By Naseer Ahmad
Dubbed by critics as the ‘First lady’ of Pashto literature, Zaitoon Bano donated hundreds of books, collected by her and poet husband Taj Saeed over the decades, to a library in 2005. Whereas it was a goodwill gesture towards booklovers who shared the couple’s interests, it was also a signal that her own interest in reading and writing was waning.
Bano began writing with a satirical poem when she was in Class IV. In the versified piece she mocked a poet who had recited a poem at her school’s annual function describing his pride in being a traditional Pathan though he wore western dress, carried a fashionable stick and had no turban, no moustache. Her first collection of short stories and plays was published when she was in Class X. The book was followed by a steady stream of both prose and poetry, unmatched among her contemporary women writers. She continued writing with her jobs either as a teacher or a radio broadcaster.
She gives credit to the late Taj Saeed for much of her literary achievements. “I brush aside most ideas when they assail my mind now. I believe I’ve already written enough. Earlier, I discussed the plots of my stories with Taj and he often not only appreciated them but also patted me on till I finished a project,” she says in an interview with Dawn.
“My handwriting is very bad. I believe all great people have a bad hand,” she laughs. “So, Taj often copied my writings to make them legible and acceptable for publication by various literary magazines.” Beginning with Handara, or a mirror, Bano has more than a dozen published titles of short stories and TV and radio plays, both in Pashto and Urdu, to her credit. The scripts she wrote for radio as a producer were innumerable. She was the first woman producer of Radio Pakistan.
Her poetry collection is titled Manjeela, a round cushion with a hole for carrying a pitcher or other burden on the head, is apparently her last book as it was published in 2006. Although romanticism is the main theme of her poetry, she frequently discusses problems faced by the people.
When Bano created bold scenes in her stories, critics said she was aping Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. But she rejects the allegation, saying: “I write about people, not about animals. What’s happening in society is mirrored in my writings. I created such a scene only when it was the demand of the story. ”
Answering a question, she says she is unhappy over the hurdles being created in the way of girls’ education in parts of the NWFP. “Girls’ education is as important, if not more, as boys’,” she says. “Educated mothers alone can groom children into decent humans.” But on the Taliban issue, she says: “The Taliban’s is a political matter. I neither oppose them nor support them. In fact, I never bother to think about them.”
She recalls that she crossed no fewer hurdles in the way of her education. “I was in class II when I was first taken off school as I had to walk about two miles daily on either way. My family shifted to the city as my father worked at Islamia college and I resumed my schooling. I was in class IV when my parents were shamed by relatives that I sat among boys and was being taught by men. My parents had no option but to discontinue my studies once again. However, I was lucky enough that the next year I got admission to a girls’ mission school.”
Her father, Pir Sultan Mehmood, was a writer and poet. But he did not encourage her in her literary pursuits. So she wrote under various pseudonyms such as Razia Khanum, Surayya Bukhari, Shahnaz Khalila, etc. “My father, who had no inkling of the publication of the book, was taken aback when I asked him to collect the royalty for the book from Khaleeq sahib. He gingerly remarked that ‘Bano, I wanted to see you as a doctor, but you have become a fiction writer’. He, however, went, signed the paper with the publisher, but did not receive the money, Rs250, which was later sent in by the publisher.”
Bano is not the ‘first’ lady of Pashto literature in chronological order. A few other names also made admirable contributions to enrich Pashto literature. But both the quantity and quality of her works — fiction, plays, poetry — make her stand tall at least among women in Pashto literature.
Born on June 18, 1938 at Safaid Dheri, a village near Peshawar, she quit college on doctor’s advice when she was in first year and suffered an angina attack. She did her intermediate and later BEd as a private candidate. Later, she did her masters in Pashto and Urdu.
Her first job was as a schoolteacher that ended with her marriage. Her later jobs included that of a school principal, producer of Peshawar radio station (where she not only wrote numerous features and plays but also performed as a vocalist) and a magazine editor. All her jobs ended prematurely, which she blames on men’s intolerance of women’s superiority.
Her books are part of curriculums in universities and colleges. Her honours include the Pride of Performance and Hijra awards.
Zaitoon Bano’s Pashto books are: Handara (mirror), Maat bangari (shattered bangles), Jawandi ghamoona (living worries), Kachkol (begging bowl), Khubuna (dreams), Naizawaray (flotsam), Zama (my) diary and Manjeela (head cushion). Her Urdu books include: Berg-i-Aarzoo (a novelette) and Bargad ka saya (a collection of short stories).
Answering a question, she says although there were limited means of communications in her younger days, rumours travelled as fast as today’s SMS text messages. To illustrate her point, she narrates an incident: “When I got a schoolteacher’s job, my first posting was in the village of Thana, police station in translation. When a woman relative staying the night at our place couldn’t find me, she became suspicious. She thought it safe to ask my four-year-old niece about my whereabouts. The baby said I was in Thana. That set off an avalanche of rumours and whispers that swept the family, friends and beyond. Although it finally transpired that I had committed no crime to land into a police station, the malicious gossip cost me my job. My mother called me back from the school as she could no longer withstand the unfounded allegations.”
BanoÂ’s grandfather, Syed Abdul Quddoos, also was a poet. His penname was Tandar, or lightning. When he took over the editorship of Angar (embers) newspaper from Wali Mohamm Toofan (storm), he wrote a memorable couplet: The Storm is over and the Embers are now being looked after by Lightning.
Educated mothers alone can raise decent humans– Zaitoon Bano
By Naseer Ahmad