When Skeena’s Punjabi edition was published by Sanjh Publications in Lahore in 2007, I was indeed curious to know what some people, including Kishwar Naheed, would think of it. For Islamabad launch, I offered her a copy. She looked at the cover, and an intriguing smile appeared on her face (she’ll read it, i thought). She said that she was about to travel abroad for a couple of weeks, so she’ll have time to read on the way over and back. Book launch in Islamabad was a month or so away.
Kishwar returned, and i spoke with her over the phone. She said nothing about Skeena.
On the day of the launch i arrived at the venue, and Kishwar was already there seated with Author Mansha Yaad (1937-2011).
‘Toon khufia book launch kerni paye ain? (Are you having a secret book launch?) Kishwar asked the moment she saw me.
‘Jee?’ I didn’t get it.
‘Shehr ch patta ee nahin kissay noon‘ (No one knows about it in the city).
I viewed my surroundings, there were about a dozen people ‘milling around’ in the upper portion of a restaurant, and i liked them all.
‘This is good enough for me’, i said.
Also, it was her city not mine, and she knew how Lahore Press Club had cancelled Skeena launch a day earlier, and how Academy of Letters in Islamabad had refrained from giving it space.
‘Patriarchy da lafz use keeta ae toon kidray kitab ch?’ (Did you use the word ‘patriarchy’ any where in the book?) She asked.
Certainly there was no attempt on my part to ban any words but it did not seem likely. It could not have been in Skeena’s vocabulary because the character was not projected to be as ‘politicized’ or ‘educated’. It was possible that the characters of Ruffo or Joyni or one of the ‘comrades’ may have used it, but i could not recall the instance.
‘No’, i shook my head.
‘I thought so’, Kishwar said.
Later, in her verbal presentation Kishwar gave us three thoughts about Skeena, each illuminating and each, for me, to be utterly grateful for.
Kishwar began by saying that she had read ‘Skeena’ thrice in the previous few weeks.
‘I read it three times: First, to become fluent in Punjabi (Kishwar’s mother tongue is Urdu, there aren’t many novels published in Punjabi, and so perhaps this was the first Punjabi novel she had actually read), the second time to understand it, and the third time to enjoy it’.
I need to take a pause here because this to me is about the most beautiful and gratifying compliment an author can get from any one; An author can get from another author; And, an author can get from Kishwar Naheed who is known to be a fierce and fearless critic of art and literature.
Then she said:
‘Skeena is a novel on patriarchy that never uses this word’.
What a wonderful thing to say about a novel! This one short sentence affirms that Skeena is not an extended pamphlet on Muslim women’s status or liberation or anything but a creative work going beyond slogans.
The third point was more detailed, and i don’t remember it all but it was something like this:
‘The telling of the story is deceptively simple. This simplicity of it’s expression is based in the profoundity of lived experience.’
It is amazing that each of Kishwar’s three points bring into focus the very things that are unique about Skeena: it’s readability (almost everyone i know has read it two or three times), artistic value and literary expression, and the depth of its simplicity.
Islamabad launch of Skeena was well-organized by Publisher Amjad Saleem, and beautifully presided over and coordinated by Professor/Poet Ali Arshad Mir (1951-2008). There were over 35 people, and it turned out to be a warm gathering with fiery discussions and a couple of walk-outs.
The first walk-out was the first presenter Ashfaq Salim Mirza, who had cast a macho-istic gaze on Skeena, and had offended many people who wanted to challenge his assertions. He left without giving anyone a chance to say anything.
The second walk-out occurred near the end when someone observed that the depiction of the Left in Skeena was less than exalted. At that, long time revolutionary activist Iqbal Singh got up, waved his copy of Skeena at me, and said in Punjabi:
‘I’ll go home and read it, and if there is anything damaging to the Left, i will come after you’, and then he left.
Without giving me the chance to tell him that the character Iqbal Singh is not just (in part) named after him, but that the character’s flip religious identity was inspired by him. From the early 70s I knew Iqbal Singh as ‘Sathi (comrade) Iqbal’ , and would often meet him in gatherings at Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore, but it was in 1998 that i came to know that he was a Sikh when my friend Zafaryab Ahmad (1953-2006) took me to his home in Rawalpindi to meet with his family.
I was in Pakistan many months after that but Sathi Iqbal Singh did not come after me, guess he did not find anything incriminating enough.
A few years later, he moved on.
After the launch, when Kishwar left, a couple of learned friends including Ahmad Salim observed that they had never seen Kishwar so mellow, even tender, when talking about a literary work.
Skeena must be a lucky woman!