November Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Kishwar Naheed’s place in the ranks of Urdu literature is firmly established. As a renowned feminist and poet, she has won many accolades for her pithy writing style and punchy verse. Unfortunately, the translation of her autobiographical account, A Bad Woman’s Story, conveys none of the stylistic merit of her prose, nor even the hard-edged biting tenor which is the hallmark of Naheed’s oeuvre. There is much lost in translation here and, in fact, the book seems lumbering and disjointed, hardly inspiring the reader to plow on till the end.

Kishwar Naheed is known to be a firebrand feminist, and the book opens with her addressing the reader in the voice of a woman in her many guises — as mother, temptress, protector. She is Yasodhra, Laila, Eve — all the maligned women of the cultural and religious lore. The writer is, in fact, setting the stage to take up her own place in these ranks of the defamed as a bad woman, one who dares to defy social norms, to question taboos and follow her own heart and the dictates of her spirit rather than the narrow path of conventionality.

Naheed gives us a window into the conservative household in which she was born. The fifth child in the brood and a girl at that, her birth hardly invited much attention. Multiple childbirths were, in fact, just another occurence in an age in which contraceptive practises were yet to take off. This future trailblazer was put into a burqa at the age of seven and constantly chastised for her bookish ways. In fact, she had to fight for the right to pursue her education beyond a certain point and her predilection for poetry remained a source of chagrin for the family. Not surprisingly, her participation in most mushairas and cultural evenings at the homes of the literati were clandestine events, conducted without the family’s knowledge.  Even after she won recognition as a poet and began to win accolades, her family took no pride in her achievements and she continued to be the black sheep.

Pushed into a hasty and premature marriage to the first man she gave a little encouragement to, her lot did not change for the better. The relationship did not take long to sour. Her husband was apparently too good-looking and too spoilt to give up his philandering ways and, in addition, Naheed had to shoulder the burden of providing for the two, even while being condemned for working outside the home. The birth of her two children are the only couple of days that she stayed away from office, much like the peasant women who give birth in the fields and go back to harvesting immediately. Through all these tribulations, her poetry sustained her. It is a source of torment and a joy; and a force that cannot be dammed. As her pen continued to spin verse, Naheed slowly took her place on the world stage. She went on to travel the world, her ideas and writing becoming more distinctive, although her verse displayed a maturity beyond her years right from the start.

This book is not meant to be a chronological account and the chapters are divided on the basis of the different roles the writer has had to play throughout her life and the myriad experiences that she wants to share. In one chapter, Naheed speaks of her many admirers — men who were romantically interested in her — but she shies away from delving into the extent of her own involvement. She also talks of the glory days of radio and television in Pakistan, when these institutions were dominated by genuine intellectuals at whose knees creativity was nurtured. She is candid enough to examine her own faults as a mother, even though her affection for her sons clearly shines through, and reveals her decision to not have any more children at a very young age. Interspersed with the narrative is Naheed’s own feminist treatise, which can come across as a trifle dated. But then with our society still plagued by the centuries-old tradition of ‘honour’ killings and still grappling with basic issues of female health and education, this is perhaps a fitting discourse. One wishes though, that rather than always being painted as the perpetual victim, the writer spoke more about the strength that is such an inherent part of a woman’s nature. In the opening chapter, Naheed speaks of the strict purdah-observing women who evolved into the procession-leading champions of Partition, but this theme is not fully explored.

While one does not have to agree with all of Naheed’s views on subjects like homosexuality and abortion, for example, this translation does not even allow the reader to admire her dexterity as a writer. The various anecdotes too, which are littered throughout the book, are robbed of their charm by the often clumsy arrangement. Naheed identifies with feminist icons like Razia Sultana and Sylvia Plath, but the pain and resonance of their experiences is not echoed in this version of the writer’s life. At the end of the day, this translation of A Bad Woman’s Story is just a story badly told.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.