Fahmida Riaz, the Pakistani poet most popular in India next to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, passed away on November 21. She was born in Meerut, brought up in Hyderabad in Sindh and spent her life in the UK, India and, of course, Pakistan. But she was more popular in India.
In Pakistan, Riaz had to pay a huge price for her unconventional writings. She rejected all the literary traditions of Urdu. In her poem, Let us create a new lexicon, she writes: “Come let us create a new lexicon/Where is inserted before each word/A meaning that we do not like/A world where you and me are equal/ We and they are the same/ So let us create a new lexicon.”
She wrote about the feelings of a pregnant woman, titillating experiences, unfulfilled desires and unrequited love in Badan Dareeda (The lacerated body). Her poem Beauty Contest shocked the puritan literary establishment. The vehemence with which she was attacked pushed Riaz into depression. She had to leave her job and worked at a factory in the suburb of the city, where nobody knew of her as a poet.
Riaz would often say that if the downtrodden raised their voice, the society is quick to denounce them. Something similar happened with her. Even her fellow writers refused to identify with Riaz. Her first collection of romantic poetry, Paththar Ki Zaban, was published when Riaz was 22 and still a college student. It was well received but it was with Badan Dareeda that the poet drew the ire of her country’s literary establishment.
She joined the anti-Ayub Khan movement at a time when the military dictator had banned student unions. In November 1968, the police opened fire on a left-wing student demonstration in Rawalpindi, killing three students. Riaz not only participated in these rallies but also supported the Sindhi and Baloch people. She wrote against the military action in Balochistan and in favour of Sindhis who were denied human rights: “The kingdom is ruled by beasts/ But the helpless subjects don’t know/Among them the highbrow and scribes are dead long ago/They were ailing even when alive.”
In the preface of her collection, Dhoop, Riaz wrote that Pakistani writers expunged Hindi words from Urdu to give a religious colour to the language. She deliberately used many Hindi words in this collection. This only exacerbated the hostile atmosphere. Riaz left for the UK, where she did a course on film-making and worked for the BBC News Service. She was married at the young age of 21. During her stay in London, Riaz was convinced that her marriage would not last. She divorced her husband after her return from England.
The persecution increased during the Zia-ul-Haq regime. Fourteen cases were filed against her magazine, Awaz. She was charged with sedition and arrested, but managed to get bail. An invitation gave her a chance to come to India, where she stayed with her old friend Amrita Pritam. Pritam was instrumental in getting the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to grant her asylum. During her seven-year stay in India, Riaz recited poetry at the remotest of places and developed fluency in Hindi.
She was also fluent in Persian, Sindhi, Balochi and English and used her linguistic abilities to translate many Sufi poets. Her feminism was not anti-men. Riaz always quoted the Buddha: “In a conclusive victory, both sides should win.” Pakistani society’s bias against the Hindu and Sikh communities hurt her sensibilities. She would often say that the writers Krishan Chandar and Rajendra Singh Bedi would come to her mind, whenever she thought of Hindus and Sikhs. But in India, she experienced Hindu communalism. Her poem Tum bhi hum jaisey hi nikley (you turned out to be just like us) was addressed to Hindu communalists. Once when she was reciting this poem in JNU, a person from the audience aimed a gun at her. But Riaz did not lose her cool.
Raiz wrote novels as well. They too carried a social message. Qala-e faramoshi (The Fort of Oblivion) was based on the life of the Zoarastrian reformer Mazdak, and preached the redistribution of wealth. In Condolence Resolution, she wrote: “When I am dead don’t certify me as a true believer/ Don’t declare me loyal to the state, the motherland/ Don’t be distressed if the clergyman refused the burial rites/ Leave the remains to the jungle/ The animals would forage on my flesh, my bones and strong heart/ But they will never feel free to scan my thoughts.”
The literary establishment in Pakistan, which had always rejected her, followed the words in this piece of poetry: Only three writers were present at her funeral in Lahore, along with 50-odd strangers who were there accidentally, to offer the evening namaz.
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