Poetry, again

A convalescent week thanks to a freak accident at home afforded the luxury of catching up on reading that I’ve been putting off for a long time. I’m well now, but in memory of this glorious week in bed I’m blogging about something I read: Jameela Nishat’s poems translated by a colleague.*

Writing of Jameela’s poetry in their canonical anthology of women’s writing, Tharu and Lalita say: “Most of her poetry is written in Dakkani, a form of Urdu commonly spoken in and around Hyderabad but looked down upon in literary circles, where the norm is the Urdu of Lucknow or Aligarh.” Disagreeing with this, my colleague says in his preface: “And no, she does not write in Dakkani as a recent anthology of women’s writing erroneously states. She writes as she speaks, she writes as she feels, she writes as she dreams. Her vocabulary is the vocabulary of the household, of the Indian woman, whether Muslim or Hindu; her imagery is that of blood, birth, broken pitcher, desert, caravan, a search for water, a movement away from sterile poetry into the dirt and detritus of our shattered lives, broken loves and unfinished dreams.”

But aren’t they saying the same thing, in a sense? Because the relationship between women’s and men’s poetry is somewhat analogous to that between Dakkani and Urdu: the standard versus the colloquial, the lofty versus the quotidian, the world versus the hearth.

I admit that I always seek l’ecriture feminine in women’s poetry, but I wonder if there can really be a feminine sensibility that is completely devoid of the male? If, for instance, I wanted to write about something central to the life of an ordinary Indian woman, like the kitchen, would I be able to banish the male presence from it? A point made most ingeniously by the Telugu poet Vimala:

My mother was queen of the kitchen,
but the name engraved on the pots and pans
is Father’s.

(From Vantillu (The Kitchen) by Vimala. Trans. BVL Narayana Row)

Perhaps the finest women’s poetry will strive to tease out such subtexts in supposedly female spaces. And Jameela’s poetry does not disappoint either, specially in its use of “vocabulary of the household”.

Consider this:

Kabhi mailé alfaaz ka dhêr
Kamron ke koné mein jama hô jate hai
Kabhi us kamré ka chehra
Saaf shafaaf ban jata hai
Jaise kisi ne istree kiya hô
Chheent ki saree
uska sparsh ban jati hai
har cheez yun hi
kuch na kuch ban jati hai

Sometimes a heap of soiled words
                       gathers in a corner of the room
Sometimes the face of the room looks clean and smooth
                      as if someone had ironed it
My chintz saree feels like somebody’s touch
Everything turns into something or other

Or this:

Paintees zindagiyan
aur paanch ungliyan
meri mutthi mein
thame hue hain
Gobi aalu baigan
Machhli murgh murghan
Jeevan ka ghee
jane kaise tapak raha hai

. . . .

Jasbat ka ghee
Unglyon se meri
kagaz par tapak raha hai
quewate khatoon
kagaz ke ragon mein phaile

Thirty-five years of living
with only five fingers to help out
with my closed fist
I have confined all time and space
Cabbage potato eggplant
Fish chicken a chicken feast
All life’s luxury drips like ghee
                  From my cook’s fingers
. . . .

Feelings slide like butter
Off my fingers
To stain this page
This sheet’s every fiber
Strengthened with the strength of woman

A minor quibble I have with the collection is that the translation doesn’t always convey the cadence of the original.  The blurb claims that the translation is in contemporary idiom. Okay, still . . . While I’m no expert on Indian translation, I do know that there are raging debates between those for whom translation is re-creation (the translated piece being a work of art in its own right) and those who believe in preserving the flavour of the original, even if it means taking awkward liberties with the language of translation. I’m conveniently going to fence-sit on this one; however, there is one poem in the collection where I think the translation captures the taut essence of the original. Of course, this piece probably also struck a chord with me because I recently lost someone very dear . . .

(This was written on her father’s death.)

Main ek ehsaas hoon
mujhe mehsoos karo
lafzon lakeeron mein
na jakdo mujhko
Yun hi rangon mein, shabihon mein
Na dhalo mujh ko
Main ek ehsaas hoon
Bas mujhe mehsoos karo
Dil ke aaine mein
Ek bar mujhe dekh to lo
Ghaas ki mizgaan par
Mujhe aasuon ko chuu lene do
Koi rang na do
Gam ki aahat ko
Koi roop na do
Dard ki cheekh ko
Benaam hi rehne do
Waqt ki sail mein
Ek mauj hoon
Ek aahat hoon suno
Bas mujhe mehsoos karo

I am an emotion
Feel me
Do not imprison me
In lines/in words
Do not cast me
In shape or colours
I’m an emotion/Feel me
See me but once
In your heart’s mirror
Let me touch
The frozen tear on the grass’
Let the fallen flower
Remain colourless
Do not colour that
Let sadness come on soft feet
Give it no shape
And let the pained shriek remain nameless
I’m a wave on Time’s waters
I’m a footfall
Hear me/Feel me

* my life-giving Ganges. Poems of Jameela Nishat. Translated by Hoshang Merchant.  (Sahitya Akademi, 2008)



  1. Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =)THANX FOR


    Let me share with you a great resource,

    Urdu Rasala

    if you are searching for Some Great urdu literature Online And want to read Great urdu novels And poetry on one place then

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  2. @ Urdu Lovers:
    Thank you. Unfortunately your resource is inaccessible to me because I cannot read urdu. I depend on people who strive to promote and preserve Dakkani culture, like Hoshang Merchant.

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