‘Skeena: a contribution to thank for’ by Dr. Shuja Alhaq

It sounds great if not exotic to live in a foreign land for nearly three decades and then return with a Punjabi novel in hand. And that is precisely what Fauzia has done. Indeed Skeena speaks of her success as a writer, and of Punjabi novel, above all.

What struck me most at the outset, I may say, was the natural flow of the narrative. The form and content, the technique and the story, the language and thought – do not part company from each other at any time. The writer does not seem to be struggling to find the right word or form to speak her mind. This is not something that every writer can achieve. And if a first time author demonstrates a natural talent for it, her choice of writing as her medium of expression seems justified.

Only at the end, when Skeena declares that she has no history, no story, no name, does the spell break and one wonders whether this character was real or fictional. But this does not diminish or impinge negatively on the power of the narrative. Rather it deepens its effect, in that it forces the reader to think of the character, as to why she acted and lived as she did! Could she do it differently? Could she rebel at any point earlier in life? Or did she rebel at all?

The most evident fact about the form of the novel is its neat division into two roughly equal halves. My reading of fiction is quite limited. Still at the very start of this novel I immediately sensed that it was a new story. Of course the story of our archaic feudal structure cannot be new. But what made it a fresh perspective was its narrator, a woman. In my limited experience I had not heard the archaic story as seen and lived by a woman in our part of the Panjab and, least of all, in Punjabi, and so it was quite an encounter. Since the narrator belongs to my generation, there was a lot to relate to as the story unfolded. (Not only thematically but even in details. Comrade Petha, for instance, reminded me of Comrade Laddoo, whose great company and patronage I had the good fortune of enjoying in my youth). By the time Skeena manages to attend a meeting of the comrades, one is fully engrossed in the saga, almost feeling the terror that she must encounter by the state and the society in the not unforeseeable future.

Here, there are events and certain passages which pull the reader along to those lengths where he or she may not have intended to go in the first place. I mean, the reader is made to get involved emotionally. One such passage is on page 95 where we find Skeena lying on her belly on the floor and attempting to listen to the beat of the Dhol. The expression is really beautiful and intense. Dhol di dhamak zameen tun aina utte vi mainun labh laindi ai. Mere naseebe change ke mele di te har jumerat di rat main ainan nachdian talan te sauni aan (the resonance finds me so many feet above the ground{her room being on the first floor}. Each night of the festival, I receive this gift of falling asleep to a basic rhythm.) These three pages, 95-7, are indeed amongst the most memorable ones. But I was really enthralled from page 134 onwards. More especially, the sequence of events unleashed with the sentence magron shaiaan avde aap hon lag paiaan (after that, things began to happen on their own.) (p.146-50) are most certainly the stuff that takes one’s breath away. I think this moment is the apex of the novel. It demonstrates the great potential and possibility that a human being, apparently a naught being, contains within herself which comes to fruit when she suddenly finds herself free to act decisively. This is the moment of revolution in Skeena’a life.

Not all revolutions succeed, though. The failure of the revolution in Skeena’s life says all, for symbolically it tells the story of us all, from Bhutto to each one of us who did come to the point of pulling the trigger, but then fell back into the insurmountable logic of the whirlpool that we call the system. Fauzia’s achievement is that she has been able to tell the story through an allegory. And that takes her ahead of us all.

But that is not all. This was reality. Now the question is can she, as an artist, create that which is unreal, which is magical? Can she create a character who is free or becomes free after pulling the trigger? Fauzia might refer me to Skeena’s final release and escape from her captors to whom she was sold by her family. But that sounds like the release of a corpse. As a reader, one is little moved by it. That is not a free woman, the one Skeena’s creator apparently intends to be. So can she, if I may ask, tell her story?

These impressions, to be honest, say far less than I wish to. The reason for which is largely my limited experience of literature in general. But what one cannot fail to mention are the early years of Skeena. They impressed upon my mind the most. The portrayal of her free spirit, which very much sounds her natural spirit, a spirit endowed to her by birth, seems Fauzia’s real success: her attempts to enjoy freedom, to literally steal every moment of freedom that she can manage to grab from an otherwise miserly, oppressive society that is fearful of her, of her as a free individual. It is this inward freedom of her that makes her final confrontation with the Gang led by the maulvi appear so realistic, and therefore thrilling and inspiring. And further, her brilliant portrait of her sensitive, freedom loving childhood and adolescence brings into sharp relief the straightjacket that society seeks and succeeds in putting on her. It cannot but remind one the famous saying, ‘Woman was born free but everywhere she is in chains.‘ (An amendment to Rousseau, of course, in the light of Fauzia’s portrayal).

After this revolt, though, the interiorization of the oppression, largely through her mother, sets in. This interiorization, her determination to keep her family happy by sacrificing her free self, is as irritating to the reader as her early attempts to enjoy freedom were exciting. Once again, though, this is realistic. It demonstrates that the writer is not making things up. After all, she could have made her leave the house or elope with some one. But what she has shown is, as it seemed to me, that at this moment she (the writer) is not ready for it. And if she is not ready for it, any attempt to make Skeena overrun the walls of her parental home would have looked artificial, as most of our inqilabis are. Fauzia might certainly have appeased them, but then she would have written a pamphlet, not a novel.

I must say why I, as a reader, failed to get inspired by Skeena’s escape from her husband after ten brutal years. Because her sacrifice of her free self at her family’s alter, which means at society’s alter, was fatal. She had obeyed her mother and brother, and accepted arranged marriage. Ok. But there probably was an opportunity for her to escape once she was in Canada, and nobody would have blamed her for that. But she did not want to hurt her mother. The sacrifice was total, so one feels any hope of resurrection after that is going a bit too far.

If Skeena submitted to the brutal occupation of her husband and mother-in-law because she did not want to hurt her mother and her brother, while not being in Pakistan but in Canada (I mean where there were more opportunities to escape), then it is her decision, nay, her choosing. The arrival of the news of her mother’s demise and her escape is not a coincidence. She seems all the way waiting for her mother to be safely in the grave until she rebels. This means that it would be off the mark to place all blame, or to locate the sources of her submission wholly in the social and religious forces that shaped her life. The society has its apparatus of oppression, but in these our times, the opportunities to defy or escape have also multiplied. And if an individual happens to be of change naseebe (good fortune) to find one, her failure to avail it, on whatever pretext, is her failure, the failure of the individual. For if we hesitate to concede this, we end up in a kind of determinism that is inimical to thought and freedom. This, nevertheless, remains my view of it.

At the end, though, one must say that thanks to Skeena one can count at least one Punjabi novel (in our part of the Punjab) worth the name. It might fall short of expectations for some, but at least the prospective writer would know what she or he has to surpass. That is no small achievement. At least it goes some way towards alleviating the paucity of our poor mother tongue, or of modern Punjabi literature, to be more precise.

Written in Lahore in 2007 at the launch of Punjabi (Shahmukhi) edition of Skeena (Sanjh Publication 2007).

Dr Shuja Alhaq is a teacher of philosophy, an author, and a poet. He has lived and worked in UK and Pakistan. At this time, he teaches philosophy at the University of Multan.

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