December issue 2018

By | Arts & Culture | Published 6 years ago

In her first collection of poetry, Patthar ki Zuban (A Language of Stone), Fahmida Riaz, who passed away on November 21, told readers that she would not pen a poem until it forced itself to be written. Riaz did not wish to write for more than three or four years, thinking that she would have nothing left to say by then. 

This was in 1966 – she was barely twenty. She had written the preface to Patthar ki Zuban in the hostel of the Government Girls College in Hyderabad, Sindh. Until then, many of her poems had been published in the journal Funoon and she had thanked Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi for encouraging her. It was obvious that Qasmi had seen promise in the young poetess. Whether he had an inkling that she would go on to become one of the best Urdu writers of her time, is unclear. 

The 50 odd years that subsequently passed disproved Riaz’s prediction that she would run out of things to say. She produced several volumes of poetry and at least four great novellas. In addition, she wrote Adhura Aadmi (Incomplete Man), a book adapted from the analysis of Erich Fromm, a post-Marxist social psychologist. Riaz translated selected poems from the entire oeuvre of Iranian poetess Forough Farrokhzad, in a volume titled Khule Dareeche Se (From An Open Window). Riaz’s stories were published from time to time, and one read her book reviews, essays and other translations. She also wrote two books in English.

She refused to be ensconced within the customary traditions of Urdu poetry. The imagery of her poems was dignified and there was transparency in her tone. 

Despite this, perhaps readers were not mentally prepared for the power of her second collection, Badan Dareeda (The Torn-Bodied). In Urdu prose, we had the example of Ismat Chughtai, who had written about female experiences with amazing candour. To imbibe sexual experiences in verse in a way that preserved the significance of the content and its lyrical value was one of Riaz’s commendable achievements.

Riaz had married by then and moved to London for a few years, where she became a mother. In 1972, she returned to Pakistan and began a very different type of life in Karachi. Her poetry during this period included themes such as desire, motherhood, marital love and taboo subjects like menstruation, social restrictions, cultural pressures. Additionally, the political aspect was presented as a part of the poet’s self and spirit. We find a similar tendency in the western writers of that period, such as Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood.

Her poems Aik Aurat ki Hansi (A Woman’s Laughter) and Woh Ik Zan-e-Napak Hai (She is an Impure Woman) were the kind of celebration of femininity that we would later find in the work of French writers Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Earlier, Ismat Chughtai had given full literary expression to womanhood, years before Simone de Beauvoir. Riaz, too, wrote about ‘blood, milk and (menstrual) discharge’ years before these French writers.

In many poems, including Guriya (Doll) or Muqaabla-e-Husn (Beauty Contest), she raised her voice against the drama enacted with a woman in the name of love. Riaz used religious symbolism – images from the Bible and Quran – to portray centuries of oppression against women. In Bakira (Virgin), the sheep or goat being sacrificed by the woman symbolises her existence. In her poem Aqleema, the eponymous sister of Abel and Cain, insists on expressing her opinion. There was an echo of religion in Surah Yaseen and Ae Vali-o-Rab Kaun-o-Makan (O Lord and Master of the World and Universe), when a grief-stricken woman calls out to an unseen holy being and does not get a response. 

But religion was also portrayed in all its beauty. My favourite poem is Lao Hath Apna Lao Zara (Give Me Your Hand), where a pregnant woman sang of the luminous and Divine powers of creation in the joy of pregnancy. The symbols were more visibly distressed in her later poems. Riaz’s poem Chadar aur Chaardivaari (The Veil and the Four Walls of Home) was widely misunderstood. It was written at a time when women were being killed during the religious revolution in Iran. The poem was, perhaps, a response to the extreme scenarios that women were confronted with at the time.

Riaz’s tone became increasingly direct with the passage of time. Her battle with Pakistan’s military dictator has now become a well-known fable. She was faced with a sentence of hanging or life imprisonment in the case that was brought forward against her at the time. She took political asylum in India. The poems she wrote during this period – Khaana Talaashi (House Search), Kotvaal (Magistrate) and the long Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? (Will You Not See the Full Moon?) – were a powerful and heart-rending testimony of a period of oppression and reminiscent of the twentieth century Russian poetess, Anna Akhmatova. Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? vividly portrays the underlying sense of fear and restlessness felt by an oppressed citizenry. With this poem, Riaz emerged as a ‘peoples’ poet,’ who appeared to sing the songs of hope in the depths of despair.

Literary critic Asif Farrukhi had termed the abundance of genres and tones in Riaz’s writings as the ‘classical refinement’ of her style (evident in her early poetry and the poems of Badan Dareeda). She unfailingly searched for a voice that could express collectivity. Her collection Dhoop (Sunlight) consisted of poems closer to Hindi. In the ’80s she adopted the style of folk songs and tales. She never produced the vapid poetry that dominated Urdu literature in the name of feminism in the decade of the ’90s. Instead, she wrote prose that was both layered and eloquent. 

Riaz’s three novels relate to the travails of the subcontinent after Independence. She began with Zinda Bahaar, a travelogue and autobiography. Its second part, Godavari, was a mix of anthropology, social history and fiction, while the third part was based on an analysis of the voices of Karachiites who had witnessed many years of bloodshed in the city. Comparable in scope to fellow exile and socialist, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, the three novels deserve to be recognised as classics. 

In 2017, Riaz published Qila-e-Faraamoshi (Fortress of Oblivion), a well-received historical novel on the life and times of the fifth century Persian revolutionary, Mazdak. Discerning readers may view it as a thinly veiled autobiography of her own dreams and struggles.

In the ’90s, the classical refinement of Riaz’s early period returned to her poetry. Her poem Baad Men Jo Kuch Yaad Raha (What was Remembered Afterwards), portrays the feelings of an exile standing before the embassy of his or her country. Some of her poems were also written for other poets, like Nazar-e-Firaaq, was for Firaaq. 

Riaz’s vision was bold and dignified. She was not only the leader of the caravan of Pakistan’s female writers, but also among the half-dozen most important writers to emerge in the last three decades. She will be best remembered in the words she used to describe herself – as a writer “Who said whatever she wanted and was never repentant.”


The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.