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November 26, 2019

Literature, politics, and resistance


November 26, 2019

The story by Zaheda Hina, 'Jismo Zaban ki Maut se Pehle' (Before the body dies and the tongue mortifies) starts with a prisoner who has been stuffed in a drum and the drum is being beaten furiously. The prisoner finds himself in a water wheel over a well. The wheel moves rapidly up and down but the well is empty. The wheel stops; the prisoner holds his head in his hands. After a while he thinks and a question springs to his mind. Here Zaheda Hina writes a brilliant line:

“To enquire – ie to question– is a mental pillar on which human beings and humanity stand tall.” She continues, “They have thrown him once again into a cell and now they are jumping with their heavy boots on the roof of the cell. And beneath the floor of the cell from the lower ground they are hitting with batons. The ear-piercing noise is unbearable coming from the ceiling, and thrusting from across the floor. He crumpled himself and tried to cover his ears with his swollen knees.”

Further in the story she writes, “When he gathered some courage to stand on his feet, his shackles jingled. With difficulty he tried to walk, four-steps wide, six-steps long; he had to be careful walking in the darkness, to avoid bumping his head into the wall.”

And then another marvelous line by Zaheda Hina, “By torturing the body, they are trying to shatter his mind.” Further on she writes: “They have moved him from place to place. From one prison to another; from one city to the next. One cell was round like a circle and after spending a few days there he was unable to stand upright. The moment he tried to be on his feet, he felt dizzy. Then there was another cell which was half his height, just like a kennel for dogs. In that cell he had to crawl on all fours, for weeks. After a few steps the walls would block his movement; the cell was so narrow that he could not even stretch his feet to sleep.”

The story is full of such disturbing details that you wonder how Zaheda Hina managed to delineate the horrifying details of torture cells. In the same story, she also describes the scene of the notorious torture cell in the Royal Fort of Lahore. “There were servants who had appointed themselves as masters. There were eunuchs who insisted that they had not been castrated and just like the tailless jackals in fables, they always sought to procreate more of their ilk. The foreign masters had left and now these eunuchs were their proxies. They were the conquerors of the settlements they were supposed to defend.

“They were the murderers of those harmless people whose food they ate. In the laboratory of colonialism they had been taught how to rape entire nations. They also knew that if you want to castrate a nation how you tie their arms, legs, and shoulders with the laces of their own interests.”

Zaheda Hina’s story 'Bood o Nabood ka Ashob' had the distinction of being translated by Faiz Ahmed Faiz as The torture of ‘to be or not to be’. Interestingly, the same story was also translated by C M Naim. Faiz published his translation in the magazine 'Lotus' that he edited in Beirut in the 1980s.

The same translation was included in the book titled 'The House of Loneliness', published in Pakistan in 2017. The narrator in this story is a woman who loved and married a man who had refined tastes in arts, literature, music, and philosophy. The woman is narrating how her husband changed after becoming a high official. Now at a party at her home, the husband’s friends are congratulating him for quashing dissidents. Here is the translation by Faiz:

“They kept on talking and complimented my husband. They credited him for crushing a movement which had been very dear to me. The black framed decoration was in front of my eyes and so was the face of the man who received it. Was this the man with whom I had discussed the problems of history and literature for hours together, who loved the arts, books, and the philosophy of history was his favourite subject? Was this the voice of the same man?

“Suddenly my legs gave way and I sat down where I stood. I was hearing their voices. Were these human voices or the growling of snarling wolves? They mentioned names, many of whom I knew, with whom I had often talked at literary gatherings and private parties, visited with them slums of the poor and the destitute – whose bleak lives the affluent of the town could not even imagine – where these people used to live in the same circumstances as the slum dwellers themselves.”

The woman narrates how her husband became the head of a torture cell and many of her own friends became his victims. Later in the story, Zaheda Hina continues: “The names being mentioned in the drawing room were arrested one by one and the news appeared in the press…I tried to talk about it to my husband but he avoided the subject. He knew that I had friends among the accused and he did not wish to hurt me with details.

“Later I heard that one of my companions had died under torture and had been buried in some obscure graveyard. His grave carried no inscription. It was a grave of an unknown soldier. A brief single-column news of his lamenting young widow and aged parents appeared in some newspapers and was soon forgotten as if nothing had happened. I wept over the news for many days.”

Though Zaheda Hina wrote and Faiz translated this short story decades ago, how apt and relevant it is even today. To conclude, I would like to mention 'Prison Narratives' by Akhtar Baloch translated by Asad Palijo. This is a series of diary entries of Akhtar Baloch when she was just 18 years old. She was arrested for going on a hunger strike in Hyderabad against the crackdown on political and student activists protesting against the military regime of General Yahya Khan. She wrote these diaries during her year-long imprisonment in Hyderabad and Sukkur jails in 1970.

In short, resistance literature in Urdu – and in other languages of Pakistan – is full of such masterpieces. Be it Zaheda Hina or Saeeda Gazdar, Amjad Rasheed or Fakhar Zaman all have contributed tremendously with their pen. There are dozens of writers such as Abdullah Jan Jamaldini, Ahsan Wagha, Amar Jaleel, Badr Abro, Farkhanda Lodhi, Ilyas Ghumman, Jamal Abro, Mirza Hamid Baig, Nematullah Gichki, Nurul Huda Shah, Sher Muhammad Mari, Fareeda Hafeez, and many others whose contributions I could not discuss in this series due to space limitations of newspaper columns; my apologies to all of them.

Resistance literature has been written in all ages and eras. Whatever is being written right now deserves more analysis and research. People’s desires and defiance spur resistance literature, and repressive institutions and forces always fail to crush this expression of resistance. They may feel triumphant for a while but the temporary success of repression cannot perpetuate silence. One fine recent example of this is the exhumation of the remains of the last Spanish dictator, General Franco. His remains have been removed from the official memorial to be buried in an ordinary grave somewhere else.


The writer holds a PhD from theUniversity of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]