Fahmida Riaz, the poet who lost two countries in one lifetime


She wrote for and about ordinary people and their plight, which is why she will be remembered alongside that other great Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Fahmida Riaz died on November 21. She will be remembered for her bravery – for her outspokenness as a feminist and public intellectual – and for being a great poet. She wrote for and about ordinary people and their plight, which is why she will be remembered alongside that other great Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Riaz’s poetic career was inspired by the political agitation she experienced during the two early dictatorships in Pakistan – General Ayub Khan’s and General Zia’s.

She was part of the anti-Ayub agitation during the late 1960s that later propelled Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to power. But it was during Zia’s martial law that Riaz’s politics and poetry came of age. His rule was a dark period for the Pakistani intelligentsia. He infected society with narrow, sectarian values, set in motion a system of covert and overt coercion and placed limits on thought – which is why Fahmida Riaz decided to flee to India. With her husband in jail and multiple cases registered against them both, there was little she could do but escape. In all, she spent about seven years in exile in India.

Growing up in Zia’s Pakistan as a child of the novelist and short story writer Jamila Hashmi, I remember Riaz being whispered about in literary gatherings as if her very name were prohibited. I met her much later, towards the end of the 1990s. Although my mother had died by then, it didn’t seem like I was meeting a stranger. In fact, we developed our own conversation that was both political and personal. She remained anxious over how I had been ostracised by both state and society – by those who had made their peace with the authorities and sought to keep their distance from individuals considered ‘marked’.

Despite the harsh realities of martial law, not everyone in Pakistan’s circle of intellectuals was sympathetic to her decision to shift in India. Pakistan did not want to remember what was left behind in 1947, which is why there was very little poetry about partition. Those who tried to remember, such as the short story writer and novelist Quratullain Hyder, were criticized and eventually headed back to India.

If seeking refuge in an ‘enemy’ state was not looked upon very kindly, there were others who sympathised with her decision. The Pakistan of the 1980s stood in stark comparison to the India of those days. Not much was known in Pakistan about the realities of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. People had heard about Sanjay Gandhi’s notorious acts but even those paled in comparison to what was experienced under Zia. Besides the censorship and the imprisonment and torture, the military dictator moved quickly to redefine the country, bringing Pakistani society closer to the identity in the name of which the country was created.

General Zia’s patrons in the United States and his new-found partners at home – the religious right and the conservative trader-merchant class – welcomed the emphasis on religious values. A new Pakistan that was created during that period had to look different from what it left behind. The Islamisation of the state through the imposition of numerous Islamic laws was not just re-defining the nature of the state but also sending a message to the intellectuals that they could no longer sit privately and debate the question of whether 1947 was indeed a good thing. The state’s identity was here to stay.

Most intellectuals were not irreligious but this kind of imposition of religion by the state was unprecedented. Even until the mid-1980s, sectarianism had not emerged as a major influence until the state injected it into the country’s veins by helping certain sectarian groups in pursuit of its foreign policy goals. Those who wanted to pray, fast or observe various religious rites used to do it in their own space. Not anymore. In comparison, the India of the 1980s was secular and democratic despite the communal tension lurking over the horizon.

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