Fahmida Riaz, the Ninth Heroine of the Indus Valley

With her startling narrative style and themes spanning from female desire to political consciousness, Fahmida Riaz's Urdu poetry is among the best in the modern era.

(Fahmida Riaz died on Wednesday, November 21, 2018 in Lahore, Pakistan. The Wire republishes this piece on Riaz by Raza Naeem which was originally published on July 28, 2018.)


‘The soft fragrance of my jasmine
Flowing on the current of wind
Playing in the hands of wind
In search of your body’

May the writer, poet, short-story writer, novelist and translator Fahmida Riaz, who turns 72 today, live long and prosper. While I do not have the ability to comment on her art, I feel this is a necessary tribute keeping in view that she is not in the best of health these days.

In the current Urdu poetry circuit, the voice of Fahmida Riaz is distinct. During the early 1960s, when Riaz’s poems like the aforementioned one began to be published in the literary journal Funoon under the editorship of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, her clear tone, poems full of lyricism and sensitive style created an immediate impact. This became deeper and gentler with time and now Riaz is regarded among the best in modern and contemporary Urdu poetry.

Riaz was born in 1946 in the Indian city of Meerut. Her initial education was in Hyderabad and she began writing poetry in her college days. Her first volume of poetry Patthar ki Zuban (‘The Language of Stones’) was published in 1967. The coloured and desirous feelings of a young girl had seldom been said with such poesy before. In 1973, the publication of Badan Dareeda (‘The Torn-Bodied’) created a sensation in literary circles. Such self-confidence, coupled with feminine speech and tone, appeared rebellious to some, but this book proved to be an important milestone in modern Urdu poetry. During this time, Riaz resided in London.

The themes and narrative style of the poems did startle a few, but they were also reflective of far-reaching changes in contemporary Urdu poetry, which were felt gradually. Along with courage in the selection of themes, the first person perspective in the poems is different from traditional poetry.

Self-aware soliloquies

On one hand, the poems seem like soliloquies of a woman passing through stages of self-awareness, giving a form of expression to her body and life by making it the foundation of her poetic experience. On the other, the style and wordings of these poems are elegant and delicate, as if feelings have found the most suitable language. That is why these poems are seen to be decorated with a new manner of feeling, despite being extremely personal and individualistic. They are full of a perception of societal reality and guarded towards universality.

In many poems, for example ‘Gudiya’ (‘Doll’) or ‘Muqaabla-e-Husn’ (‘Beauty Contest’), she raises her voice against the drama which is performed with a woman in the name of love – in which a woman is forced to act lifeless like a doll, because men have fixed this role for them. Men demand from women lifeless beauty, which is not possible in reality.

Beauty Contest

‘So what if my hips gyrate like whirlpools
The head also has the jewel
Of curiosity
The piece of heart was below the breasts
But the price I have put on these
Do not evade me like this in fear
When you stop measuring me
Do also measure an organ of yours!’

Fahmida Riaz’s poetry of that period also uses tradition as symbolism, whose source is the Bible or Koran. With these sources, she portrays the centuries of oppression on women. In her poem ‘Aqleema’, the eponymous sister of Abel and Cain insists on expressing her opinion. This poem, a franker expression of sexuality, refers to the Biblical/Islamic tale in which Cain slew Abel when his sacrifice of a goat was not accepted by Allah. In some versions, Cain had desired his sister Aqleema for himself, although she was forbidden.

Who was the sister of Abel and Cain
But different
Different between her thighs
And in the swell of her breasts
And inside her stomach
And in her womb
And the fate of all these body parts
Was linked to the sacrifice of a fattened goat.
She, a prisoner of her body,
Stands on a hillock
And burns in the hot sun
As if she has been drawn on stone
Look at this drawing carefully
Move above the long thighs
And the swell of the breasts
And above the complicated womb –
There is Aqleema’s head
Allah, talk to Aqleema sometimes
Ask her something.’

Themes of political consciousness 

Riaz’s poetry collection Dhoop (Sunlight) was published after her return home in 1976. A manner of political consciousness and protest is prominent in these poems and a conscious attempt has been made to bring the language of poetry nearer to Sindhi and conversational Hindi.

In the same period, Riaz took on the responsibility of editor of a magazine called Aavaaz (Voice). When Zia-ul-Haq imposed martial law in Pakistan, several cases were brought against the magazine. Poems like ‘Khaana Talaashi’ (House Search) and ‘Kotvaal’ (Magistrate) are representative of this period. A poem like ‘Chador aur Chaardivaari’ (‘The Veil and the Four Walls of Home’) was also written during the same time; it is one the most eloquent Urdu poems against oppressive politics. But the last lines of this poem show that while her intention is political protest, the ideal dream of femininity has not left the poetess.

‘These four walls, this chador be blessed for the decayed corpse
My boat will proceed with open sails in the open spaces
I am the fellow traveler of the New Man
He who won my trusting company!’

In 1981, when conditions worsened, Riaz chose exile in India. During this time, she was attached with Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and wrote a book on the literary situation in Pakistan Kya Tum Poora Chaand Na Dekhoge? (‘Will You Not See the Full Moon?’), which is a prose-poem consisting of seven chapters. It was initially published in the Devanagari script. The long poem tells the tale of mental anguish and struggle of a sensitive and conscientious artist in an atmosphere of oppression and violence.

Eminent English short-story writer Aamer Hussain, in the preface to the English translations of Fahmida Riaz’s poems, mentions this long prose work and says it scales the dimensions of an epic. This poem reminds him of the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, who begins with delicate expressions of desire and touch and makes majestic statements of resistance against oppression and superiority. I feel that Riaz’s is a similar journey, during which she has learnt to carve poetry with tears, pain and sorrow.

Return to Pakistan

Fahmida Riaz. Credit: Facebook

Fahmida Riaz returned to Pakistan when the country took a new turn and the prospect for democracy emerged. She was employed in government service for a short while and then set up a non-governmental institution which published several books for children and women. A collection of poems written during exile Apna Jurm To Saabit He (‘My Crime Stands Proven’) was published in 1988.

Some more poems came forward under the title of Hum Rikaab (‘Fellow Traveller’) and her collected poetry up to that point was published with the title Men Mitti ki Moorat Hun (‘I Am An Earthen Idol’). Political chaos, the desire for internal and external union and the literary quest of human life can be witnessed in poems collected and published as Aadmi ki Zindagi (‘The Life of Man’). A new collection, Mausamon ke Daire Mein (‘In the Circle of Seasons’) is currently under compilation. In Sab Laal-o-Gohar (All Rubies and Pearls), her collected writings have been gathered.

The fullest expression of Fahmida Riaz’s poetic ingenuity is to be found in her translations. She has rendered selected poems of the Chileans Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra, the Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral  and her contemporary Sindhi poet Attiya Dawood into Urdu. But as a translator, she has paid particular attention to three poets: the famous Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz, the Farsi poet who died young, Forough Farrokhzad, and the ghazals of Maulana Jalauddin Rumi. The translations of these three poets were published as books titled Halqa Meri Zanjir Ka (‘A Link of My Chain’), Khule Dareeche Se (‘From An Open Window’) and Khaana-e-Aaab-o-Gil (‘House of Water and Clay’) respectively.

While Riaz also wrote short stories during her initial years, she has devoted greater attention to prose over the past 11-12 years. A collection of her short stories has been published under the title Khat-e-Marmuz (The Mysterious Letter). She also wrote a book with the title Adhura Aadmi (Incomplete Man) with respect to the ideas of renowned psychologist Erich Fromm. She wrote three books Zinda Bahaar, Godavari and Karachi, by joining the warp and woof of travel, personal experience and observation and legend. In these three novels, Fahmida Riaz has styled a new form to express the historical and political problems of three South Asian states – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – by kneading her personal anguish and sorrow; a literary form which is solely associated with her and a creative exploit in itself.

In 2017, she released a well-received historical novel on the life and times of the fifth century Persian social revolutionary Mazdak, called Qila-e-Faraamoshi (‘Fortress of Oblivion’), which a few discerning readers may perceive as a thinly-veiled autobiography of her own struggles, ideals and dreams. Without vacating her place in the ranks of poets, she has achieved a prominent position in prose. This distinction is rarely enjoyed by any other writer of this era.

The heroines of Indus valley

In the ancient folklore of the Indus valley, women play a seminal role as heroines, whether in love, sex or the fight against tyranny and patriarchy. Some of these tales have been immortalised by the likes of Waris Shah (Heer-Ranjha) and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.

Bhittai refers to the Sat Surmiyoon (Seven Heroines) in his famous Shah jo Risalo who are Lilan, Momal, Sorath, Nuri, Sohni, Sassi and Marvi. Bhittai has devoted a sur (poem) to each surmi. In February this year, my friend the poet and essayist Harris Khalique referred to the late Pakistani feminist and human rights icon Asma Jahangir as the eighth surmi. In a similar vein, Fahmida Riaz may also be anointed the ninth. Had Bhittai been alive in our times, he would have written about Nau Surmiyon (Nine Heroines) and devoted a sur to Fahmida Riaz, a proud daughter of the Indus valley.

Her poem ‘Taaziyati Qaraardaaden’ (‘Condolence Resolutions’) might serve as a fitting testament and tribute to her eventful life and legacy:

‘Friends! Just do me this favor
Do not be unjust to me after death
Do not award me any certificate of religiosity
Do not say in the force of eloquence
Actually this woman was a believer
Do not rise to prove loyalty to country and nation
Do not try that the authorities own my corpse at least
Friends, friends
The invectives of the mean are my honours
Whether they may not come up to the pulpit
My lovers are no less
The beginning of reality is hidden in life
And dust and breeze are my confidantes
Do not go about insulting them
For the goodwill of the censors
Do not make the corpse apologise
My companion
Lest I cannot be shrouded
Do not worry
Leave my corpse in the jungle
So comforting is this thought
The beasts of the jungle will come for me
Without testing my thoughts
My bones and my flesh
And my heart like a glittering ruby
They will be happy to devour everything
They will lick their lips
And in their obedient eyes will shine
What you might not say
That truth
This corpse belongs to a being
Who said whatever she wanted
Was never repentant lifelong’

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist currently teaching in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel The Weary Generations. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com.