The women of waseb

Narratives of three female characters in the Urdu novel, Adh Adhooray Log frame self-assertion as the basic principle of existence

The women of waseb

Muhammad Hafeez Khan’s Urdu novel Adh Adhooray Log is primarily a requiem for the tragic heroes of Bahawalpur State who fought for their identity following its merger into One Unit. It exposes the meanness of the political elite, shames the corrupt and cruel police and analyses the exploitation of the common people by the State. It is also a tale of love, loyalty and loss. Fayyaz, the protagonist, is a dreamer who, throughout his life, romances the idea of winning his lost identity through a constant principled struggle. Like all great works of fiction, this novel carries in it a world of pleasures, of pain, of dreams, of realities, of light and of darkness. However, the most intriguing aspect of the novel is its reflections of the agency of women of the Saraiki Waseb.

Unlike traditional narratives capturing women’s lives in societies like ours, Adh Adhooray Log does not limit itself merely to lamenting the oppression of women at the hands of men or other women. Instead, it offers some very well-developed female characters, Tulsi, Mehraan and Salma Badruddin, who shatter the ‘good-victim’ stereotype and make us reimagine Wasebi womanhood.

Tulsi is Hakim Ram Laal’s beautiful daughter. She is engaged to the cowardly Vishnu Das. She is not allowed to continue her education beyond fifth grade as her would-be father-in-law believes it would be difficult for Vishnu to handle her if she received more education. However, this forced dropout cannot keep Tulsi ignorant of the fact that the lazy, lifeless Vishnu is no match for her youthful exuberance.

Not finding the right man remains her biggest worry, until one day she runs into Fayyaz and regains her faith in the possibility of a compatible match for everyone. However, while her heart and mind can tread any path, her body is bound by a strict discipline that after Partition in 1947 suddenly becomes a geographical border. She violates her ideological bind. For her, the simple act of holding hands momentarily with Fayyaz in front of her mother is a note of dissent and pronouncement of a bond that she believes she deserves.

Mehraan is another pretty, young woman. She marries Waadhu who constantly keeps blaming his wife for being infertile despite being aware of his own inadequacy. Because he is childless even after several years of marriage, Waadhu is advised by his acquaintances to see Hakim Ram Laal. Waadhu takes the suggestion as an insult, and having become resentful, becomes violent towards Mehraan. Even though her parents are dead and she does not have any support, she chooses not to remain silent.

Like all great works of fiction, this novel carries in it a world of pleasures, of pain, of dreams, of realities, of light and of darkness. However, the most intriguing aspect of the novel is its reflections of the agency of women of the Saraiki Waseb.

In a fit of rage one day, she grabs Waadhu by his neck and sits on his chest, and gives him a beating that knocks him out. Her overpowering of Waadhu is interpreted as her being possessed by some djinn. While, in fact, djinn is actually a woman’s power of retaliation, a weapon these wasebi women are forced to utilise to develop a defence mechanism. After having physically conquered Waadhu, Mehraan sketches out the perfect plan to regain her respect by birthing a son. A son’s existence would cut two ways: it would ensure respect for Waadhu outside the house and humiliation inside it. Mehraan represents women who, in the absence of other choices, take control and steer their fate in a direction they deem right. Her revenge is a secret that is protected not just by individuals but also by the society. What makes her stand out among other women in the book is her curious nature, which leads her to the discovery of her own secret power and agency, and the development of the confidence to exert it.

Another character in the story, Salma Badruddin, the daughter of an industrialist, is widowed in her youth when her husband, an army officer, dies in a road accident. She refuses to remarry and instead, begins a welfare organisation called Samaj Seva for women, children, old people and prisoners. After the death of her parents, she inherits all her father’s wealth but remains focused on her welfare work. As part of her work, she visits a prison along with a magistrate one day and gets to know about Fayyaz, who has spent ten years there without being presented before any court. She intervenes and he is released the same day. He is later brought to Salma Badruddin’s mansion where he discovers the force of Salma’s ambition: she plans to instrumentalise Fayyaz’s experience, strength and determination for her entry into politics as soon as Ayub Khan’s Elected Bodies Disqualification Order expires in December 1966.

Assigning Fayyaz a task one day, she warns him: "Fayyaz! Keep this in mind before you leave. I don’t usually trust anyone, but if I do trust someone, I trust them fully. It’s important that you know I have you as my confidant … One more thing, I never deceive anyone nor do I allow anyone to stab me in the back. Be mindful!" Her decision to never re-enter the violent institution of marriage, her investment in so-called welfare work, her attempts on Fayyaz, and her lust for power make Salma Badruddin an anti-hero who never featured in our imaginings of waseb.

The narratives of these three women from waseb posit self-assertion as the basic principle of existence. While two narratives (those of Tulsi and Mehraan) show women as social rebels who firmly reject society’s expectations of them; the third narrative ( that of Salma) shows how aggressively a forward-thinking wasebi woman can carry herself in a world full of men, figure out opportunities and even a way to use deterrents to her advantage.

Tulsi, after her posthumous reunion with Fayyaz, reminds us of Sassi’s commitment. Mehraan appears like Heer determined to never accept her Saeda Kherra. Salma Badruddin thrusts herself upon Fayyaz only to remind us of Lady Booby, who is unable to lure Joseph Andrews. Whether bad or good, all three women characters represent a waseb that is hardly ever narrated: a waseb where more and more women are now coming up with innovative ways of dealing with patriarchal oppression. The narrator of the novel rightly states:

The girls of our Waseb are born with a fate that lands them in a situation where they are convinced of their complete dependence on men. And that instead of thinking of living independently, they will need to develop a parasitic relationship with men. The wise among the parasites keep their beaks dug into man’s being, sucking his blood as the only means of their survival. And if one of them ever dreams of standing on its own feet, it will be removed and thrown away to die a million deaths before dying … But despite this unfavourable destiny, these girls, in an attempt to complete their incomplete self, develop some desires which may remain unfulfilled but somehow bless them with a strength that they learn to use so skilfully against the oppression of the society that they can lead the rest of their lives peacefully.

Adh Adhooray Log
Author: Muhammad Hafeez Khan
Publisher: Multan Institute of Policy and Research, Multan
Pages: 332
Price: Rs400/-

The women of waseb