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My memories of Fahmida Riaz

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Seven years ago, I read an article by Patricia Sharpe, who had translated some of the poems in Fahmida Riaz’s collection “Four Walls and a Black Veil”. She wrote that she had finalised her translations of the poems while sitting with Fahmida Riaz at her dining table in Santa Fé, New Mexico, United States. Coincidentally I happened to be in the suburban town of Santa Fé near Mexico City when I read that blog. For a moment, I overlooked the fact that the Santa Fé Sharpe was talking about was not the one where I happened to be at the time. I looked out of the window of my hotel room and saw a dim light faintly illuminating what looked like the dining room of an apartment in a building across the road. I envisioned Fahmida Riaz bent over piles of paper, scribbled with her poems, correcting and perfecting the translations. It was an inspiring moment, filled with this imagined sharing of space with her, in the unlikeliest of places, occasioned by the sameness of the place’s name.

Fahmida Riaz had made her entry on social media around that time. I took the opportunity to send her a daring message. I mentioned my Santa Fé experience and confessed how I was smitten by her when I had first read her poem Chaadar aur Chaardiwari for its bold attack on the repression of women characteristic of our patriarchal culture. I was not expecting my mail to receive attention exceeding a cursory glance from her, however her response came as a sweet surprise. Not missing the flirtatious tone of my mail, she said the destination of my love should not be her, but a woman I would be meeting one day. She promised to write a poem about that union of lovers she prophesied. The following day I woke up to the sweet delight of this poem posted on my timeline by her:

“Had there been someone who could hold him close
And wash his face with tears of love
And tell him how beautiful he was, perhaps he would have cried.
‘Come with me, let’s go somewhere far away,
Rowing our boat in these warm salty waters
Where you will find a girl who has been in waiting for ages
With one invigorating kiss, you will turn her
Into a queen of forests and of pearl-filled seas’ ”
(Translated from Urdu by the author)

The poem left me with a feeling that I had been warned that Cupid was lying in ambush to strike my heart with its arrow, and I decided to believe that the warning was issued by the person who identified targets for Cupid. Nevertheless, I wasn’t deterred by this attempt to deflect my admiration for her person to a target unbeknownst.

A couple of years passed, and I moved to the UK. One evening after work, my phone rang showing the number of our mutual friend, Aamer Hussein. I picked up and my voice fumbled as I heard Fahmida Apa’s unmistakable voice on the other end. She was on a visit to London and was dining with Aamer. We had not spoken before that day, but her voice and way of addressing me had a fond familiarity to it. She told me that our mutual friend mentioned my name over dinner and she asked to speak to me. I promised to travel to London to meet her but somehow our meeting wasn’t meant to happen until more than a year later in Karachi. I however felt elated for days that she not only remembered our conversations over Facebook but called to speak to me as well.

When fate finally allowed me to meet her in person on a pleasant January evening in Karachi, she was waiting in the street to make sure I didn’t lose my way trying to follow the directions to her house. She hugged me as if she had known me for ages and then led me into her house on the first floor. Her house was in a quieter back street near a busy commercial area of Karachi. I sat myself on the sofa in her room overlooking the street. While I was absorbing the overwhelmingly warm welcome, she sat on the bed in front of me and said, “Let me see you properly”. She asked about my date of birth and said Kabeer, her son, would have been just a couple of years older than me, had he been alive. Here was a clue to the source of her affection, that was sweeping me over. Later her husband entered the room and embraced me, saying the maid informed him that the visitor resembled their late son, Kabeer.

She got quite the hang of social media and used to freely share her casual observations as well as considered opinions on social, cultural and political matters on Facebook, writing in Urdu script. She would also regale her followers with her poems from time to time and tell them about what she had been working on. She interacted with the commenters and used the most patient and kind words to elaborate her points. When some commenters would disagree with her, she would explain her views very gently but stick to her guns. When that didn’t work, she would conclude that they couldn’t see things from where she was seeing them. Her posts also contained her distinct brand of humour. One morning, taking a jibe at the emerging trend of embellishing all speech and greetings with religious colour (hint: the Jumma mubarak messages), she wrote:

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“Happy Monday – It is 9 in the morning. Whole-hearted congratulations to the Muslim ummah, that we reached this stage. We made 9 o’clock happen. Wait, excuse me, it’s already 10 o’clock! That calls for even more felicitations. This is our achievement but without the help of God Almighty, it wouldn’t have been possible. Praise be to God.”
(Translated from Urdu)

On one of my visits, I told her that her own Facebook posts often got lost among the hundreds from other people on her page who tagged her. She asked if that meant that her posts were not visible on her page. I said they were but often one had to keep scrolling down to find them. She gave me her laptop and asked me to change the settings of her profile to prevent that from happening. It was endearing to see her looking satisfied when the change was executed.

It was amazing how she remembered little details from our previous conversations. She asked me in our next meeting a year later if the changed Facebook settings were still effective. Over the last year or so, she had given up interacting on social media as she found it strenuous due to her worsening health but continued to write notes and poems in her notebooks.

I was in Karachi on 25th December a couple of years ago. I had met her the day before and called her to ask to see her again before leaving the city. She joyfully insisted that I must visit and asked me to bring along a cake. I showed up with the cake, which she cut and put a piece in my mouth singing Merry Christmas. Everyone present at her house had some and thus we turned it into a little Christmas celebration. She looked happy and I remained at her house a bit longer than planned, enjoying the joyful moments. Finally, I had to tear myself away to catch my flight back to London.

One couldn’t tell from the look of her house that it belonged to the greatest living poet of the country. There were no rows of books stacked in shelves, no fancy framed photos on the walls, no shields or awards on display, everything was quite basic. She had been working for her publisher Oxford University Press for the last few years of her life. But due to her long sick leave, they terminated her employment. She sounded upset when I spoke to her and said that writers and artists should not be mistreated like that. Her talk would always be sprinkled with her characteristic charming laughter, even if the topic of conversation was depressing. It is a sad time for a nation when its literary icons remain preoccupied due to the instability of their means of livelihood.

Her last novel Qila-e-Faramoshi (Citadel of Forgetfulness) came out about a year ago. She used to update her readers about its progress and the research work she had been undertaking about the earliest known socialist movement that shook 6th century Zoroastrian Persia. It was a historical novel based around the life and times of Mazdak. The novel came out along with her poetry collection “Tum Kabeer” named after her late son. She expressed her wish for it to be translated into English. Recalling that she had been pleased with some translations I had done of her poems, she said to me, “Why don’t you do the translation?” I agreed with the idea and it is now a task that needs to be accomplished, but alas she will not be around to review it.

Fahmida Apa used to bring up the subject of my marriage every time we spoke. After our first meeting, she wrote to me that she wondered why I continued travelling from place to place as a restless soul and wouldn’t it be better if I found a soulmate to settle down with. Once she said in jest that she would have a bride ready for me next time I would go to see her.

I said to her that I found it baffling that a person like her, who dedicated her life and poetry, challenging every social restriction on an individual’s personhood, was persuading me to embrace one of those same restrictions. Her response was that life acquired a new meaning when shared with a companion. A way of finding one’s own personal happiness was to give happiness to someone, and what could be a better way of giving happiness than through giving love. Marriage was just a vehicle to stabilise and shape that connection as a relationship, she added.

She would say that if I had a wife, she could come and stay at my house in London. I protested that she wouldn’t find the hospitality lacking even in the absence of a woman in the house. She laughed and said she knew how single guys lived. On a serious note, she would say that she realised very well that affairs of the heart were a lot more complicated. In our last meeting in May this year, after a pause of reflection, she smiled and said she herself wasn’t sure of the reason why she kept telling me to get married.

Karachi became an obligatory stop on my visits to Pakistan for the sole purpose of meeting her. Every year I saw her health deteriorate, and her will to live slipping away. She would say she had lived enough and had done and said all that she had wanted to do or say, without any regrets. The ailment of lungs she was suffering from was not easily diagnosed and was taking its toll on her. Once while sharing the details of treatments her doctor had prescribed, she laughed and said, “See, what an unromantic affliction a poetess has got that she cannot go out with you to the beach!”

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Despite saying that she had lived enough, she would show spontaneous excitement at the idea of certain future plans. One of those plans was fulfilling her old desire to visit Russia, that had intensified of late because she had been reading Dostoyevsky again. She said she felt such a fondness for the character Roskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. I had promised to arrange her trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg next year but she did not live to see its advent, and left for me this sense of regret for not realising the plan sooner. Her health came in the way of her proposed visit and stay at my house in London, our planned visits to the beach in Karachi, to the coffeehouses and restaurants, and in the end the only place where we ever met was her house.

She no longer being in that house, there remains no longer any reason for me to visit Karachi.

I am sharing two of her poems that I had translated:

دن ڈھلے گھر میرے شام آئی ہے
پھر دریچے پہ چمکنے لگا زہرہ کا جمال
کوئی دم جاتا ہے رات آئے گی کھولے ہوئے بال
ایک لمحے کی جو فرصت ہے تو میں بھی جی لوں
نیلگوں شام کو آنکھوں میں سمو کر پی لوں

ساعتیں ابھری چلی آتی ہیں تاروں کی طرح
اور اندیشہ و امید نظاروں کی طرح
دن کے ساحل سے پلٹتی ہوئی موجوں کی قطار
حاصل عمر کا کرتی ہے شمار
اور خیال آتا ہے

جب بھی دل خون ہوا
کھل اٹھا ہے وہیں حیرت کا افق رنگ کنول
جیسے اس لمحے سے انکار کیا ہے میں نے
ہاں کسی بات پہ اصرار کیا ہے میں نے
زندگی تجھ سے بہت پیار کیا ہے میں نے
اور اس پیار میں تم سب کی مہک شامل ہے

کون ہو جانے کہاں رہتے ہو
لیکن اک حرف محبّت میں ہے کیسا جادو
ایک لمحے میں فراموش ہوئے سود و زیاں
پھر ہوا شوق جواں
جیسے اک اشک محبّت میں ڈھلا سارا جہاں

اس ڈھلی شام کا حاصل کیا ہے؟
دانش دل کیا ہے؟
کیسے انسان کو دلدار کیا انساں نے
عجب اقرار کہ ہر بار کیا انساں نے
زندگی تجھ سے بہت پیار کیا انساں نے

Translation:

Dusk arrives at my home as the day retreats
And the goddess of beauty shines through the window
Night will follow any moment with its loosened tresses
And I try to live this rare free moment I have found
To absorb the sight of the bluish evening

Moments arise from memory like twinkling stars
Switching visions of fears and hopes
Tides returning from the shore of the day
Taking stock of the outcome of life
And one thought emerges

Whenever the heart is shattered
There sprouts the horizon-colored lotus of wonderment
And I feel I had been in denial of this moment
There was something I had been insisting on
Life – I have loved you immensely
And this love contains the fragrance of all of you

I don’t know who you are and where you live
But what strange magic is contained in your loving words
That makes me forget all worries in a second
And rejuvenates my passion for life
As if the whole world’s worth is in a teardrop of love

What does this passing evening leave behind?
Is there any wisdom in the heart?
How man is endeared by man!
Amazing vow that’s taken every time by man!
Life, how dearly you’re loved by man!

آدمی کی زندگی

اس قدر جب تھی کشش
اس قدرجب پیار تھا
زندگی سے آدمی پھر ہو گیا کیونکر جدا
آدمی کیا کھو گیا تھا اپنی دنیا میں کہیں
توڑ کر دل زندگی کا اس سے کیوں کہنے لگا
بزم ہے میری سجی
اک نہ ہونے سے ترے اس میں نہ ہوگی کچھ کمی
زندگی اس سے خفا ہو کر اٹھی اور چل پڑی
کون جانے دور افق پر کیا دیا اس کو دکھائی
آدمی کی بزم میں پھر زندگی واپس نہ آئی
آدمی کی زندگی سے ہو گئی آخر جدائی

Life and Man

When there had been such attraction
When there was so much love
Why did Man part ways with Life then?
Was he so lost in his own world, that he
Broke the heart of Life, as he so said:
Look, how lively is this gathering of mine
Nothing it would be lacking, even if you take leave
Saddened, Life got up and set off towards
That far horizon where something seemed to beckon her
Return she did not to the Man’s gathering ever again
Thus Man and Life eventually went separate ways

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3 Comments

  1. Hafeez December 17, 2018

    Thanks Shueyub for sharing your memories and bit of insight of her persoanl life. I admit that I havent read her much just few bits here and there but I can strongly feel her rebelious nature in a soft tone educating the very core of humanity. Surely she was a great loss to Urdu and world literature. May she find happiness with Kabeer smiling up in heavens.

    Reply
  2. Sheema Kermani December 17, 2018

    Enjoyed reading your write up Shueyub – I miss her terribly!

    Reply
  3. Veerta December 18, 2018

    You do look a lot like kabeer. 🙂
    And you have written well and with love. She told me many times of your continual insistence that she should visit you.
    Lately I feel that she has not gone, my one year old keeps saying “nano” when in her old room facing the street.
    So you’re welcome to visit and say hello to her spirit, in Karachi or at her grave side in Lahore. She in qabristan bahar shah next to the garrison golf and country club.

    Reply

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