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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

firdaus haider -- by Haider Ghaznavi

Giving women ideas

Haider Ghaznavi

An exciting childhood and an unusual family history make Firdaus Hyder an aberration in Pakistan’s literary world. Firdaus Hyder’s grandparents and great-grand father migrated from the Kashmir Valley a few years prior to partition to escape persecution at the hands of Maharaja Hari Singh who had usurped their ancestral lands. Upon migrating the family settled in Gujranwala, where Firdaus was born to parents who were closely related. She casually tells me that the long line of zamindars in her ancestry ended when they moved to Gujranwala with practically nothing and had to start from scratch. Her great-grandfather Sufi Jamaluddin, ‘Mianji’ to family and friends, had to make clay bricks for a living.

Firdaus Hyder rose to fame in the Urdu literary world after her third book of short stories, Pathar Meri Talaash Mein, was published. She wrote the book immediately after her divorce; it was a very painful period in her life and the book, an emotional powerhouse, reflects this. Before that she had written Raasthay Mein Shaam and Baarishon Ki Arzoo , both of which were very well received by critics. Her most recent publication of short stories is Khaali Huwa Yeh Dil . Other than that, she has published a collection of articles, Kalam Ka Safar and three novels, Raazdaan , Nakshay Kadam and Pyar Ka Sagar . Her impressive portfolio also boasts two travelogues, one on Thailand, Dairon Mein Dairay, and one on her first trip to India, Yeh Duriyan, Yeh Fasileh . Short stories are her passion but she admits that, since getting involved in television, scriptwriting has taken up an increasing amount of her time and short story writing has been relegated to the backburner. Firdaus first got involved in scriptwriting when director Ghazanfar Ali, now chairperson of Indus Vision, approached her to write for the critically acclaimed Jaal , Pakistan’s first soap. This was followed by work for Wohi Asmaan , Kabhi Aashna Na Thay and Mystery Theatre , all produced by Indus Vision. Firdaus has written two teleplays: Subha , which was made for and sponsored by UNICEF and Wohi Khuda Hai , produced and directed by Iqbal Ansari.

Writing Jaal was both a learning experience and a great challenge. The story revolves around forbidden love, deception and extramarital affairs. According to Firdaus, the purpose of the theme was to spread awareness of women’s issues in our society and inform people of alternatives to living in a violent relationship. Screened on the Pakistani channel STN, it was a very daring step to take at the time. Firdaus took a lot of flak for what some considered an “inappropriate” production for a society with moral values! Once, at the Karachi Press Club, an Urdu journalist publicly censured her for plotting to encourage extramarital affairs among married women. But the coup de grace was Information Secretary Hussain Haqqani paying her a visit to caution her about the daring material in her play, “ Aap apna kalam halqa karayn !” He told her that MNAs had discussed and denounced her play in the National Assembly for brainwashing women to disobey their husbands! “Can you believe that? One would imagine they’d have more pressing matters at hand,” say Firdaus. “Unemployment, poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and human rights violations can take a back seat but let’s not give women any ideas. When Hussain Haqqani told me that, my jaw dropped!”

I ask which director Firdaus most enjoys working for. She doesn’t need to think twice before answering, “there are many good directors in the country but the kind of creativity and adventurism Ghazanfar displays in his work is unparalleled. He is bold enough to experiment with new ideas and break with tradition, which is what makes working for him such an enjoyable experience.”

Firdaus tells me that her personality and outlook were moulded by her childhood experiences. A smile lights up her face as she reminisces. She tells me she’s inherited her literary sense from her father, a Marxist poet who used to work for the telephone department. Firdaus and her family travelled all over the country as her father was posted to remote areas for work, but during the summers she always returned to Gujranwala where her maternal grandparents lived. “Gujranwala was like Paris to me, there was so much life there; shops, houses, lots of people and things to do unlike the remote areas where we had to spend most of our time.”

Firdaus was very close to her grandparents. Her grandfather, an employee of the irrigation department, used to make furniture solely to help out poor girls with their dowry or to sell it and channel the money to support widows and the disabled. “Mianji was a much respected citizen of Gujranwala. People adored him and came to him with all sorts of disputes, which he would calmly preside over. Everyone knew they wouldn’t be turned back if they brought their problems to him.” Her grandmother was a vivacious and feisty woman. Firdaus laughs and tells me that her grandmother never let any visitors sit idle; they were put to work, either crushing wheat to make flour, mixing clay to make huge storage containers or applying goya raali (a mixture of cow dung and clay) onto the mud-plastered roof to smoothen its surface so that wet unpeeled rice from the fields could be laid on it to dry. Every afternoon Firdaus’ grandmother worked on the spinning wheel, spinning cotton into thread. After that, wearing a shuttlecock burqa, she would visit the ill, solve disputes among women, or provide advice and counselling on various issues and problems – “I never saw nani sitting idle or wiling away her time,” Firdaus says.

Firdaus’ eyes moisten when she turns to a more painful part of her childhood. Her father was posted to Mona Dipu, near Sargodha, when she was seven years old, and the family lived there for a year. Upon leaving Sargodha, Firdaus was given for adoption to a friend of her father’s, whose wife was infertile. Firdaus tells me that the subsequent eight months she spent with Uncle Hassan, before moving back with her parents, were very traumatic. The man used to get drunk every night and brutally beat up his wife. Those months left deep scars, which are still expressed in her plays and stories. It was this experience that inspired her to campaign for women’s issues.

Firdaus had a strained relationship with her mother, who she says opposed every decision she made. After completing her Matric, Firdaus announced that she wanted to continue with higher education. The only person who supported her was her father. He encouraged her passion for education but told her that his financial position was not strong enough to send her to college. He suggested she take the private munshi-fazil exam series. After completing that in a year, Firdaus proceeded to the Lahore College for Women where she studied for her BA. She followed that by going to Peshawar University, where she completed her MA in Urdu and began teaching Urdu. It was during this period that Firdaus started writing short stories; her first was published while she was in Peshawar. After Peshawar, Firdaus went to Istanbul University for a year to study Turkish before returning to Pakistan.

When not working Firdaus spends time meditating and enjoys painting. She used to devote a lot of time to studying Sufism in Pakistan but not anymore: “I feel there are few genuine Sufis in the country. Most are quacks and fake pirs only there to con people for money.”

Firdaus is currently writing two plays, Dil Ki Dunya and Yeh Judai , her first that aren’t about women’s issues and domestic violence. Her latest book, Khali Huwa Yeh Dil , which is soon to be published, deals with fake police encounters and extrajudicial killings in Karachi. Firdaus feels that writers have a very important place in society and a moral responsibility to disseminate information to the masses. This statement leads me to ask what she thinks of the current state of world affairs, particularly the wretched circumstances of Muslims today. “I feel George Bush is the biggest terrorist on earth,” is her instant and emotional reply. “That is not to say that we in Pakistan have a government to be proud of. Obviously, our immediate concern should be to work towards improving Pakistan’s system of governance. I would love to do a play on Pakistani politics today. Unfortunately, I’m a slave to topics television channels want to screen. A disturbing trend in Pakistani television today is that crass commercialism has replaced quality and taste in our plays.” With Firdaus hard at work, though, perhaps there’s hope for change.


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