Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in his intellectual autobiography, titled Unended Quest, introduces us to a notion of three worlds: the world we experience in our daily life is called World 1, what we think or imagine is World 2, and what we produce in the form of books is called World 3. All the three worlds are interconnected, though their relation cannot be defined in a simple, cause-and-effect manner.
This notion seems more applicable to a person who is fortunate enough to move uninterruptedly across the three worlds.
There is a fourth world which is created out of the terrible perception of the effects of subjugation, oppression, and an unending encounter with all forms of authoritarianism including patriarchy. It is not just located in mind but is “scattered like broken pieces of mirror and running like blood” across the whole being of a person. Most of the feminist and postcolonial writings seem to converge in this fourth world. Fahmida Riaz too kept encountering and writing about this fourth world throughout her life with an uncompromising, “womanly prestige” that she discovered within her feminine self, albeit slowly. She then asserted it courageously, while rebuffing the stereotypical image of a traditional Eastern woman.
In her first book of poetry, Patthar ki Zaban (1967), she happens to see just a few, faint glimpses of demonised women emerging from the above-mentioned fourth world. But in Badan Dareeda (1973), her second collection of poetry comprising a few ghazals too, she seems to have seen not only the full image of the demonised woman but has also stumbled on the epistemology of how this image was created through patriarchal interpretation of sacred texts, tactfully woven into the very fabric of selfhood women were destined to embrace. It was taken by her as a big revelation, though extremely shocking.
Every revelation brings forth insight, courage, defiance, and power to interrogate the epistemology, in this case, of oppression. Her ‘infamous’ couplet: Pathar say wisal mangti hoon/Mein admion say kat gai hoon (I ask stones for communion because I have been detached from humans) was included in Badan Dareeda. There was another matla’a (first couplet of ghazal) in the same collection that speaks volumes about her rebellious yet interrogative and critical tone: Jo mujh mein chhupa mera gala ghont raha hae/ Ya wo koi Iblees hae ya mera Khuda hae (One who is ensconced within strangles me; he is either Satan or God). As she comes to realise that her inner world is sieged by Iblees and worldly gods, she sets out to avow her own power, her true feminine self.
It needs to be stressed that Riaz didn’t take refuge in some romantic, idealised notion of human possibilities; instead, she embraced her destiny, her perishable body, blood, and sexuality. She is the only feminist Urdu writer who went into deriving wisdom from her ‘blood’ — the only leitmotif of her poetry which seems to arise in contrast to and replacing her own earlier metaphor, pathar (stone). The stone stands for the objectification of woman by the patriarchy while blood embodies life which, though mundane and mortal, seeks to zero in on quintessential aspects like sensual anguishes and pleasures, and cerebral quests and serenities. In her poem, ‘Raaj Singhasan’, she says:
Here she subverts both the way of acquiring and source of wisdom by asserting not only her femininity but the mortality and vulnerability of her body. She also seems to redefine wisdom. To her, the insights recorded in history and invested with grand additives don’t qualify necessarily to be called wisdom; rather only those visions deserve to be labelled as such that emanate from a true, sensual, authentic and existential experience. This modernist-existentialist-progressive-humanist vision drew her close to the woes of her land, masses, the downtrodden, and made her embrace local traditions of culture, too. She seemed to have extended the metaphorical meaning of ‘womb’ — a matrix of feminine creativity.
She conceived woman’s sexuality as her paradise and hell alike. In her poem, ‘Aqlima’ she says “she is the prisoner of her body”, and in ‘Aik Aurat ki Hasti’, she asserts “her freedom lies in her body”. Zan-e Napaak (unclean woman), Zan-e Kahnabadosh (gypsy woman) and Zan-e Zinda (alive woman) appear as her favourite phrases in poetry. This way she elicits an ironic and paradoxical tone in her poetry. Out of paradox, she comes to know the very basis of the patriarchal structure of society. The stories relating to the afflictions of the ‘prisoned body’ were and still are heard with sympathy by male critics. But where she narrates some episode of sensual/sexual experiences of the body with a degree of freedom, it draws harsh criticism from the same critics.
Riaz captured this patriarchic response in the metaphor of Amarbel (parasite) that sucks the blood of a woman. She didn’t give in; she went on to say that Amarbel will bear poisonous fruit. In the metaphor of poisonous fruit, she seems to lay bare the creatively destructive force of femininity.
She insists on imagining a woman in her entirety. She invents another metaphor for this purpose: full moon. Kia Tum Poora Chand Na Daikho Gay is the title of her book. Full moon embodies both beauty and scars. Here she doesn’t only reinterpret the age-old metaphor of moon traditionally associated with a pretty woman, but symbolise it as the bursting, multilayered vision of whole society that an Aqlima, Riaz and Farogh Furrikh Zaad can have through their unswerving struggle against all sorts of authoritative forces.
Fahmida Riaz lived a hard life. She didn’t have a permanent source of income, and yet had a rich and diverse talent of creativity. Her marital life too was no less tragic. Iranian poet Farogh Farrukhzaad (1935-1966) whose selected verses Riaz translated into Urdu titled Khulay Dareecahy Say, seems to appear as her hamzaad (second self). Both had a similar fate and a firm belief in the power of femininity. Both were abandoned by their husbands because avowal of sexuality in their poems was interpreted as lewd, unbearable to those Khudawand — masters of their life. Though Riaz remarried a comrade, her sorrows didn’t end. She lost her young son Kabir. She spent her last days at her daughter’s home in Lahore.
She chose to live in exile for seven years (1981-87) during Zia’s martial law. That gave her more courage to continue her struggle for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Tum Kabir is her last collection of poetry which includes a longer elegiac poem on her son. In Sab Lal o Gohar, she compiled all her six collections of poetry which appeared in 2011.
She also wrote novels, short stories, and literary essays, and translated the poetry of Shaikh Ayyaz and Rumi into Urdu. Another, longer essay is required even to have a brief look at her fiction and translations.
Fehmida Riaz passed away on November 21, 2018, at the age of 72.
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid (criticism) and Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories)