word about letters
In Sujata Bhatt's work, cultural context is simultaneously a source of creative freedom and confinement
By Rizwan Akhtar
Sujata Bhatt is the living example of a cosmopolitan writer staunchly attached to her native culture and language. Born in Ahmedabad in 1956 and brought up in Pune, she relocated herself in 1968 to the United States and went on to settle in Germany where she lives with her German husband. Bhatt and Anita Desai share Euro-Indian and German-Indian literary heritage. Having all the trappings of an international poet and a postcolonial literary identity, she depicts her love for the native culture and language. Gujarati is the most recurrent point of reference in her poetry. Poised to address the cultural and lingual issues of the Asian and particularly Indian immigrants living in European and North American landscapes, Bhatt has shown an extraordinary interest in the subtleties of language. Her primary preoccupation is to use language for purely creative purpose, realising that language cannot be separated from the issues of identity and culture.
Bhatt hails from a native but hybrid cultural context because her adopted creative language is English. This dual cultural context is simultaneously a source of creative freedom and confinement. The poet is often wistfully reminded of her pristine cultural past and the childhood spent in Pune with perspective of a life lived in the West.
The process of writing a poem is never easy for the immigrant poet because the source of poetic inspiration is not singular but multi-dimensional. The process of poetic rendition in an acquired language demands constant vigil lest the sensibility be completely divorced from the culture of one's origin. Postcolonial writers are particularly attentive to the fact that language produces identity.
Bhatt sees enormous potential in one's native language. For her language of one's origin is identifiable to the tongue and a source of a tangible and physical act of saying and speaking. The comfort and ease with which one uses one's native language does not necessarily hamper one's conscious endeavour to learn a non-native language but the project of learning an adopted language is as complex as emigration or migration. In Brunizem (1988), her first collection of poetry, Bhatt recalls childhood and family memories and the rural landscape, like a stereotypical budding poet. She has the poet's observant eye, an alert aural imagination and a tactile sense which enables her to meld the physical landscape with her abstract mental images. She does not lay claim on one perspective but expresses her desire to address the shifting perspectives. Reflective and philosophical in her themes, Bhatt un-reluctantly taps the reservoir of her native language and relishes the creative expression. A Different History is perhaps the most representative poem which also determines the poetic milestones which the poet has set to achieve. She explains the emotional and subliminal contradictions which subsequently lay hold on those writers who opt to live in an alien environment and write in non-native language:
what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth
Following the footsteps of the twentieth century English poets, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, Bhatt manipulates English language for a creative purpose but also relishes the instinctive pleasure of a native language. Often with a great aplomb she uses Gujarati words with English and creates a poly-lingual text. A poem for Bhatt comes into being either through a word or an image and these are more easily available in one's native expression but this does not mean that she plans to think in the Gujarati language. In the beginning a poem is a loose skeleton and the flesh comes around only as a lateral development. Many of Bhatt's poems confirm that imagination and language are interminably linked and neither phases out the other. Her images are recurrently sinuous, physical, erotic and meditative. Her thematic concerns complement her poetic diction but the form and the content are independent of each other. She sounds exceedingly traditional when she translates and uses actual Gujarati words in poems written in English. Similarly the readers cannot restrain from feeling that the bi-lingual mesh of languages also gave her poetry a depth and profundity:
(kahi nahi,hoo nathi boli shakti)
I search for my tongue.
In Monkey Shadows (1991) Bhatt's preoccupation with her first language is further enhanced as she struggles to adjust to an alien environment. Now the question of identity is more acute. The language acquires a child-like directness and innocence. A poem titled The Stare is the most profound poem set in India in which children are found interacting and observing with young offspring of the animals. This is a poem which introduces the verbal human and non-verbal animal realm. Animals cannot communicate with humans but the anthropomorphic bond is perhaps the more trustable communication than a verbal language. D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost and Ted Hughes often rely upon the non-verbal world of animals thus mocking the human world divided across languages and identities. In the poem, a little girl stares long at a monkey child and it confirms the innocuous relationship which does not require a specific cultural and lingual context. Bhatt sees her own changing cultural position as the poet has found some affinity with the American way of life, culture and English language.
Stinking Rose (1995) and Augatora (2000) are unique collections in which poems are accompanied by drawings. It is very intriguing that Bhatt has intentionally relied upon more than two mediums. Poems are juxtaposed with pictures and drawings. It illustrates that the poet is in quest for yet another medium and in this search language as the only medium is transcended by pictographic language. These two volumes are more experimental and inspired by European literary sensibility as Bhatt has moved out of US and re-settled in Germany. European cultures and languages also find their response. The Gujarati language remains the essential backdrop but there is an emergence of a Euro-Asian linguistic tapestry. Bhatt has translated the Gujarati poetry in English and she goes on to translate the German writer Gunter Grass. As the poet travels across the world and inculcates different cultural strands, the preoccupation with language also registers a shift. By the time A color of solitude (2002) is published, Bhatt has schooled herself for the imaginative grasp of a more symbiotic East-West cultural relationship. The early reluctance which she displayed while trying to appreciate the European and American culture and language is replaced by an acceptance of synthesis. Also, in her latter work language remains a vital component, an essential way of knowing one's self. She moved to the USA at a very early stage but the struggle between English and Gujarati spurred her creativity. Search my tongue is the most central poem of her oeuvre. Even in her latter work which is more of a tribute to European literature and culture, the devotion to her native language is stubbornly intact. Search my tongue is a confessional poem. It explains the emotional and psychological insecurity of a learner exposed to a foreign language which is nothing short of an invasion. The native language is marginalised and the second or the adopted language almost dominates the learners' mind. Bhatt has often expressed her fear of 'losing' the Gujarati language and culture. Living away from India, married to a German and translating European writers substantiates her fear. There is a piqued realisation that once a writer is transplanted, every emerging circumstances of his/her life desists the preservation of his/her culture and heritage. Search my tongue is a poem that explains the feeling of being driven out after the adopted language lays its swaggering hold upon the learner's native consciousness. The poet is afraid to the extent of self-annihilation, that by living in the USA and learning English she is losing her identity and with every new lesson of American English her love for the native Gujarati is fading .The fear turns into a menace as the poet feels that one day she will forget her 'tongue' and India entirely. These fears were made real as Bhatt moved out of USA and ended up settling in Germany. India and the Gujarati language which was the most authentic backdrop has now become little hazy but she can still sight her childhood and early memories through the blurring curtain of her native language. Indeed the poet gathers strength from her past and continues with her poetic endeavours living outside India and by not speaking Gujarati. In an interview with Vicki Bertram, Sujata Bhatt explains how moving out of India made her vigilant to the extent of being paranoid about her native language but she had to take care of the poet inside her: "For me, poetry is a place where there are tensions and contradictions in the language, and also in the things being discussed. So, yes, I feel that poetry is a place where things can be questioned and examined."
Rizwan Akhtar teaches English Literature at the University of the Punjab.
An experiment with poetry and prose results in a unique representation of post-modern chaos
Eruj Mubarak has come out with a slim volume of stories. There are 26 stories in a space of 106 pages. On the average, it comes to about four pages per story. But the first six stories cover 30 pages. These come to five pages a story. Two stories in the middle cover 16 pages. Thus, the remaining 20 stories are written only in about 40 pages, coming to less than two pages per story. These are thus shorter than most short stories. But these are larger than what some Americans call the short short. These are hardly one-page stories. But we have another tradition also. Manto wrote stories much smaller than the short short. These are Siah Hashiay. We may, thus, call these stories experimental, in the modernist fashion.
There is another distinctive feature of these literary pieces. Following the modernistic traditions, the story seems to gradually disappear as we proceed with the book. First few stories have some narrative in them but as we proceed these tend to become more reflective than narrative. In the west, it happened because their intellectuals failed to see a pattern in life and, thus, all main literary endeavours became dispersed meditation. Mubarak Ahmed also had a sensibility like that. He too was a literary iconoclast. Eruj has carried on his parental tradition, but not in poetry. He chose short story as his medium. This impulsive approach to life is not new in our literary tradition. It is the tradition of the ghazal, which wallowed in the abstract-the vague and the meditative. These seem to be spontaneous responses to experience. These may better be called prose poems. Mubarak also debated the nature of free verse and prose poem.
Yet another distinctive feature of these poetic short stories is what Intizar Hussain called "blessing of modernism," where even fantasy is lost in the rigmarole of words. These may be called dream poems in prose, some of which are just nightmares. However, these do not entirely miss the real world and its mind boggling realities. The jail, the home and the slum merge and the eunuch, the dwarf and the freakish girl are appropriate symbols of the chaos prevailing around us.
By far the most distinctive feature of these poems is the attempted linguistic dislocation. It is difficult to decide whether this is linguistic, psychological, aesthetic, for merely a fashion and a desire to be a modernist. Intizar Hussain is shocked by this venture. It is strange that he missed the attempted flavour. It is more aesthetic than anything else. In the first place, Eruj may be influenced by modernistic trend of dislocating language in order to force the complexity of modern life into it. Conventionally meanings are distorted in order to fit them in the poetic form. Now language is dislocated. Still more to the point, however, is the nostalgic love of archaic. Expressions like Hal Aanke or Ek Bicycle Sa'ye Surat give the flavour of reading Dastaus. The bold experimentation, however, deserves notice as well as appreciation.
Autobiography in Urdu
Autobiographical literature is nowadays going very popular with our readers. It seems as if the days of travel writings' popularity are over. And our writers too are now more inclined towards writing accounts of their lives.
Many scholars and literary researchers, including Syed Abdullah, Syed Waqar Aseem, Wahajuddin Ali and Moeenuddin Aqeel, have discussed the debate of when the first autobiography was written in Urdu. According to Moeenuddin Aqeel's research, no autobiography was penned in Urdu till 1886. He says that it were Abdul Ghafoor Nisah and Jaffer Thanesary who wrote book about themselves in 1886. He also mentions Shehar Bano Begum of Delhi who started writing autobiography in 1885 and completed it during the last weeks of 1886.
Tariq Salim Marwat finds it difficult to agree with him. He claims that the first autobiography in Urdu language was penned by one Sita Ram of Raiy Braily who retired from the service of the East Indian Company during the war of independence of 1857 and then wrote a book on what he had seen and experienced in life. His book is no longer traceable but its English translation, made by General Nargate, was published from Lahore in 1873.
Some literary historians opine that Sita Ram wrote his book in Hindustani language. However, Tariq Saleem Marwat insists that it was written in Urdu which was usually termed Hindustani by the English in those days.
In an article published in the current issue of Atta, Salman Ali has discussed some basic issues related to the writing of autobiographies.
Atta is a quarterly literary journal which is edited and published by the Engineer Zaka Ullah Khan from the far-flung town of Dera Ismail Khan.
The poetry section of the current edition of the quarterly carries fresh offerings of many noted poets like Mohsin Ehsan, Murtaza Birlas, Khyal Amrohi, Riaz Majeed, Ahmad Saghir Siddiqui, Sabir Zafar, Sohail Ghazi Purj and Karamat Bokhari.
Latest on the bookshelf
Murtaza Birlas' fifth collection of Urdu poetry Girah-e-Neembaz has been published by the Al-asar Publications of Lahore without any interdiction by the poet. However, it carries brief remarks about the poet and his poetry written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mohammad Ali Siddiqui on the dust jacket.
The book contains ghazals written in the refined traditional style with new ideas and contemporary sensibility. The poet's belief in commutability makes his ghazals a delight to read. I quote the couplet from which he has draws the title of the volume.
Apni khata hai ye girah-e-neembaz ka
Nakhan pay jot ha qar ada kery kay aye hain.
Another book that I got the opportunity to go through past week is Veer Sipahi's Waris Lekha. Veer Sipahi is counted among the most popular Punjabi language poets. Having published six volumes of poetry during the past fifteen years, he has now come up with a compilation of articles on various aspects of Waris Shah's poetry and personality.
Waris Lekha has been published by the Waris Shah Pariya of Sheikhupura. It also includes a list of articles published on Waris Shah in Punjabi and Urdu. The list is fairly long though incomplete.
Baloch's last poem
Jaffer Baloch's poem published in the September 2008 issue of monthly Sham-e-Sehar surprised many readers. It carries some comments on his own life and a sort of prediction regarding his end.
I asked Shabeeul Hasan, editor of the magazine when the poem was sent to him. He told me that Jaffer Baloch sent this poem to him for publication in his magazine in the first week of August, the month during the last days of which he was to pay the debt of nature.
The poem has been composed in continuation of Munir Niazi's famous piece in which he lamented that he had always been a dawdler in life. Baloch says none of the mistakes that he committed in life was intentional but a result of ego. But "now the time has come when there is no room for righting the past wrongs."
Jaffer Baloch edited and compiled fourteen volumes on Urdu and Persian men of letters. Mutaleen, his first, was published in 1975 while one of his latest books, Nafees-e-Adab, 2004, is a collection of Maulana Hamid Ali Khan's article.
He also published three books of poetry. His first, Aqleem, appeared in 1986 and was followed by Balat in 1989. Ber Sabeel-e-Sukhan is the title of his third collection of poems published in 2006.