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Fahmida Riaz: Voice of a torn soul

By November 30, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu  –  Kuldeep Kumar

Known for her unorthodox approach and broad vision, poet Fahmida Riaz remained committed to the ideals of secularism and gender equality


In May 2014, I had a long conversation with Fahmida Riaz who was staying at a friend’s place on Ferozeshah Road in New Delhi. I have vivid memories of that wonderful conversation during which she came through as a highly sensitive poet who was free from any kind of narrow thinking, had imbibed the humanistic values of the composite culture of the entire Indian subcontinent, had always supported the oppressed and downtrodden, and had dealt with the gender issue with extraordinary courage both in her life and literature. In short, she was an inspiring figure.

Iconic status

When Fahmida Riaz died on November 21, 2018 in Lahore at the age of 72, she had already acquired an iconic status and her poem, written in 1996 and recited on April 29, 2000 at an Indo-Pak mushaira (poetic soiree) organised on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, had become – to use today’s lexicon – ‘viral’. It had also provoked two officers of the Indian army to draw out their revolvers and rush towards her in a menacing manner. This poem titled “Naya Bharat” (New India) holds up a mirror to the India of the Hindutva project and Riaz taunts Indians that they are trying to commit the same blunders that Pakistanis have already committed, and suffered. It also says in a satirical vein that this shows that after all, Hindus and Muslims were really not two nations and were one and the same because both were treading the same path of obscurantism, religious bigotry and revivalism. Both had turned backward looking and hankered after bygone historical epochs.

“preyt dharam ka naach rahaa hai qayam Hindu raaj karoge? saarey ultey kaaj karogay apna chaman daraaj karogey tum bhee baithey karogey sochaa poori hai waisi tayyari kaun hai Hindu, kaun naheen hai tum bhi karogay fatwe jaari hoga kathin yahan bhi jeena raaton aa jayega paseena jaisi taisi kata karegi yahan bhi sabki saans ghutegi kal dukh se socha karti thi soch ke bohot hansi aaj aee, tum bilkul hum jaise nikle Hum do qaum nahin the bhai!”

(The ghost of religion is dancing, So, now you’ll be setting up a Hindu Raj? You too will mess everything up You too will ravage your beautiful garden

You too will sit and ponder Who is a true Hindu and who is not I guess you’ll be issuing fatwas soon! Here too it will become hard to survive Here too you will sweat and bleed

You will barely make do joylessly You will also feel suffocated like us

I used to wonder with such deep sorrow And now I laugh at the idea: You turned out to be just like us

We were not at all two different nations.)

In Hindi, Fahmida Riaz is a familiar name. Vani Prakashan has published her poetry collection “Qatara-Qatara” and novels “Karachi” and “Zinda Bahaar”. The poem “Naya Bharat” is included in “Qatara-Qatara”. Although Fahmida wrote many short stories and novels, her forte was nazm (a poem dealing with a specific subject and, unlike ghazal, without rhyme) and she hardly ever attempted ghazal.
Fahmida Riaz belonged to a well-to-do educated family of Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh but she grew up in Hyderabad (Sindh) as her father had got a teaching job there way back in 1930. During the 1960s, when Pakistan was reeling under the military rule of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and even books like Maxim Gorky’s novel “Mother” were not accessible, Fahmida began to write poetry. “It was the feeling of love and attraction for boys that unlocked my creativity,” she told me. Her marriage was arranged by her family and, sixteen days after the wedding in 1967, she left for London with her husband as he worked there. It was also the year when her first poetry collection “Patthar Ki Zuban” (Tongue of Stone) was published and attracted critical attention.
However, her marriage failed and, as she told me, the experience of “offering your body to somebody for whom you have no desire” was expressed with brutal frankness in her second collected titled “Badan Dareeda” (Torn Body). Her poetry was dubbed as “obscene” and she was called “frigid” and “of loose character”. Although she was a Marxist, even her communist friends expressed unhappiness with her bold poetry. On the basis of her work for Pakistan Radio, she had got a job with the BBC where every day she had to read the horrendous news that was coming from East Pakistan. “As I had seen how the Sindhi language was sacrificed on the altar of Urdu, I could understand the pain of the Bengalis. At times, while reading the news on BBC, tears would come to my eyes,” she said.

Reflecting diversity

She opposed the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq and had to spend many years in self-exile in Delhi. Her poetic language is replete with words that one would not easily find in other modern Urdu poets.

She must be one of the very few Urdu poets who wrote poems bore the titles like “Meghdoot”, “Bharatnatyam” and “Karl Marx”. A Marxist with an open mind, unorthodox approach and broad vision, Fahmida Riaz remained committed to the ideals of secularism, social and economic equality including gender equality, and creating a better world. She will be missed for a long time.

The writer is a seasoned literary critic

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