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Friday, 9 September 2011

Zehra Nigah: In a woman's voice


Zehra Nigah is a much loved and highly respected poet in Pakistan. In India she is an eagerly awaited figure on the mushaira circuit, especially the annual Indo-Pak mushaira hosted by the DCM family. Her poetry is about the compulsions and compromises of being a woman and a poet. Amidst friends and family, she is equally well known as a raconteur par excellence and a qissa-go. She talks as she writes: with grace and poise and wry humour.

Always immaculately dressed in impeccable cotton saris, given to no adornments except a smile she chooses to bestow occasionally, she is a woman completely at peace with herself. But as she says in the much-recited, much-quoted nazm ‘Samjhauta’, the easy calm hides the many compromises that she – like all women -- has had to make:

Mulayam garm samjhaute ki chadar
Yeh chadar mein ne barson mein buni hai
Kahin bhi sach ke gul boote nahi hai
Kissi bhi jhooth ka taanka nahin hai
Issi se main bhi tan dhak loongi apna
Issi se tum bhi aasooda rahoge
Na khush hoge, na pashmanda hoge

Warm and soft, this blanket
Of compromise has taken me years to weave
Not a single flower of truth embellishes it
Not a single false stitch betrays it
It will do to cover my body though
And it will bring comfort too,
If not joy, nor sadness to you

Is she a writer of feminine poetry or a feminist poet? I ask. She counters by saying she does not subscribe to tags and dislikes compartmentalisation of any sort. She views the world around her through the eyes of a woman, yes, but her concerns are not those of a woman alone. She speaks in a woman's tongue, using feminine imagery and idiom to make powerful social and political comments. She has alluded to the bitter fratricidal war that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh as well as the heart-rending situation in Afghanistan in lyrical, pathos-driven yet politically astute poems such as ‘Bhejo Nabi ji Rehmatein’ and ‘Qissa Gul Badshah’. She has written of the repressive Hudood Ordinances introduced during General Zia's oppressive regime as also about love, friendship and small everyday joys and sorrows. A recent poem about female foeticide was occasioned by the brutal statistics on the sheer numbers of the girl child put to death before they have the chance to live.

Ask her how the structure of her imagery-laden poems evolves and she says anything around her can "trigger the creative process". For instance, ‘Bhejo Nabi ji Rehmatein’ is a brutal poem about rape, yet it employs everyday images of tranquil domesticity — a woman teaching her pet parrot to invoke the Prophet’s blessings, the chapati on the tawa, the infant rocking in its cradle. A shrill newspaper headline about the rape of countless women by marauding West Pakistani forces resulted in this chilling poem, its seeming gentleness more powerful than any diatribe on the atrocities committed on women in the guise of politics. Similarly, a TV report on the use of landmines in Afghanistan resulted in the ballad of Gul Badshah, a child soldier in a war that the adults around him have long ceased to comprehend, a war that has maimed and mutilated countless boy soldiers too young to understand the ‘cause’ they are fighting for.

Zehra Nigah appeared on the literary horizon as a child prodigy in the 1950s and has consistently been hailed as the one voice worth listening to in the Babel of the mushaira circuit. When she began to make a mark as a poet in the 1950s and 60s, women poets were a rarity. Women from respectable families were not encouraged to come on stage to recite their poetry let alone express themselves with any degree of sensuousness. So, she hid her femininity behind demureness, read her poems with eyes downcast and scuttled back to the safe haven of domesticity. But the sheer lyricism of her words, the engaging simplicity of her poetic idiom and the sharp insightful comments couched therein built a formidable reputation and amassed a legion of admirers, not to mention the felicity of her tarranum! To this day, a hush invariably descends at noisome mushairas when she stands up to recite her poetry.

Despite early critical and popular acclaim, she has only three slim published volumes of poetry: Shaam ka Pehla Taara, Waraq, and Firaq. She says she has never felt the urge to be prolific, to write when there is nothing to say. Yet every word that emerges from her pen, every syllable that she speaks, carries the spark of a luminous intelligence. Given her command over idiomatic Urdu and her very idiosyncratic sentence constructions – seemingly simple yet syntactically convoluted, she presents many challenges for the translator. What follows are rough drafts from a planned volume of translations. It is to be hoped the reader will see them for what they are: a work in progress and a pale imitation of the original.

  1. Ant
Someone would fling a morsel before me
That is how I crawled through life for countless mornings and evenings

I would carry those morsels on my frail body
And, creeping and crawling, return to my hole

Till, one day, the sun made me realise:
If you want you can bring strength into these legs

And the winds, too, stopped to whisper:
Come out of your hole, look at the world

I was scared of standing on my own
I tottered and fell, got up and swayed unsteadily

Till, suddenly, someone came to steady me

Earlier, my breast would hug the ground

Now, my head rests against someone’s shoulder

  1. Sheherzade in London

I met the Sheherzade of Baghdad
In a teahouse in London
She had changed beyond recognition
Relying upon the commonality of religion
Holding on to tradition
I asked her with affection:
‘Do you remember your art --
The art of telling stories
The art that could bring life to lifeless hearts
The art that gave new life to someone every evening?’

Sheherzad was quiet for a while
And then she said:
‘Like the rest of the world, you too don’t know;
Meetings have been suspended in the city of Baghdad
Like people, words too are dead
And my art
Is dependent upon meetings, upon words
Following my ancestors
Walking the path of hijrat, I came here
The city of London is a benevolent city
Morning and evening, newly-descended caliphs come here
Travelling with the change in the seasons
Like birds
They call me
They listen to new stories from every fibre of my being
And then they go back.’

  1. Stop

It is as though someone has said, ‘Stop’, and halted the river of time
It is only now that I have fully understood the magical properties of this word
Each and every moment, flowing in its own orderly row, seems to have stopped
All my friends and all my enemies gaze at me, as though turned to stone
How strange it seems
Even though, from the day this benighted city was built
I have been scared of such a thing

  1. The Story of Eve

I did not urge you to eat the apple
Nor was that grain of wheat grown on my palm
And the serpent was no friend of mine

If I had a friend, it was you
If I liked someone, it was you

  1. Dildar Begum is Buried Here

An unknown fear
Was imbued in her
From the day she was born

The fear of a dark chamber
Was steeped in every pore
The terror of falling from a height
Had been dogging every footstep

The habit of hiding behind the lee of a door
Had been her earliest wish
To watch the spectacle in the streets from behind shuttered windows
Had been the first aspiration of her life

As time passed
And the skeins of her brain awakened her body
The spectre of safe-keeping grew so terrifying
That she became ashamed of her body

Soon, a little curiosity fluttered through the world of buyers
The sound of a beating heart was muffled
Adorned with the ornaments of fear
Weighed under the countless flowers of hesitancy
The buyers imprisoned her once again into a dark chamber
The same chamber that had terrified her since her childhood

Some semblance of awareness came
As youth passed and the curtains before her eyes parted
To reveal the spectacle of the world
Her feet moved towards the threshold
She had barely set one foot forward when tiny hands appeared, like manacles
Now she stands on a road that is said to be the path of death
The spectacles of the world do not stay fixed in in her glazed eyes
Now her feet do not move towards any threshold
The tiny hands have become so big
That they have long since left her palms
Now she is a captive of her own chains

Her dark chamber carries the following inscription:
‘Dildar Begum is buried here.
That pure, pious, patient and praise-giving woman sleeps here
Strange men are forbidden to come close by
Those who wish to offer prayers
May do so from a distance.’

(Rakhshanda Jalil is translating a collection of nazms by Zehra Nigah. This article was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on 9 September 2011.)

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article Rakhshanda - really enjoyed it and the poems are so well translated.
    Sheema Kermani