It was certainly liberating reading a couple of weeks ago in these pages about the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Prize for Women’s Writing – the first ever prize for Pakistani women’s writing – and that a young woman had won the inaugural prize for her short-story. Pakistani women rightly rejoice and celebrate this milestone in the 21st century.
But just a century ago, there were perhaps a few more female poets on the literary horizon in Urdu than there were fiction writers. From the early pioneers Muhammadi Begum and the Begum of Bhopal who initiated women’s magazines, to the mushrooming of female writers – women certainly did not have it easy. They often had to use their initials (as a certain Ze Khe Sheen, or Z K S, who was revealed later to be Zahida Khatoon Shervania) or write as the daughter, sister, mother or wife of a man (for example, Vaalida Afzal Ali) if they were to be published at all. This began to change in the first half of the 20th century with the names of Hijab Ismail, Rashid Jahan, Razia Sajjad Zaheer and later Ismat Chughtai in fiction; and Ada Jafri, Zehra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed, Shabnam Shakeel, Saeeda Gazdar, Fahmida Riaz and Nasreen Anjum Bhatti in poetry.
By the time Parveen Shakir – who passed away in a car accident in Islamabad 25 years ago on the 26th of December last week – and her contemporaries came to the fore in Pakistan, their path to literary glory had already been cleared by the aforementioned female poets. In fact, it is easier to lose sight of what a remarkable generation of female poets that Shakir belonged to. One can confidently name Jameela Nishat, Sara Shagufta, Fatema Hasan, Shahida Hasan, Tanveer Anjum, Ishrat Afreen, Yasmeen Hameed and Azra Abbas as the other members of this golden generation all born in the 1950s. Remarkably, all of these women except Parveen and Sara – who both passed away early in tragic circumstances – are currently active and writing.
Despite these achievements, one is often surprised at the ways female writers and their achievements are often neglected or marginalized even today. Two examples will suffice. Raza Mir’s excellent primer to Urdu poetry, The Taste of Words, includes only four female poets in a galaxy of forty-seven poets in all, albeit apologetically. My friend Irfan Javed’s two collections of sketches of our eminent writers and artists, namely Darvaaze and Surkhaab consisting of 24 stars, has only one female protagonist – though when I quizzed him about it, he admitted it that it was for personal reasons. In both cases, it was “Paro”, Parveen Shakir who made the cut, while most of the others of this gifted generation did not.
This is why a specially curated translation of Parveen Shakir’s selected poems is especially welcome. Parveen’s use of feminine tropes in the ghazal tradition marked her as an innovator in the form; for example she is considered a pioneer in the deployment of the term khushboo (fragrance), or in referring to the protagonist of the ghazal as ladki (girl). Her poetry was self-conscious in rebelling against patriarchy. But despite these obvious female-centric tropes, many consider her poetry to be still written in the classical mode, not aspiring to the more consciously feminist aesthetic pioneered by her fellow-Pakistani contemporaries like Naheed, Riaz and Afreen. I, however, beg to differ with this definition, since given what I have said above with regards to women’s writing, my own understanding of feminism is simply about the ability of a woman to write and express herself. This also seems to be the contention of the translator of the volume in hand Naima Rashid, not just reflected in her choice of title of the book.
Parveen’s poems have been translated into English off and on, while she was alive as well as after she passed away. I can name two separate attempts here: there is a more recent volume of Parveen’s later poems by Rehan Qayoom, published from an online platform; while an older attempt by Mahmudul Hasani, et al from India has attempted to translate 85 of her poems. Rashid’s volume has the advantage of being a bilingual edition along with a transliteration to suit all tastes according to the readers’ sensibilities. Then there is the translator’s strongly personalized approach, which she has explained in her note at the beginning of the book: she has taken some liberty with form, but tried to stay loyal to the poem in translation. In addition, she is not just interested in a particular phase of Parveen’s short career, either the earlier phase which produced the best-selling Khushboo or the later, mature poems in Inkaar, but the “arc of her work […] a robust journey of evolution.” Explaining her choice of title, Rashid is interested in understanding the rose in Parveen’s poetry as a metaphor for her personal polarity between her strength and weakness as a woman. What is also refreshing is, by the translator’s own admission, the act of activism inherent in “a woman translating a woman.”
Of course there are many translated versions of the same poem of Shakir. I would just like to compare Alamgir Hashmi’s translation of Hum Sab Aik Tarah se Dr Faustus Hen, a short poem, in order to bring to the fore some nuances of the craft of translation. While Hashmi brings out the urgency of Dr Faustus’s pact with the devil with his use of “mortgage” and “collateral” for the Urdu words “rahn” and “girvi” respectively, I believe that the word “barter” which Rashid has used for the line Aankhen rahn rakhva kar is insufficient since it suggests an exchange, which may or may not be equal. And I suspect that Shakir herself, who had an academic background in bank administration, would have wanted the irony of the poem to reveal itself to the reader in all its “financial” infamy. On the other hand, Rashid, unlike Hashmi, translates this poem in a jaunty, rhyming style which is a delight to read.
This volume, rather than taking the relatively easier and risk-free approach of translating one particular volume by the poet, aims for the more difficult task of curating her entire oeuvre
This volume, rather than taking the relatively easier and risk-free approach of translating one particular volume by the poet, aims for the more difficult task of curating her entire oeuvre – which not only tries to show the poet’s evolution from a young woman smitten by the rosy experience of love to a married career woman, then a mother, and going through the pains of a disrupted marriage to new heights of maturity; and it also aims to “change our mind” about Shakir as merely a poetess of flowers and fragrance. Here are poems on her fellow contemporary poet Sara Shagufta (Tomato Ketchup), who like Shakir died young but was hounded while she was alive and even in death by the custodians of patriarchy and morality; a brilliant example of a character prose poem, of which there is a scant quantity in Urdu, the only other one which comes to my mind is Majeed Amjad’s poem on Saadat Hasan Manto Kon He Yeh Gustakh? There are political poems like A Special Steel Mills Worker and A Poem for Yasser Arafat; social portraits of marginalized figures, mostly women like Basheer’s Wife, Stenographer, Working Woman, The Dilemma of a Female Social Worker; and about her experiences in the Pakistani bureaucracy, The Suggestion of a Senior Officer, and of motherhood, Creator of the Universe.
I am tempted to sign off this review with a personal observation. This book completes what I myself first experienced about Parveen Shakir back in November 2016 when I first read her poem Departmental Store Men (Inside the Departmental Store), a poem which is not included in Rashid’s curation, but which I was compelled to translate on my own. Since readers will be reading this review in the middle of the Christmas/New Year vacation, it is apt to mention this poem, which marches on steadily to its startling conclusion.
I for one now can no longer enter any departmental store whether in Lahore or anywhere else, without Shakir’s anti-consumerist poem giving me a pause.
When Zahra Hussain began writing her book on Parveen Shakir, most publishers were more interested in a book on the scandals encompassing Parveen’s life than on any other topic. Nimra Rashid’s sensibly and beautifully curated selection comes close to breaking that stereotype
Incidentally, I began this year for in these pages with an obituary of Khalida Hussain, the master short-story writer who was Parveen Shakir’s friend, and the last person Parveen talked to on the phone before driving to her death that day on the 26th of December. I am indebted for this detail not to my friend Irfan Javed’s aforementioned detailed sketch of the poetess, but to Zahra Hussain, a young and dedicated researcher who has mentioned this in her own lovely, self-published biography of her idol, titled Paara Paara. Most coincidentally, my first piece of the new year is on Parveen Shakir – reflecting my own commitment to making more known, the work of our women writers. When Zahra began writing her book on Parveen Shakir, most of her would-be publishers were more interested in a book on the scandals encompassing Parveen’s life than on any other topic. Nimra Rashid’s sensibly and beautifully curated selection comes close to breaking that stereotype about Parveen Shakir, and about women writers in general.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He has written on, and translated the selected work of Ismat Chughtai, Fahmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah, Amrita Pritam, Kishwar Naheed, Masroor Jahan, Razia Sajjad Zaheer and Parveen Shakir. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979