An email from a Pakistan based writer friend made me recall Parveen Shakir. The poem, Tomato Ketchup, written most probably in the memory of Sara Shagufta (the modernist Pakistani poet who committed suicide in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath).
I am not drawing conclusions or imagining comparisons. My writer-friend is neither suicidal nor at the end of her creativity. In fact she is brimming with optimism and energy. However, she faces the constraints and circumstances that are not uncommon. Like Sara and Parveen Shakir she has to mediate between multiple identities, struggles and conflicts. That she lives in a society that is becoming increasingly less tolerant and dominated by extremism is no help either.
Back to Parveen Shakir: she was Pakistan’s popular poet who died in a tragic car accident in 1994. After graduating she taught, then joined civil service. She was widely read and loved poet. However, she braved the difficult terrain of Pakistani womanhood and more importantly the male defined abd dominated literary world. Her success was attributed to her innate talent and use of language. The literary evaluations of her work have been mixed. The poem below explains this a little. I found here.
In our country,
A woman who writes poetry,
Is eyed as an odd fish.
Every man presumes
That in her poems
He is the issue addressed!
And since it is not so,
He becomes her foe.
In this sense,
Sara didn´t make many enemies.
She didn´t believe in giving explanations.
Before she could become the wife of a poor writer,
She had already become
The sister-in-law of the whole town.
Even the lowliest of them
Claimed to have slept with her!
All day long,
Jobless intellectuals of the city
Buzzed around her.
Even those who had jobs,
Would leave their stinking files and worn out wives
To come to her,
Leaving behind the electricity bill,
And the children´s school fees and wife´s medicine.
For these are the concerns
Of lesser mortals.
Morning through late night,
Heated discussions would take place
On literature, philosophy and current affairs.
When hunger knocked in at their empty stomachs,
Bread and boiled pulse
Would be bought collectively.
Would then demand tea
Declaring her the Amrita Preetam of Pakistan.
Sara, the gullible,
Would be very pleased with herself.
Perhaps, there were some reasons for it.
Those who were responsible for supporting her,
Always fed her on Kafka coffee
And Neruda biscuits.
Because of saliva-soaked compliments,
At least, she could have one meal,
But for how long?
She had to free herself
From the clutches of wolves.
Sara preferred to leave the jungle itself.
As long as she lived,
The connoisseurs of Art
Kept nibbling her.
In their circle,
She is still considered delicious,
But with a difference:
They no longer can take a bite of her!
After her death,
She had been elevated
To the status of Tomato Ketchup!
Translated from the Urdu by Baidar Bakht and Leslie Lavigne
And now excerpts from the email message from my friend that reminded me of this poem:
“… I have been doing a lot of soul- searching! Lets face it there’s not much else to do now!! I am so confused as usual, about my writing, which is constantly changing from language based prose-poetry writing to more story based fractured narrative. You see the problem is that I want it to be an honest reflection of life and both ways of looking at life are true. Now here I am lost again. On another note, the good thing in recent times, is that I have decided I am definitely not going to ….
So that chapter has definitely closed.
As for my writing, I got word from my poetry publisher ….who thinks my prose is “brave and lyrical”. Quite flattering and inspiring. He wants more poetry from me. I just wish some ….publisher would take a chance on my prose and publish the damn thing. You see the issue is also that I am so taken up with survival and dealing with mediocrity that I can’t give all of myself to writing and its killing me. I am longing to just sit in front of the computer and fly. I wish you knew how exhilarating it is for me Raza, I feel like I can see things move and yet I feel damned to be talented, if indeed I am at all. I wish I had none of it. It is such torture and yet I couldn’t live without it. I hope I am not depressing you. Even those who are close to me think I am half mad and underrate my writing and its obsession is a figment of my own imagination or just an inflated ego to make up for what I haven’t achieved in life.”
I am not sure what to write back. One thing is certain – I want her to retain her ‘bite’.
First published here on September 19, 2006
The image of Parveen’s Urdu poem was found here