It would not be far from reality to say that women writers often do not get the recognition that they deserve in their own right. The well-entrenched gender discourse of our conservative societies grudgingly as well as condescendingly offers them space that is just enough for them to mark their presence. They mostly remain on the margins in a male-dominated society and its literary universe.
Contrary to the common view that we in India hold of Pakistani society, women writers there have spoken out fearlessly and uninhibitedly about their life experiences, attaining near-celebrity status. The names of Fahmida Riaz and Parveen Shakir readily come to mind in this context.
Rakhshanda Jalil, who has written a definitive study of the progressive writers’ movement in Urdu and has also translated and edited many works of Urdu literature into English, has launched a new series titled Dastan Kehte Kehte (While narrating the story) that offers selected works of Pakistani women poets in Nagari script, thus making them accessible to a much larger readership. Pradeep Sahil has done the transliteration from Urdu script into Nagari script in which Hindi is written.
She has selected, compiled and edited the works of Fahmida Riaz, Parveen Shakir, Kishwar Naheed, and Zehra Nigah, with separate forewords for each volume, informing the reader about the life of the poet and offering an analytical framework to understand her poetry.
Rakhshanda Jalil has given evocative titles to these books to give the prospective reader an idea about the essential nature of the poet’s work and its tone. While Fahmida Riaz’s book is titled Kab Tak Mujhse Pyar Karoge? (How long will you love me?), the other titles are Zehra Nigah’s Main Bach Gayi Maa(I survived, Mother), Kishwar Naheed’s Hanste Rahe Hum Udaas Hokar (After becoming sad, we went on laughing) and Parveen Shakir’s Khud se Milne ki Fursat Kise Thi (Who had the time to meet oneself).
The foreword to Fahmida Riaz’s collection of poems is largely based on Rakhshanda Jalil’s interactions with the poet, who had to spend seven long years in exile in India when Pakistan was under the rule of the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq. I also had a long meeting with her in 2014 when she was staying at the house of my friend Devi Prasad Tripathi, who was a Member of Parliament then. Sadly, both Fahmida Riaz and Tripathi are no more as they passed away in 1918 and 2020 respectively.
Fahmida Riaz was always popular in India as a poet who wrote and spoke from heart without fear or favour. Her popularity soared when she wrote a poem lamenting that Indians too turned out to be exactly like their Pakistani counterparts in embracing ignorance, religious bigotry, and communal hatred. Aptly, Rakhshanda Jalil has concluded her foreword with an excerpt from that poem.
Zehra Nigah made her presence felt on the platform of “mushaira” (poetic soiree) with her special way of reciting her poetry. In the male-dominated world of the “mushaira”, it was no mean achievement. As Rakhshanda Jalil informs us, on one hand Zehra Nigah’s poetry was delicate and had the feminine grace, while on the other it had the strength of a woman who wanted to say her piece. Her poetry was imbued with the art of storytelling. As acclaimed a poet as Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi had taken note of her voice that commented on personal as well as political issues and experiences. Her poetry also caught the attention of discerning readers and critics owing to its mastery over colloquial and idiomatic diction.
Kishwar Naheed was associated with the progressive and forward-looking literary stream in Pakistan’s Urdu literary world and this lent her an image of being a rebel, forthright, bold, self-conscious, and more-often-than-not, political. Rakhshanda Jalil cites a poem titled “Khwahish” (Wish) in which, just like Saadat Hasan Manto, Kishwar Naheed tries to write her own epitaph and, in the process, comments on personal, social, and political happenings of her time. One felt a little disappointed when one could not find this nazm in the selection. But the nazms and ghazals included in the book are worth a serious reading.
Parveen Shakir acquired iconic status early in life because of the extraordinary beauty of body and mind. She was one of the most highly educated women of Pakistan who also rose very high in its civil service. She had her own special way of expressing experiences, feelings, and emotions in a truly poetic manner without ever becoming maudlin. She died at the young age of 42 in a tragic car accident but her poetry remains etched in people’s minds.
Rakhshanda Jalil quotes from “Nick Name” in which Parveen Shakir explains how, from her childhood, a woman is sculpted by the hands of man. This reminds one of the conclusion Simon de Beauvoir had drawn in the middle of the last century that a girl is not born, she is made by society. Needless to say, all the four women poets speak in a feminist voice that has its own peculiar resonance.
Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.