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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

Letters
DEAR SIRS In her review of The Penguin Book of Modern Urdu Poetry (PNR 54) Eavan Boland said the anthology made the reader aware of an unsuspected area of human achievement, and perceived in the angers and energies of modern Urdu poetry points of resemblance to the poetry of Irish language in this century. Indeed the correspondences cannot be dismissed as fortuitous. In its finer moods the modern Urdu poetry in Pakistan has often been an impressive index of private and public anxieties, underscoring the stresses within a society, where each section seems busy working out its own version of vulnerability.

Women battling for their rights here find circumstances very grim though not hopeless. With fundamentalists, theological ideologues and male hardliners out in force to put women in their place, a strategy for honourable survival would make more sense than a point-blank and impolitic confrontation. The majority of the male population is indifferent to women's aspiration, as it has always been. In most families the birth of a female child is an occasion for grief if not for mourning. Women are traditionally regarded as creatures of low cunning and insatiable appetite, mostly of a lascivious nature. Male chauvinism may well be no more than an involuntary defensive ploy to camouflage the fact that in a patriarchal society men are obsessed with women. The desire to shut out women, as if they were a sort of invisible helotry, can only result, as we have learnt to our cost in Pakistan, in a distorted perception of reality and climax in the rise of antidemocratic and irrational forces.

Not the sort of climate which would encourage women to overcome their reticence and become poets. However, as if the presence of distinctly negative factors were a fillip, the last two decades, in many ways the most trying in Pakistan's brief history, have witnessed the emergence of a number of excellent women poets. In fact, as far as Urdu literature is concerned, the phenomenon is without precedent. There is an interesting aside to it. Urdu has a considerable following in India also where the professedly secular society is somewhat liberal and less repressive toward women. But the women poets in India who write in Urdu are undistinguished, with the notable exception of Fahmida Riaz, a Pakistani who went into exile in protest against the clampdown of the Martial Law in 1977 and now lives in Delhi. Technically very competent, she made her mark with poems in which evocative lyricism, now and then quick with sensuality, provided the dominant note. A woman able to voice her erotic feelings with so much tact could not have failed to attract attention. Her poems were often a model of perceptive restraint. A lean period followed during which she espoused political causes explicitly. However, her latest poems, poignant and intense, reflect her talent more persuasively.

It was Nadezhda Mandelstam who said that the literary language of the prison and concentration camp is a form of poetry. It is possible that women in Pakistan now realize they have long been prisoners, under constant surveillance, disconcerted by a relentless barrage of do's and don'ts. In these conditions, every self-expression on their part, especially on a creative level, is a defiance of the status quo: in poetry, this breaking into and breaking out of an idiom arrogated to themselves by men represents the beginning of an insurgency. Sara Shagufta was clearly the most volatile of them all. Her work, consisting mainly of prose poems, in Urdu as well as Punjabi, can be termed confessional in the sense that it sought to render bearable the traumatic events of her life. A highly-strung person, she married again and again, as if rehearsing a piecemeal self-destruction. In the end she threw herself under a train. Her metaphors are startling. The prodigality of statement, however, seems to lack compassion. It is likely that, although her poetic sensibility was genuine enough, she could not properly harness the energy generated by her anxiety and her sense of outrage. There is a curious absence of assimilation, the language lagging behind the onrush of ideas and images. Aankhen (eyes), her only collection, appeared posthumously in 1985. Enough poems still remain, many unpublished, to make up three or four more volumes. How much of this unpublished material will be altered, censored, misappropriated or even destroyed by unscrupulous editors remains a matter of speculation.

Like Sara Shagufta, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti is equally at home in Urdu and Punjabi. Her poetry, in which she identifies herself with oppressed women in rural backwaters and the underprivileged, malnourished and over-exploited pariahs in slums, is harsh, brusque, over-emotional, accusatory, confessional and also strangely lyrical. The tension of her poems, which are in prose, is tempered by an incessant, meditative self-encounter, an instinctive acceptance of life and, an exploration of love seen as a possession as well as a state of being possessed. Her corpus wears the look of a fragmented autobiography.

There are at least three other women poets whose work should have been included in the Penguin anthology. Kishwar Naheed is a committed feminist and prolific poet whose progress conveys the impression of hectic improvisation. She began modestly enough but gradually her verse found a flexible, contemplative style for a forceful indictment of conventional relationships, social or conceptual. But where the aggressive turbulence is elbowed out by prosaic, explanatory verse the effect is less satisfying. Tanveer Anjum's poems, which derive their tension from the alienation endemic to modern metropolitan life, mourn the loss of innocence. Everything is in a flux, the poet making do with residual memories and residual faith. Poetry becomes a source of consolation even as it reflects an uneasiness about the disfigurement of self by social compulsions. Parveen Shakir's poetry is often devitalized by simplified conflicts and rhythmic structures which are meretriciously smooth. This is a poetry of moods exaggerated to the extent that it becomes facile and predictable. But at times her poems have a supple, sensuous immediacy it would be a mistake to disregard as mere romantic furore.

In one respect women poets have been lucky. Getting into print is not a problem. Literary magazines which matter have always been liberal or progressive in outlook and the editors only too pleased to let women poets air their hopes and anguish. There are no journals of publishing houses which concentrate on women's poetry and it is perhaps too early to speak of an organized women's literary movement and self-conscious readership of feminine poetry. It should be remembered that Pakistan's unenviably low literacy rate ensures that illiterate women easily outnumber illiterate men. The few feminist action groups operating now are more concerned about the rights of women than about specifically literary projects. In the circumstances it seems a sensible thing to do.
M. Salim-ur-rahman
Lahore

This item is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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