For 50 years, Urdu author Jeelani Bano has enjoyed the freedom of limitless expression. She talks about why awards don’t mean much to her.
Eminent Urdu writer Jeelani Bano has been publishing fiction since 1954 when her first story Mom ki Mariyam came out. Her fiction has been translated into Hindi, Telugu, Gujarati and English. Among her many awards are the Sovietland Nehru Award and Modi Ghalib Award. Excerpts from an interview.
In the story Main (I), you seem to have come to grips with the experience of alienation. Did you pick this up from your observation of modern life or is it related to an actual experience?
It's possible that out of thousands of stories floating around, one decides to come to me entirely on its own. Then I may own it as mine, but to be able to say where I acquired it from is a puzzle to me too. As for Main, I think I remember what triggered it: a casual remark by someone about her small son. She said he did not resemble her and wondered if he was hers. The child who was playing around protested violently. This triggered a chain of ideas in my mind. I wondered what would happen in a child’s psyche if a mother disclaimed it. A crisis of identity with which he/she'd have to live all his/her life! At times, in anger, mothers do say such things...
The beauty of the story lies in how a rather abstract experience of loneliness has acquired a specific shape and context. Have you ever felt the need to break the conventional form of the story to accommodate new ideas?
I have no problems with the existing forms. Of course, we were influenced immensely by the modernist narrative forms that emerged in the post-World War literature but we must remember that there has been no dearth of experimentation in Urdu. We have always had our own philosophical base and we have had our own style of literary expression. I often resist the idea of reading, particularly when I'm in the process of writing fiction myself for fear of interference with what I am creating. If the work is to be original and not imitative, the writer must safeguard her own world of fiction. I have been engaged in a lot of experimentation, too and I think any new story comes with its own style. After all, the story told is not just an event reported by the writer. It acquires the identity of a short story only when it is contained in a style, traditional or modern. My story Ashtray main sulgata hua cigarette (Cigarette burning in the ashtray) is the story of an ordinary woman burning from one end perpetually like a cigarette, with no one to listen to her, not even her husband. She's a mere domestic entity to look after his home and fulfil his physical desire. Her husband is a heavy cigarette-smoker and she's shown in the story to identify her existence with that of the cigarettes being smoked and discarded by the male at his will.
As a woman writer in Urdu, what kind of problems have you gone through? Are you conscious of having avoided certain themes because of being a woman?
Frankly, I have never stopped myself from writing on a particular theme just because I am a woman. Nor have I ever thought of this as a limitation. I've always felt free to express whatever I have been gripped by. How the society responds has not bothered me. But when I started writing I did go through some discomfiture. You see, I belonged to a very conservative family — especially my maternal family — of a feudal society from Badaun. My father, a scholar and a poet in Arabic and Persian, was liberal enough to want his daughters to feel free. But my mother was very orthodox. I started to write when I was about 10. Since my father was a poet, many poets visited us. I used to look at the poets with great reverence — Josh, Jigar, Sagar Nizami, Shakeel Badayuni, Qatil Shifai. When I started writing seriously and sending my works for publication, my mother protested because she thought no one would marry me as I was corresponding with men in the publishing world. I owe a lot to my father who let me go on. Then I got married at a rather early age. My father was keen to marry me to a person with literary taste, someone who'd not object to my writing. I had already published a book when I married Anwar. He chose to marry me primarily because of my involvement in writing. When I was young, I often heard: “Oh, in spite of being a woman, she writes well!” As in social get-togethers in our society, in literature too, a separate enclosure seems to have been created for women.
Today, the number of awards in literature is increasing, which should mean that literary activity is being given some significance. What do you think?
As far as I am concerned, these awards have no value and I do not write for any “appreciation”. There were hardly any when I began writing. I don't believe that the writer who is being given the award is necessarily the one who deserved it the most. Sometimes a genuine writer may get an award but, again, that may be for the wrong reasons!
Feminist criticism is a popular critical stance today. The woman's perspective is used to understand the characters. Are women’s issues getting more of a voice now?
I don't think we have much happening in that direction. I wish we had. I feel that there's a need to examine female writing differently.
There's also the notion that a writer transcends gender division, if only to be able to identify one’s self with the character being delineated.
But then whether in poetry or fiction, the feelings of a woman appear distinctly different from that of a man and even the mode of expression would be different.
Perhaps in Urdu there's a need to pay special attention to feminist critical writing if only to compensate for its neglect…
I am afraid good feminist criticism is not being produced in Urdu. One can hardly talk about any convincing critical stances being used. In Urdu literature in general, one sees evidence of changes in style and content in the short story. After all, we do not today have the same kind of problems we had, say, even 10-15 years ago. Our feeling, thoughts are changing and the world is getting smaller.
Would you say that there’s any “progress” in literature?
No, I don't think there's any such thing as “progress” in literature. The modern short story in Urdu lost its “story-ness” for a while, and people could not understand it. It's a different matter if I write a story just for myself but if I write and ask another to read it — well, the communication has to be established. If the reader does not retain any part of it and returns the entire story to me, then that story is meaningless for me as well. The story is not worth its existence then.
Have there been any writers whose influence you have wanted to shake off?
Camus used to impress me tremendously. I was moved by Gorky’s The Mother. Chekov, too impressed me a lot but I have never felt I should write like any of them. Sometimes I get so deeply involved in my stories, it's almost as though I am entangled in a snare. The world of my writing casts a heavy shadow on everything and I desire absolute isolation. When I was writing my story ‘Cultural Academy’, I met the character called Usha in a dream at a get-together in which somebody introduces her to me. She did not respond to me. In the morning, believe me, it was a strange experience having to deal with her in my writing.
At times perhaps the world of fiction is more real than the world in which one actually has to operate...
In my ‘actual’ world, I am very mechanical. When I am totally submerged and tensed, I go into the kitchen doing things that have nothing to do with the story. About this matter of what is “real”, my writing has to tell me how real it is. I don't go by any other voice. When I was writing my novel on “bonded labour”, I thought of delineating Salim in one way, but soon realised it had acquired a different colour. The character wanted to be different from how I had conceived it. I generally give in when such a clash occurs.