`There is something sacred about art'
Fahmida Riaz, Pakistani poet, on what it means to be a woman, a poet and a socially conscious person.
"What feminism means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities."
Different frameworks: Fahmida Riaz does not think of herself as a rebel.
Everywhere your command is supreme
Except over this woman impure
No prayer crosses her lips
No humility touches her brow.
As though it isn't difficult enough being a Pakistani woman poet, if you also happen to be a feminist, a progressive, an iconoclast and a passionate crusader for human rights, life, obviously, is none too easy. But Fahmida Riaz, who defies easy descriptions and repressive regimes with the same nonchalant ease, is used to paying the price for her defiance. A voice to reckon with in the world of Urdu literature, she has a substantial body of work. Her poetry collections include Patthar ki Zaban, Badan Dareeda, Dhoop, Kya Tum Poora Chand Na Dekh Paaoge, Hamrakab and Aadmi ki Zindagai. She has published several collections of short stories and novels such as Godavari, set in India and Zinda Bahar Lane, based on Bangladesh, translations from Sindhi poetry as well as some marvellously nuanced prose writings such as Zinda Bahar a travelogue-cum-autobiography-cum-history of the Indian subcontinent. She was given the Himmett-Hellman award by Human Rights Watch, New York, in 1997. She was in Delhi recently to attend a seminar on Progressive Writers' Movement at Jamia Millia Islamia. Excerpts from an interview...
Has the rebel inside you mellowed?
I never thought of myself as a rebel. A poet, a writer has a different mental framework. One writes what one feels strongly about. I feel strongly about so many things even now. But with the passage of time one discovers certain aspects to even old notions. One is less stubbornly sure. Take religion, for instance. Earlier, I thought it was a human invention. Now I tend to think, may be it was a discovery.
Do you regard yourself as a feminist?
Very much so. But feminism has so many interpretations. What it means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities. They have to achieve social equality, much like the Dalits or the Black Americans. In the case of women, it is so much more complex. I mean, there is the right to walk on the road without being harassed. Or to be able to swim, or write a love poem, like a man without being considered immoral. The discrimination is very obvious and very subtle, very cruel and always inhuman.
A woman, a poet, a socially conscious person living in a society that has more than its share of repressive regimes how do you cope with this triple whammy? Does one or the other of these cave in?
I think all these attributes that you give me so generously, thanks for these compliments, emanate from one another. They exist as a whole. So if one caves in, the others also go with it. I learnt this when I lived in India. It is a wonderful Indian philosophical formulation that the layers of existence are so rooted in one another that if we change one the others also change.
Let's talk a little about your poems themselves... Some of your most ideologically driven poems are also some of the most beautiful, most poignant among your oeuvre. How do you manage this co-mingling, this coming together of ideology and poetry?
Are they? Thanks. I suppose one should be totally sincere in one's art, and uncompromising. There is something sacred about art that cannot take violation. One should read extensively to polish expression. I read Platts' Urdu-Hindi to English Dictionary like a book of poems. I love words.
I am struck by the use of Hindi in your nazms. Living in Pakistan, where and how did you pick up Hindi? Was it also a deliberate decision to not use the more stylised, literary, Persianised equivalents preferred by earlier poets?
Well, since we live in Sindh, I thought we should try to bring Urdu closer to Sindhi. It was also some kind of nostalgia. But then I got all these words from early Urdu poetry and modern poets like Miraji. I could not read Hindi before I lived here and that was in 1981. All the Hindi diction poems were written before that. But I use Persian and Arabic words liberally when I want to. I think that is the joy of Urdu. Whichever way, it remains Urdu.
Your collection, Badan Dareeda, created a furore because of its uninhibited exploration of female sexuality. Is there anything in that collection that you would re-write now, or would you write in the same unabashed way?
Do you mean in the same shameless way? (laughs). I think I may yet have something to say in that direction. Writing is easy. No problem there. Afterwards you face the music. Well, I seem to have survived through all that. The furore dies down after a while. The poem lives on.
Can a poet, or a creative writer, truly make a difference to society, to the way people think or the way governments work?
Everything makes a difference. It may not be immediately perceptible. How else do you think society changes?
Rakhshanda Jalil is Media Coordinator, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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