A beloved storyteller

January 16, 2022

Afra Bukhari’s powerful voice will be heard for a long time to come

A beloved storyteller

Only about a month ago, during a telephonic conversation Aamir Faraz, the late Afra Bukhari’s son, had given me the good news that her new short-story collection Sang-i-Siyah (Black Stone) had come out. On the afternoon of January 3, news began circulating on social media that Afra Bukhari had left the world. This was totally unexpected since one had never heard of her illness.

Afra Bukhari belonged to the remarkable generation of women writers in Urdu literature, born between 1925 and 1940. This included the likes of Masroor Jahan, Altaf Fatima, Jilani Bano, Parveen Atif, Khalida Husain, Nisar Aziz Butt, Razia Faseeh Ahmad and Wajida Tabassum. With her passing, only two of its most prominent representatives: Faseeh Ahmad in Pakistan and Bano in India.

What one sees in the early years of one’s life, remains in some recess of one’s memory. Some people are able to recall it in enchanting detail even after the passage of half a century and tell stories that captivate readers not only from their own generation but also those from later generations. Of course some writers can get carried away by their sentiments. One wonders, however, whether it is at all possible for one to be totally removed from memories of one’s birthplace. Perhaps not.

Afra Bukhari wrote great fiction. She used to say, “I wrote what I saw in the society”. Her stories faithfully carried the sighs of her contemporaries that everybody hears but which lesser writers somehow ignore.

She had spent the early years of her life in Amritsar. She had wanted to see Amritsar again but this wish remained fulfilled. She remembered the Amritsar she had seen in her childhood and its walkabout characters, whom she immortalised in her short stories.

I first met with Bukhari through her son, Aamir Faraz, in 2006. She had an attractive and charming personality; her hair was white and her face was full of life. She spoke chaste Punjabi. There was no trace of the harsh tone one finds in some of her writings in her conversation. We would later meet at the Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq, the Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musannifeen and other literary circles. Sometimes met at the radio station, sometimes at her residence.

Bukhari was born in Amritsar on March 14, 1938. After the creation of Pakistan, she lived in Lahore along with her family. A taste for literature, reading as well as writing, was perhaps inherited. One of her brothers, Riaz Bukhari, had an interest in poetry. She began writing stories for children during her college days. In 1959, she started writing short stories.

In 1978, after the death of her husband, she disappeared from the literary landscape and was not heard of from for a long time due to family responsibilities. However, she resumed writing short stories in the ’90s. In 1997, while Pakistan was celebrating 50 years of independence, Bukhari wrote a Miyaan Potro (My Children) about the sorrows of partition, the grief of migration, relocation, exile and helplessness.

Her fifth collection of short stories, Sang-e-Siyaah, was published last year. Earlier collections, Faaslay (Distances), Nijaat (Salvation), Rait Mein Paaon (Feet in the Sand) and Aankh Aur Andhera (The Eye and the Darkness), were published in 1964, 1998, 2003 and 2009, respectively. Her short-stories kept being published in Istiqlal, Taameer-i-Nau, Adab-i-Latif, Dastaango, Imroze, Savera, Afkaar, Mah-i-Nau, Nuqoosh, Seep, Al-Shuja, Sayyara Digest, Zebunissa and Chilman. Her only novel Pehchaan (Identity) remained incomplete.

Some of Afra Bukhari’s stories have a mythological ring to them. Some of the stories exude no bright colours, only a grim darkness. She had the skill to persuade the reader that her stories were an authentic reflection of the society. Her portrayal of social injustice, oppression, violence, exploitation and patriarchal excesses always sounded heartfelt. This was perhaps the reason that in the year 2006, the esteemed Hindi literary journal, "Hans", being published by the family of Munshi Prem Chand, complimented her works and called her as one of the Muslim rebellious women fiction authors. Later, Asif Farrukhi, the critic, editor, translator and short-story writer, compared her diction to that of Virginia Woolf.

The echoes of her powerful voice will be heard for a long time to come.

Sahar qareeb hai Allah ka naam lay saqi

[Dawn is near, cupbearer; be mindful of God (to whom all must return)].

Afra Bukhari passed away on January 3 in Lahore at the age of 83.

The writer is a social scientist, book critic, translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers’ Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com

A beloved storyteller