The last of the three Bronte sisters of Urdu literature, Hajira Masroor, left us on Saturday. Her eldest sister, Ayesha Jamal, the author of a collection of short stories, Gard-e-Safar, had died long ago. The other elder sister, Khadija Mastoor, died in 1982 with five collections of short stories and two novels, Aangan and Zameen, to her name.
When Hajira started writing, the literary scene was dominated by towering personalities such as Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chandar. Under the influence of the West, these writers were experimenting with the form, content and technique of the story. They refused to be girded by the long-entrenched social and cultural barriers which called for Victorian restraint. Ismat and Manto, in particular, were not deterred by taboo and went on to startle society with their radical and revolutionary themes. It was a challenge for Hajira to carve a niche for herself in the presence of these personalities.
Born in 1929 to a middle-class family of Lucknow, Hajira was one of the six daughters and a son. She grew up in a home that valued reading and learning. Their house was always full of books and magazines. Her father, Dr Tahawwar Ahmad Khan, who worked with the British-India government, used to subscribe to a number of Urdu literary journals. Their mother, Anwar Jahan Begum, was a published writer.
But Hajira’s father died at 38, opening a chapter of financial hardship. However, by the mid-1940s Hajira and Khadija had earned a name in the literary circles of India and their stories were published in several journals. The royalties, however meager, were of great help.
Hajira and Khadija were soon acknowledged as literary twins, not only for their contribution and impact, but also for the similarities in their stories. But during a private conversation, some years back, Hajira had taken exception to this “charge of similarities”. The claim is partially correct, she would argue, saying, “We had the same family background, grew up together, shared the same environment and started writing at the same time”. But she insisted that they took up different subjects with varied thematic approaches and their characters were from different socio-economic backgrounds.
In 1944, Hajira published her first collection of short stories, Chirkey. It was followed by another collection, Hai Allah. Her earlier short stories are reminiscent of the influences of the contemporary but senior writers of her time. But Hajira didn’t choose any of these established fiction writers as her model. She didn’t have much of a formal education and hadn’t read much of the literature when she started writing. This turned out to be a blessing, as it enabled Hajira to successfully avoid conscious or unconscious imitation of past masters.
In his foreword to her third collection of short stories, Chori Chuppay, Ahmad Shah Patras Bokhari rightly observes that Hajira seemed to consciously avoid an overdose of bedroom plots and themes. She found that the world outside the domain of Eros was too big, too varied and full of ideas and subjects to ignore. This did not mean, however, that she was indifferent to the complexities of human nature and their intersection with sexual relationships and experiences.
An omnibus of her works, Sub Afsaney Meray, combining short stories from her six collections, was published in the 1990s. Her characters and plots were borrowed from her own surroundings and her language was marked by clarity and economy. Her characters were drawn from every echelon of society and explore the psychological and cultural factors contributing to aberration and conflicts at the family and social levels.
Though she was sympathetic to the socio-political agenda of the Progressive Movement, there are no traces of ideological or propagandist zeal or pervasiveness in Hajira’s stories.
She also wrote some plays and a collection was published as Woh Log with a preface and introduction by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Imtiaz Ali Taj, respectively. She wrote the story and script for Suroor Barabankvi’s first movie, Aakhri Station, which he based on her own work, Pagli. Short story critic Mumtaz Shirin believes that Hajira never ran after complex subjects and absurd themes. Nor did she ever try to impress her readers with lofty thoughts or with the riddles of modern knowledge. Above all, she did not fall prey to the cultural and literary influences of the West.
Immediately after Partition, Hajira and her family decided to migrate. Avoiding the rail journey across the Punjab, they took a train from Lucknow to Bombay from where they boarded a steamer for Karachi. From Karachi they again took a train to Lahore. They had already informed their publishers there about their migration plans. But these letters never reached. When the family arrived, nobody was there to receive them and they did not know where to go. Even Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, who later turned out to be a guardian and fatherly figure for the family and with whom they had been in contact for long, did not know about their arrival.
However, as soon as Qasmi found out, he rushed from Peshawar to Lahore. It was an evening in October 1947. His arrival caused some excitement and disturbance and Khadija called out to Hajira standing in the balcony to come and meet him. “I went there, patted her and brought her in,” according to Qasmi. “She was so little and I was about to say, ‘I am not here to see this little girl but the writer Hajira Masroor of Hai Allah.” That little girl, who was seeing her ‘foster’ brother for the first time, was, along with Khadija, crying. “How could she be the author of stories that encompass the complexities of human nature and society with such remarkable psychological insight and [with such] a talent for acute observation,” thought Qasmi.
In 1948, when he decided to launch his own literary journal Naqoosh from Lahore after giving up his job at Radio Pakistan in Peshawar, he chose Hajira as co-editor. But soon they were caught in a controversy and the magazine was banned after it published Manto’s famous story Khol Do.
Hajira’s meteoric rise as a writer of short stories was not as surprising as her complete withdrawal from the literary scene after she married legendary journalist, Ahmad Ali Khan, a long-time editor of daily Dawn. But she had her own explanation for this decision: “The callings of a family life were more luring, more enticing and more satisfying.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2012.
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