By I. A. Rahman, Lahore
Kishwar Naheed dates the start of her life as a poet from the age of 20 although she had started writing poems and attending mushairas in her school days. And she began by writing a large number of ghazals. As I do not consider myself a good judge of ghazals, I have to rely on the opinion of experts. In his foreword to the second edition of Kishwar’s first collection, Lab-i-Goya, Mukhtar Siddiqui noted that the poems added to the new edition were of a higher standard than the earlier poems. The search for finer expression has marked her entire poetic journey.
Dr Asif Farrukhi, who translated a large number of Kishwar’s poems into English, observed that “Naheed achieved her first measure of success in the traditional genre of the ghazal with its strictly defined conventions. She established herself as an accomplished practitioner but generated much debate when the personal, feminist touch could be discerned in lines like ‘kuchh orhni ka rung bhi khilta hua na tha’”. Which is a way of saying that while using the traditional form of the ghazal Kishwar was not afraid of extending its scope to include new thoughts? Although she received considerable credit as a ghazal poet, including an Adamjee Award, it was as a writer of nazm in blank verse and prose-nazm that Kishwar became famous.
The first permanent theme in her poetry was exploration of man-woman relations and the wounds caused by unrequited love. During this phase, she derived strength from her mother’s concern for her and from her own motherhood. Between the lines one can feel a woman’s pride as the agent for guaranteeing the continuity of life.
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In between publishing collections of her poems, Kishwar Naheed translated more than 100 poems by outstanding poets from four continents, which identified the themes that were close to her heart and also widened her poetic vision. She returned to translating poems from a foreign language, but this time mostly by Arab poets. Such activities also confirmed Kishwar’s extraordinarily large reserves of energy that she used to produce besides collection after collection of poetry, works in prose, including a translation in Urdu of Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal study, The Second Sex.
In her very first collection of poems in blank verse and prose-poems, several poems, such as Agahi and Pehla Safaid Baal won critics’ acclaim. Over the years her perspective kept evolving from personal to general, from poems reflecting her experiences to the trials and tribulations of all women and finally of all people suffering under bondage, exploitation and denial of opportunities for self-realisation. In the poems included in her latter day collections, Sokhta Samani Dil and Shireen Sukhan se Parey, she speaks for victims of aggression in Afghanistan, Palestine and Pakistan and pays tribute to human rights activists, especially Asma Jahangir. The thread running through all poems is defiance of curbs on freedom.
Between 1992 and 2016, in a kind of second coming, Kishwar had a burst of creativity that resulted in some of her most distinctive poems: “Yeh hum gunahgar aurtein/ Jo ahle jubba ki tamkanat se na roab khaen/ Na jaan beychen/ Na sar jhukaen na haath joren.” (It is we sinful women/ Who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns/ Who don’t sell their bodies/ Who don’t bow their heads, who don’t fold their hands.)
“Ke jo bachhiyon se bhi dar gae/ Woh hain kitney chhotey wajood mein/ Karo shehr manadian/ Rakho hosla rakho yeh yaqin/ Ke jo bacchiyon se bhi dar gae/ Woh hi kitney chhotey wajood mein.” (That they who become scared of little girls/ Are very small in stature/ Make proclamations in every city/ Keep your faith and uphold your belief/ That those who become scared of little girls/ Are very small in stature.)
In her poem Pakistan ke Sattar Baras Sawal Kurtay Hain, Kishwar becomes the voice of the desperate people of the country. “Sari dunya dekhne ke baad/ Yehi nazar aarahaa hai ya wahima hai!/ Darwazon se bahar qadam rakhne wale/ Sab pathar ho gaey hain/ Woh tum ho ya mera humzaad/ Yeh tau batao tumhein jaana kahan hai”! (Having seen the world for long/ What I see now is real or feigned I don’t know/ Whoever stepped out of the door turned into stone/ You, me or my alter ego/ At least tell us where you want to go!)
Kishwar is blunt and outspoken to a fault while expressing her opinion about men and matters. She has no respect for all those who seek exemption from being sized up on the strength of their office or wealth. She does not believe in reserving her judgement. What she thinks of humbugs and hypocrites she declares without any delay. Yet she is one of the most popular persons in Pakistan and abroad because she does not discriminate between those who fall in the line of her fire. Even the victims of her harsh words do not take them to heart. Besides she gets marks for her humility in giving credit where it is due. For instance, she says about Parveen Shakir; “Younger to me in age but greater than me as a poet.”
Kishwar Naheed is still described as a woman poet, the implication being her categorisation with poets less exalted than male versifiers. She is surely proud of her womanhood but she has made her place amidst the entire body of Pakistani poets. Even on the strength of her work so far it will be difficult to exclude her from any critic’s anthology of all-time outstanding Urdu poetry.