RIP Fahmida Riaz

The poet and scholar Fahmida Riaz passed away today. She was known for her fearlessness and her willingness to call a spade a spade and she suffered for it (including an Indian exile during the Zia regime).

Here is Hasan Mujtaba’s poetic tribute to her:

سربکف سارے ستارے مشعلیں
اس کی آنکھوں میں جلوسوں کی طرح چل رہے تھے
جل رہے تھے جام سورج کی طرح سارے اسکے نام پر
اجرکوں کے رنگ سارے اسکی آنکھوں سے چراکر
تتلیاں لیکر اڑیں
دیس دیس دور دور
بچے اپنے ہاتھ مائوں سے چھپاتے پھر رہے تھے
رتجگوں میں بھکشوئوں کی ریت تھی
جیت تھی اسکے ماتھے پر لکھی
تاریخ کی خونی گلی میں
رات وہ مجھ کو ملی۔


Severed head in hand

All the stars were like lamps marching in procession in her eyes

In her name, the wine-cups were circulating like the sun

Taking all the colors of the (Sindhi) Ajrak from her eyes

The butterflies took wing

From land to land and country to country

Children are hiding their hands from their mothers

All-nighters and the rites of bhikshus

Victory was written on her forehead

as in the blood soaked alleys of history

She met me..

Her poem Aqlima was translated by Ruchira Paul

jo Habil aur Kabil ki maa jaani hai
maa jaani,
magar muqtalif
muqtalif beech raano ke
aur pistanon ki ubhaar mein
aur apne pait ke andar
aur kokh mein
is sab ki kismet kyun hai
ek farba bher ke bachche ki qurbani
woh apne badan ki qaidi
taptee hui dhoop mein jalte
teele par khadi hui hai
patthar par naksh banee hai
us naksh ko ghaur se dekho
lambee raano se upar
ubharte pistanon se upar
paicheeda kokh se upar
Aklima ka sar bhi hai
Allah kabhi Aklima se qalam karain
aur kuchh puchhain.

Born of the same mother as Abel and Cain
Born of the same mother but different
Different between her thighs
Different in the swell of her breasts
Different inside her stomach
And her womb too
Why is the fate of her body
Like that of a well fed sacrificial lamb
She, a prisoner of that body
See her standing in the scorching sun on a smoldering hill
Casting a shadow that burns itself into the stones
Look at that shadow closely
Above the long thighs
Above the swelling breasts
Above the coils in her womb
Aklima also has a head
Let Allah have a conversation with Aklima
And ask her a few questions.
(Aklima was the lesser known offspring of Adam and Eve, the sister or Cain and Abel)



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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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5 years ago

Tum bhi bilkul hum jaise nikle…ab tak kahan chupe the bhai

5 years ago

Very sad news. She was one of Pakistan’s greatest poets.

5 years ago
Reply to  Kabir

Could someone transliterate the first poem in Roman script ?

Reply to  Arjun


sar ba-kaf sarey sitarey mashaleiN
us ki aankhoN meiN juloosoN ki tarah chal rahey they
jal rahey they jaam suraj ki tarah sarey uskey naam par
ajrakoN key rang sarey uski aankhoN sey churakar
titliyaN lekar udeiN
des des dur dur
bachey apney haath maoN sey chhipatey phir rahey they
ratajagoN meiN bhikshuoN ki reet thi
jeet thi uskey mathey par likhi
tarikh ki khooni gali meiN
rat vo mujh ko mili

5 years ago

Urdu poetry seems excessively flowery, kind I don’t like.
The poet could think only terms of Abel, Cain and other Semitic legends shows how cut off they are from the richer legends of India.

Reply to  VijayVan

That is not quite true. While I am no expert on this, general syntax of Urdu poetry (in different forms) takes after Persian for obvious reasons, so does some of the metaphor (e.g. use of bulbul, parvaneh etc) but the content of the wider corpus of Urdu poetry is as much Indic (if not more) as non-Indic.

Urdu language in poetry is also more earthy (tadbhava). E.g. use of “des” above as opposed to tatsama “desh”. And my view is that generally Urdu poetry does not make references to Quranic legends and straight-arms religion. Perhaps a faint echo of Persian poetic resistance to Arab conquest? Or maybe a more modern feature of the Leftist Progressive Writers’ Movement? Only proper daneshmandan-e Urdu can tell.

5 years ago
Reply to  VijayVan

Urdu poetry has often been accused of being flowery.

Perhaps Fahmida Riaz was making a point in highlighting Adam and Eve’s daughter? In any case, it is not unusual for poets to use metaphors from their own culture and those that they assume their readers will be able to relate to. As for “richer legends”, that’s a subjective judgement.

Urdu poetry does sometimes use references from the Quran. Iqbal does this quite often, but even Faiz Sahab’s “Hum Dekhingay” is based on the religious concept of the day of judgement.

Xerxes the Magian
5 years ago
Reply to  Kabir

Yes I agree – RIP Fahmida Riaz
But I also found it a low blow to criticise “Urdu poetry”
We are both alien yet familiar. Accept us for what we are


// The poet could think only terms of Abel, Cain and other Semitic legends shows how cut off they are from the richer legends of India //

I was just thinking that the implication of cultural bias (if we drop the normative judgement part) of such a statement can only be measured by comparing with the poetic output of other cultures.

E.g. we know that a lot of Shakespearean metaphor was derived from his knowledge of the Bible. This has been generally true of the English language, even in completely secular and vernacular usage (cf. good samaritan, devil’s due, damned something etc).

Are English-speakers cut off from the Anglo-Saxon legends etc? Maybe a little. Their culture is not as suffused by Germanic/Norse myth as say an Icelander’s is. But it is not devoid of it either. Some of the biggest cultural successes of the 20c English language are the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter universes – both deriving heavily from Old Saxon and Norse myth and metaphor.

I see no reason why Urdu culture cannot be like that. Of course, what limits creativity of the Urdu poets and playwrights is not the richness (or lack thereof) of the source material they can draw from, but the limits on what they can/cannot say freely in the societies they inhabit. So long as South Asia is afflicted by gutter liberalism, the cultural output will remain limited.

5 years ago

By the time if Shakespeare , pre Christian heritage was buried 6 feet deep. By 19th century Romantic movement laid claims on that heritage especially in Germany where Wagner operas based on Norse mythology was popular. With Britain unofficially post Christian, more pagan themes have been taken up.

Xerxes the Magian
5 years ago
Reply to  VijayVan

I do agree that Urdu has to “claim back” it’s Hindu heritage but it’s hard to do that when all the Brahmins & Banias fled it in the 19th century.

Even for myself it is easier to draw upon the symbology Mecca than Veda.

Reply to  VijayVan

You are over-making your point. Much of Shakespeare’s subject material included pre-Christian Romans and also some Scandinavian, Scottish sagas (Hamlet, Macbeth etc) with non-Christian themes (witchcraft etc).

Xerxes the Magian
5 years ago

Also the whole dies of interpretation is that people pick the gamut of sources.

Xerxes the Magian
5 years ago

There is an argument that Persian & Urdu cinema goes deeper to circumvent societal restrictions.

I do think, as in all things, there is a golden mean between liberty and creativity.

At what level does one become decadent..


I think such golden means are chimeras. Human creativity is unbounded.

Decadence is a moral problem, i.e. being creative in a field which should be of lower priority.

There is no fixed “level” at which one becomes decadent; the level shifts as our moral philosophy improves. That is, as we understand moral choices better. And better morality itself is a function of freedom to know and criticize existing traditions and dogma.

So, paradoxically (or not) even to know if you are being decadent you need the liberty for being decadent.

Brown Pundits