that Muslims were getting killed in India, and Hindus and Sikhs were being killed in Pakistan. But we were too young to understand why people were being slaughtered.
Was it difficult to adjust to Lahore’s culture?
There was as yet no financial arrangement between India and Pakistan. Abba’s money could not be transferred to him in Pakistan. One of my khalas [mother’s sister] had a house in Anarkali, Lahore. Her house had a large hall in which we stayed until abba’s money was transferred to him three years later. When we reached Lahore, abba said that he hadn’t struggled for Pakistan and come here to get a job or a house. He said once his money was transferred, he’d start his business.
The one thing I learnt from him was how to stand up for a cause and be confident of the future. After I finished my school, they didn’t want to send me to college. The girls of Sayed families in those days would stay at home and wait for marriage proposals. But I said will go to college and I did.
Lahore’s cultural ambience was different from that of Bulandshahr. I came from a background, which observed purdah – my mother would go to her mother’s place in a doli [palanquin], and the carriers would withdraw before she came out. I went to school in a tonga, which would be curtained. But in Lahore, I saw women would go out, there used to be mannequins in shops in Anarkali. All these seemed so strange – Lahore was a big city, Bulandshahr was a small town. We couldn’t even talk to our cousins. All that I did was to study and study. Gradually, I changed.
Have you visited India after you went to Pakistan?
Yes, good many times. The first time I visited India was in 1983. I even went to Bulandshahr.
Yes. My grandfather was a barrister and he had carved out plots for all his children in a big complex. His children had built their houses. I had thought of visiting my father’s [house] without disclosing my identity. But the night before I had been on television and the occupant of the house had seen me. So when he opened the door to me, he said, “You are the same person who was TV last night.” Our [her father’s] house was pretty big and, in 1983, had been divided into two parts.
Who was the occupant of what was your house once?
He was a Muslim. The houses had become evacuee property and the government had rented them out at Rs 2 or Rs 3. All the houses were dilapidated. I went around the complex.
Were you welcomed?
I just went to what was my father’s house. In my grandmother’s house, a widow mumani [mother’s brother’s wife] of mine lived. But a lot of things that I remembered had vanished.
You didn’t try to meet friends from childhood?
I tried to track them but couldn’t locate anybody. I guess people move on. I remembered a mango tree called the black mango tree and a shamshan ghat near my school. I have them in a story of mine. The other houses in the complex were occupied, I think, by Sikhs. You know the Sikhs have the tradition of washing the floors of their houses and their women don’t wear dupattas. But I didn’t go up to them, I didn’t inquire, I just watched them from a distance.
Why didn’t you speak to them?
I don’t know. I was 43 years old then, still, I don’t know why I didn’t walk up to them.
Perhaps you were apprehensive of how they would respond to you?
Well, I don’t know. You know when Bangladesh was formed [in 1971], I was in Moscow. I was in the Information Ministry then. A colleague of mine [a Bangladeshi] was there and I too was. Yet when we would stand next to each other, even though there was no one between us, we would stand apart. We couldn’t bridge the space between us.
Perhaps some kind of invisible boundaries arise?
Yes, an invisible boundary arises in such moments. It took us two-three days to begin to talk to each other.
Did you ever feel bitter about India and its citizens, particularly Hindus?
How could I be bitter? I grew up when the two countries – India and Pakistan – had already been formed. But in the 1965 war, I as a mature person opposed what the two countries were doing to each other. I, and my friends, including the writer Intizar Husain, argued that war can never solve the problems between the two countries.
We said that it was the same moon that people on both sides of the border see, that the same birds sing both in India and Pakistan. If we can’t stop the birds singing or shut out the moon from shining its light in either of the two countries, then why should Indians and Pakistanis stop meeting each other?
Earlier, people could travel between the countries easily. Indian poets, like [Jigar] Moradabadi, would come to Pakistan. We used to go for mushaira, and I remember I would sit in my mother’s lap and listen to them.
Even before Bangladesh came into being, I had gone there for a writing project. I wrote that what the Army was doing to the Bengalis was terrible. I was thrown out of my job, though it was subsequently given back to me.
What does it mean for Pakistan to have religious minorities who comprise a small percentage of its total population?
I think they are 3%-4% and largely confined to Sindh. In Tharparkar, where Hindus are in the majority, Muslims don’t have beef to uphold the sentiments of Hindus. I went there when even roads hadn’t been built. I would go to the temples to listen to the bhajans. Nobody said anything to me. Even on my visits to India, I would go to gurdwaras and temples, to take a close look at the architecture. I have now heard that people of other religions are not allowed into these places of worship.
Do you think the subcontinent still reels under the Partition hangover?
I remember Maulana Abul Kalam Azad saying that before Pakistan came into existence, he opposed its formation. But now that it is a reality, he said he accepted it and wished to forge a good relationship with it. But what is happening in India troubles me no end.
Like what is happening to Muslims and Dalits. Just because a Dalit had been made President doesn’t mean that ordinary Dalits shouldn’t be treated well.