For somebody as quiet and gentle, Altaf Fatima (1927-2018) was a remarkably independent person who fiercely guarded her space, her ways and what she regarded as her legacy.
Success as a writer had come early. She wrote her first novel, Nishan-e-Mehfil just after taking her BA exam. Dastak Na Do, her second novel, published in 1965, was a phenomenal hit. The story of a young girl’s experience of love was made into a TV play and ran on PTV, then the only television channel in the country. Later, it would be translated into English under the title The One Who Did Not Ask and published by Heinemann in 1993. It was also included in the O Level Urdu syllabus of the Cambridge International Examinations. Chalta Musafir, written in the backdrop of the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, and her last novel Khwab Gar were also well received. Her short stories were published in four volumes — Woh Jisay Chaha Gaya, Jab Deewarain Girya Karti Hain, Taar-e-Ankaboot and Deed Wadeed. The fifth volume of her short stories Gawahi Akhir-e-Shab Ki is under publication.
She had translated a novel and many stories. The most famous among them is Naghmay Ka Qatal, a translation of To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee who too died at the age of 90, two years ago. She also translated two books Haveli ke Andar by Rama Mehta and Sach Kahaniyan for Mashal Publications. The second one is a collection of Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Hindi stories. She also translated Japanese and Latin American stories. About 40 of her short stories remain unpublished. Huma Anwar of Jamhoori Publications, who was a close associate of hers for about a decade, says she would not be surprised if more unpublished work turns up.
Altaf Fatima had a very peculiar relationship with success. It never went to her head. On one hand, she remained the modest but cheerful conversationalist she had always been, never refusing to meet people; on the other, she would not let commercial considerations determine how her work was presented. Her nephew Col Arsalan Qadeer recalls that several producers tried to cajole her into letting them turn her stories into TV plays but she would not agree. Tasleem Fazli had wanted to do a film based on Dastak Na Do but she would have none of the naach gana that went with the territory. Qadeer believes she was disappointed even with the way it had been treated by PTV. In a sense, he says, she was a purist; she would not allow what she saw as a distortion of her work.
She turned down several awards. She was nominated for the Pride of Performance during the Ziaul Haq days but did not give her consent. Two years ago, she also refused the National Award for Literature.
Deed Wadeed, a collection of her short stories, was awarded prize at the 2018 Karachi Literature Festival. She refused the award and the cheque that was sent to her in Lahore. Col Qadeer did, however, receive on her behalf an award at a United Bank Limited event in Karachi following much insistence. Could it be that she took too seriously the endorsement that might be argued was implicit in her acceptance? There is a clue in her remark to Irfan Siddiqi: “If you want to be of some service, please do something to save the hungry children. Feed the poor. I do not write for awards.” It was possibly in the same vein that she refused several requests for TV interviews.
Born to a literary family (she was related to Fazle Haq Khairabadi on her father’s side), Altaf Fatima came to Pakistan from Lucknow at the age of 21. In 1953, her elder sister, Rishaad Fatima, passed away, leaving behind two children, aged one and three years. Altaf Fatima raised them. She did not marry. Later, her brother Fazle Qadeer, then serving in Islamabad, sent his son Arslan Qadeer to live with her in Lahore. For a living, she taught Urdu at Islamia College, Cooper Road. She was quite close to her brother whom she also admired for his great insights.
Back in Lucknow, writer Nayyer Masud had been a next door neighbour. They remained on very good terms. In Lahore, she made many friends besides her students and admirers. Once reminded of her Urdu-speaking origins, she said: “Punjabis have done the most for Urdu,” Huma Anwar narrates.
Prof Amjad Tufail, a writer quite active in Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq however, believes she just did not write on political issues. By temperament and choice, he says, she was among writers of fiction who seek to depict reality. “The protagonist’s love of the China Man in Dastak Na Do is unattainable. When she meets him years later, she doesn’t even recognise him. That is Altaf Fatima for you: her stories encompass the life of the common man.”
As for her person, he says, “She had a great sense of honour and she lived up to her ideals. Two years back, the Academy of Letters chairman visited her in person and offered her a cheque to support her household. She refused the help from the government. She believed in a writer’s independence. She was a rare, exceptional woman.”
Huma Anwar recalls her as somebody to whom reading and writing came naturally. “She wrote because it was important to her. She did not seek applause, leave alone crave it. She did, however, sometimes remark, not without amusement, that unlike some other writers she had not become a popular subject for critics.”
“While she did not seek the limelight and was quite selfless, she was mentally agile till the end. There were always newspapers and books on her side table. She never even complained that the font size was too small or unreadable.
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“The way she took care of her daily chores was an inspiration. She convinced me that old age did not imply helplessness. She was also contented and grateful at all times. She wouldn’t let a visitor leave without having tea which she made herself. When I insisted that she let me make the tea, she would say, ‘In this house, I am the president.’ When I once said, ‘you are all alone,’ she said, ‘Allah is always there (with me).’“
She liked to cook and invite people over to have lunch with her. She had less company towards the end as many of her favourite contemporaries were no more. In the end, she faded out without ever being clinically ill.
Altaf Fatima passed away on November 29, 2018 at the age of 91.