Professor Dr Tahira Iqbal is an Urdu fiction writer, with various collections of short stories to her credit, including Sang Basta, Raikht, Mitti Ki Sanjh, Raees-e-Azam, Zameen Rang and more. On this last collection, she was awarded the Baba-i-Urdu Dr Molvi Abdul Haq Award by the National Literary Awards in 2016.
Apart from writing fiction, Dr Iqbal, who has also been published in India, has written a number of travelogues, research papers and books, one of which was Manto Ka Asloob, a critical appraisal of Manto’s work.
Her PhD was titled Pakistani Urdu Afsana — Siasi-o-Tareekhi Tanazar Mein and since completing it she has participated in many national and international literary conferences.
The setting of most of her short stories is rural Punjab. She writes about the constant struggle between the villagers and the feudal system, which still haunts Pakistan. Although she does not like to be boxed as a feminist writer, it is true that she depicts an honest picture of rural women, and in particular she explores the difficulties faced by low-caste women. Her novelette Ganji Baar deals with the plight of female cotton pickers.
As far as style is concerned, she is recognised for her panorama in short stories. In her work, she takes local Punjabi words and infuses them into Urdu. Her stories are filled with local idiom and ethos of the places she resides in.
She is currently a Professor of Urdu at Government College for Women University, Madina Town, Faisalabad. Her magnum opus novel Neeli Baar was long listed for the 2018 Karachi Literature Festival Infaq Foundation Urdu Prize.
The News on Sunday caught up with her a few weeks before the festival. Excerpts of the conversation follow:
The News on Sunday (TNS): Please tell us about your family background. When and how did you start writing?
Tahira Iqbal (TI): My family migrated more than a century ago from Potohar when they were allotted lands in a canal district of Sahiwal. This made us part of the landed gentry. Both my parents were literate and I was educated till matriculation in a school. After that, I studied privately at home and only saw college when I became a lecturer.
As a student in school, I flirted with poetry but came to the conclusion that it was not my cup of tea. I became so frustrated at one point that I decided to commit suicide. It was then that I thought of writing shorts stories. After that, I never looked back and wrote a lot of fiction but believe it or not, this fiction was never printed.
My first collection of short stories was published only after I was married, with the encouragement of my late husband; a civil servant.
TNS: Why do you use different dialects of Punjabi in Urdu fiction?
TI: I believe that Pakistani Urdu should be different from the Urdu of Lucknow and Delhi. A lot of words from various Pakistani languages and dialects are becoming a part of Urdu and I want to adopt these in my writing.
TNS: Tell us about some fiction writers who have impressed or influenced you?
TI: Let me tell you frankly, I don’t read other writers because I am afraid they may influence my style of writing. Having said that, I must admit that everybody is influenced by Manto. He was a great short story writer. My MPhil thesis was titled ‘The Stylistic Panorama in Saadat Hasan Manto’s Short Stories (A Research & Critical Appraisal)’.
I also like Mustansar Hussain Tarar. He is a powerful writer who keeps the readers under his hold. I am impressed by French writer Guy de Maupassant’s originality. Of course, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi inspired me a lot because his themes also deal with village life. I read and re-read his book Kapas Ka Phool several times.
TNS: What should one do to become a good writer?
TI: One is either born a writer or not. It is a God gifted (Khudadaad) quality. One cannot become a writer by reading a lot. But reading great literature will improve you, which is what I ask my students to do.
TNS: Your novel Neeli Baar was long listed for the 2018 Karachi Literature Festival Infaq Foundation Urdu Prize. Tell us about this novel?
TI: Neeli Baar is the area between Ravi and Chenab where I grew up. I wrote this novel in two and a half years. The ideas first sprouted during my PhD which provided me an opportunity to read a lot about Pakistan’s history and politics. Once I began understanding the political consciousness of villagers and their exploitation by feudal lords, this novel began appearing in my mind.
TNS: Is it an autobiographical novel?
TI: It is not an autobiographical novel although its canvas is very vast, and numerous personal incidents do crop up in it.
TNS: You have used lot of folk poetry in your stories?
TI: Yes, I have produced local marriage geets and other cultural satires used at the time of the baraat. Additionally, I have also added sithins, satirical salvos fired at each other by larki walas (bride’s family) and larkay walas (groom’s family).
I used local poetry — Tappa, Mahiyah, Bolian — because I think it was necessary to preserve rural, folk poetry, otherwise people will forget it.
Much of the poetry that I used, I knew by heart, but I still went to the village to verify it.
Much has changed in the villages, urban culture has penetrated the villages, and old rural culture is disappearing.
TNS: Why did you choose to write about the ‘janglee milieu’ (Baar)?
TI: In my story, I presented the characters and life of the indigenous people of the Baar, commonly and derogatorily known as ‘janglee’. The first chapter of the novel is titled ‘Baar kay Rung, Mausam Aur Log’. I did this to highlight the contradictions between the locals and Mohajirs.
The British created the canal system in these deserts and encouraged people from other cities to settle there. This created a conflict between the locals and mohajirs. Both looked down upon each other’s culture. The local women would wear dhotis which was looked down upon by the shalwar-wearing women, and vice versa.
In my opinion, the Mohajirs were more cultured. They would cook their food. The locals were mazarah, they liked bold colours for dresses and were divided along class lines.
TNS: But the locals (Janglee) were closer to nature?
TI: The locals were the original inhabitants of Harappa, the Dravars (Dravidians). If they were Hindu, they were called Shoodars. If they were Muslims, they were Musali and if they were Christians they were Chooras.
TNS: Would you call your novel historical?
TI: Like I said before, the novel’s canvas is very vast and it covers the entire political history of Pakistan, and its impact on society, particularly rural society.
It covers General Ayub, Bhutto and General Zia’s eras, the spread of religious fundamentalism in villages which produced raw material to militants to fight in Afghanistan, and later on the creation of the Taliban.
But, despite the fact that it covers the history of Pakistan, as a writer I would not call it a historical novel.
TNS: Why is one of your chapters titled ‘Aay Mard-e-Mujahid Jaag Zara’?
TI: That chapter is about a radical student leader who later becomes a religious militant and is killed.
TNS: The novel revolves around two girls, Zara and Pakeeza. Would you like to be described as a feminist writer?
TI: Yes, the main characters of the novel are two girls Zara and Pakeeza but I would not like to be called a feminist. Pakeeza was kept in the four walls of haveli and would not be allowed to go out, and she remained unmarried. She only opened the gates of her haveli after the death of her father.
TNS: What are you planning to write next?
TI: After the sudden death of my husband in December 2016, I have not been able to write anything. I do, however, want to complete my novel Garan [Home], I am writing it in the Potohari dialect of Punjabi.
It deals with the lives of women whose husbands have left the village to work in other countries. These men return to their homes once in 5-10 years and their children grow in the absence of fathers. Two of its chapters have already been printed in a magazine.