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Bano’s novel world

Bano Qudsia’s greatest literary strength lay in her ability to pick characters from the broad spectrum of society and infuse life into them

Bano’s novel world
Bano Qudsia.

Although Bano Qudsia’s signature tune had remained Raja Gidh, she continued to grow with changing times which were tumultuous in phases. Gradually, her vision became extremely bleak. The continuous line of pessimism grew darker and the severest battering seemed to have been taken on by female characters.

The divide between women, who wanted a greater share for themselves in the changing world and those that were content with their lot, had been maintained. The women content with their lot were generally traditional and closer to performing their conventional roles. Women who were educated and had built lives that were not traditionally consigned were scoffed at. Whether they happened to be the daughters or daughters-in-law, they were beaten with the same stick.

The focal point of Bano Qudsia’s later narratives was the partition of the subcontinent. This partition has been the subject of so much of our literature — short stories, poetry and novels. The impact, both human in terms of loss of life and cultural in terms of uprooting a community, had been far-reaching and seemed to crop up repeatedly in the writings of those who think deeper than the mere mouthing of homilies. In Hasil Ghaat the main thrust of the novel was the period that led to the partition — three different generations of various religious denominations were caught in the intellectual and historical dilemma of how to configure the inevitability of partition. A similar post-partition clash of values figured in the brilliant characterisation in the stage play Aadhi Baat.

It was this very characterisation that was Bano Qudsia’s true literary strength. She had the ability to pick characters from the broad spectrum of our society and infuse life into them. The gallery of her characters was vast, and it would be neither incorrect nor an exaggeration to posit that her characters represented a cross-section of the population; though it may be said that those characters of hers that emerged from the middle classes of society were depicted most accurately. The characters were also round; they grew and developed along with the action of the novel, drama or the short story. The most keen observation that one saw in her characters that were born in middle class households was their aspiration to grow out of their socioeconomic class and join another section of society, especially the one above them.

The most difficult, and simultaneously most significant, point in her life was when she decided to marry Ashfaq Ahmed. She was a Jat and he a Pathan, and for both families the tradition of marrying outside the clan was non-existent. All hell must have broken loose when she expressed her will to marry her college fellow.

In this gallery of characters were businessmen, traders, members of the middle ranking civil and military bureaucracy, intellectuals who tirelessly preached the values of selfless intellectual pursuits and politicians who shamelessly mouthed their ordinary work as being for the common good of the people. These characters were not portraits of evil or wilfully devious humans but laid down a mantra which could be read either way — in a sympathetic strain, what success in society was meant to be, or beat them with a stick for their hypocrisy.

Unlike the characters that lived frugal lives before partition, for the characters rolling in luxury and opulence, the creation of Pakistan had a mixed impact instead of only positive consequences. Generally, they seemed to have failed in living up to their full cultural potential.

Bano and Ashfaq: in each other’s shadow.

Bano and Ashfaq: in each other’s shadow.

Similarly, the sexual awakening in characters, the subjective flowering as it collided with the oppressive objective environment, was also an area where Bano Qudsia truly excelled. In most of her writings, characters from certain age groups encountered the explosion of biological and sexual changes through the new-found awareness of its overwhelming intensity and force. The centrepiece of her writing, the way it appeared and then expressed itself in women, young women, was truly great writing, at par with the very best in world literature. Strange insinuations and unheard of melodies weaved their fatal charm, yet failing to find an objective correlative. The first signs of sexual awareness, the fatal pull of attraction, and the natural drive powerful enough to bulldoze the walls of societal divisions were all treated with great sensitivity by her. All other realities were palpably outweighed by the irrepressible energy of the characters in this phase of their lives.

The theme of the superiority of the spiritual East as compared to the material West ran as a constant in her fiction. It is the same clichéd division that has been espoused by some writers and intellectuals who stress on the inviolability of the East and West. There was nothing new about this idea, only that changed circumstances demanded a review of the entire international situation. The fact that America is a cauldron of cultures needed a new paradigm to understand the contemporary crisis in order to avoid repeating the analysis of the past. But for her “special child” was a metaphor for communities that had settled in the United States. This large number of immigrants struggled to keep pace with life in the United States while coping with great problems of adjustment. They had to sacrifice their values for the sake of getting integrated into the American mainstream. They were pulled in two directions; they did want to get fully assimilated and at the same time were fearful of losing their identity completely.

In Rahe Rawan, she wrote about her life with Ashfaq Ahmed. As in her life, in death too, she placed him on a very high pedestal and did not shy away from attributing him with hidden qualities often associated with sages. She did not claim to understand the man she lived with for more than five decades, bearing children in the process. An attempt at writing his biography took her beyond just him, and she wrote about his ancestry, the family including his grandfather, father, uncles, brothers, sisters and their children so as to fully understand the enigma that was Ashfaq Ahmed. He was a Mohmand Pathan whose family migrated to the subcontinent from Afghanistan and then settled in what is now Indian Punjab, at a place called Makesar. They had to migrate again at the time of partition to the new country called Pakistan. She attributed much of the enigma and the multilayered complex personality of Ahmed to the various forms of migrations that they had to undertake.

The most difficult, and simultaneously most significant, point in her life was when she decided to marry Ashfaq Ahmed. She was a Jat and he a Pathan, and in both their families the tradition of marrying outside the clan was non-existent. All hell must have broken loose when she expressed her will to marry a college fellow of hers. She, however, was resilient enough not to cower down in the face of opposition from both families and it is said the two got married in defiance. In those days, such marriages were a rare occurrence that raised both eyebrows as well as hackles.

Her steadfastness paid off as it proved to be a good match. In worldly terms, too, both were very successful. Both were very well-regarded writers; Ashfaq Ahmed, in fact, was something of a cult figure. From humble beginnings, they moved socially upwards and, much like the aspirations of her characters, rose to a social standing which could be considered an example of success in this society.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • although she lived a full life her departure makes me sad.as I look back to her contribution to the language and culture she enriched with her prodigious writing and uncanny simplicity I simply envy her unlimited capacity tounderstand fellow human beings specially womenfolk .i too belong like her to the post partition generation; so understand what devastations the partition wrought on our ancestral heritage. I am a person of no significance who is constantly suffering as a result of this division of land.how can you divide human thinking, values and all that has been achieved by us .
    qudsia bano will live in the memory of those who knew her and also those who will read her books. she also wrote nonfiction also a long mazmoon in nuqoosh or funoon I don’t remember in which. but her understanding of the subject stunned me in those days of my intelectual curiosity.
    arman najmi

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