‘Poems’ by Parveen Shakir(translated from Urdu into English by Dr. Mahmudul Hasani) [Archives:2003/673/Education]

October 2 2003

[Translator's Introduction: Parveen Shakir (1952-1994) is a confessional poet par excellence. She lays bare her heart and makes a clean breast of all she has done and endured. Her poetry is highly subjective and an expression of her feelings, sentiments and moods. Her command of language enables her to bring forth perfect poetry out of personal trauma.
Khushbu (Fragrance), her first collection of poems, consists of both ghazals and nazms. These are the confessions of an adolescent girl nurturing fond hopes and romantic dreams, far too romantic in a world of grim realities, and they lay bare a psyche, which is both enigmatic and unpredictable. For instance,

A whole lifetime is required to know full
well what beauty is,
For girls do not reveal themselves in
momentary encounters.

And elsewhere:

Strange are the sorrows of girls; their joys
far stranger
they laugh and giggle even as their eyes

“Fragrance” has long been a powerful symbol for the evanescent and elusive lover/beloved. But here, unlike elsewhere, flower symbolizes the one loves deeply and sincerely only to suffer from neglect and mortification, being left to dry and wither. The delicacy and subtlety of feeling and emotion, and the handling of words with a touch as smooth and delicate as silk make Parveen Shakir's poetry “a thing of beauty” which “is a joy forever”.

Love – fancy, fantasy, ecstasy of union, pangs of parting indifference and fickleness from the beloved, and other nuances of fascination with the opposite sex – has been the predominant theme of poetry, particularly the ghazal. A ghazal is an expression of love, passion, heartache, the indifference of “la belle dame sans merci,” of dejection and frustration, of longing and languor. We get all these things in Parveen Shakir's poetry. The only difference here is that she looks at things from her own, i.e., her female perspective – a perspective which has hitherto been lacking in Urdu poetry. Parveen Shakir is extremely deft at handling the delicate and brittle theme of love. She makes use of irony and sarcasm but her tone seldom sounds harsh or brusque. Look for instance at the following lines:

I am the bride whom on the first night
someone unveils and tells:
“All I have is yours alone
save only my heart”.

Resting his head on my shoulder today
he wept for someone to his heart's content

Her subsequent collections – Sadbarg (Hundred Leaves), Khud Kalami (Soliloquy), Inkar (Denial), and her posthumous collection Kaf-e A'ina – emerge from the debris of her shattered dreams. They are expressions of devastation and disillusionment, of a heart crushed by betrayal and a mind too shocked to reconcile and come to terms with the world of difference between then and now. The insensitivity and fickleness of one's beloved is a recurrent theme. It emerges as the leitmotif in all her later poems. Although a fairly common subject, this universal, eternal heartache turns into fine, delicate poetry in her hands.
Parveen Shakir is not a confessional poet a la Sylvia Plath, whom she certainly may have read during her college years. Parveen Shakir's milieu is an altogether different one – comparatively more prohibitive, more oppressive, and more claustrophobic. Yet she is not as egocentric or suicidal as Plath. Though her personal tragedy is ubiquitous in her poems, she moves from personal to general and universal concerns and empathizes with the lesser mortals who do not share her privileges. This empathy and commiseration over the sufferings of others mitigates her own.
The beloved in Parveen Shakir's poetry has often been compared to fragrance and clouds, both evanescent and elusive. The following lines, the most popular in her oeuvre, powerfully capture this imagery:

He is the fragrance that will disperse in the
Now the question is what will become of
the flower.
And elsewhere:

Call him a cloud or a star or a breeze.
He seemed elusive in the substance of her being.

Her later poems portray moods of isolation, betrayal, and resignation. A few of them are striking expressions of maternal feelings and the experiences of motherhood. Poems about her only son, Murad convey with great sensitivity the mother-son relationship in which the son, again like the beloved, moves slowly but surely away from his doting mother who, as she grows older, wants the care and attention of her son. In one such poem she says:

I don't care a damn for the dark.
On each and every gloomy path
of all the forthcoming nights,
there shines a moon
)your cute, lovely face.

Though her work abounds in poetry about the female psyche and predicament, very few of her poems display the brash outspokenness of overtly feminist poems. The one that comes closest to what might be called feminist is ” Bashir ki Gharvali” (Bashir's Wife). Here she fulfils the criterion of a ” true wit” who, according to Alexander Pope, excels in the description of “what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed”.
Parveen Shakir passed her life in a brisk, nay breezy way, as if she were in a hurry to meet a literal deadline. She leaped into fame when just out of her teens, became a college English teacher, passed her Civil Services examinations gloriously, got married, gave birth to her only child, a son, got separated, became a celebrity in her early twenties, rose to the rank of commissioner, wrote her own epitaph and an obituary of sorts, got her complete works published and that too coincidentally entitled ” Mah-e-Tamam” (The Full Moon), as if she had some prescience of impending death, as if she somehow knew that the clock of life was ticking a bit too fast and would come full circle shortly. The demise of the 42-year-old poet in a car accident in the wee hours of a late December morning left the Urdu world shell- shocked. Reality came to her in blows and so did death.
Parveen Shakir carved a niche for herself in Urdu poetry. The poems she has left behind are treasured assets of Urdu literature. In her death Urdu lost a poet of tremendous potential.

Your Attitude
Your attitude toward me has been like
a seasoned diplomat's toward a young journalist
)every statement heedful of its implications
and possible repercussions,
every word carefully weighed
(the issue lost in the quagmire of quotations).
Nothing that he says should turn out to be
an arrow recoiling on himself
(which he may have to repent).

The eyes downcast,
the tone enervated,
sentences uttered in fragments,
lashes covered in dust
and sunburnt face.
Bowing his unkempt head has come a long lost friend.
The heart is tempted to take hold of his hand,
to rush immediately to kiss his brow,
and never allow him to go back alone.
But deep within me someone whispers:
all this is feigned, phantasm, facade,
Don't ever believe!
Don't ever believe!