Though very short at only 110 pages, Fahmida Riaz’s Godavari is a dense book that packs a lot in, wasting few words. The story is told from Ma’s perspective, and recounts her family’s holiday at a hill station in Maharashtra, somewhat reminiscent of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, or the Wayanad region of Kerala. The family is Pakistani, having moved to India some time before, a fact that would always cause problems in India, but is particularly worrisome at the time being recounted in the novel, as their holiday coincides with an outbreak of communal violence in Bombay. On one level, Godavari is about Indian Hindu-Muslim relations, told through the personal perspective of a single family. On another, it is about adivasi politics and the Hindu right wing’s cooptation of tribal peoples into the Hindutva fold. And yet on another level, Godavari is an intimate story of a wife’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s flirtations with the hired help.
The complexity of the politics and relationships in Godavari is one of its strengths, and what Riaz manages to communicate through very select language and imagery is impressive. However, some of it could have done with a bit more fleshing out. I felt that I didn’t get to know many of the characters very well as they were being used so sparsely and symbolically.
I was drawn to Godavari out of curiosity over how a Pakistani writer would depict Indian communal tensions. Riaz was born in 1946 in undivided India, but is an Urdu-language Pakistani writer. On the whole, the critical perspectives on Hindutva (the Shiv Sena is singled out here, as the novel is based in Maharashtra) were not so very different from how many Indian writers, particularly female writers, treat the topic. I found though that there was a bit more explanation of things, such as regional political movements, that may have been taken for granted by an Indian author writing for Indian readers. The audience for Riaz’s Urdu book would be mostly Pakistani, and while I’m sure educated Pakistanis have the same knowledge of Hindu-Muslim problems in South Asia as Indians, they may not be so aware of the regional Indian politics.
I particularly like the description of the chaos caused to the postal system when the decision was first made to officially change Bombay’s name to Mumbai. The change is usually discussed either on political terms (it was an imposition of the right-wing Marathi chauvinism of the Shiv Sena) or in linguistic ones (it is more “natural” to call the city Mumbai when speaking in Marathi, Bombay when in English). I had never read a comedic (albeit wry) account through the lens of practicality:
“In the end the government decided to really implement the law and used the postal department for this purpose. Therefore a notification was issued that in future only the mail which said Mumbai and not Bombay would be delivered.
With this notification the postal system of Bombay was badly disrupted. This grand commercial and industrial centre of Asia received thousands of letters and parcels every day from abroad. When the error was realized in two days the notification was withdrawn. In its place a relatively softer injunction was issued that let Bombay be accepted when written in English, but in Hindi only Mumbai was acceptable.
But this law could not be implemented. The government of Maharashtra could not enforce its laws in other Indian states, and could not force citizens of other states, for example, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan, to write or say Mumbai instead of Bombay. And the governments of other states did not show even an iota of interest in this Maharashtra government law.” (p. 102)
An interesting article by Fahmida Riaz recently appeared in the Pakistani English-language news outlet Dawn, an article called “This too is Pakistani Fiction“. In this, Riaz discusses how though she has been writing since 1967, she has been overlooked by Pakistani literary critics of Urdu literature. But this article is not just a whinge about not receiving enough praise herself. Riaz also laments that much progressive Urdu literature has been overlooked by literary critics, and this is surely a problem for a country and a culture that seems to take so much pride in their literary prowess.