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Her dreams of the future

May 14, 2009
Raza Rumi
describes the launch of Fahmida Riaz’s novel and how it turned into an occasion for introspection
Barricaded Islamabad enveloped by the ghosts of national gloom has one little corner of hope. The Pakistan Academy of Letters, under its dynamic and committed Chairman, Fakhar Zaman, continues to weave narratives that still inspire. Even when the bitterness of our grim present affects us all, Fakhar Zaman was forthright in his views on Pakistan, its future and most importantly, its literary tradition. The venue was the book launch of Fahmida Riaz’s novel Godavari that has been translated into English. Fahmida Riaz is better known as a poet but her unique prose is lesser known. Her short stories and novels are extraordinary pieces of literary works rendered into sheer poetry. Often it is difficult to determine the genre of her ‘prose’ works as the lines between watertight compartments blur and fade away, only to reappear as a gentle reminder to the readers that our author is experimenting in her inimitable style.

Godavari was published last year by the Oxford University Press and Fakhar Zaman organised its launch under the aegis of PAL only to ensure that there are many indigenous, native voices in English that have yet not caved in to the pressures and inducements of Western publishing houses.

Godavari is a deceptively simple story of a few characters visiting a holiday hill resort in Maharashtra a little before the communal riots that shook Bombay and India in the 1980s. But deep within its lines, sub-textual connotations and shifting moods lie tales of discrimination, communal hatred and the unfettered spirits of its universal female characters. The heartening aspect of this book launch was that there were a few dozen enthusiasts present on the occasion, and a few powerful intellectuals who spoke of Fahmida’s life and her works as symbolic of contemporary Pakistan.

The most forceful of voices at PAL was that of Dr. Tariq Rehman, the eminent linguist who was quick to clarify that he was neither a literary critic nor a connoisseur but had only come there in support of relentless fighters such as Fahmida Riaz who had devoted their lives to the cause of a progressive Pakistan. Dr. Rehman spoke of the challenges that Pakistan faced, and reminded everyone how these had been subtly and deftly handled by Riaz in her novel. Of all these challenges he cited the two-fold menace of snowballing Talibanisation; and the silence that had gripped those – mentally exiled – who ought to rise and confront it. Dr. Rehman was deeply worried, forceful in his presentation and sincere in his warnings that we all facing certain dangers together as a nation that has been betrayed time and again by its ruling elites.

Dr. Mujahid Barelvi, the eminent journalist, reminisced about the younger Fahmida in Karachi of the 1970s, and how she inspired younger writers. Her infinite charms made a whole generation fall in love with her. He cited the upheavals of the 1970s and the onset of martial law, Fahmida’s exile and how the dreamers saw their ideals crashing one after another during General Zia-ul-Haq’s monstrous rule.

Godavari was written when Fahmida Riaz was in exile in India during the 1980s. This was the time when she had a relatively safe environment, for she had been booked under the sedition law in Pakistan. However, this was also a time when Fahmida was not at home in the promised secular land because of its deep-seated casteism, its roving communal demons and above all, its typecasting of Pakistanis. Therefore, Godavari also emerges as a tale of an exile as much as it is about the marginalisation of women and India’s lower castes.

Salman Asif read an erudite paper, almost a literary tribute to our greatest living poet. He spoke of the inherent lyricism of Fahmida’s prose and its overt feminist stance and intonations. He quoted verses from Dara Shikoh and ended his paper with moving lines from Forugh Farrokhzad, the legendary Iranian poet who was also castigated by the prophets of chauvinism and ignorance. Alamgir Hashmi spoke about Godavari’s plot, its characters and genre, and raised numerous questions about the difficulty of categorizing it. Shabnam Shakil and Kishwar Naheed also attended the ceremony as guests and reaffirmed their solidarity with Riaz.

There was nothing more endearing than hearing the sari-clad and reflective Fahmida Riaz, speaking in English about her novel and answering many questions. She also set its context, and mentioned how Sir Sayid’s message on education and modernization was still relevant and perhaps the best counterweight to the growing extremism in the country. Fahmida was also emphatic in affirming our South Asian identity as the founders and creators of Pakistan were themselves “Indians” and not foreigners. Thus she lambasted the insidious efforts of the Pakistani state to impose a foriegn identity on us, basing it on alien regions and cultures. In spite of such realities, she emphasized, we were distinctly Pakistani and this was the beauty of our country’s pluralism, which is now at the mercy of fundamentalist obscurantism. She looked calm and satisfied at the translation rendered by Aquila Ismail, not to mention an excellent introduction by Pakistan’s gifted bilingual writer Asif Farrukhi. In his eloquent background to the novel and its author, he cited the incident when Fahmida’s house was searched during Zia’s era and the house “begins to appear in a new light as she begins to hear, for the first time, heartbeats reverberate through the four walls:”

All these tribulations over a book
Hidden in my past?
Look beyond the curtains instead
At my dreams of the future

– Search Warrant’ translated by Patricia Sharpe

The chair, Fakhar Zaman, was the most unconventional speaker I have ever heard at such literary events. He delivered an insightful, self-exploratory speech. Tired of hearing about Iqbal’s religiosity, Zaman complained of how desperadoes were searching for religion in Faiz too. He was quick to confess that he was a political worker, but his primary identity was that of a writer. Through this curiously hybridized identity, he understood Fahmida’s works, related to her anguish and shared her concerns for Pakistan’s past and its uncertain future. He also spoke of the ludicrousness of visa barriers in South Asia and the demeaning immigration forms that placed writers, poets and intellectuals in a category titled as the “other”. The audience laughed and also ruminated as he spoke extempore without fear and without cavil. Fakhar Zaman is a rare breed of intellectual, and it is good to see the Academy thriving under his leadership despite the turbulent environs of the mighty capital.

It is a separate matter that we have learnt to sit in comfortable zones of apathy concerning our writers. Thousands of employees recruited by the past PPP governments have been reinstated, but Fahmida Riaz stays in her Karachi apartment without a vocation or decent livelihood that would enable a litterateur of her towering stature to create more art. For all its other acts of omission, the present government will not be kindly remembered if it fails to honour the progressive artists who struggled against dictatorships and lost their homes, dreams and moorings. Perhaps this is why we are condemned to be haunted by the ghosts of authoritarian rule and the shadows of anti-human ideologies.

Fahmidaji, keep on writing: posterity is all yours. This is what your predecessors Mir and Ghalib and many others faced. We are incapable of breaking the callous circles of indifference.

Raza Rumi blogs at and edits Pak Tea House and Lahornama e-zines


History – An issue of perspective

May 13, 2009

Education can open a lot of doors, sometimes these doors are the ones that are within our minds. Growing up through years of history classes I had always had the impression that it was only the era of the Guptas and tales about the 9 gems in Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s court that Sanskritic learning was at its peak. And when it came to the history of the Mughals a lot of us held the notion that it was only the persian arts that they encouraged.  Sometimes, within the ramparts of our own definitions of what constitutes culture we often forget that history presented in a school textbook is only a small snapshot and that other snapshots exist. I would go on to say that text book designers have a great responsibility on their hands and in a lot of cases they fail to satiate the young minds that are in need of wider basis.

In the course of reading a history of Sanskrit literature, I stumbled upon a very interesting text in an area where very little work has been done or an area where there is more prejudices and notions than introspection and a discerning analysis of history. To me, this shows that history is not at all what it seems or what you are taught to believe in.

The fact that many moslem rulers of India liberally patronised Sanskritic culture and learning is not generally known. Their courts were adorned with Sanskritic scholars and writers of high repute who got every encouragement monetary and otherwise from their royal patrons. Of the Sanskritic poets who adorned the courts of the Moslem rulers, three of the greatest are BhAnukara, AkbarIya kALidasa and Jagannatha Panditaraja. Of the Mohammedan rulers who liberally patronised Sanskrit poets and scholars the foremost are Shahabuddin, Nizam Shah, Sher shah, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Muddalar Shah, Burhan Khan and others. Some of the other poets patronised by them are AmrtaDatta, Pundarika Vitthala (the same person who has written musicological treatises such as Ragamala, SadrgaCandrodaya), Harinarayana Misra, Vamshidhara, Lakshmipati and so on. When this is the case with history within a nation divided across religious lines, I am sure there are so many such blurring borders between nations if only we care to look

Read the full downloadable text here..

The Dome (A Short Play)

April 28, 2009

The Dome

(A Short Play)

By Kali Hawa

[The stage is a blank rostrum set in coal black background and foreground. There is absolutely nothing visible to the spectators due to dull diffused lights facing them from the stage edge. Abruptly the lights causing illusion of darkness to the spectators, begin to dim. Simultaneously soft white light slowly submerge a human form. Bang in the middle of the stage are two long solid blocks. Due to completely black furnishings only silhouette of the man and the two blocks are visible. The man stirs and appears completely baffled]

Man: [Whispering in soft voice] Its pitch dark here. I can’t see a thing. Looks like it wouldn’t have mattered if I was completely blind. [Now a little laud] Blind! Am I blind? [He broods over this for while] No I don’t think so. Certainly not, I am not blind. There is a difference in seeing dark and not seeing at all. Where is this? Who am I? I don’t seem to remember anything. Am I dead? [Again broods over this, then feels his body with his hands] I have limbs; I have form like human being. I am not dead after all. [Softly, as if afraid] Hello! Anybody here? [Nothing happens, emboldened, he walks around in a small circle trying to feel for solid contact with his hands and feels the presence of blocks. His footsteps echo in with short trailing sounds.] This place appears familiar, at least the milieu is familiar. Yes I am inside a dome like structure. [Shaking his head, sits down on one of the blocks] Yes definitely inside a massive dome. The short trailing echo, indeed this a dome. [Now loudly] Hello! Anybody here? Can any one show me the way out?

Voice [A tired but gruff irritating voice] Stop that racket, you fool! Be quiet.

Man: [Perplexed, now speaks in a soft and friendly tone] Sorry! Old chap, if I bothered you, but you see I am lost here and need help. Who are you? What is this place?

Voice: How dare you ask that? Who am I! Yes indeed, Who am I? Oh! It doesn’t matter any more, does it? Why should I help you, I don’t care what miserable piece of shit you are. By the way I am miserable for God knows whence. I am Khurram.

Man: Some luck I have. I run into a badmouthed guy with a queer name. Khurram is it. That’s a violent abrasive name.

Khurram: [Exasperated] you are an extremely insolent person aren’t you. Another time another place you would have paid dearly for this. What is the big deal about Khurrum? You have no familiarity with Arabic-Persian names.

Man: [Trying to make up] I am sorry if I have upset you. You appear to have been around here for sometime while I am a confused stranger here. I don’t even know who I am, what I am doing here. I don’t think I am dead I have physical form. This place seems like a massive dome. Why isn’t there any light……

Voice: You are not the only one baffled [Sounding philosophical]. What makes you think you are not dead?

Man: I told you, I have physical form. If I was dead and assuming dying is just not the end, it is unlikely that existence will continue in the same form. By the way what is this place, Khurram!

Khurram: [Annoyed] Oh! What impudence! This is the Taj Mahal. Can’t you see?

Man: I can’t see, its pitch-dark here.[Then realizing slowly] Taj Mahal! Is it? And you, what are you doing here [waits a few seconds and then excitedly]. You mean! You mean you are the Shah Jehan?

[ There is silence for a few seconds]

Khurram: It doesn’t impress me anymore. All the veneration, awe and fear matters no more. I spend time in complete oblivion siting over judgement on my own doings. I am nowhere near a satisfactory judgement, which angers me even more. What did I do wrong?

Man: You made the Taj Mahal. You are one shinning example of everlasting love and devotion. That should be a fair judgement.

Khurram:You think so. That’s what people think. I hate Mumtaj. I hated her most of the time. I didn’t make the Taj Mahal, I ordered its construction. An army of very skilled artisans made this magnificent monument. I merely ordered its construction in a fit profound loss, just the loss a deep sense of insecurity and loss. Later I wished I hadn’t ordered its construction but then somehow I couldn’t stop its construction. I had become a zombie. My love for Mumtaj was infatuation. Later it is was just a magnified public perception because of the massive construction lasting a lifetime. I was like a zombie not interested in any thing. I watched its construction in state of complete detachment. I saw laborers falling from the high scaffoldings to their death, their heads opening like crushed pumpkins. The rasping sound of whips peeling the skin of workmen for making mistakes did not make me wince in horror. I saw despairing families breaking their back to complete the construction. Supervisors whipping tired workmen to hurry up with raising marble blocks, bringing in heavy materials etc. Scores of them were dying like fleas due to my perceived urge to complete the monument at the earliest. The state was left to flounder and hurtle freely from a prosperous to near bankrupt kingdom.

Man: That is a very harsh judgement. Remember you were the king, that was your destiny. We are partly creatures of our circumstances. Since everything came to you as a matter of right, your behavior was molded in that fashion. Death and misery meant statistics to you as concerns of mere statecraft; therefore you did not realize true significance of a personal tragedy. You were surrounded by some indifferent, some power-hungry people, some good advisors and may be perhaps some well-meaning well wishers too. But they all had their own personal world to attend; besides a king is something unique therefore he has no benchmarks or role models to look for parallels. The King is center of an unreal microcosm where ostentatious behavior over-shadows everything else. Much of his decisions are spontaneous, even though these decisions have far reaching consequences, the king is helpless in that.

Khurram: That’s very well articulated but unfortunately it does not pass the test the morality and responsible behavior. If we accept what you say then no one shall be responsible for his acts. Everyone will blame his circumstances for his failures or acts of omissions and commissions. As you said we are partly creatures of our circumstances but only partly. We have within each of us a sense of judging right and wrong, therefore only part of the blame for our acts can be attributed to circumstances, rest we have to own up.

Man: You speak well your Majesty, but wouldn’t you consider your incarceration in this dungeon for all these centuries enough atonement for your failings? Eventually what counts is sum total of our actions in a lifetime. Surely you were good to your queen and your children and also many other in the multitude constituting your realm.

Khurram: Your are not correct when you say I was good to my queen and children. Perhaps I was for a brief period but as you say it is the sum total that counts. After a while, a long while I hated them all, the cloying closeness made me even more remote and disdainful. Public perception though is quite the contrary. Yet, you are right about the sufficient atonement for my failings. I can say that now with all the earnestness. Goodbye! Young man. You will wake up soon. Good bye!

[Briefly the faded lights, fade even more until it is completely dark. When the lights again come up the stage has metamorphosed in to ruins of an ancient tomb. A man is slumped on the floor his head has slight injury and blood oozing in a light trickle. The man stirs and crawls up, rubs is head and notices the injury]

Man: What a fall through the stairs. This is a tricky ruin, hope ASI does something about it. Wonder how long I had been here unconscious.


Kali Hawa

Washington Post Article on Indian Muslims Facing Bias

April 19, 2009

The sunny apartment had everything Palvisha Aslam, 22, a Bollywood producer, wanted: a spacious bedroom and a kitchen that overlooked a garden in a middle-class neighborhood that was a short commute to Film City, where many of India’s Hindi movies are shot.

She was about to sign the lease when the real estate broker noticed her surname. He didn’t realize that she was Muslim, he said. Then he rejected her. It was just six weeks after the November Mumbai terrorist attacks and Indian Muslims were being viewed with suspicion across the country. He then showed her a grimy one-room tenement in a Muslim-dominated ghetto. She felt sick to her stomach as she watched the residents fight over water at a leaky tap in a dark alley.

The entire article is here.

Postcard from Agra by Raza Rumi

April 1, 2009

Crossposted on Jahane Rumi

Published in The Friday Times

As Indian TV channels broadcast stories on Pakistan’s domestic infighting, and rumours of a new coup d’ etat, my less perturbed alter-ego is calmed by Agra – the run down city that was once the capital of the Mughal empire. I have spent three days with a delightful group of South Asian writers, poets and academics who have congregated to celebrate the SAARC writers’ festival organised by Ajeet Caur, the legendary Punjabi writer whose love for Lahore has not waned despite the iron curtain erected sixty one years ago. Caur has been managing the Foundation of South Asian Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) since 1992 and single-handedly she has challenged the many geographical and political barriers that have been erected. FOSWAL is now a platform for writers and poets on the margins of power-drama, lighting little lamps of hope. (picture above left : SAARC writers with Pakistani delegates Ustad Akhtar (middle), Parveen Atif (second from left) and Zahid Nawaz (extreme right)
I had been reading Caur’s earthy, profound stories for decades, and always wondered if I would ever meet her. Therefore, receiving an invite from her a month ago, was a long cherished wish come true. In a few, scattered and sparkling conversations she told me how she had found me through my writings urging for Indo-Pak amity which, in the words of my cynical friends, are dreamy rants asking for the impossible. This March, the gods overseeing visas and border crossings were not too cantankerous. So I made it to Delhi the day before the conference was due to start.

After spending a night at the serene, sparse International Gandhi hostel, located near the Samadhi of the Mahatama, we reached Agra. Delegates from Pakistan included two Punjabi poets, a young writer Nayyara from Karachi and the seasoned story writer Parveen Atif. Ustad Akhtar Khan, dressed in an achkan and payjama was also a travel companion. The Ustad, who could not remember his phone number, has a voice that glows with divine flashes – of love and humanity. During the festival he joined another artist to present a Bhagat Kabir-Amir Khusrau musical ensemble. Eminent writer and Chairman Academy of Letters Fakhar Zaman, also participated in the event.

This year, following the rancour generated by the Mumbai killings of November 2008, the theme of the conference was literature and terrorism. The sessions dwelt on the importance of poets and intellectuals in resisting the menace that collectively haunts us. During the first day, despite the occasional indulgence in the blame-game, especially by an Afghan poet wearing dark glasses, there emerged a consensus that terror, terrorism and militancy were shared and collectively owned as processes. It was also stressed that there was no singular cause nor was a single state responsible for the situation.

I have to sadly report that the local journos on the sidelines resorted to the popular media mantra on Pakistan as the ‘hotbed’ of terrorism. Such sweeping statements were isolated, cacophonous rumblings, for the poets know better. The ones from Sri Lanka praised the Pakistani policemen who saved their lives; the Indians referred to dialogue and the Bangladeshis wanted to reclaim what they shared with Pakistanis and Indians, for the tales of loss were monumental and drowned what has been achieved in the name of nation states.
On day two of the event, my paper, ‘Silhouetted silences – contemporary Pakistani literature in the age of terror’ was well received. However, the challenging part, after my paper, was to dispel the impression that I was a fiction writer, an academic, a hack or whatever for the identity game always makes me feel limited and boxed in.

In my paper, I attempted to explore whatever little has been written since Pakistan has been bleeding in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The dilemmas of Pakistani writers not to be identified with the unpopular and imperial policies of the United States have inhibited direct statements. But the eerie silence is now breaking, I said. Nothing could better illustrate this trend than a Pashto poem How could I be silent by Iqbal Hussain Afkar.

That my land; A paradise,
My lovely heavenly garden,
Is struck by strife and wiping me out,
I’m turning into dust and ashes,
Friends! How could I be silent!
Speak! How could I be silent!

Ajeet Caur later rebuked me for mentioning The Reluctant Fundamentalist in my paper. She rightly said that the audience for books in English from Pakistan in the main comprised Western readers and those who were already aware of the complex issues and nuances that define our age. I tried to explain my choice of citations and quotes, as Ajeetji and I faced the adroit camera of Gauhar Raza, the filmmaker, and debated literature and its value when the world seemed to be falling apart. (Picture right: Author with Ajeet Caur)

During the festival, Gauhar Raza showed his film on Bhagat Singh, the hero of the independence movement and the Punjab who laid down his life in 1930. The film entitled Inquilab traced Bhagat’s life and passions, ably guided by the book authored by Irfan Habib. The film was neither sentimental nor hyped with platitudes. It evoked an era of ideology and hope in a matter-of-fact style. Both Irfan and Gauhar were like that too: understated, refined intellectuals with a rather wry sense of humour. The same evening we strolled in the lawns, fresh with spring flowers, at the Grand Hotel Agra, lamenting the loss of sense and laughing a little at ourselves – the subcontinent’s Muslims.

On day three, established Bangladeshi writers, Selina Hussain, Nasreen Jehan, Mohammad Samad, and Khonkader Ashraf Hussain, recited poems that spoke of love, of discovering peace within us. A surprising poem from an Urdu poet-journalist from Delhi, Waseem, addressed the audience during the unpacking of the sadness that the poor mother of Ajmal Kasab, an accused arrested after the Mumbai killings, must have experienced after her son had been arrested and her small house in a Punjabi hamlet became the centre of global attention. Poets succeed where news-journalists fail us.

I have to sadly report that the local journos on the sidelines resorted to the popular media mantra on Pakistan as the ‘hotbed’ of terrorism. Such sweeping statements were isolated, cacophonous rumblings, for the poets know better. The ones from Sri Lanka praised the Pakistani policemen who saved their lives; the Indians referred to dialogue and the Bangladeshis wanted to reclaim what they shared with Pakistanis and Indians, for the tales of loss were monumental

Ajeet Caur has expanded the definitions of South Asia by inviting delegates from Myanmar and Afghanistan. A few amazing poems from these countries made the festival especially memorable.

At the end of the festival, several resolutions were passed condemning terrorism and restating the role of conscientious writers and intellectuals in troubled times. The media persons were fishing for answers to political questions at the press conference on day three. We told them that we were neither politicians nor spokespersons for state and military industries. They nodded in half agreement. It was clear that Pakistan was a matter of concern for all regional countries: the anguish of Swati children and women was shared by all, and so were the travails of common Pakistanis. As Jasbir Jain from India said, nation states propel violence, and one could not but agree. Jain was categorical and forthright about the socio-economic violence within India and how it had generated what is known as terrorism. Pakistan is not alone in these times of crises: its friends and well-wishers are many, as in the comity of writers.

I am preparing to leave Agra. As I write these lines, I am overwhelmed by Ajeet Caur’s affection, distraught at what is happening in Pakistan, and I think whether Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, could ever have envisioned that his beloved capital would turn into a venue for deliberating regional peace three and a half centuries later.

Spirals of Contention: Why India was partitioned in 1947

March 8, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Partition with nationalist goggles off —by Khaled Ahmed in the Daily Times

Spirals of Contention: Why India was partitioned in 1947
By Satish Saberwal
Routledge (2008);

The distraction for Deoband was British Raj; the distraction for the state of Pakistan in 2009 is America. It didn’t work before 1947 and it is not working in 2009, to the annoyance of most Pakistanis living under the pan-Islamic narrative of anti-Americanism which splices with Pakistan’s India-driven nationalism through the ‘divine untruth’ of an Indian-American-Israeli nexus

The Hindus of Peshawar

March 2, 2009

Global Post has some interesting footage of the Hindus who stayed in Peshawar, Pakistan.