Just over a month ago, Aamir Faraz – the son of the late Afra Bukhari and now literary heir – told me on the phone that his mother’s new collection of short stories Sang-e-Siyah (black stone) had just been released. I had wanted to review the book and also meet its octogenarian author to talk about her life and her profession.
But on the afternoon of January 3, 2022, news started circulating on social media that Afra Bukhari had passed away. This news was unexpected, as she was not known to have been sick, although she was, of course, 83 years old.
Bukhari belonged to that remarkable generation of female Urdu writers, born between 1925 and 1940, whose ranks included novelists Masroor Jahan, Altaf Fatima, Jilani Bano, Parveen Atif, Khalida Husain, Nisar Aziz Butt, Razia Faseeh Ahmad, and the new the writer Wajida Tabassum. With his passing, only two people of that generation remain: Faseeh Ahmad from Pakistan and Bano from India. Of the others, all but Tabassum (who died in 2011) have died within the past four years.
From Amritsar to Lahore
Bukhari said, “I wrote down what I saw in society. Rather than colors, she wrote in black and white, often bringing out the pain of the human condition, which we tend to ignore when we encounter her. She only spent the first years of her life in Amritsar, where she was born on March 14, 1938, before partition, but her birthplace stayed with her. “How is Amritsar now”, she said, “I can see Amritsar.”
She was never able to visit Amritsar again, but she remembered the Amritsar she had seen as a child and immortalized many of the people she saw by turning them into characters in her short stories.
My first encounter with Bukhari was through his son Aamir Faraz in 2006. An attractive and charming personality, with hair as white as cotton, and a strawberry and cream complexion. She spoke pure Punjabi. As stern as his voice might be in his stories, in personal conversation his soft Punjabi tone was the dominant tone. In Lahore, we met at Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musanifeen, the radio station and his residence, sometimes with other members of literary circles.
After the establishment of Pakistan, Bukhari moved to Lahore with her family, where she lived the rest of her life. The penchant for writing ran in the family. One of his brothers, Riaz Bukhari was interested in poetry. She started writing short stories for children while studying at Government College, Cooper Road, Lahore. From 1959, it became an integral part of his life.
chronicler of pain
After her husband’s death in 1978, family responsibilities kept Boukhari away from writing for a long time. She resumed writing in the 1990s, and in 1997, when Pakistan celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding, she wrote a story that she had kept buried in her head for over 50 years. The story, titled Miyaan Putro (My Children) embodies the pains of Partition. The pain of migration, relocation, exile, helplessness and ruin is exposed here without concession.
Before his fifth and last collection of short stories Sang-e-Siyaah was published in 2021, Bukhari had published four other collections: faasle (Distances) in 1964, Nijaat (Hi) in 1998, Ret Mein Peacock (Feet in the Sand) in 2003, and Ankh Aur Andhera (The Eye and the Darkness) in 2009. Additionally, his stories continued to be published in Istiqlal, Taameer-e-Nau, Adab-e-Latif, dastaango, Imroze, Savera, Afkaar, Mah-e-Nau, Nuqoosh, Infiltrate, Al Shuja, Summary of Sayyara, Zebunissaand Chima, besides literary journals. Her first and only novel Pehshan (Identity) remains incomplete.
Most of Bukhari’s stories capture women’s pain. She transmits the cries of a woman holding the small joys and the great sorrows of small families. His fiction elevates the agony of everyday life to a mythological level. Her skill with language and her ability to induce a willful suspension of disbelief places the reader at the center of the circles of social injustice, oppression, violence, exploitation and patriarchy to which women are subjected.
No wonder Munshi Premchand himself gave Bukhari the title of “rebel novelist”. Later, the great literary critic, editor, translator and fellow fiction writer Asif Farrukhi compared the language of his short stories to that of Virginia Woolf.
Bukhari had to overcome the social and personal trauma of the score as well as family circumstances to become the highly regarded writer that she was. As a short story writer, his voice will far outlive his death.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, award-winning book reviewer and translator, and drama reader based in Lahore, where he is also president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Lahore by Sahir Ludhianvi, Sahir Ludhianvi of Lahoreto be published in 2022.