‘Keerru’ by Fauzia Rafique reviewed by Rashid Javed Ahmed

Translated from Punjabi

Keerru : Punjabi novel

Novelist : Fauzia Rafique

Review : Rashid Javed Ahmed

It was by mere chance that I got to read this unique Punjabi novelette, thanks to Author Ayesha Aslam. Before this I had read Fauzia Rafique Jee’s poetry and I had published her Urdu poem ‘Zindagi thee / it was life’ in my magazine. I knew Fauzia Rafique Jee with reference to her work with Pakistan television Lahore where in better times my Punjabi and Urdu plays were also presented. I came to know of her earlier novel ‘Skeena’, and I have made a request to Sanjh Publication’s Amjad Saleem Minhas, Skeena’s publisher, for a copy. I will definitely read it if I get it.

Keerru is the story of Mohammad Hussain Keerru who is accused of blasphemy, he first escapes to Karachi from Lahore and then leaves for Canada. In Canada, he sees many colors of life and he adapts. Keerru’s mother arrives from Pakistan. She tells her story from the 1947 partition of the Punjab, what happened to her then, and how being a Christian she had to live in a Muslim cultural environment. She brings the novel to the next level by relating her story and talking about her marriage with Keerru’s father.   

In this novella every character tells us about their life themselves, and in this way Fauzia Rafique Jee has presented this story in a beautiful manner. There are five characters in the novelette: Keerru, Haleema, Naila, Isabella and Daljit. The story revolves around these people who have come out of their own countries to settle in Canada. The story of these characters creates a naked image of the class injustices and societal contradictions rampant in the Indian Subcontinent.

Haleema is the main character of this novelette, and her full name is Haleema Alice Bibi. Working as a servant in rich people’s homes, poor family’s daughter Haleema who never got the opportunity to go to school, is actually the most aware character of all. Haleema is a woman belonging to the lowest tier of her society and despite facing the various difficulties that life had subjected her to, and in spite of all the pain, hardship and sorrow, she still is able to have a sane mind. She is a personification of the highest values of humanity. Through Haleema’s character, Fauzia Jee has weaved all kinds of exploitation and injustice- whether religious or societal- so artfully that it has become its class identity. This is such a character created by the novelist that becomes the precursor for the whole body of thought behind the novella. Haleema and other people like her, die working day and night physically and mentally trying to sustain the systems of their lives. In this society, some people, some very few people try to support them but even they keep them out of their class. Living like insects, they believe that this is their fate and to change it or to come out of it is not in their power.

The second big character of the novelette is Haleema’s son Keerru. Saving his life from religious extremists, somehow, he arrives in Canada, and after working menial jobs for many years, he becomes the owner of a garments company. He has brought his mother over too who now lives with him and she takes good care of him and his friends. People often ask her the reasons why she named her son ‘keerru’, but to hear her answer, you’ll have to read the novelette because what will be the benefit in writing everything here. But I will definitely say one thing that Keerru’s character is a strange character who hates the reality of his inner self, there can’t be a bigger torture than this. I believe the name Keerru is given to him not by Haleema but by Fauzia Rafique herself, and what an amazing choice. Other than praising the beauty of the Punjabi language used, much admiration for using this name.

I will not talk about the rest of the characters because that would mean revealing most of the story, neither am I giving any ‘basic theme’ but the characters Fauzia Rafiq jee has created are full of life and they have distinct characteristics of their own. Through these characters, the readers come to know of the pain of exploitation of women and then the description of a charater’s rebellion as a way to come out of it. Repression of women has many forms and one of those is coercion and violence from man or husband, and many writers have spoken about it in their writings but what is a plus point with Fauzia Jee is that she did not make it into a slogan but through the story she has shown that the strength to be free of repression is also within women’s selves. Similarly, you will see the tall walls of social apartheid and casteism in the novelette.

I am not a critic but a reader of Punjabi and Urdu literature, and I have much appreciation for Fauzia Jee’s characterization. Five characters tell their stories in the language of ordinary people, sometimes they go in their pasts, then return to the present but the continuity of the story is never broken. The environment is described so well that the reader feels himself to be present there and everything passes in front of his eyes like a film.

About Keerru and Daljit’s relationship, Fauzia Jee has mentioned Shah Hussain and Madhu Lal, Bulleh Shah and Shah Inayat. Some people may object to it but I am in agreement with Fauzia Jee on this pointer.

I am very happy to have read Fauzia Jee’s novelette.     

Read Punjabi original at Penslips Magazine

View it on YouTube

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A must read for all lovers of Punjabi literature – ‘Keerru’ by Fauzia Rafique


‘Keerru’ is a tenderly woven story of love, acceptance, and understanding across religions, class, nationalities, and generations. Like her previous novel, Skeena, Fauzia tells a human story that is social and political without trying to be. This is a must read for all lovers of Punjabi literature, South Asian diasporic literatures, and LGBTQ+ literatures.’

Randeep Purewall
Surrey, BC

Winner of Ali Arshad Mir Award 2020
Novella ‘Keerru’ by Fauzia Rafique
Available in Punjabi and Urdu
smashwords.com/books/view/1029555
smashwords.com/books/view/1012167
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Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature – 2013 to 2020

In 2013 when Dhahan Prize was in the process of being established in Vancouver, I saw it as a progressive and uplifting force for Punjabi literature and language. It was a happy occasion for me when Anne Murphy (University of British Columbia, Asian Studies) and Barj Dhahan (Canada India Education Society), the two initiators, accepted my definition of ‘Punjabi’ to then include Shahmukhi writers, representing 60% of the World’s Punjabis, to be eligible for the Prize. I facilitated it by providing contacts in the Pakistani Punjab, and by serving on the inaugral advisory committee in Vancouver. My appreciation to Barj, Anne, Harinder Dhahan, and many others for their accomplishments and contributions in pulling it together. Indeed it is the only literary award that offers meaningful monetary reward to fiction writers of both Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts residing in Pakistan, India and the Diaspora- a beautiful placement for community building in our literary landscape!

In seven years, however, that vision, that hope, has been consistently eroded by the political and social interests guiding Dhahan Prize, and now, the project has become more of a conservative push that further debilitates our literary environments with money and undue influence leading to the formation of cliques (‘narrow exclusive circles’, mw) in both India and Pakistan. It seems that the prize structure follows regressive systemic values where personal likes/dislikes and clan-based interests guide literary decisions. It is interesting, for example, that in seven years, not a single Shahmukhi writer, or a woman writing in either script, was allowed to win the main prize.

I also know that Dhahan Prize is not the only one employing discriminatory values and structures to get desired results, that all literary prizes, more so the big ones, operate on similar basis. For example, we see here in Canada and the USA that most big prizes are awarded to straight middle class white men, protecting the systemic values of racism, sexism, class privilege and homophobia. That it may take years of lobbying, bribes, favors and/or public pressure for someone to win a Sitara-e-Imtiaz in Pakistan or a Sahitya Akademi Award in India, and, that the more ‘outstanding’ talent may never get either. That the Nobel is only awarded when it serves the political interests of the so called ‘Western’ governments. Periodically and as needed, exceptions are made to save the credibility of a program, to increase its profits or to enhance its influence.

Knowing this, why did i expect this prize to be any different? The unique possibility with Dhahan Prize is its physical location where it does not have to work with or through the bureaucracy or the politics of either of the governments of the Punujab. They are independent of the social, religious and financial constraints and limitations of both India and Pakistan. In so being, the Dhahan Prize is in the very best position to build non-discriminatory, non-prejudicial, democratic structures that can spearhead the nurturement of leading-edge literature in Punjabi; to provide a pathway for authors tackling themes tabooed by prevalent South Asian value systems, and to support authors coming from historically disadvantaged groups. But would they or can they do it? I hope that the Dhahan Prize recognizes this as the unique opportunity it is, and resolve to do different and better instead of adding more of the same to an already toxic mix.

I was distraught last year to find that in their media releases and events, the Dhahan Prize stage was repeatedly handed over to an English language fiction writer of Punjabi origin- in the presence of three (of their own) award winning authors. It made me feel disrespected as a Punjabi writer, and in my small way, i responded by changing the emphasis of their media release by choosing another photo and rearranging the text in my event information post on Uddari, and, by participating in the discussion in one of the events. I wonder if, like many others in our community, the organizers also are inwardly ashamed of Punjabi writers writing in Punjabi.

Earlier this year, when i was submitting my novella Keerru to Dhahan Prize, i asked Maqsood Saqib (Pancham and Suchet Kitab Ghar) who had published his second short story collection, if he had submitted it. His first collection, containing the story ‘Pappu’, is a tone-setter for the narrative of modern short fiction in Shahmukhi. He hadn’t; i asked him why not, and he said something like: ‘literature is not written to win prizes’, and i said, yes indeed it’s not but if a book is already written and there’s a prize then why not submit it. He did not agree. This points to another discomfort. If authors are asked to submit to the prize themselves, not only that it sets up a relationship of ‘patronage’ with the prize but it also means that works by authors such as Saqib, and now myself, will stay out of Dhahan Prize’s lists. I don’t know how in the long run, this ongoing process of ommission will serve Punjabi literature, language or culture.

This is sad, and at this rate, within the first decade of its existence, Dhahan Prize will become well known for generously rewarding mediocrity and opportunism in Punjabi literature- instead of encouraging excellence and ingenuity.

Earlier this month, my novella ‘Keerru’ was shortlisted for Dhahan Prize but I hesitate to accept it as a compliment or to take it as a credit. My work does not need to be endorsed by compromised juries working through processes marred by favoritism and personal career agendas. I would rather continue with my walk.

Photo by Hafsah Durrani

Fauzia Rafique
Surrey BC
October 18, 2020

Novella ‘Keerru’

Gurmukhi ebook

Shahmukhi : Sanjh Publications, Lahore

Urdu ebook

Novel ‘Skeena’

Shahmukhi, Gurmukhi and English Editions
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Gurmukhi edition of Fauzia Rafique’s new novel ‘KEERRU’ now available

B&W photo by Danyal Rasheed, inset painting by Shahid Mirza
cover design by Mariam Zohra d.

From the Author of Skeena- a ‘little big’ book

ebook
ISBN 9780463342541

Available Everywhere
USA & the World: US$4.50
Canada: CA$4.50
India: INR101.00
Pakistan: PKR101.00

Instant Downloads
smashwords.com/books/view/1012167

‘The story of broken families, lovers, immigrants.
Five people come together in Surrey BC to
form powerful connections with each other, and
to tell a story that has rarely been told.’

Purple Poppy Press 2020, Vancouver, Canada

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Shahmukhi edition
Paperback
ISBN 978-969-593-315-2
PKR300.00
Sanjh Publications 2019, Lahore Pakistan
sanjhpk@yahoo.com
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