"My advice to Taslima Nasreen is to be brave," says Urdu poetess Fehmida Riaz, who spent over six years in exile in India between 1981 and 1987. Riaz recalls this time in India as "the best of times and the worst of times."
Riaz made the move to India after Pakistan's then military ruler Zia-ul-Haq tightened the screws on poets and writers who protested against his regime. But there were many in Pakistan and some in India who opposed her move and were critical of her.
Without drawing parallels with Taslima Nasreen, Riaz said that writers were a sensitive lot who needed the support of people and not governments. "It makes a change if people reach out and hold our hand when we need support and help. After all, we are also humans," she commented.
Talking to Hindustan Times from her home in Karachi, Riaz said that the hospitality accorded by her hosts made her stay memorable. "But home is home and I was always looking forward to coming back to Pakistan."
Riaz now works for a publishing house in Karachi. Recently, she lost her son in a swimming accident in the United States. "When I think of India, I think of my children who spent their early years there. For me, India is also home."
In her comments on the Taslima Nasreen issue, she said it is not easy for writers or poets to let go off their roots and stay in a foreign land. "But India for me was not foreign and that is why the pain of displacement was remarkably less."
She said that it was the Indian intelligentsia who were her real hosts. "Mrs Gandhi was unsure on whether to let me stay or not since she did not want to spoil relations with General Zia and the Pakistan government."
Riaz was born on July 28, 1946 in a literary family of Meerut, UP, India. Her father, Riaz-ud-Din Ahmed, was an educationist, who helped set up a modern education system for Sindh. Riaz says that she has gotten great strength from the fact that she learnt Sindhi language was able to establish roots in the province.
The poetess says she finds it painful that people in South Asia want to brand people according to their religion, their belief of their ethnicity. "Why can't I be a Pakistani and yet feel for India?" she asks. She says that the fear of being branded makes many South Asians compromise on their identity.
She gave the example of the Sindhi Hindus who migrated to India after partition. "Written Sindhi is in Arabic script and many Sindhi Hindus were worried about being considered Muslim because of their script," comments Riaz said, adding, "I find this all very sad."
Fehmida remained part of a group of progressive writers who included amongst others noted writer and poet Jaun Eliya. She was involved in student politics in her days at Sindh University. Owing to her student union activities, she left for England in the days of another military general, Ayub Khan.
Her first poem was published in "Funoon" of Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, when she was 15. Her first collection of poetry appeared when she was 22. Two of her famous works include "Pathar ki Zaban" and "Khatt-e Marmuz." Some consider her work to be controversial. Others say it is somewhat unorthodox.
Riaz says that writers have to face criticism throughout their lives. That is the price they pay for their work. But it is not a decision they can make, she says, adding that writers and poets can only speak their hearts and minds.