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“All writers draw upon their past experiences”

Rukhsana Ahmed talks about her literary career and her multifarious concerns

“All writers draw upon their past experiences”

Rukhsana Ahmed was born in Karachi in 1948. She attended schools in various cities in Pakistan, and earned degrees from Punjab University and later Karachi University in Linguistics. After migrating to Britain, she earned further degrees from Reading University and The University of the Arts. Ahmed is a novelist, playwright, short story writer, translator, and polemicist. In 1984, she joined the Asian Women Writers’ Collective in London.

Ahmed is particularly well-known for her plays, including the recent Mistaken…Annie Besant in India, and for adapting plays by other writers, such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers. To promote Asian women playwrights, she co-founded the Kali Theatre Company with actor Rita Wolf. She is also the founding trustee of the South Asian Arts and Literature in the Diaspora Archive in the UK.

Among many books of short fiction, plays and radio plays that she has penned, there are books of translation like We Sinful Women and The One Who did not Ask (Altaf Fatima) and her novel, The Hope Chest.

The News on Sunday: When did you start writing seriously?

Rukhsana Ahmed: I scribbled as a child, and did some translation work but I didn’t publish. As a student at Karachi University, I used to write essays. I started with journalism, and the very first thing I wrote and sent out, I got paid for. (You start taking your writing seriously if it becomes gainful in requirement). Later on, I was invited by Ravi Randhawa to attend her workshop designed to give support to new writers. We all took our writings there but, more seriously, we worked on developing our writing skills and critiquing each other’s work. It used to be held at the spot called The Women’s Place on the embankment, and, later on, turned into a collective. I am talking about 20-25 years ago.

TNS: Throughout your career as a storyteller, what have been your primary themes and concerns?

RA: Basically, every time you have an idea or a story that moves you, you want to write. Because I did a lot of paid or commercial work often attached to my job, ideas flowed in easy. For instance, we might say we want to do a play about Pakistanis who work in the can and tin industry; we would go and hear their stories, and see, which was the most interesting story of all to build upon.

I have done jobs where I have been angry about something: for example, years ago I was given a book to review called, The Lace makers of Narsapur by Maria Mies, which is about the lace makers in India. I was so upset when I read about the poor working conditions and poor wages of these lace makers that I wrote a story inspired by that lace making community of women. (It’s in the new collection called, The Gatekeeper’s Wife). With plays also, it was often the idea that grabbed you; there is no point in writing plays unless somebody commissions them because they don’t get produced. It can’t be a play written for yourself!

The radio works were similarly commissioned. My novel, The Hope Chest started as an idea about a friendship between two women — an English girl and a Pakistani girl — who are facing different problems. It was a coming-of-age story about the challenges in their lives. There are three stories in that novel: the first two about the two women and the third one about a young woman who is a servant girl who gets married at an early age.

Basically, every time you have an idea or a story that moves you, you want to write. Because I did a lot of paid or commercial work often attached to my job, ideas flowed in easy.

TNS: How important has your family been in finding its way into your narratives?

RA: To an extent, I think all writers draw upon their memories and past experiences, and, of course, some of these memories might include memories of a word that my mother had said or of an attitude. I have not used anybody as a composite person in any one of my stories. Even the story ‘First Love’ that I wrote after 9/11 as a kind of expression of horror and terrorism is a tribute to Rashid that I wrote almost thirty years after his death. (Nishan-e-Haider, Rashid Minhas was my brother). The story doesn’t portray Rashid exactly as he was. It does, however, portray some of the conversations that we used to have about the war, about the need for an army, etc. And, obviously, he was a professional who saw the army as a machinery necessary for self-defence. Sadly, the situation turned into a civil strife the country got implicated into.

TNS: Tell us about your experience of studying at Reading.

RA: I got married soon after getting a job, and I felt I would not get a similar job overseas without getting a degree. So, I ended up applying to the Reading University simply because that was the only university where admissions were open. I went there as a mature student into a course called MA in Modern English Literature designed around the aesthetics of the late nineteenth-century movement. It was quite difficult because, although I was almost a top student here in Pakistan where I stood first three years in running at the Karachi University, I found it hard to function there: everybody else was much more committed to his personal research in his usual way whereas I had been trained to just ‘study’.

Anyway, I got past that and managed to get through the exams. It was a great learning experience. Many years later, I did another Masters in Media Arts. Ultimately, your goal is to convey your message to as many people as possible, and film and television are a very effective way of doing that. That was my starting point.

TNS: Your play River on Fire was a finalist for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Award. What was it about?

RA: It was an original play inspired by a horrible dispute or squabble I saw between a couple. They were divorced, and then their son died. Both the parents wanted to give the child burial in their own traditional way. The wife ends up stealing the body from the hospital. It horrified me to think that instead of grieving over the death of the child, they were brawling. It set me thinking about the commitment to the ritual of burial. I think it became an interesting story to put against the backdrop of communalism, especially when riots were taking place in Bombay.

At that very time, the Ram Janm Bhoomi dispute was also fresh. I weaved those ideas together, and it occurred to me that my story was very similar to ‘Antigone’. So, I used that story as a kind of frame but the play was essentially about conflicts resulting from fanaticism and extremism. In my story there is an atheist mother who has two daughters — one from a Muslim husband, and the other from a Hindu husband.

TNS: To promote Asian women playwrights, you co-founded Kali Theatre Company with Rita Wolf in London in 1990. What triggered its inception?

RA: Rita Wolf set up a company, and invited me to come on board. I agreed out of sheer politeness. Then, of course, she got married and left. She was my partner in the project and when she left, I had to run the company on my own for eight years. I steered it in the direction of developing other writers. We’d plan a series of courses around playwriting, draw a group of women, select 8-10 people, and hold workshops for a period of 8-10 weeks. We’d give them time to go away and write, then call them back to bring in the text and develop it.

The next step was to give them dramaturgical input. I actually managed the whole project by running workshops, inviting other writers and playwrights to come and talk to the students, and finally match the writers to the dramaturges who would be sympathetic to their works. So we would pair writers with dramaturges, and put them on rehearse-reading. They would be asked to read the script, present it on stage but not in costumes and not with props, basically, to present it as your text. Out of 4-5 plays, we would select the best that would go for full production. I didn’t actually direct myself — my role was more of a producer and teacher in that setting.

Kali also produced two or three of my plays, like River on Fire, Kali Shalwar (based on Manto’s story) and Song for a Sanctuary — the very first play Rita was interested in producing. Rita Wolf was an actor with a very long standing in the UK. Song for a Sanctuary came out of a place of rage — I was quite outraged to discover that an Asian woman had been murdered in a refuge in Brent, England. She was a Sikh woman; her husband broke in one day and killed her in front of her children. Then there was a dispute among the workers who lived in that refuge that outraged them so much that they locked the workers out. I put those two facts together and created a play.

TNS: Why was the play on Annie Besant in India named Mistaken?

RA: The play is about Annie, and it’s a comment on Annie’s conduct in India. She did a lot of good work but there were some mistakes that she made. The play was actually commissioned by a company that was Indian in orientation to commemorate the 60th Day of Independence of India. They wanted Gandhi to figure in it, and Annie’s relationship with Gandhi. They asked me to make that quite central in the play. I was more interested in the Annie and Krishnamurthi story because here were these two boys who were left at the Theosophical Society’s caretaker’s office, and were, more or less, taken away from him. When it came to the fact that he heard that somebody quite close to Annie had abused the kids or there was a case against this man, Krishnamurthi’s father wanted to take the kids back but he wasn’t allowed to.

Annie just believed that the Brahmins were the fairest people in India, and wanted to relate to them. When she first came, she started making schools for Brahmins: she created an ashram and a school in Benaras. She also made colleges in South India for boys where she would only induct Hindu Brahmins, hence ‘mistaken’. It was the arrogance of the imperialists I was commenting on.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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