A neglected genius

Raza Rumi

Whilst my earlier piece on the IMF programme and the tremendous discussion it has invoked deserves a rejoinder, I want to write on a completely different subject this week. I am perturbed by the fact that thousands of jobs have been recreated for those who were rightly or wrongly dismissed in the earlier dispensations; there is silence about one luminary, a towering one at that, who lost state employment twice. Fahmida Riaz’s name is yet to appear amongst the reinstated ones.

Following the physical departure of the leading Urdu poets – Qasmi, Munir and Faraz – Fahmida Riaz is arguably the greatest living poet of Pakistan. Controversial though this statement might be, her originality and path-breaking poetry has yet to find an equal in the turbulent waters of the Pakistani cultural river. It is hardly surprising that Fahimda Riaz has been targeted all through her otherwise illustrious creative career by state and society alike. She was branded as unpatriotic when she had to run for her life in the Zia-ul-Haq days and live in exile. In India, she was termed as a Pakistani agent since she criticised the communal tensions that the Indian state had encouraged.

Her bold poetic expression was considered indecent in a country where pornography, heroine and arms are sold on every street. And, where stage plays with “hot” mujras and explicit sexual innuendo are patronised by official cultural institutions in the name of commercial viability. Fahmida was sometimes labelled as a non-believer when she questioned the clergy; at other times a communist when she talked of social justice. Even last year, a group of Karachi-based “intellectuals” chided her for eulogising a letter by the fourth Caliph Hazrat Ali (AS) as a model for good governance. This time she was a reactionary and a “toady.”

She had to deal with a society that was unshackling itself of the colonial hangover and still continues to do so, where the mullah, the mighty arms of the state, oligarchies of vested interests flourish with ease; and all independent voices have to be silenced, co-opted or crushed. And, the hapless poets especially those outside the ambit of officialdom are the soft targets of such cultural cleansing.

In the second PPP government (1988-90), Fahmida Riaz was appointed as the managing director the National Book Council of Pakistan (later merged with the National Book Foundation), where she made a mark and even the unfriendly press recognised her reform. This was a short-lived stint as she was seen as a “PPP” appointee. In Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure as prime minister, Riaz was affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and her work was incomplete on the fateful day when the Leghari brigade unseated yet another elected government. And now that the third PPP government is in power, she is forgotten by those whose identity she has had to bear all these years making her a permanent punching bag of right-wing ire.

From the trials of Manto to Faiz’s detention the story is pretty predictable. Even when the military regimes were not there, we have treated our poets shoddily. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi died in a tiny house located on a street with potholes. Earlier he was dismissed and a lowly state minion humiliated him by summoning him after six decades of literary accomplishments. Munir Niazi passed away last year in similar circumstances; and Ahmad Faraz was unceremoniously dismissed from his job reportedly for refusing to please an MNA. Scores of writers, musicians, and vocalists live in abject poverty. An exception to this trend was recently made by the prime minister when he took note of the ailing genius Mehdi Hasan, whom the corporate media had almost forgotten.

This is hardly a new trend, though. Mir Taqi Mir, in the troubled times of the Mughal Empire’s decay, lived in dire circumstances and was intermittently rescued by regional kingdoms. Ghalib – the immortal genius – was struggling to reclaim his pension and, to use his words “feed,” his adopted children and servants. The demise of the central state in the late nineteenth century and the new state-building by colonists ruptured the patronage culture. Alas, the new states of India and Pakistan manned by the British-trained bureaucrats and politicians continued this policy. In India, things changed somewhat but in Pakistan the societal apathy and anti-culture state policy continues unabated with the result that literary personas and poetic careers are considered with contempt and are a metaphor for being a “loser” in the galloping commercial times. Unless, of course, you cater to the teenage yearning or the bawdy humour market.

Fahmida Riaz lives in Karachi ignored by the state and society. Look at what the Colombian and Spanish governments have done for their giant, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is provided accommodation and allowances for the simple fact that he has enriched and internationalised the Spanish language. The prolific historian K K Aziz resides in a Lahore suburb neglected and forlorn for he is always a threat to official truth monopolies.

The least that a “people’s” government could do is to employ Fahmida Riaz so that she does not have to squander her creatively mature years while searching for short-term livelihood. She must write for posterity. Fahmida’s voice is not just a matter of women’s empowerment or the nurturing of Urdu literature but for the soul of Pakistan and its survival. In these times when the government wants to fight the ascendancy of the obscurantism and extremism what could be more rewarding to honour the best of the muses.

We hope that in the absence of Benazir Bhutto, the president, the prime minister and his cabinet will take notice of this situation and without further delay correct a historic wrong.

Published in the NEWS (November 15)



Filed under culture, Literature, poetry, Society, south asia, Urdu, Women, Writers

5 responses to “A neglected genius

  1. sherryx

    KK Aziz’s crime is that he exposed the lies, which are still being taught in Pakistan in name of history.
    Fahmida Riaz, her intellectual honesty is beyond question, like every honest intellectual she is also a “traitor”.
    I will never forget her poem “Aewan e adalat mein–“, the single most important influence on my thought. The vivid imagery, of the day when news of death under custody [by torture] of Communist youth activist Nazir Abbasi shaheed was announced in the court. Those were the darkest days of Zia’s fascism against which the communists, socialists and nationalists waged a heroic struggle. Riaz was sitting in the court, waiting for comrade Abbasi to appear, but instead it was told that he is dead, the shock, the grief, the silence and than thundering roar of revolutionary slogans—- They will never forgive Fahmida Riaz. One of the chages against the dismissed Benazir Bhutto government was , that she employed “gaddar” “commie” “indian agent” Fahmida Riaz–

  2. YLH


    Well written.

    KK Aziz is Pakistan’s finest living historian (and with the exception of Hamza Alavi- the greatest ever). He has probably done more to explain Pakistan’s origins than any other historian and has done it very well…

    Not just the brilliant “Murder of History” but his book on Rahmat Ali, his brilliant essay on “Confederacy of India” by “A Punjabi” … (part of an anthology of essays published by Vanguard) in which he showed how Jinnah had convinced the author of the scheme (Mian Kifayet Ali – under the pseudonym- A Punjabi) to call it “Confederacy of India” instead of “Pakistan” as it was originally called… his work showing that Pakistan was not a communal or a reactionary demand but rather a secular demand… is a slap on the face of the history as it is taught not just in Post-Zia Pakistan but the Indian nationalist mythology that is taught across the border as well. Sherry is not going to like it too much… but K K Aziz even wrote an essay called Jinnah the Socialist in the 1950s.

    I was actually reading this brilliant little excerpt from K K Aziz a few days ago…

    “Mr Jinnah’s definite dislike of the term was conveyed to a League leader of Lahore, Mian Kifait Ali who writing under the pen-name ‘Punjabi’ wrote a book in 1939 making a most detailed case for the Partition and creation of a Muslim state in North West India. He named the book Pakistan and took the final manuscript to Abdullah Haroon, the Muslim League leader of Sind and also showed it to Nawab of Mamdot, the League leader of Punjab. The two offered to finance it, Mamdot’s offer was accepted. It was sent to the Ripon Printing Press, Lahore, for printing sometime in the middle of 1939, after the Sind Muslim League had passed a resolution demanding creation of Pakistan openly, against Jinnah’s wishes, it is said.

    A manuscript of the book was sent to Mr Jinnah in Bombay also for approval. But Jinnah sent a telegram that he did not want the book to be named Pakistan. So, the printing of the book was hurriedly stopped as per Jinnah’s wishes. Its contents were changed to show that the League did not want clean Partition but only a confederation of five federal states. The name was changed from Pakistan to Indusstan. It was meant to give the impression that Muslims were no foreigners in Hindustan. Explaining the change, Mian Kifait Ali changed the name of the book to Confederacy of India and wrote in the new introduction, “the foreign element amongst us is quite negligible and we are as much sons of the soil as the Hindus are. Ultimately our destiny lies within India and not out of it. And it is for this reason that we have abstained from using the word ‘Pakistan’ and have instead used the word INDUSSTAN to denote the North-Western Muslim block of provinces. Pakistan is a term which has somehow or other gathered round itself some unwholesome and alien associations which are far from our mind.

    WOW. Such gem could only come from a historian of K K Aziz’s objectivity … the real reason… K K Aziz does not let ideology hamper the facts unlike Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi (of the right) or Mubarik Ali (of the left do).

  3. YLH

    ‘Fahmida was sometimes labelled as a non-believer when she questioned the clergy; at other times a communist when she talked of social justice. Even last year, a group of Karachi-based “intellectuals” chided her for eulogising a letter by the fourth Caliph Hazrat Ali (AS) as a model for good governance. This time she was a reactionary and a “toady.”’

    This is more an indictment of the Pakistani “intellectuals” … and by no means is Fahmida Riaz the first or the last person.

    Even someone as insignificant as me gets abused by Islamists as “enemy of Islam” and by self-styled leftists (not real ones I assure you) as “toady” because I don’t agree with them.

    The dilemma of ideology is dogma.

  4. Really interesting facts here… If you wonder how you can write in urdu on your computer, i have posted a link to a website that explains this for you.

    thank you!

  5. Artists such as her have often had to pay a big price for maintaining their voice of reason and of truth during challenging times. Governments and regimes change as do the seasons but these voices live on in posterity redeeming humanity so to say!

    Good work Raza for bringing up her cause; may you find success in garnering support!