The contribution of
women has been exceptionally significant, and at times dominating, in the
recent history of Urdu literature. During the immediate post-partition years,
the only names that come to mind are Ada Jafri and Zahra Nigah. It was a time
of traditional poetry, which spread through mushairas, radio and literary
supplements of leading newspapers.
It was during the 1960s
that the conventional modes of expression were fiercely attacked and
modernism opened new vistas and possibilities in Urdu poetry.
Fehmida Riaz was perhaps
was the first poet to break with tradition with her luminous poems which were
extremely rich and bold. Her first book Pathar Ke Zuban, shortly followed by
Badan Dareeda, bear an unquestionable relevance to the growth of the Urdu
nazm in the decades to follow.
Kishwar Naheed was the
other name with her diverse areas of interest in literature. She played a
pivotal role as a literary journalist and activist and succeeded in
strengthening the waves of change through the literary magazine Maah-e-Nau
that she edited for a year.
The decade of the 1970s was
the golden era when the newly introduced Nasri Nazm found poets like Sara
Shagufta, Azra Abbas and Nasreen Anjumn Bhatti, and consequently the genre
got established on firm grounds. Parveen Shakir, Shahida Hassan and Fatima
Hassan contributed in their own manner and style, that finally created an
encouraging path for a number of female poets.
Yasmeen Hameed belongs to
the cluster of esteemed and charged poets that emerged on the scene during
the decade of the 1980s. Her English column Poetic Justice paved way for a
widespread introduction of selected Urdu poets to the English world with
excellent translations and tasteful selection of poems.
Hameed’s first collection
Pas-e Aina was published in 1988 and was followed by three more collections
published at regular intervals.
Baysamar Pairon ki Khwahish
is her latest collection, comprising ghazals and nazms, including Nasri nazms,
with a detailed preface written by her. In the preface, she explores the
mythology of creation and raises the question of relevance of poetry to the
individual and time. Hameed is essentially a nazm poet and even in her
ghazals the method of how she crafts a nazm is easily identifiable. But this
element in no way reduces the credibility of the offerings.
A good poet develops an
in-built filtration capacity that does not allow anything less than perfect
to appear. This holds true for Hameed as well. Her poems are woven into a
fabric that isn’t common or fashionable. The manner of construction, along
with the treatment, makes her nazms appear fresh while, in her ghazals, she
attempts to sound different and refuses to conform to the prevalent trends in
present day poetry.
intuition of self-awareness generates in her works a feeling of loneliness,
desolation and death, but she refuses to fall prey to pessimism. Her poems
also show a sort of metaphysical curiosity that is infused with an unending
subjective struggle that serves as a sound source of inspiration.
Hameed’s vocabulary is
simple; it is her tactful manipulation of words that makes her successful in
creating layers of meanings that keep unveiling with each reading.
I, however, tend to
disagree with Shams-ur-Rehman Farooqi when he says that the real quality of
Hameed is that her work does not give away her gender. At least the poetry of
the book under review refuses to prove the claim. It may be unjust to dismiss
or over-rate an author on this basis.
Baysamar Pairon ki Khawish
By Yasmeen Hameed
Price: Rs 700
At Last the Almonds
Blossomed, a remarkable story by noted Palestinian writer Emile Habiby,
begins with Mr. M’s unannounced visit after a gap of twenty years. Chiding
the narrator for disruption, he begs the host to listen to the reasons why he
is here past midnight. A light background of their friendship indicates the
two had once launched an underground group restricted to two members aiming
to fight the British.
Mr. M had clipped links
with his friends after taking a teaching job. It is understood the job was
given by the colonial state of Israel; the protagonist is paranoid about his
association with friends, who are suddenly enemies in the eyes of the state.
The protagonist reminds us
about his obsession with Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, set amidst turmoil
and the French Revolution. Mr. M had idolized the character of Sidney Carton.
But, he confesses, “With the hair that fell to my first razor blade, Sydney
Carton vanished from my album of heroes,” but the title of the novel
continues to haunt him, to the point of absurdity, influencing his way of
seeing the world. He even wrote his own version that included Haifa and
Nazareth. Then, he studied Law and English; wrote poetry in Arabic and
English; as a teacher he always asked his students to read two books, compare
two kinds of literature during the exam lasting two hours.
Now, the 1967 war has
nudged him to seek out old friends. He does not see past as dates but
memories. To reconnect is to reclaim. There is another wrinkle. After the
war, Mr. M has taken a trip from Nablus to Ramallah with his colleagues
experiencing a melancholic euphoria. “This hill hasn’t been out of my
mind for a single day. I can remember every bend. There are four; count them.
And those mountains. This pure air. This fragrance I know. I am breathing in
an aroma that’s been with me all my life. This place is my place!”
occurred on that road, which now escapes his memory. His colleagues, fellow
teachers, assure him that his mind has mixed up the journey to Al-abhariya,
taken many times, with that of Al-laban. Another friend deflates him further
stating they didn’t have the permit to stop. Another colleague mocks by
saying that twenty years ago Mr. M had taken a leak here.
The reader learns that the
narrator has taken that journey several times since the war and, although the
peculiar feeling surged always, he had a ready-made explanation, until he
took the same trip with his wife, who insisted they “stop the car to pick
some sprigs from an ancient almond tree”. When she asks him a question
about the almond sprigs, his heart sinks triggering remembrance.
The youthful boys took a
journey along the same heights and stopped by the tree at the bottom of Al-laban.
A group of young girls showed up on their way to Jerusalem. A girl and a boy
fell in love. The girl picked branches of almond blossoms, one for him and
one for herself, promising to hold on to the sprigs and meet next spring. He
would come with his family to ask for her hand. “What was the end of their
As the protagonist leaves,
unresolved, the narrator discloses the boy Mr. M couldn’t remember was
himself. “How many times I had asked myself: How can a person kill in his
heart a love like that?” He had visited the “good and loyal woman” who
showed him the withered branch, adding Mr. M had visited her once with his
colleagues. Showing him the withered branch when she said, “almonds
blossomed in February”, he changed the subject to apricots, leaving her
Although the narrator now
understands better, he wonders if it is his duty to tell his friends. Will
his mind ever find tranquility?
Habiby is known for his
satire The Secret Life of Saeed: the Ill-fated Pessoptimist, expressing the
view of one who avoids ethnic cleansing that ensnared 700,000 people in 1948,
and becomes a second-class citizen, a paid informer. Saeed’s condition is
such where pessimism and optimism mingle. He escapes this absurdity only when
he is kidnapped by an extraterrestrial being. Mr. M is an extension of the
author’s own dilemma. To work for colonial masters is to harm one’s own
family. The tragedy of occupation is that M can only travel with a permit
which may not allow him stopping anywhere.
The reference to the Six
Day War is important for it allows M to travel outside proper Israel to the
newly occupied Palestinian territory. This is not the place to discuss
whether the Six Day War was a pre-emptive strike or aggression; more
importantly, the creation of Israel was imagined by Herzl in colonial
language at the height of colonialism, where the future Jewish state was an
“outpost of civilization” against “barbarism.” Hence the slogan: a
people without land and a land without people. Again, not important to argue
who created the phrase; what one must see through is that the colonial lens
in the phrase erased the Palestinian people.
So when Golda Meier said,
“They did not exist,” she exhibited a European tradition. So when Habiby
asks the reader about his obligation to run after Mr. M, he decides against
it. He chooses to write instead. The story’s centrality rests on the need
for an author to write down what the victor’s history omits.
Alexie Sherman, the noted
Native American author, recently underscored that all broken treaties were
signed by the United States presidents. Hidden behind the “greatest
nation” billboard are layers of deception, broken treaties, not to mention
genocide. That information, so crucial to the American character, is not part
of the grand narrative. It is the writer, a Habiby of the reader, who must
offer a different tint, another frame.
In my first year at
college my English teacher was the handsome Mr Sawney who always dressed
nattily. Actually, his name was Sahni, a fairly common name among Punjabi
Hindus but he had chosen to anglicise it. Mr Sawney used to say that when
writing our compositions we must never end our sentence with a preposition.
This, he stressed, was a rule we must follow. I did, until I read in a
magazine in a dentist’s waiting room in Solihull, that when the rule was
pointed out to Churchill he remarked that “This is something with which I
will not put.”
Mr Sawney also told us that
“Discretion is the better part of valour” was an expression first used by
Shakespeare. Mr Sawney was rather fond of the line and never hesitated from
using it whenever the occasion arose. As a result we too, often inserted the
expression in our classroom essays.
Seven years later, I
auditioned for admission to RADA, the premier drama school of London and was
fortunate enough to be admitted. The end of term play that the senior RADA
students had selected to perform was Henry IV Part I. Imagine my surprise
when towards the end of Act V, I heard the actor playing Sir John (Oldcastle,
not Falstaff) tell Prince Harry, “The better part of valour is discretion
in the which better part I have saved my life.” I nudged Geoffery Slater,
who was sitting next to me. He looked at me. “Discretion,” I whispered,
“discretion is the better part of valour.” He shushed me.
Geoffrey Slater, my
batchmate, knew his Shakespeare well. He informed me when we went out to have
our Welsh rarebit at Kardomah that the line had been spoken exactly as
Shakespeare wrote it, Poor Mr Sawney I thought. I should not have pitied Mr
Sawney; most people in England too, remember the Shakespearean quotation as
Mr Sawney did. For me, it was a surprise to learn that even Shakespeare’s
sayings have been twisted and turned over the centuries.
There are other
Shakespearean expressions that we quote, which are not found in his works or
are not found in the same way. ‘A poor thing but mine own.’ we say with
self-mocking modesty when we display our collection of sliver or miniatures.
And we say it as though we are speaking with the inverted comma intact. The
actual line is part of the speech that the jester-philosopher, Touchstone,
makes to the king in As You Like It:
“A poor virgin, Sir, an
ill favoured, thing, sir, but mine own.”
Perhaps in the course of
history people who could not claim to have a virgin (poor or rich) dropped
the reference and simply said “A poor thing, but mine own.”
In this instance I am only
talking about the shortening of a phrase. What about words that have changed
their connotation over the years. Take a simple word like ‘nice’.
Today we say, ‘That was a nice cup of tea’ or ‘You have a nice
collection, of miniatures’. To us, the word nice means agreeable, pleasant,
delightful or pretty. But to refer to someone as a nice person in Chaucer’s
time was no compliment. ‘Nice’ in the 14th and 15th century meant foolish
In Shakespeare’s time, a
century later, the same word meant accurate: “Oh never do his host the
wrong/To hold your honour more precise and nice” says Northumberland in
Henry IV Part II.
Shakespeare also uses the
word nice to mean scrupulous. Portia in The Merchant of Venice, describing
her predicament, tells the Prince of Morocco:
“In terms of choice I am
not solely led
By nice direction of a
In The Taming of the Shrew
it acquires a different complexion. Nice here means prudish or squeamish.
“Tut, I like it not
Old fashions please me
best. I am not so nice
To change new rules for old
Shakespeare also uses this
little word to imply pettiness and insignificance. “By my brotherhood the
letter was not nice but full of charge.”
In his excellent work, The
Dictionary of Misinformation, Tom Burnham tells us that it is through a
process the linguists call elevation that the word (nice) has achieved its
present largely favourable connotation.
Collectors of information
are numerous but collectors of misinformation are rare. Tom Burnham, a
professor of English at Portland State University, Oregon, gives the true
facts and frequently tells an interesting story behind them. I shall list
just a few.
“The phrase ‘Hobson’s
choice’ does not mean no choice at all as is commonly thought, but rather a
choice between what is offered and nothing. The term is said to derive from
Thomas Hobson, a 17th century liveryman who required that customers must take
the first horse in line. That this is obviously the fairest method of renting
out merchandise that is bound to vary in quality seems to have been
Generation after generation
has believed that the remark “Let them eat cake” was uttered by Marie
Antionette, the Austrian born princess who became the Queen of France when
she married Louise XVI. Marie Antoinette has been the subject of several
books and films. Some scholars have deemed her frivolous and superficial and
have attributed the start of the French revolution to her.
As a school boy I heard the
story that Lord Curzon, while being driven in a brougham heard a noise. He
asked the driver what the commotion was about and was told that the poor
people were shouting that they didn’t have any bread to eat. “Why, let
them eat cake” Lord Curzon said and ordered the driver to move on. Lord
Curzon later became the viceroy of India and such was his hauteur (in the
pictures that we saw) that it was not difficult to believe the story. Now,
let us see what Tom Burnham says:
“The remark occurs in
Rousseau’s Confessions written in 1766. Rouseeau was referring to an
incident that had taken place in Grenoble in 1744, 15 years before Marie
Antoinette was born. A great princess who, when she was told that the
peasants had no bread, replied ‘let them eat cake’.”
Professor Burnham has
listed hundred of false facts, misquotation and some delightful bits of
buncombe. He has brought together some of the mistaken beliefs many of us
have confidently expounded in speech and writing. Those who manage to get
hold of his dictionary will be astounded to learn that Cinderella’s
slippers were not made of glass, Darwin never tried to prove that men are
descended from apes, and Galileo neither invented the telescope nor did he
ever spend a day in prison.