Ode to a trailblazer

September 26, 2021

Deeply penetrating, powerful, thought-provoking: recounting the legacy of Zaitoon Bano, one of Pakistan’s most unique voices

Ode to a trailblazer

“In our society, women are considered lesser human beings. With my work I have tried to present the realities of society to the society and, if possible, to steer its psyche to the right direction,” Zaitoon Bano once said. Her fiction offers a bold narrative stance that encompasses sexual exploitation of women as one of its major subjects. She even wrote about sexual assault on women by their own family members – a highly sensitive (almost a taboo) theme. It is perhaps for these issues and outlook that some literary critics compared her to Manto. She was even named Sarhad Ki Ismat (Ismat Chugtai of NWFP/ KP). However, her concerns and motives were different from those of Manto and Chugtai.

After a literary career spanning more than sixty years, fiction writer, playwright and poet Zaitoon Bano – who had penned her last short story just about a month ago – passed away in her native city Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). She was 82. Hers was not an easy life – both at personal and social levels – but she braved all odds with such exceptional vigour and will-power that she eventually made herself a household name in the contemporary Pashto literature; being read not only in her native KP and Balochistan but also in Afghanistan or, for that matter, by Pashtun/Afghan diaspora everywhere in the world. Bano was primarily a writer of the Pashto language – her mother tongue – but later she turned to writing in Urdu as well and made her presence felt there too. This creative bilingualism accompanied her in the later part of her literary career. It is quite interesting, but it might not be a mere coincidence that she earned her master’s degrees both in Pashto and Urdu literature.

Exponents of Urdu literature, both in fiction and poetry, come, by and large, either from Karachi – Pakistan’s largest city dominated by Mohajir/Urdu-speaking population or from Punjab where Urdu language had already struck its roots long before the creation of Pakistan. Hence, Karachi and Lahore – latter being the capital of Punjab province – are generally and justifiably considered two poles of contemporary Urdu literature. That, however, does not mean that other provinces are entirely confined to a regionalised literary character, or no big name ever emerged from those areas. We have Ahmad Faraz, an extremely popular Urdu poet hailing from KP who even earned celebrity status. Faraz’s mother tongue was not Urdu.

Indeed, KP produced many Urdu poets who gained nationwide recognition, but in respect of prose-production, especially in literary fiction, the province did not yield much talent. The number of women writers taking literature as their mediums of expression was even lower, almost to the point of non-existence. It was in this scenario that Zaitoon Bano took first to Pashto and later to Urdu literature.

Bano wrote with equal ease and force in both Pashto and Urdu. Her oeuvre, especially in Pashto, is considered a landmark in modern fiction, not because of her being “the first one” among women writers in that language, but more importantly for the substance. 

Bano, commonly known among her younger colleagues and Pashto readers as Mor Bibi (mother), was born in 1938 into a Bukhari Syed family of Said Dheri, a village near Peshawar. Her grandfather, Pir Syed Abdul Qudus Tundar, was a revolutionary Pashto poet. Whilst still in ninth grade, Bano wrote under a pseudonym her first Pashto short story: Hindara (Mirror) that was later to be considered as a significant text in modern Pashto literary fiction. The young writer never looked back. She wrote more than twenty-four books including Hindara (Mirror) – Pashto short stories and plays, Maat Bangree (Broken Bangles), Khooboona (Dreams), Juandi Ghamoona (Living Grief) – Pashto Short stories, Sheesham Ka Patta (The Leaf of a Sheesham), Waqt Ki Dahleez Par (On the threshold of time) – Urdu short stories translated from Pashto, Barg-e-Arzoo (Leaf of Desire) and Bargad Ka Saaya (The Shadow of a Banyan) – a novel and a collection of short stories respectively, both written originally in Urdu. She also wrote numerous plays for radio and television both in Pashto and Urdu.

A few years back, the KP cultural directorate published a collection of her Pashto short stories under the title of The Shagu Mazal (A Journey through Sands) spread over 700 pages and covering her writings between 1958 and 2017. Earlier in 2006, she published her first and only collection of Pashto poetry: Manjeela (head cushion). But, critics are generally of the opinion that it is her fiction, especially her short stories, that provides Bano a secure and strong footing on the literary terrains of both Pashto and Urdu literature. Many of her stories have been made into television and radio dramas, and in some of them, the writer herself played the main roles.

One major turn in the life of Bano came when in 1963 she got married to Taj Saeed, a noted Urdu and Hindko writer. Saeed and Bano formed the most fascinating literary couple – perhaps the only notable one – from KP – back then the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). He was a poet and additionally, a script writer. She was a fiction writer and later dabbled in poetry as well. But essentially, it was a union of a poet and a fiction writer. So, even in relation to literary genres, the couple complemented each other.

Bano wrote with equal ease and force in both Pashto and Urdu. Her oeuvre, especially in Pashto, is considered a landmark in modern fiction, not because of her being “the first one” among women writers in that language, but more importantly for the substance of her writings that are both powerfully artistic and politically correct. Her Urdu fiction too – short stories, novels as well as plays – is not of lesser merit. She wrote a good number of her short stories originally in Pashto and later translated those pieces into Urdu herself. However, even in instances where the writer-translator took such a creative liberty, one hopes that those works were not mere exercises in translation. Keeping a keen and sensitive eye on social structures, political mindset and the complex human psyche, she intricately delineates the myriad facets of life in KP. “I write what I notice in my surroundings. Whatever I have written so far is derived from the reality around me,” the writer had once said in an interview.

In doing so, if she highlights the virtues of bravery, generosity and hospitality in Pashtun society, she does not forget to comment on the rigidity and close-mindedness embedded in the same social system. Especially, she lashes out at the crushing patriarchy which has for centuries rendered women folk as subhuman objects. In the closing years of her life, however, Bano was pleased to observe that many barriers in the ways of women were being removed – both in the literary sphere and in social life.

With Zaitoon Bano’s departure, Pakistani literature has lost one of its most unique, feminist voices: A voice that was penetrating, powerful and provoking. The person has departed, but the legacy will live on – in her words and in the trail that she blazed.

The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian Literature & Culture at Vienna University

Ode to a trailblazer