(This write-up relates to the brief talk given at the celebration of Ada Jafarey Saheba held in London on Saturday, September 2, 2023.)
By: Shariq Ali
I read this book a few years ago by my own choice and selection. I read it with great interest, and through this book, I became acquainted with Mohterma Ada Jafri Sahiba’s personality, literary background, and the social norms and attitudes of her time. I read it with immense literary enthusiasm, and it unveiled many aspects of wisdom. When I was recently given the honour to deliver a brief talk about this book, I read it again—this time from a different perspective. The aspects that particularly impressed me are mentioned and highlighted in this write-up. Therefore, this is not a scholarly analysis but the personal impressions of a general reader of the book.
Step into the world of this amazing book, and you’ll instantly feel surrounded by a warm feeling – love. It’s like a cozy hug from books, words, and the beauty of life. But the most important kind of love here is for people.
If you are a book lover, you cannot forget the intense emotions of the first encounter. Ada Jafri Sahiba felt the same way too. She found comfort in a bunch of old books in her grandfather’s house. Those books were like her secret treasure. Ada was a young girl who had lost her father and was feeling very sad. But in those books, she found happiness and a friend.
Ada’s special place was a spot where she discovered these books, but she kept it secret because she was worried her family wouldn’t understand. These books became her teachers, helping her learn how to write poems. She worked hard and got better and better. With the love and help of her mom and grandfather, she even got her poems published in magazines.
One time, Ada showed her poem to her mom, and her mom’s eyes sparkled with joy. That made Ada believes in herself even more. Her grandfather also supported her. He once asked her a tough question, and when she answered correctly, he gave her a special gift – a dictionary she had wanted for a long time.
All these people who cared for Ada, like her mom and grandfather, helped her become a great poet. They showed her that with love and support, she could achieve her dreams. And Ada’s journey teaches us that love and books have a magical power to make life better.
Ada Jafarey Sahiba’s prose carries the essence of a poetess. As you immerse yourself in her words, you’ll find your thoughts soaring and swept by the rhythm of her expression. Consider the elegance of this line: “It was a charming and cherished pastime to seek friendship and companionship within the pages of books, a secret escape from the watchful eyes of elders.” This connection with books evolved into a profound bond that remained steadfast throughout her lifetime. This sentiment comes to life in the book as she recounts her visit to the Library of Congress in Washington in 1968. Amidst the sea of books, the significance of the written word reverberated in her mind once more. A spark of joy ignited when she stumbled upon a mention of her book “Sheher e Dard” (City of Pain) in the Library of Congress catalogue—an affirmation of her artistic revival. This reference symbolized more than just recognition; it marked the rekindling of her creative spirit, like an echo guiding her back to herself. The pages of this book chronicle a personal odyssey of self-discovery. At times, it morphs into an intriguing travelogue and a perceptive social commentary, guiding readers through a unique journey of the inner self.
Awareness of Suffering
Personally, I feel a strong connection to books that express the aspirations and hopes of ordinary people; those that recount the struggle towards self-awareness and discovery. “Jo Rahi So Bekhabri Rahi” is precisely such a book. It goes beyond being a mere account of an individual’s life; it mirrors its era and social norms. Rooted in family values, which resonate especially with us living in Karachi and numerous Urdu-speaking households, owing to the stories shared by our elders, the book chronicles the experiences of women from India and Pakistan who endured the painful aftermath of partition. These were women born into prosperous families yet couldn’t remain untouched by the tragedy of migration and the ensuing social hardships. A poetess of keen sensitivity and rich expressive power, only someone like Mohtarma Ada Jafari could have penned such a narrative. She masterfully captures the struggle that Indo-Pak women underwent to establish their conscious authority. “Throughout history, man has naturally wielded authority over his pursuits in this world and life. Contrastingly, woman embarked on a long journey of self-discovery, of recognizing her own reflection.” It’s as though this book encapsulates the journey Indian and Pakistani women have victoriously undertaken to reach self-awareness, artistic individuality, and creativity.
Allow me to clarify. I don’t intend to draw parallels between this book and the works of Simone de Beauvoir or Virginia Woolf. Neither am I attempting to liken Ada Jaffrey’s poetry to the compositions of Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath. My aim is simply to underscore that this book is an essential testament to the conscious journey undertaken by Indian and Pakistani women. During the timeframe of this book, the social history and context of India and Pakistan distinctly differed from the Western world. Nonetheless, a discerning historian will undoubtedly recognize the significance of this individual’s conscious struggle for feminism in the broader social context of the book’s period.
This book chronicles the voyage of a girl whose life began within a sheltered and secure environment, steeped in tradition. It was a realm shrouded in mystery and conservatism, reluctant to embrace the winds of change from the outside world. The first form of creative expression for this budding poetess was her diary, which she diligently maintained. She transformed her passion for
reading and writing into her lifeline, learning to walk with books and to dance and play with words. The innate ability to perceive sensitivities and emotions was bestowed upon her, yet for the gift of expression, she laboured through relentless personal endeavours. Tragically, during the turmoil of the 1947 riots, her diary was lost, a casualty among countless innocent lives. The diary’s loss severed her from her own self, leaving her adrift in loneliness, her existence entangled. Her entire story now existed solely within her being, perhaps only visible in her eyes.
This girl’s memories contain images of a fading feudal era, where the relentless pursuit of clinging to past glory was underway. While upholding tradition held significance, the family’s wealth dwindled through generations. Displaying inherited affluence symbolized nobility’s prestige. Amidst this, a deeply pure aspect of tradition existed. Sponsoring low-status relatives happened so discreetly that the giver remained unknown to the receiver. Within this feudal backdrop, an intellectually distinct and unique girl embarked on a journey of self-consciousness, guided by the hand of poetry. She sensed the concealed poetess within her as a distinct entity, sometimes a compulsion, other times a sanctuary. Indo-Pakistani women lacked direct comprehension of global feminism during this period. Mostly, their struggle occurred subconsciously and on an individual scale. This book doesn’t document involvement in any political activity, yet it decidedly signifies a poetess’s conscious evolution. In essence, it lacks overt rebellion, but does offer glimpses of refined protest, expressed through its own colours, accents, and tones. In this way, the book becomes a fragment of the progressive movement’s narrative and the worldwide women’s rights struggle. It narrates the ceaseless effort to unearth one’s identity, individuality, and creative prowess. This story aligns with the ongoing feminism of its era, respecting cultural norms in its unique manner.
Hometown and Shifting Seasons
From childhood, she felt a strong emotional connection to the downtrodden classes, a bond she still cherishes. She portrays this closeness through her interactions with Rehmat, her housekeeper, and the memory of visiting Rehmat’s home. This deprived family’s warmth made her feel at home, fostering a deep kinship that extended to nature’s elements—wind, clouds, trees—and humanity. Among these, her strongest affinity lay with humanity.
Her book delves into the cultural tapestry of her early years, offering an intriguing glimpse into the traditional society and activities of her hometown, Badayun. Back then, the town’s environment exuded equilibrium. Unlike today, religion wasn’t entangled with politics, making adherence to divine teachings and prophet’s lessons uncomplicated. Extremism was absent, and Badayun thrived as a city of kind-hearted souls, with a history rich in renowned Sufi scholars. Poetry, a cherished art, coursed through the veins of this town, even reaching the unlettered population. Mushairas were a common tradition then.
Gradually, families from Badayun migrated to other cities, seeking employment. This geographical distance turned out to be a blessing for girls, freeing them from the conservative confines of their hometown. Education for girls ceased to be taboo, adapting to life’s demands and the evolving era. The rigid doors of tradition creaked open under the weight of changing times, allowing light to pierce through the shadows of ignorance. It wasn’t a smooth transition, but women began to yearn for self-determination. This transformative phase brimmed with excitement.
Once, grievances with day and night filled my days,
Now, viewed through time’s lens, joy dances in its rays.
In her early years, her poems found homes in magazines like Sawira, Adab Latif, and Shahkar. Poets like Ada Jafari, along with colleagues Safia Shamim Malih Abadi and Najma Tasaduq Hussain, breathed within the confines of strict societal norms, yet started to raise their voices. Born from traditional backgrounds, where women’s freedom of expression was scarce, they defied these limits. The progressive writer’s movement, flourishing in the prime of modern Urdu poetry and short fiction, unveiled life’s history and truth. A new era unfolded, marked by debates and growth.
In her own words, “Participating in the festival of life was granted to me by the progressive writer’s movement, a profound sentiment for hearts, minds, and souls.” The movement, ignited in 1935 in London, was led by Sajjad Zaheer. While Ada Jafari felt its influence, her individual nature diverged from its political agenda. Her poems adorned progressive writers’ magazines and selections, even though she never held a regular membership.
During this time, modern short fiction soared with luminaries like Manto, Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. They painted the truths of life in diverse shades, facing both criticism and publication. The literary scene was vibrant, even amid legal disputes. During it all, the fledgling poetess embraced rebellion through free verse, birthing the evocative “Mein Saaz Dhoondti Rahi.”
I think back to my first steps, learning to walk,
Traditional rules restricted them, like heavy chains.
In their refined speech, they don’t call these chains, but anklets.
In closing, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to Dr. Aamir Jafarey and his daughter Asra Jafarey for their commendable effort in translating a significant piece of Urdu literary work.
Translating literary prose or poetry from one language to another is no small feat. Within Ada Jafari’s prose, the rich tapestry of Urdu poetry and songwriting is evident at every turn. The challenge of encapsulating its essence in the English language intrigued me. Upon reading this book, my conviction solidified that intellectual freedom is the ultimate blessing one can receive. Navigating the challenges of their era requires individuals to embrace freedom of thought and express their creativity unabated.
Ada Jafareys poetic journey didn’t originate from rebellion, but rather from her mother’s support and appreciation. Her connection to Russian poetess Karolina Pavlova, English novelist and poet Emily Bronte, America’s Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath underscores her global affinity.
Personally, I resonate with Ada Jafarey Sahiba’s connection to the worldwide pursuit of knowledge. As she eloquently wrote, “The humble teacher of a village madrasa in my homeland, instructing a few.
children clad in worn attire on tattered mats beneath a tree’s shade, holds a place of honour within this universal community.”
Thank you for your kind attention!