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Review of Punjabi Novel “ Skeena ” by Fauzia Rafique – Roop Dhillon



Every so often an important novel is written, enriching the canon of Literature of Punjabi. Skeena , a novel by Fauzia Rafique is one of those. initially released in Pakistan, available only in Shahmukhi script. It was released in 9 cities there, and was a resounding success. This is of course very positive for Punjabi, a language neglected on it’s home ground, especially in Pakistan, and positive for Fauzia Rafique, for her novel does not pull any punches, nor does Skeena shy away from often taboo themes in Islamic society, and indeed all Punjabi communities. To place it in a genre, one could call it Feminist Literature. That in itself is amazing, as it has gained kudos in Pakistan , considering the environment there since Zia, and definitely since 9/11. The book was released last month in Canada both in the Gurmukhi transcript ( The version I have read) and translated in English. I think indeed it should be translated into French and Spanish as well.


Skeena ,  is a journey of a smart girl, who questions everything. We meet her at the age of seven, and the story then takes us to young adulthood, into the Pakistan of General Zia, to Canada , and a forced marriage with a complete stranger to finally finding love with the last person she expected under the Sun amongst the Blueberry fields of BC. This is no Hollywood saccharine filled story, or Bollywood fake fantasy, or despite what I have said stereotypical, east is worst and west is best plot. Skeena is the stark and true experience typical of many a Punjabi woman, in this case bought up in Islamic Culture, but it can so easily apply to those women bought up in Sikh or Hindu culture as well. What is the common factor? Punjabi attitudes.


Reading Skeena, bought up many issues for me, general themes and points significant to the state of Punjabi Literature today. I think it needs to be examined in the context of these issues.


Techniques in how to write prose have moved on a lot in the last 100 years. The other factor that has moved on is the subject matter and how honestly it is dealt with. What may have seemed great in Russian and English literature ( other than Urdu and Hindi, the greatest influencers on Punjabi language in the last 100 years) in Victorian times, and pre-partition India / Pakistan is now stale, boring and irrelevant. There has been a malaise in Punjabi literature, confounded, I think by the following factors.


1)      Male domination in writing

2)      Religious domination, but often the incorrect interpretation of the faith

3)      Sycophantic behaviour of the established writers

4)      Greedy Printer Publishers

5)      Political strangulation of the artist

6)      The public itself not reading

7)      Writers life experience only restricted to the village

8)      Conservative values


All of the above are shattered in Skeena , if not by the protagonist, certainly Rafique’s writing.


It is a well know fact that society is judged culturally by two yardsticks. Its religious beliefs and it’s art. Punjabi society puts little value on the latter, though it then bemoans why it’s language and rituals are being lost by the young, especially those in the Diaspora. Russian society, English society, Spanish society, taking three examples, puts great emphasise on language and literature. The English worship Shakespeare, to the extent one thinks no one anywhere in the world or in any other language can write like him. Obviously a false premise, but one that shows how important literature is, to reflect societies wants, truths and desires ( as Skeena does). The Russians treat their writers like demi-gods. What is more interesting is that in all of these societies, the greatest readers are the women. Not the men. So clearly to ensure that one’s literature is relevant and well read, one can not ignore women. Yet, Punjabi has done so, never giving women writers ( Amrita Preetum is the one true exception) a voice. Worse, the men do not have a clue what it is the women want to read or what experiences they need to read to fulfil their spiritual needs. This failure means that Punjabi writers can never be read that widely, and how can any man really capture what has happened to a woman that well? Feminist literature is a necessity in Punjabi, a voice as important as the Dalit’s.


There are positive points in faith. Islam brings unity, encourages belief in one God. Hinduism brings order and Sikhism has placed all men of all faith equal, and more importantly, women at the same level. The failure has come in interpreting these faiths, or ignoring the real messages, or using them to suppress weak members of society. In Sikhism, it is clear, man and woman, apart from the obvious physical differences, are equal in rights. Yet in practise Punjabi culture dominates, placing women as chattels. This is even worse,  when viewed through caste, as in Hinduism, and if ones takes Skeena ’s word for it, much worse in her society. Conservative values such as this often clash with the democratic soul of art. Punjabi literature will not truly shine again, until such conservative views are challenged, without the fear of a Fatwa. In fact, all the latter achieves is “ Apnay pairaan vich kuhari marni”. The proof of this is seen in the way Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was treated, and Behsti, the play in Birmingham . We have all forgotten what made Punjabi literature fantastic. Guru Nanak Ji was a rebel, and all of his poems and writings in the Adi Granth are a direct assault on the established attitudes of organised religion, not God. The same is completely true of all Sufi literature. Yet if one was to do that now, the extremists will come falling down like bricks on you, a fact so highlighted when all that Skeena wanted to do in Zia’s Pakistan is visit a few Sufi Melas.


I found Rafique’s writing here brave and fresh. I have been constantly told what Punjabi people will take or not take, and not to write certain things. I was told off for using the word naked, to describe a woman. I was told I could not show love between two women, by one publisher ( it was not pornographic, yet despite him saying Punjabi readers were not ready,  I put it on a blog, and have had so far 3,000 hits) or that I could not depict incest, because it was wrong. Subjects that I know cover reality, and subjects that I know English Literature has dealt with for decades. So I sanitised much of my writing. Guess what, Rafique has not. Skeena openly shows two lesbian couples, one Pakistani. Skeena openly describes masturbation, has swearing, and deals with reality. Has it made it a bad novel, has it made it into some porno? No, it has helped match it with the best of European and Oriental Literature. This is grown up stuff, and much needed. The new generation of Punjabi reader is much more savvy, and is bored of reading about village life and Z-TV style bickering over land, between jatani and durani et cetra. That is why no one reads Punjabi anymore. So considering that most Punjabi Literature nowadays is written by Sikhs in Gurmukhi, to find a blunt and in your face novel coming from a Pakistani woman, is not only refreshing, but makes one wonder how many gems across the border are there?


Navel gazing by the established writers is strangling voices like Rafique’s. We need to ignore these dinosaurs, who will be dead soon, and read and write more novels like Skeena , to kick start Punjabi again. I think my last few points are obvious, and I don’t directly need to go into them, but rather they will come apparent as we cast our eye back on Skeena stylewise and plotwise.


The style of Skeena is completely different from anything else I have read in Punjabi, to date. It is much easier to follow, despite it’s local accent ( I have to admit, there were a number of words used that were unknown to me, which I assume are unique to the area Skeena comes from, for example Vahna, instead of Vekhna, and Aouna instead of Puchna), as the construction of the sentences is such, one can follow what is happening or deduce it, when one is unfamiliar with words. It was actually clearer and easier to read than most Indian produced Punjabi, as it was not littered with Urdu and Hindi words ( unless the character spoke in these languages). This made it very friendly for the Diaspora Punjabi student, compared to many other books.


The structure of the sentence, although pure Punjabi, felt familiar, and I could not tell at times whether I was reading a book in English or Punjabi, due to the way it was written. Metaphors and similes were used in the same way that English applies them. Again this makes the book a good choice for a Punjabi student from the west. The breaking up of the novel in four parts was inspirational. Quite often it felt like I was watching a film, rather than reading a book. All this helped. In Media Res, repetition and back story were often used as well. Again this worked very well. The language was of a classy high level, despite the foul words emitting from some characters’ mouths’. In conclusion the writing style placed this book at an international level. You never felt the writer was semi literate and only exposed to the locale of the village, as is often the case with most Punjabi writers. She understands the world of the village, where Skeena’s Bha was head honcho, she understands the City, in this case Zia’s Lahore . She understands Canada ( although poor Skeena does not). On reflection, this may be the greatest Pakistani Punjabi novel written in the noughties.


The plot follows a girl who is not afraid to question the irrational going on around her. I don’t want to give too many plot details away. But in summary, we have a seven year old girl who questions the treatment of servants, even when they are polite. Skeena is taught to say please, but scolded when she applies this to the household help. Skeena does not shy away from questioning the illogical nature of Wahabbi Islam as imposed in Pakistani society from Bhutto’s time right up to now. Especially on the treatment of women. What is more confusing for her is when Gamu, a servant less than a few years older than her ( she is depicted as seven) beats his wife up, her mother has him flogged, but in other cases it is suggested he has the right to do so, as the woman ( as I understood from this novel) is there to obey the man. She witnesses the same servant drunk with her brother questioning the local Mullah on this point of faith. Dissatisfied they force alcohol down the man’s throat. But empathy does not last too long for this man, as he falsely accuses a young woman walking at night on an older Skeena’s behest, with a young man, of having sexual relations and gets the whole brainless village to stone them.


Skeena wants to be a Lawyer but is told that good Muslim woman do not enter the man’s domain, strangely by the very mother that protected Gamu’s wife. She is forced to ignore any academic ambition once in bloom, compared to when she was a child. Gamu left an indelible mark on her, but ran away as in drunkenness he killed a woman he mistook for his wife. This is very relevant later in the story. Annoyed Skeena goes with a friend Rafu to a Pakistani People’s Party meeting. This event is to prove fateful. Not only is she then forced to remain in the village, having bought shame upon the family by being arrested, but is made to marry a man she does not know, over the phone in Canada . Skeena keeps a scrapbook, which highlights all her feelings and the people she looks up to, including leftist types, and those that some societies may interpretate as Muslim Terrorists. Fatally she takes this book abroad with her, to recall her life in Pakistan .


It is in Canada , life becomes worse rather than better. She escapes Zia’s Pakistan, to find herself married to a Doctor who does not love her, has her ( unknown to her) as one of many wives, and despite his middleclass appearance reminds one of the Maori husband in Once Were Warriors, on a good day. Worse she is kept housebound for a whole decade. Life becomes even more unbearable, as she is barren and  has the worst mother in law one can imagine. Do her family in Pakistan help? No, as Behsti and Iszat are higher values than her daily life. And so is set the scene for how an educated Punjabi Muslim girl must face the world, surrounded by morons ( who misname her the same!) until one violent night circumstances lead her to be able to break the yolk, and find herself in the arms of a Sikh lover, who unlike all the other men in her life, treats women with respect, and kindness. One would think she has found a beautiful conclusion but the plot thickens, and her life is made unbearable again, after two planes are flown into twin towers by Arabs one fateful autumn day.


Her new society can not distinguish between her background and that of the Arabs. All Muslims are stained with the same brush, in the great democracies of North America . Even her Sikh lover Iqbal can not escape the image Osama Bin Laden has conjured up in the collective Canadian mind. All brown folk look alike don’t you know. This is where the diary she keeps, with clippings of genuine freedom fighters in it, proves fateful. After all in Freedom of speech America , what is an educated person doing, expanding their mind with reading Carl Marx, or empathising with the Palestinians? Why is a Muslim woman involved with a Sikh? Surely a middle age Pakistani woman must be a the centre of Al Qaeda?


Having spent the first part of her life fighting the unfair aspects of Islam and Punjabi culture, she is now forced to justify the same, and being from that culture becomes the crime.


This is the background, in sketch, of the novel. I would heartily recommend reading it, if you want to flesh all this out and to see if she copes with it, and how.


The flaws are minimum. Plotwise the Gamu story threw me off a little and I was confused with how, when sleeping with a non Muslim, she did not notice the obvious physical difference that should be there.  I spoke to Fauzia about this, and she told me “This was to show her naivety, a characteristic reared in young women through their upbringing where sexual aspects of life are never discussed, keeping them as ‘ sitting ducks’, ignorance being synonymous with innocence”. So she was a naïve woman, who had only known Ihtsham’s body, and knew not. What am I talking about? Well I am going to keep this vague, because it is something I hope intelligent students who perhaps one day may study this book in high school will spot. Maybe not, as in the 6 years of it’s publication Fauzia tells me I am the only one who has spotted this obvious point.


Perhaps it is the obvious testimony to Skeena ’s naivety. This is a tragic character, the modern Puro, an educated Punjabi Pakistani Muslim woman, who was never given a choice in the direction of her life. The sad thing is, it was not always the men, but the woman, one so close to her, who failed to assist her, or how can I say this? Jankay is haal vich ous nu pahiya. It brings to mind, what Debi Maksoospuri once sang, “ Aurat aurat naal vair karma kio nahi chaddi?”.


This is a must read, with a very realistic plot, and honest perspectives on Islam, those against it, woman, how Punjabis treat them, and how as a country Pakistan went from Jinnah’s vision to the mire it is today; how the west went from being friends to anti-Islamic. But this is just the canvas.


The detail is much more interesting. The unity between Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs, in a strange land. The help from women, even from different cultural backgrounds. The fall from grace of a man, and then how he turns his ways around. The desire for a man you love, whose name you do not even know, and not having the choice to choose your path.


The failure of Punjabi culture, even today, towards women. In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa, which was less about the 5 K’s and actually all about democracy and equality. One that definitely extended to women, way before the suffogete movement gained equality in the west. Yet our people have failed to apply this is practise, especially for our women. As this is a Pakistani novel as well as Punjabi one, let’s move away from the Sikh perspective. The ideals of Sufisism are also there…yet we fail to apply that love, the basis fro Punjabi literature as well.


Skeena ’s mother failed her, when she did not allow her to go to see the Sufi’s dancing and singing at their festival, a couple of blocks away. Look at how what Skeena then did changed her life forever. The Sufi’s were described by Maa Ji as unislamic.




In the same way we are failing a thousand Skeenas today. A thousand Sukhinders. A thousand Seemas.  How can you come to any other conclusion, after reading this gem? It must feature on all University reading lists for Punjabi.