Interview: Challenging the mindset
She’s a voice of reason that refuses to be mellowed. As her passion spills on to the pages of the numerous books she’s authored and columns she’s written, Zahida Hina’s list of achievements continue to grow. Her soft-spoken composure belies the steely grit that simmers within. She’s a journalist who believes in making a difference, a writer whose literary works compel readers to question the prevalent authoritarian culture and ideological mindsets.
An ardent supporter of human, democratic and women rights, Hina is a woman who refused the Pride of Performance award because it was awarded by an unconstitutional military government. Later, when a democratic government offered it, she accepted it. She fearlessly campaigned against the nuclear technology, and found ways to reach her readers in an environment that placed stringent measures on freedom of expression. Her works have been translated into English, German, Russian, Hindi, Sindhi, Gormukhi, Marathi, Bangla and Pashto by notables including Faiz Ahmed Faiz. She was also awarded the Saarc Literary award in 2001 by the Indian president.
The walls of her drawing room are adorned with prints of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a Picasso. On another wall hangs three original works of Sadequain, the title of her collection of short stories, Qaidi sans leta hai. “Sadequain was in Delhi when he designed the title of my first collection,” says Hina by way of explaining the three different sketches, “This was in 1982, which was Ziaul Haq’s era, and the first design was rejected by the publisher for its bold avatar. He did another sketch, that of a man in shackles which was accepted, and eventually Sadequain sent me a final version of what the cover would look like.”
Born in Sahasaram, Bihar, India, in a family where education was valued above everything else, Hina’s childhood was more about books than people. She is the eldest among two sisters and a brother, and her love for literature was lovingly nurtured by her parents. Her father particularly took personal interest in her educational growth, so much so, that he took responsibility of teaching her when she was barely four years old.
“He taught me to learn poetry by heart and I could recite Ghalib, Hali and Iqbal among other poets,” reminiscences Hina. There was no dearth of books in the house and so a natural bond developed between the future writer and literary works.
“My father’s maternal uncle, Mirza Abdus Sattar Baig wrote a book of three volumes, Masaalikus Salikeen-fiTazkiratul Waseleen, a book on history of Sufism,” she says, “In those days, as was the norm, people in my family maintained a bayaaz (diary), in which they jotted down articles and poetry which they liked. My family also encouraged education in girls and some of us went on to become teachers. As a child, I was allowed to read everything — except Beheshti Zevar, which of course I read secretly,” she states lightheartedly.
Which such guidance, it would have come as no surprise to her parents when Hina wrote her first story at the age of nine.
Unfortunately, they never found out because, “Oh, I tore it up soon after I wrote it,” she laughs again. The plot was on romantic lines and so, following the advice of a friend, who felt that har parents may not be very impressed with the content of story, Hina destroyed her debut work. But the interest in writing continued to grow, and was further cultivated in her school, where after winning various essay-writing contests she was appointed as the editor of the school magazine, Iram.
Listening to Hina is a joy in itself, no less because of her succinct use of vocabulary, but also because of her excellent command of history and an intensity that is palpable in the tone of her voice. History is a subject that has been close to her since she was a child, and in which she has delved deep. All her interests — and they are diverse — congregate at this point.
When she talks of women, she discusses Indian Muslim women and their historical role in improving their status; when she talks about cultures, she makes an astute comparison between the ancient cultures of the East and the West with equal ease — and is just as critical.
“People won’t like me saying this, but even though our region gave birth to brilliant scientists, philosophers and thinkers, the difference was that they were not allowed to think freely — humari soch pe pehray thay,” she laments, “What did we do with Zakariya al-Razi, Omar Khayyam, and Ibn Rushd? Why was it that while we were treating them in such a derogatory manner, others, like Europeans, were learning from their works, translating them in their own languages? They used these works as fundamentals to build themselves.”
However, it’s easy to perceive that her love for the subject is far deeply rooted in India. Her connection with the region is manifold: it’s what she calls, her “historical and cultural background”. She has family and friends in the country and she also pens a regular weekly column for a publication in a Hindi daily. Not fluent in Hindi, how does she ensure that the column is not changed?
“Well, I can discern the meaning of the Hindi script, so I know that they don’t change the words,” she chuckles. However, on a serious note, Hina feels that Indians appear more earnest about journalism. Their newspapers highlight all important issues which are discussed very seriously, particularly in some of their most respected newspapers.
“This is how they’ve educated their youth,” she says, “And this is the difference I’ve noted between Pakistani and Indian youth — by and large. I feel that’s mainly because our youth does not have the opportunities that youngsters across the border have.”
She pins the responsibility of this decadence on the 30 plus years of dictatorship, which did not allow questioning, free journalism, or even a stable judiciary.
The other basic issue, Hina feels, is the lack of libraries, comparing it to her growing days of ‘Aana libraries’, from which she benefited immensely. The reading habit is dying in general; what’s helping it sustain is a few exclusive pockets of children, who belong to a certain class and in whom the habit is cultivated at a school level. They are willing to invest in books and their parents are equally encouraging. Unfortunately, says Hina, there’s but a small percentage of such students if we look at the picture as a whole.
A single parent of three — Fainaana, Sohaina and Zeryoum — Hina has worked tirelessly towards inculcating the same cultural and literary values in her offspring. Perhaps, she feels, this is the reason she has never given more time to writing novels since they demand more hard work and steady concentration.
“I may be lying to myself and using this as an excuse,” she confesses, “but it’s a fact that I wrote three novels in all. One was published — which has been translated in Hindi, English and now will be printed in Nepali — one has been shelved as a manuscript for the past 15 years; it needs to be attended to. The third novel was printed as a series of episodes in an Urdu magazine published from Jeddah. But I don’t have any copy of it, and so it’s lost to me.”
Like all peace activists and those striving to bring a positive change in the society, Zahida Hina has had to face hardships, too.
Yet, like many others, her spirit is not broken, and her approach remains focused. Her philosophy is simple. “If you decide that you want raise a voice against what you believe is controlling you, then you should be ready to take responsibility of the actions as well,” she concludes.