‘You Turned Out To Be Exactly Like Us’

Fahmida Riaz-the Voice of Resistance

Saif Mahmood

In a slow-paced style, Fahmida would recite her fiery poetry, interspersed with typical Hindi expressions, exhorting her audience to march on even in the darkest of times.

For Fahmida, personal freedom and Constitutional democracy were inherently intertwined with the idea of justice, and at the heart of her fight for justice was the question of gender equality. Asked once if she was a feminist, Fahmida had responded: “What feminism means to me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities”; and this brand of feminism runs across her works like a golden thread. When General Zia-ul-Haq issued orders forcing Pakistani women to cover themselves with a black chador, she tore into his autocratic diktat, advising him to cover his own misdeeds with the same chador:

Huzur! maiñ is siyaahchaadarkakyakarooñgi?
Ye aapkyoñmujhkoba?hshtehaiñbasadinaayat?
Na sogmeiñhooñki us koo?hooñ
Gham-o-alam ?halqkodikhaaooñ
Na roghooñmaiñki is kitaareekiyoñmeiñ ?hiffat se Doobjaaoñ
Na maiñgunahgaarhooñnamujrim
Ke is syaahikimohrapnijabeeñpeharhaalmeiñlagaaoñ
Agar nagustaa?hmujhkosamjheiñ
Agar maiñjaañkiamaanpaooñ
Na jaanekabka gala sa?ahai
Ye aap se rahmchaahtahai
Huzur! itnakaramtoukeeje
Siyaahchaadar se apnehujreki be-kafanlaashDhaañpdeejiye

[My Lord! what will I do with this black chador?
Why do you bestow it upon me so kindly?
I’m not in mourning,
don’t have to announce my grief to the world
Neither am I a dreadful disease to be drowned in its darkness
Nor a sinner or a criminal obliged to stamp her forehead with its blackness
Pardon my audacity but, with folded hands, I have a request to make:
My Lord! In your sweet-smelling chamber lies a naked body, decayed and rotten for, God knows, how long!
It pleads for your mercy
My Lord! Show at least this bit of kindness–
Don’t give me this black chador
Use it to cover this naked body lying in your chamber]

Fahmida’s poetry is inherently polemical. In a patriarchal socio-political system presided over by condescending men–and women–she does not hesitate to publicly call out those who try to patronise her:

Inqilaabkeraajsinghaasan par biraajtegunvaano!
Tum kya do gegyaanmujhe!
Tum kursi par baithe hue ho
Aurmaiñdharti par khadihuihooñ
[O ye worthy, who sit on the royal throne of revolution!
Will you lecture me now?
O ye, who show me the right path!
You must realise
While you sit on a chair, I stand on the ground]

Her voice is the voice of resistance, the voice of those voiceless millions who want to be heard but are not, not just in her own country–Pakistan–but the world over. Deeply convinced that injustice anywhere contributes to an unjust world, she concerns herself with global issues: the Palestinian question, the Afghan civil war, and hate politics in India–all find a place in her works. But to say that Fahmida’s resistance is only political would not just be terribly untrue, it would also slight her rather wide and eclectic canvas. Right from the publication of her collection BadanDareedah (Torn-Bodied) in the 1970s to what was, perhaps, her last poem, “InquilabiAurat” (Revolutionary Woman) published in 2018, she challenges orthodoxy, questions the stereotype, defies norms, concerns herself with complexities of relationships and the imperfection of humans, and treats women’s sexuality with boldness and sensitivity. Accusing her lover of loving only her body, she reminds him that the body will change.

Fahmida and her husband were charged with sedition in Pakistan for their writings. She fled to Delhi where, on the recommendation of her friend, the legendary Amrita Pritam, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered her asylum. She stayed in Delhi for seven years, some of which she spent as Poet in Residence at JamiaMilliaIslamia and Visiting Researcher at JNU. In her poem, “Dilliterichaanvbadiqehri” [Delhi, your devastating shade], she bids an emotional farewell to the city, referring to it as her mother.

Fearless in dissent, unafraid in life and belligerent in love, Fahmida held the promise of hope even in the darkest of times. But heartbreaks are hard even for the strong. Her complaint about India turning out like her own country–tum bilkul hum jaisenikle–stems from a bad heartbreak–the kind one suffers when someone breaks her/his trust. Among the wrecks and ruins of Delhi’s ganga-jamunitehzeeb, the city’s distraught, heartbroken daughter deserves a diverse and much wider readership. All those who still cherish the values of liberty, freedom, equality, secularism and justice need her. They must read her.

(Saif Mahmood writes and speaks on Urdu poetry and its cultural heritage. The second edition of his book ‘Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets’ is now available. Courtesy:

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Vol 56, No. 40, Mar 31 - Apr 6, 2024