A look at the life of the legendary writer who recently passed away at 93
Nisar Aziz Butt was a departure from the ‘traditional image’ of a woman.
Originally from the Khyber Pathunkhawa – previously known as North Western Frontier Province – Butt established herself as a writer of consequence. It must have been an uphill struggle for a woman to be recognised as such in a society that was, and still is, extremely conservative.
In a society where you traditionally do not find many women in the workforce, their stepping out of the house and then without the veil or burqa is an action powerful enough to determine public policies.
Nisar Aziz Butt excelled at mathematics, a subject that is not traditionally associated with women. She then went on to teach at the university level and created an independent position for herself. In her autobiography Gae Dinoon Ka Suragh she wrote about the struggle that she had to go through to get an education, as girls’ education was frowned upon by her family. During partition, she managed to move to Lahore to continue her education.
Being a voracious reader, gobbling up world literature, she develop a sensibility that was over and above parochialism. She was a thorough humanist, strictly against all kinds of discrimination, be it in the name of religion, sect, ethnicity, race or language.
She soon began writing as well. This eventually took her to Peshawar radio station where she met her future husband, Asghar Butt who was then a producer there. Despite, the initial difficulties that she had to face in persuading her family, her marriage with Asghar Butt was a long and happy one. It created conditions that helped the writer in her.
She was later diagnosed with tuberculosis at a time when it was considered a fatal disease but she managed to learn to live with the condition. She had to stay at a sanatorium when she was diagnosed, something she wrote about in Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir. Her account reminds one of the writings of Thomas Mann who also wrote brilliantly about his confinement.
Like most progressive writers of her time, Qurratul Ain Hyder, Faiz, Manto etc. the partition of the subcontinent did not make much sense to her. Even later as people in her university where she taught, were being pressured into moving to India because of their religion; she took a fierce stand against it.
She has mentioned this phase of her life in her novel Ney Chriaghey Ney Guley. It also portrays the state of women in her conservative region and the life that they had to endure under strict seclusion. All this went into the making of Nisar Aziz Butt’s sensibility which despite being rooted in her own culture, transcended it and called for a value structure that was integrative rather than divisive.
She was fully abreast of what was happening in the world and her reading habit made international literary expression very familiar to her. It appears that she was particularly fond of the existentialists, in particular, Simone De Beauvoir. She experimented with various writing techniques, as they surfaced internationally, in her own works. Her novel Karvan e Wajood focuses on the upheavals that the traditional value structure has been undergoing due to women exercising their right to make their own decisions.
She lived a long life and her thirst to know and be exposed to everything did not result in her being imitative, as has happened to so many of our writers. It helped her craft a worldview that was based on inclusion. Her works are long. She did not yield to the temptation of writing short afsanas to gain greater acceptability and popularity.
Nisar Aziz Butt kept a low profile all her life. Her works are about human aspirations and the limitations that go with them. Her outlook was quite realistic as she was fully immersed in the sensibility of her times.