(This piece first appeared in The Hindu on July 18, 2016. The book it is about was meant to be in print by the end of 2016 but the release date got postponed. Inshallah, as Asad Alvi says, the book will be out this year.)
It is a miracle if you have managed to hear of Sara Shagufta (1955–1984), the poet from Pakistan, whose words were too naked for her family to take pride in, whose love life too colourful for critics to focus on her poetic genius. She wrote in Urdu and Punjabi, two of the most widely spoken languages in Pakistan, but her words have not ventured beyond the limited confines of literary circles.
She led an intense life. A childhood that was marked by an abusive relationship with her father was followed by a short-lived marriage with a man she was forcibly hitched to at the age of 17. Their newborn child died, and all the blame for it was directed at Shagufta. Deeply disturbed by this, Shagufta left him. Before she committed suicide at the age of 29, she divorced four men, and had a string of relationships with various others. She once wrote, “My body was ordinary/ So I handed it to the dogs/ But Sara’s soul is not so ordinary/ as to be sold at your hands.”
In the public domain today, her voice survives mainly through poetry collections — Aankhein and Neend Ka Rang published by Saeed Ahmed, a man she was in love with; Ek Thi Sara, a biography written by Indian poet Amrita Pritam, a close friend of hers; scholarly work on Shagufta by Kamran Asdar Ali, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin; and plays written by Shahid Anwar (Main, Sara) and Danish Iqbal (Sara Ka Saara Aasmaan) based on Pritam’s book.
The newest addition to this scant coterie is The Colour of Sleep and Other Poems, a volume of English translations by Asad Alvi, a poet, teacher and fiction writer based out of Karachi. The book will be published by Speaking Tiger, India, in late 2016. A few of these translations have appeared in anthologies, and a few might make their way into a feature film “that will take significant time to crystallise.” Alvi has also made a short film called Night, based on Shagufta’s poem bearing the same title. It will be shown at the Fifth International Film Poetry Festival in Athens in November 2016.
“For the last 50 years, perennial attempts have been made by the Urdu literati of the country to systematically erase her from the intellectual-feminist history of South Asia,” says Alvi. “Known for her great beauty and charm, Shagufta was the centre of male attention in the mushaira s of the 1970s poetic milieu. After having numerous affairs, she was branded as corrupt and promiscuous.”
According to Alvi, her “prime persecutor” was her family. Apparently, they destroyed several of her letters, and also hid her massive archive of unpublished poems. Alvi mentions that Shagufta’s lifestyle, which involved excessive drinking, smoking, and frequent bouts of depression, became objects of public scrutiny. She was shunned from the mushaira s by her contemporaries. “Shagufta exemplifies what happens to Pakistani men when they enter the bohème of literary circles, the bastion of male privilege,” says Alvi. “After going through shock therapy, Shagufta moved in with Pakistani poet Attiya Dawood, with whom she stayed almost until her death.”
It was thanks to Dawood that Alvi first heard of Shagufta in February 2014. They were sipping chai in the courtyard of Karachi’s posh Beach Luxury Hotel. Alvi had just recently made friends with Dawood’s daughter, and he was feeling a bit intimidated when he met the mother for the first time.
“I wanted to impress her by showing how well-versed I was with South Asian feminist literary history,” says Alvi. When she asked him what he had read, Alvi rattled off names like Kishwar Naheed, Azra Abbas and Fahmida Riaz. Dawood smiled, and asked if he had read Shagufta. “I was ashamed. I had absolutely no idea who this woman was. Then Attiya Aunty spent the entire evening telling me the details of Shagufta’s tragic life.”
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Alvi.
What’s most striking for you in Shagufta’s verse, stylistically, and in terms of the experiences she chooses to write about?
I’ve never separated substance from form — in expression that is intelligent, the form often echoes the matter — and we see that in Shagufta. Stylistically speaking, she takes the vessel of Urdu formalism and hurls it out of the window — Shagufta subverts, inverts, re-invents the form of the Azad Nazm. Even the Azad Nazm, while invented by the modernists, and freed from the more formalistic conventions of classical Urdu poetry, is expected to offer some sense of didacticism, thematic, or narrative semblance. Shagufta’s poetry contains no such semblance — it is a disjunction of images often piled up against each other without little thematic coherence. This disjunction speaks to me — because it is often in this way that the mind thinks, and more so the mind of the modern subject — in a ‘stream of consciousness’ that contains no order. As far as Shagufta’s experiences are concerned, what is most striking for me is her defiance. This is a woman who was abused, emotionally and sexually, in childhood, divorced by four men, shunned by her children, ostracised from the mushaira circle. But this is also the woman who refuses to be silenced by these circumstances. Shagufta’s poetry is an expression of agency.
What do you think of Amrita Pritam’s comparison between Shagufta and Sylvia Plath? I ask because you’ve translated Shagufta into English and Plath into Urdu.
I am not fond of people employing Western signifiers to assess the merit of writers from the global south. I would have been happier had Pritam compared Shagufta to, say, someone like Varsha Adalja or Malati Bedekar. But because, stylistically, they are so dramatically similar, I think the comparison is apt. I say this because I have had the pleasure of translating both poets. Plath, like Shagufta, writes in metaphorical disjunctives. I believe Plath is the first woman to try the ‘stream of consciousness’ method in English poetry, just as Shagufta is the first to try it in Urdu. I once passed off a Shagufta translation of mine to a professor who seemed to believe it was a Plath poem. Likewise, when my translations of Plath came out, some poets thought it was another of Shagufta’s unpublished poems that I had discovered and published. Not only stylistically, but even in sensibility Plath and Shagufta have a great in common — both have written about the chaotic world of women in patriarchal societies, and both have ‘transgressed’ tradition. The last thread of commonality is, of course, their lives: both women went through a failed marriage, suffered from clinical depression, and took their lives. In this regard, Shagufta is also similar to Adrienne Rich.
What is it that people in Pakistan have found difficult to grapple with in Shagufta’s verse? Do you think that her voice would have found more acceptance if she were writing in 2016?
I think what they find difficult to grapple with in Sara’s verse is her refusal to be at their whim. When a woman refuses, men go through what we call “a crises of masculinity”. I think that is what Sara Shagufta symbolises to men in this country — she imposes that crises. But surprisingly, women hate her too. I cannot seem to understand why. I think it might be because Sara has managed to do what they cannot. I think there is a great deal of envy when other poets talk about Shagufta. I have sensed this in my conversations with them. Shagufta, in the words of the great German critic Christina Oesterheld, “reveals the shallowness of pseudo-intellectual prattle.” I think her contemporaries also disliked her because she was the master of the Urdu language. Sara could differentiate poetry from sheer versification. I think Sara’s was a very scrutinising influence on others. I don’t think her voice would have found any more acceptability in 2016. Perhaps in print, yes, but Urdu poetry has always been less about publication, and more about showing your presence in the mushaira culture, which in Pakistan, even today, remains the bastion of male privilege. I frequent mushairas often and quietly observe. I don’t suppose they can manage someone like Sara take the stage, read out her kind of poetry, and not invoke gossip from the crowd.
What did the process of translating her poetry feel like, viscerally?
It has been a strange experience, really. Sometimes, it has been frightening. I have a similar history of mental illness as Shagufta; so, for me, translating her poetry is more of a personal and less of an intellectual act. The boundaries between personal and intellectual blurred furthermore when I began to dream of her at night. In one dream, she accused me of translating the wrong metaphor. The poems in which Shagufta evokes the metaphor of her grave, I have translated those sitting beside her grave in Karachi, which I visit often. The poems in which she obsesses over a death on the railways tracks, which is how she inevitably went, I have translated on the Drigh Road railway station. Translation is not about sitting on your working table; translation is the act of removing your shoes and wearing those of the poet’s; of venturing to the places, of allowing your eyes to see what the poet saw as she wrote the poem. Translation is the act of displacing words from one language, and appropriating them into another. This displacement must come at the larger displacement of the translator’s lifestyle, who must fully integrate himself into the life of the poet she/ he is translating. I don’t think any poet has ever invaded my thought as much as Shagufta. She has, both, deeply affected my psychology, my art, my process of translation, and my lifestyle.
What, for you, are some of the most haunting images in Shagufta’s poetry?
I think, the image of the murda rangsaaz, the dead dyer. Since the dyer is dead, he cannot colour Shagufta’s life. The image reprises in many of Shagufta’s poems — it can be an expression for dead conscience, for dead expression, for immobility. It is, viscerally, very haunting to me: imagine a life without colours. Another haunting image is that of the maali, the nursery-man. This figure, too, appears in many of Shagufta’s poems — often chopping away grass with a scythe, at the poet’s horror. His dramatic purpose is quite evident — he is the personification of death, the grim-reaper — hence the scythe. The maali brutally chopping away flowers and grass from the poet’s orchard is one of the most vivid metaphors of death that I have ever come across. Both, the murda rangsaaz and the maali, of course, may also be symbols of the patriarch.