Main aadam-e-nau ki ham-safar huun
Ki jis ne jiiti meri bharosa-bhari rifaqat
I am a fellow-traveller of the new Adam
For he has won my trust-filled friendship
I first met Fahmida Riaz sometime in late 2005 when she had been invited to recite her poetry and speak about her work at a conference of progressive writers at the Jamia Millia Islamia. In the cosy interaction with the press before her session she seemed like a woman possessed; she had run out of cigarettes and wanted, more than anything else, for her stock to be replenished.
Shortly after, I saw an altogether different person, one who had changed virtually in front of my wondering eyes. The fretful, somewhat querulous woman was transformed into a poised, charming person who recited powerful, moving, intensely personal, yet inherently political poetry. Her sweet, melodious voice seemed at odds with the rousing poetry she was reciting.
Thereafter, I had the occasion to meet her several times (once most unexpectedly at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul with Raza Rumi and discovered the delights of chatting in Urdu in foreign climes). In the years that followed, I began calling her Fahmida Apa and had the occasion to invite her to Delhi for a variety of events. She always came; she always held her audience enthralled.
But something she had said in our first meeting stayed with me over the years. I had asked her then: Can a poet, or a creative writer, truly make a difference to society, to the way people think or the way governments work? And she had replied, with utter conviction, that everything, every little thing makes a difference. It may not be immediately perceptible. How else do you think society changes? she had asked me.
And, in the next breath, she spoke of her lifelong love for words: “I read Platts’ Urdu-Hindi to English Dictionary like a book of poems. I love words.” Looking back now, I think this answer encapsulates Fahmida Apa: her wisdom, her patience, her understanding and yes, her activism and her politics as well as her overarching love for words.
Defiant and determined
Fahmida Apa did not believe in taking the easy paths in life. As though it isn’t difficult enough being a Pakistani woman poet, if you also happen to be a feminist, a progressive, an iconoclast and a passionate crusader for human rights, life, obviously, is none too easy. But Fahmida Apa defied easy descriptions and repressive regimes with the same nonchalant ease.
Needless to say, she paid an immense price for this defiance, lived in exile in India for seven years during the worst era of General Zia’s repressive regime, found herself without work and money with each flutter of the political weathervane, was passed up for awards and recognitions when others, less gifted, were honoured and endured personal tragedies, the worst being the loss of her son in 2007. But her pen never stilled and her voice was never silenced in all those years of hardship.
A voice to reckon with in the world of Urdu literature, she has left behind a substantial body of work. Her poetry collections include Patthar ki Zaban, Badan Dareeda, Dhoop, Kya Tum Poora Chand Na Dekh Paaoge, Hamrakab and Aadmi ki Zindagi. She was proud of her work as a translator, from Sindhi and Persian, especially Khana e Aab-o Gil, the first translation of the masnavi of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi from Persian into Urdu.
She published several collections of short stories and novels such as Godavari, set in India and Zinda Bahar Lane, based on Bangladesh, translations from Sindhi poetry as well as some marvellously nuanced prose writings such as Zinda Bahar – a travelogue-cum-autobiography-cum-history of the Indian subcontinent. She was given the Himmett-Hellman Award for Resistance Literature by Human Rights Watch, New York, in 1997 and at long last the Sitara-e Imtiaz by her country in 2010.
An immaculate love
I asked her once if the rebel in her had mellowed with time and circumstance. Her response was surprising: “I’ve never thought of myself as a rebel. A poet, a writer has a different mental framework. One writes what one feels strongly about. I feel strongly about so many things even now. But with the passage of time one discovers certain aspects to even old notions. One is less stubbornly sure. Take religion, for instance. Earlier, I thought it was a human invention. Now I tend to think, maybe it was a discovery.”
Her stance on feminism, however, remained unchanged. But here, too, she did not subscribe to any one definition of feminism. For her, feminism meant “simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities. They have to achieve social equality, much like the Dalits or Black Americans. In the case of women, it is so much more complex. I mean, there is the right to walk on the road without being harassed. Or to be able to swim, or write a love poem, like a man without being considered immoral. The discrimination is very obvious and very subtle, very cruel and always inhuman.”
So as a woman, a poet, a socially conscious person living in a society that has more than its share of repressive regimes, how does one cope with this triple whammy? Does one or the other of these multiple persona that we carry within us cave in? Again, her answer, pointed to the thinking mind that made her the poet she was. “I think all these attributes emanate from one another. They exist as a whole. So if one caves in, the others also go with it. I learnt this when I lived in India. It is a wonderful Indian philosophical formulation that the layers of existence are so rooted in one another that if we change one the others also change.”
While several of her poems, such as “Chaadar aur Char-Diwari”, “Aqliima”, etc, riled the political and religious establishments back home, the collection Badan Dareeda created a furore because of its uninhibited exploration of female sexuality. Fahmida Apa took the bouquets with the brickbats with equal equanimity. “The furore dies down after a while,” she once said. “The poem lives on.”
Maybe the best way to remember Fahmida Apa is through her poems that reflect her immaculate love for words, the sangeetmayta (musicality) they evoked when strung together in a certain order, and their ability to say certain things when called upon by the writer to make interventions between state and society. For us in India, especially in the polarised times we live in, perhaps the best way to remember her would be to recite to ourselves, often, the poem she wrote for us after living in our midst for seven years and left as a parting gift:
“Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Ab tak kahan chhupey thhe bhai
Woh moorkhta, woh ghaamarhpan
Jis mein hum ne sadi ganwai
Aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaarey
Arre badhai bohot badhai…”
“You turned out to be just like us
Where had you been hiding all this while, brother
That stupidity, that idiocy
In which we lost a century
Has reached your doorstep
Congratulations, many congratulations to you…”
Fahmida Apa has gone to meet her maker, but her words remain: gently chiding sometimes, outrageously provocative at others but always brimful with a lived reality.