I was first introduced to Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah — poet, journalist and political commentator — as the grandmother of one of my closest friends. At the time, I was barely seven-year-old and was much too young to realise that I was in the company of a peerless chronicler of her times. Driven by childish wonder, I did not look beyond the typical grandmotherly aura to pluck out life lessons and stories. Years later, when I chanced upon Begum Hamidullah’s short story collection, The Young Wife and Other Stories, the previously unrealised mission was instantly reawakened.
Begum Hamidullah appears to be an anachronism in these modern times. Some readers, who have found solace in the works of Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid, have never bothered to turn the clock back some six decades to explore the range of her work. This is mainly because Begum Hamidullah’s claim to fame was her journalistic endeavour. As Pakistan’s first woman editor and publisher, she used the power of her pen to draw attention to political cataclysms and social upheavals.
Although her poems and short stories are not glowing miniatures of her illustrious career as a commentator, they still tell us more about the woes of a country we live in than any history book can divulge. As I leafed through her anthology some years ago, I realised that Begum Hamidullah had written minimalist stories about seemingly mundane concerns. However, every story had a purpose that went beyond the mere art of storytelling. Working on a different level, each story presented concerns about the direction in which the country and its people were headed.
At first glance, the rural setting of her stories and familiar themes detracted my attention from this motif. However, each time I read these understated tales of a forgotten era, a new layer of insight came to the fore. If the first reading of The Bull and the She-Devil unearthed a startling tale of love, the second reading put a spotlight on gender confrontations in Pakistan. Similarly, the character of Aliya in The Young Wife initially depicted a form of rebellion to conservative values and the institution of marriage. It was only when I read the story again that I was able to demystify its hidden undertones. The Young Wife is essentially a story about a woman who questions the trappings of an arranged marriage and simultaneously manages to find herself. All this happens against the backdrop of the Pakistan movement when a new wave of independence, confidence and hope had set foot on the subcontinent. Begum Hamidullah has tackled these concerns in a subtle and effective manner. These interpretations are never presented in a harsh or disdainful manner and prevent her stories from becoming overly politicised.
The last few decades of Begum Hamidullah’s life were spent in seclusion. It is believed she was disenchanted with the new generation of Pakistanis. Nearly 15 years on, a majority of Pakistanis find themselves in the same position. I suspect many of Begum Hamidullah’s fears about the country’s future may have come true. But exactly how far we are willing to be deluded before we decide to throw in the towel?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2015.
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