Cynoglossum, literally “hound’s tongue,” a species akin to forget-me-nots, comes in many varieties, some of which, particularly the European and American ones like the Cynoglossum officinale, are designated noxious weeds. Not so Cynoglossum micranthum, the deep royal-blue, small-flowered, houndstongue that is found in and around north-western Punjab and is known as Nilkari in Punjabi. The plant and its infusions are used for a variety of medicinal purposes – as a depurative, detoxifying agent, as diuretic, as an antidote for snakebites and as febrifuge for fever relief in the Punjab. It is the plant that gave Nasreen Anjum Bhatti the inspiration for the name of her first book of Punjabi poems Nilkarian Nilakan. Now, “Nilak” is a kind of precious stone, blue in color. So it is apt that she combines the idea of a blue-flowered, depurative shrub and a precious blue stone to title her collection, one that contains poems that are jewel-like in their perfection but also have the spontaneity and innate therapeutic qualities of nature itself – poems that are rebellious and caustic in their condemnation of patriarchal authoritarianism, sexism, sexual abuse and social injustice.
The color blue has deep reverberations in subcontinental Hindu, Muslim, and Punjabi literary traditions (the blue-skinned god and lover Krishna/Shyam in the Hindu pantheon, for instance; the soothing, sheltering turquoise of Islamic mystical practice and funerary architecture; the “neeli ghorri,” or blue mare of Punjabi romantic folk heroes, to name just a few) but it has archetypal significance as well. In a complex, interfused way, blue may generate disparate intimations all at the same time: joy, love, spiritual ecstasy, a mysterious, intense, seductive energy, a sense of soothing shelter (under the overarching umbrella of the sky); as well as pain, suffering, and sorrow (bruises, persecution, social, sectarian, or religious tyranny, and the like). All this just begins to give us an idea of the richness and precision of Nasreen Anjum’s creative imagination, even – and certainly not inconsequentially – in as small a matter as the naming of a book. The title, which I translate inadequately as “Houndstongue Gemstones,” thus becomes a metaphor for the poet and her work – a shrubbery of Nilkari, an antidote to the poison that runs through the veins of the society she confronts.
She may be the consummate Pakistani intellectual and writer that we often seek but seldom find
A brilliant bilingual poet, polyglot essayist, committed woman’s rights advocate; social and political organiser and activist; radio program producer and broadcaster; deputy controller in the higher administration of Radio Pakistan and resident director of Shakir Ali Museum; a woman of rare courage and artistic genius – how many are the ways to remember Nasreen Anjum Bhatti? How many are the ways to appreciate and acknowledge her achievements and contributions? She, who has now departed from this mortal life, may not be as widely recognised in Pakistan as some of her more glamorous contemporaries, but, to those who knew her and her work, her service to the cultural, intellectual, and political life of the country is as rich and meaningful as any of its celebrated writers and artists. What is more, it was selflessly given – and selflessly underplayed. In more ways than one, she may be the consummate Pakistani intellectual and writer that we often seek but seldom find, defeated in our quest in the face of regional divergences, linguistic and cultural diversity of the land and its people, and, crucially, the alienation of the educated elite from its native wellsprings of literary and creative expression.
Hers, however, may be a different case altogether. Born to Christian parents in Quetta in 1943, Bhatti received her early education in that city before her family relocated to Jacobabad in Sindh. Thus from a very young age, in addition to Punjabi spoken at home, she was exposed to Baluchi, Pashto, Persian, and Sindhi, even as she began to learn Urdu and English in school. She grew up then in a diverse and sumptuous cultural milieu, which, though predominantly Muslim, included a rich interweave of Christian, Hindu, and Adivasi beliefs – and many forms of folk and mystical tradition. Later, she would move to Lahore and obtain her B.A. in fine arts from the Lahore College for Women, and her Masters in Urdu from the Oriental College, before joining Radio Pakistan as a program producer in 1971. In course of time, she would earn a Masters in Punjabi as well and spend a couple of years studying at the National College of Arts, but her education thereafter was her own wide reading in subcontinental and world literature; her close observation of and intimacy with life and its vicissitudes in its various spheres; and the company of poets, writers, intellectuals, musicians, and artists. She was, after all, well-placed as a program producer to keep such company.
Such is the background that shaped the sensibility of our poet, and the manifold strains that came to form it are but the reflection of the lavishly heterogeneous fabric of what – often in a reductive and generalised way – we call ‘Pakistani society’. But in the apprehension of a creative spirit, this society is like “a dome of many-coloured glass,” each panel as rich as the one next to it and collectively only a prism to the unity of the whole. So it is that Bhatti perceives her world. The intrepid spirit of our revolutionary poet-mystics resonates deeply within her. But she found her own path, though not without leaving signs of acknowledgement on the way to her great predecessors that she learned from so deeply – Bulleh Shah, Shah Husain, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. Among her contemporaries, it is that iconic reclusive Punjabi poet Najm Hosein Syed whose influence and poetic practice she most absorbed. Then it is all Nasreen Anjum Bhatti – a poet distinct and apart from all others.
Though it is an art that she continued to refine and enhance throughout her life, writing poetry appears to have been a childhood pastime for Bhatti. It is said, that she published her first poem at the age of nine! That was in Ta’aleem o Tarbiat, a reputed children’s monthly in Urdu, apparently still in publication. In those early days she wrote poetry in Sindhi, Urdu and Punjabi, but she gave up composing in Sindhi at some point. However, she has published prose pieces and literary articles in Sindhi and English. Her poetic output, though, has not been prodigious. She published only two collections of her Punjabi poems in her lifetime (Nilkarian Nilkan, above-mentioned, and Atthay Pehr Tarah – “Alarm Around-the-Clock”), and two also of her Urdu works (Bin Bas, “Exile,” and Tera Lehja Badalnay Tak, “Until Your Tone and Diction Change”). But it is the excellence of her work that distinguishes her from her contemporaries and ensures that her work will be read by future generations.
Deeply rooted in the native cultural milieu of Pakistan, and one may add, the northwestern Indian subcontinental sensibility, Bhatti’s poetry is also a scathing indictment of the patriarchal structures of exploitation and abuse, as it is of despotic rule and social injustice. But there are remarkable examples of Sufi spiritualism and devotional poetry (the traditional kafi handled in a unique and original way). She takes back the female voice from the male Sufis who had appropriated it to divest themselves of the expectations and preeminence associated with their gender and give articulation to the human spirit or soul, perceived as the female made pliant and humble by ceaseless suffering, in conversation with the Divine Beloved. In Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’s hands the devotional kafi acquires ironic undertones and is transformed into a vibrant song of protest:
Prem kamawan balaya dargah da diwa
Diwa balia rain gayee par dinoon naan charrhya
Adh wichkaray jhooldi paee pihan wali
Sirrarr siyapa kaun karay wey diwaya jay bhakhian rehna
Main wi matti bhaj gayee wich kuj naan aha
(Kafi, “Parr purana, des dhagana, dhaga, dhaga karna”)
I lit the shrine’s lamp to earn love.
The lamp lit, night sped, but day did not dawn.
She who grinds is left to wait midway—
Who would toil so hard, O lamp, to remain unfulfilled?
I too am but clay, shattered, and nothing within, ah!
(Kafi, “An ancient land, shaken by violence, pulled apart thread by thread”)
In another poem, “Chirrian da Sawal” (The Sparrows’ Question), Bhatti subverts a popular folk song, “Sada chirrian da chamba ve, babal asan udd janan” through skillful use of irony to highlight the misery of young girls laboring under the social expectation of marriage and departure, often permanent, from their parents home.
Ik tarri mar kay phaer kadhi naan edhar jhaat karay
Marzi saainyaan di
Sehnidian sehndian seh gaiyaan nain chirriyan
wich anhayrayan leh gaiyaan nain chirriyan
We are but sparrows, Sanwal!
Once we take flight, we are gone.
Tired and weary, we settle on a ledge.
There’s one wakes up, another stares, one looks on in pity.
Someone listens to what is said,
or angrily shouts and curses.
A lifetime of hardship has taught the sparrows to suffer;
they have descended now into deepest darkness.
Bhatti’s poetry is a scathing indictment of patriarchal structures, despotic rule and social injustice
The scope of this article does not permit a comprehensive review of Bhatti’s poetry, or an examination of the many poetic forms and themes she has deployed in her work. But no overview of her work and legacy can ignore her singular contribution to the Punjabi poetic form of Vaar, a species of poetry that commemorates the life and death of a hero and combines elements of the ballad, elegy and eulogy. Her composition in this form, “Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Di Vaar,” has attained the standing of a folk song in the genre. It has been set to music and sung by singers to great acclaim across the Punjab and Sindh. Admittedly, it may be the product of a more innocent age, when we could still believe without cynicism in the virtue and decency of our leaders and in the genuineness of their concern for common good. But the imaginative conceptualisation in this Vaar of a popular public leader (hanged unjustly after a rigged trial, for a murder he did not commit or authorize) as the legendary hero Mirza of the famous Punjabi romance Qissa Sahiban is a marvel of creative ingenuity. This is how it begins:
Mein Mirza sagar Sindh da, meri Rawal janj charrhi
Mein Shah Husain di aajizi, mein Shah Latif di vail
Meray dushman likhan adalataan, meray sajjan khabar parri
Mein Mirza sagar Sindh da, meri Rawal janj charrhi
I have rocked on the rope of death, I rode the swing of daybreak
I am the humility of Shah Husain, the paean of praise of Shah Latif
My enemies scribe the courts of law, my friends have heard the news
I am Mirza of river Sindh, my wedding is feast Rawal
The way Punjabi has been marginalised in the country and political power dynamics have come to characterise Punjab as a monstrous villain brandishing its authority on the national scene, it has become virtually impossible for contemporary Punjabi literature produced in Pakistan to find the wide audience it deserves. That audience, for similar reasons, is missing for literature in Sindhi, Pashto and Baluchi as well. Things may be changing but the process is slow and uncertain. Yet it must be said that writers in the local language traditions have not given up. If anything, the literary scene is livelier today than it was twenty years ago. Nasreen Anjum Bhatti is one poet who speaks across the barriers of language, race, color and creed. The excellence of her work, her intuitive humanity and her attentiveness to the plight of the persecuted and the dispossessed place her among the most compelling poets of our time. Unfortunately, the country has not quite registered the extent of the loss it has suffered in her death.
Waqas Khwaja is Professor of English at Agnes Scott College in the USA