Who hasn’t heard of the women-aren’t-funny cliché! Few consider them half as witty as men. Humour, of course, is not their forte, much less writing of it. The debate may go on, but evidence shows that the female of the species can be as sharp and amusing as anybody else. The fact, however, remains that women writers do face tough challenge from their male counterparts in the humour genre.
Nevertheless women writers of Hyderabad beg to differ. They have all the three requisites to success – a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone. They have not suppressed their strong desire to wield the pen, have stood up boldly against societal norms which believes a woman’s place is in the home and they have amply demonstrated their skills to tickle the funny bone. Someone who makes you laugh is a humorist. And someone who makes you think and then laugh is a witty woman.
The sinf-e-nazuk in Hyderabad have proved their mettle in the humour genre. Writers like Dr Habeeb Zia, Jeelani Bano, Dr Zeenat Sajida, Rafia Manzoorul Ameen, Naseema Turabul Hasan, and Shameem Aleem have stormed what is essentially a male domain and left their imprints. They delve into the incongruities of societal behaviour from a woman’s point of view. Interestingly, most women writers have excelled in prose than humorous poetry. As Habeeb Zia says, some women do write ‘mizahiya shayeri jise wo chapathi nahin, chupa kar rakh deti hain’.
Religious and social factors have restrained women, particularly from the Muslim community, from giving vent to their talent. Prejudices and stereotypes have also led people to make value judgement about what women can do or cannot do. A noted male writer is stated to have made an uncharitable remark when he learnt about a good number of women taking to humour writing.
The first name one comes across is that of Asif Jahan Begum. Twelve of her humorous articles were published under the title Gule Qandan in 1941. Stories like Ghaeb Damag, Buddhe Ki Zehniyat, and Mera Kamra are notable for their satire. The article Gunah Darog Bargardane is a humorous take on the quirky ways of house maids. Ultimately, the fed up inmates seek refuge in prayer. The story ends with the plea ‘Jal tu jalal tu, aayee bala ku taal tu’.
Dr Zeenat Sajida is another important name to reckon with in the humour genre. Though a writer of serious prose, she also tried her hand at ‘tanz-o-mizah’ and came out with flying colours. Even as she was doing her Master’s in Women’s College, she published her book of short stories – Jaltarang. Later, she penned Telugu Adab Ki Tareek (History of Telugu literature), and Kulyate Shahi.
An authority on Deccani literature, Dr Sajida’s short story Meri Murgian gives a peep into her humorous side. The story is all about her desire to rear chicks in the face of strong opposition from other members of the house. Her biggest opponent is her grandmother who declares that ‘murgian hamre haan pal nahin sakti, raas nahin’. Nonetheless, young Sajida decides to have the pets come what may. In typical Deccani language, she describes the problems she encountered in rearing a pair of chicken. Her troubles only double when she buys another pair. She describes the frequent skirmishes between the hens as ‘nanand bhawaj ki ladaee’. Dr Sajida’s literary prowess comes into play as she cajoles the older hen to retain her composure since she is the ‘ghar ki beti’ and in a few days ‘bahu ko aap hi samajh aajayegi’.
However, as days pass, hostility towards the pets grows in her house. Nobody would tolerate the nuisance, especially the mess created by them. One fine morning, her worst fears come true as her family slaughters the chicken and cooks murghi ka salan.
“Kabhi do daane nahin daale, ab hazam karna dekho”, she remarks at the way everyone enjoys the Chicken biryani. Suddenly, she remembers that it is a Tuesday – Agar do murgian aur mangwaloon toh (What if I get two more chickens).
Habeeb Zia is, perhaps, the finest of woman essayists. With six books, including four on humour, she figures top in the list of hilarious women writers. Goyam Mushkil Na Goyam Mushkil, Bade Ghar Ki Beti, Unnis Bees, Mazameen-e-Nau and Shad-o-Niyaz are her notable works. Short stories like Baccha Bahar Gaya Hai, Sali Raab Jamati Hai, and Hum Ne Flat Khareeda are remarkable for their fun and pun. Brevity is the soul of wit. In just two to three pages, Zia weaves comical stories based on day-to-day events.
Zia made her plunge into the humour world with her very first story Baccha Bahar Gaya Hai. Her keen sense of observation comes across in the opening lines. If you happen to visit someone’s house and see the man shuffling a pack of Dunhill cigarettes instead of Charminar, then believe for sure that “is ghar ka kam-az-kam ek baccha zaroor bahar gaya hai”. Zia refers to different gadgets she sees when she visits her acquaintance to suggest that boys from the family have landed plum jobs in foreign countries. Suddenly, her thoughts are broken by sounds of an aeroplane taking off. “Is there an airport in your home,” she asks in amazement. “Aap itna bhi nahin janteen, ye grinder hai. Bade bhai Dubai se laye hain,” the girl replies smugly.
The story takes a dig at how ‘bahar ka paisa’ changes the way people behave. Some tend to acquire the lavish traits of shaikhs and want to dump biwi like an old TV. But, the bangle sellers of Laad Bazar and Marwaris of Gulzar Houz know how to take the ‘baharwale’ for a ride.
Seeing the miracles of foreign money, Zia also wants her son to grow up fast and mint money abroad. But the 13-year old refuses and storms out of the house. Soon, there is a knock on the door. Some relatives from Saudi Arabia drop in. After a while, they ask ‘where is your boy?’ Holding her head high, Zia replies proudly, “Baccha bahar gaya hai – gilli-danda khelne.”
Padma Shri awardee, Jeelani Bano has also contributed to humour literature. A poignant storyteller, she talks about oppression of women, social injustices and hard realities of life in her novels. Not many know that she has also written stories which are in lighter vein. Her story Bekari Ke Mashgale is a case in point. It is all about how people who have nothing better to do turn out to be the reason for major inventions.
When Mumtaz Mahal parted ways and Aurangazeb imprisoned Shah Jahan, the latter decided to build Taj Mahal. Many top Bollywood stars turned to film industry when they couldn’t land any job. When unemployment and pangs of hunger took over, many a person got unnerved. Someone became a Ghalib, some Meer, some Iqbal and Hali.
Writers like Rasheed Moosvi, Layeeq Salah, Shabeena Fershori and Rasia Nayeem Hashimi are making waves with their humour stories. There is a lot of spunk and fun in their writings and, what’s more, they bring the distinct woman’s outlook in their stories.
‘Mehfil-e-Khawateen’, the literary organisation of women, has proved to be a catalyst for young writers to come to the fore. In its nearly half-a-century of existence, the Mehfil has succeeded in drawing out a huge untapped reservoir of talent among women.
The only organisation of its kind, the Mehfil’s biggest contribution is to make women Urdu writers come out of the closet. It provides them a platform to share personal experiences, stories and empower each other. Senior writers guide the newcomers, try to hone their skills and instil confidence.
As a result, many women writers have managed to create wonderful works of art that reveal their mind and lend a new perspective to the way we look at the world. They have proved that ‘women aren’t funny’ is nothing but a gender-based myth.