On Pakistani Women Poets (and my friend’s predicament)

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.

Tomato Ketchup
Perveen Shakir

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.
Great thinkers,
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

Published in: on September 20, 2006 at 4:55 pm  Comments (25)  

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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. oh man i haven’t read ms. shakir in so long

    that was awesome, thank you

    if you want to exchange blogroll links pls add me and leave me a msg here and i will add u back


  2. Raza:

    tell your friend she is not a “odd fish”

    she comes from a long line of poets mislabeled as rebels….in urdu fatima hasan, kishwar naheed, the two you mentioned and the doyen of them fehmida riaz

    while some may not truly understand what life is for a thinking women and writer in pakistan poets (and writers) have taken on the system successfully

    tell her to continue to write

    each word, each letter put to paper is a small victory

  3. Very nice post . I have not read so much of P. shakir but my friends were used to read her poetry alot. But i was shocked that why did she suicide. If you know please let me know.
    have a nice day

  4. Jugnoo, P. Shakir died in a road accident. it was Sara Shagufta who committed suicide in the early 1980s.
    thanks for liking the poem and the post.

  5. thanks for ur comment, and ur advise iwll try to write details about the picture,,

  6. Thanks Raza, for the whole information. Thanks for posting such great post 😀

  7. hello
    i like parveen shakeer”s poetry and her eyes and her thinking i really missing her too much i will remember her always in my prayers


  8. Hello
    she was really too great poetess i like her poetry.She will be remember always ..

    Nadir magsi

  9. Kia yad kara dita Raza aap ne. Yhanks.

  10. i am a graet fan of poetry and specially parveen shakirs poetry she was really a great poet.may her soul b in peace.

  11. hey sir i want to get information about all new age romantic poets of pakistan its my assignment which i have to submit before 25th march 2007 so plz if u have information about them then email me at waheedbutt2hotmail.com i will be very thankful to u

  12. hey sir i want to get information about all new age romantic poets of pakistan its my assignment which i have to submit before 25th march 2007 so plz if u have information about them then email me at waheedbutt@hotmail.com i will be very thankful to u

  13. Perveen shakir was the real reflection of thoughts and dreams of young lady of this modern age. She will be a role model for our youngstars for a long time through her bold poetry.

  14. parveen shakiir was nothing but she was a legends. she was not a very good looking woman but her personality was also not comperable.


  15. parveen shakiir was nothing but she was a legends. she was not only a very good looking woman but her personality was also not comperable.


  16. i love parveen shakir.

  17. She was a great poetess.I love her poetry

  18. She has given many ideas to throbing mind .
    she is not with us any more, but her great poetry will always keep her alive.

  19. Well, I am a great fan of her poetry, She had An art to transform his sirvival in her poetry, Although she is not with any more but her poetry always alive in our heart.

  20. poitry .com

  21. parveen shakir was a great poetess iam a great fan of her poetry

  22. She was a peak of womens’ greatness and grace in pakistani society, she explained the inner most sensation she felt in her real life. She be remembered like goddess of words.
    may Allah place her in the lap of HIS blessing in return of her soothing poetry which she gave to readers

  23. assalam o alekum.
    sab se pehle shaheed benazir bhutto ki azmat ko salam.in ki assassination ke bare main main kuch nahi kahoonga.
    lekin jo log in ke qatal hain abhi tak sare aam ghoom rahein hain.yeh intahi afssos ka mukaam hai.zardari sab aap ko to sham aani chahiye.aap ki biwi aur duniya ki azeem leader ke qatilon ke saath beth ker qatilon ke haq main baatein kerte hain.bus is baat se derte hain kahein kursi na chali jae.kuch to kheyal karein kiun aaone aap ko un logon main shamil ker rahein hain jo benazir k qatil hain aap pppp se kis baat ka badla le rahein hain.aap to zameen dar hain.aur zameen dar aapni aana ke le sab kuch ker guzarta hai.
    meri yeh baatein aap ko chub rahi hoongi.ek waqat per aap ne hi musharraf aur q league ko qatil kaha tha.to ab kiya huwa hai.kiya pese ki khatir aap ne zenazir ko qatilon ko sath betha liya hai.kiya benazir ki dolat aap ke liye kam hai.ya us allah ki bandi ke bacho ke liye pakistan ki ser zameen tang ker rahein hain.aap kiya benazir ya pakistan ka naam roshan karo ge.aap to aapne bachon ke liye hi yeh duniya tang ker rahe hain.kiun nahi aap koi bold step lete.kis se derte hain.kiya benazir ko shaheed hote nahi dekha.to phir kuch kijie.werna history main aap ka naam bohat bure andaz main likha jaega.un ki madad lene ki bajae aapne dam per benazir bhutto ke na sahi aapni biwi ke qatilon ko anjam tak pohnchein. kuch allah ka khoff khaein.aapne mulk main khane ko roti nahi aur aap log dubai aur england main sari cabnet ke sath ja ja ker meeting kerte phirte hain kiun kiun aap logon main insaniyat ka ahsas khatam ho geya hai.allah se dharein kisi waqat bi aap logon ka hisab allah le sakta hai.kiya jawab do ge.kitne log bhokh aur pani ki waja se pakistan main mer rahein hain.allah k waste kuch insano ka kheyal ker lo.
    ek badkismat pakistani.yeh sab mujhe kehte huwe sharam aa rahi hai ke ek pakistani ho ker main aiise ilfaz aapne logon ke bare main keh raha hoon.
    yahan mujhe sab hukmaran chahe koi b ho woh qatal hi nazar aata hai.kabhi woh benazir ka kabhi woh bohat se masoom lal masjid ke bachon ka qatil ho. chahe woh gadar ho, jo pakistan ke mohsino se janwaron wala salook kerta ho.sab ke sab insano ki list se kharij nazar aate hain.
    ek naumeed pakistani

  24. Parveen shakir was the best poet of 20th century. she was poet of young hearts and warm bloods

  25. […] month, in the freezing climes of Islamabad, we talked about Parveen Shakir, Pakistan's popular poet who died at a young […]

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