Portraits in verse

June 21, 2020

Parveen Shakir’s study and observation of characters specific to her age testify to how little things ever change in essence

Parveen Shakir’s reputation as a poet is dominated by her mastery of the ghazal, often leaving her work in other genres, unappreciated. Her opus comprises a suite of portraits in verse which add up to a cross-section of the times she lived in.

Her deftness as a painter of portraits in verse resides in her use of the build-up and the irony she deploys in the final flourish. The portraits build up like a crescendo, erupting into a finale that bookends the symphony like a clash of cymbals. This delight by deception is her favourite tool as a portrait artist.

In some poems, this effect is achieved by a swift shift of perspective at the close, a toggle from the micro to macro. We are being steered through a skein of details, meandering through the finer filaments of texture, when suddenly, the angle of the camera switches from a close-up to a wider lens. A truth we sensed building up in our bones is suddenly spelt out before us like a writing on the wall. This snaps the picture into perspective, and, in an epiphany, we can suddenly see the forest for the trees, the trails of meaning joining up and building the pieces of the puzzle behind us.

Nun begins with the poet looking wistfully at a class-fellow sworn to the oath of celibacy. Feeling small in her mortal shell, bound to earthly pleasures and delights, the poet looks up in awe at this dweller of higher realms.

“My class-fellow/who roams the earth like a celestial sprite,/ dressed from head to toe in white,/ silver cross around the neck,/ lips in endless prayer./ I used to look at her like a mote looks up at the sun…”

The final reveal comes couched in a quotidian occurrence. During a lecture on Keats, the nun, looks innocently at the poet, and asks, “What is love?” It is an emotion she has denied into oblivion and when she plumbs for it in the folds of memory the response is a muted silence.

“…in that moment,/ I remembered all my loves with all their griefs,/ Those pangs – what noble pangs!/ And in that moment,/ I felt as if/ the mote had eclipsed the sun.”

The image of the sun and the mote is introduced with a power dynamic that works at face value, the poet being the lesser mote, the nun the bright sun. Its reversal is baked into the poem, and through the closing image of the eclipse, the reversed dynamic is brought to a majestic reveal, a dot eclipsing a ‘planet’ by virtue of knowing that most sublime of mortal ills, love.

A similar reversal opens up new vistas of meaning in Yasser Arafat ke Liye Aik Nazm (A Poem for Yasser Arafat). It begins with an image of a patch of sky seen from a window.

“That patch of sky/ which we see from our windows,/ how beautiful it is!/ This windowful of dominion over life,/ what sovereignty it holds within itself!”

This windowful of the sky is an image of proprietorship, of access to leisure available only to those who own a home. The poem builds up in contrast to this image denied to Yasser Arafat because of his choice and commitment to fight for his homeland, nameless and faceless on a map, forever elusive unlike a blue square framed in a window that one could always count on.

He is the dervish who swore allegiance to his homeland, and denied himself much, living as a child of nature at the mercy of elements, often naked and vulnerable in the face of their fury.

“… you/ who did not have a roof over your head all life long,/ who always stopped the rain with his bare hands,/ and never borrowed a scrap of a wall for shade in the sun.”

While these portraits bear the stamp of their lived time and age, they are not period pieces. They tingle with a humanity that is universal and timeless.

As the poem comes full circle, this nobility, this selflessness, this simple-hearted devotion becomes purer than the sky itself. The object coveted in the beginning is rendered redundant towards the end, the person seen as missing something transformed instead into possessing something more sublime and valuable than anything else in the universe.

“That noble forgetting is dearer/ than the treasures of all the world’s memories combined./ Before such homelessness, such endearing modesty,/ the possessions of the entire universe are worthless,/ the blue canopy of the sky itself is muddy.”

A similar volte-face, more macabre in mood, clenches into perspective the study of the central subject in Steel Mills Ka Ik Khasoosi Mazdoor (Portrait of a Special Steel Mills Worker).

In this short, fifteen-line poem, since the very outset, the title hints at the privilege of the steel mills worker. He is ‘special’.

“His wages are premium, in exchange,/ his meals too, are specially prepared./ He works in neat four-hour slots,/ never a minute over that count.”

Even as he goes about his Sisyphian labour of forever stoking the furnace with new batches of coal to keep it hot, his supposed metrics of privilege are evoked in parallel. Just as the troubling dichotomy between the labour of doom and the supposed privileges he enjoys begins to unruffle us, the truth, simmering at the fault-line of unrest, is clammed shut.

“He does not know, though,/ that in full consciousness,/ he has signed a contract of death,/ for his life is the engine/ that powers the beast.”

His whole being becomes fuel for the furnace, worth only the intervals between the refills for which it can keep the furnace hot before dissolving into embers. The ‘special’ worker is living on borrowed time, measly moments the toxic fumes will spare him.

If the clarity of an epiphany jolts into perspective some portraits, others reveal their truth through more subtle manoeuvres, the subject of the portrait emerging only as a shade or suggestion. They grow as whispers, with wisps of colour and shade suggested in hazy, impressionistic strokes, as if seen through a smokescreen, or through a dew-laden window pane. Parveen Qadir Agha, an ode to Shakir’s friend with whom she resided along with her son for the latter part of her life, and who is presently chairperson of the Perveen Shakir Trust, is a beautiful study in portraits chiselled aslant. We only ever see the subject of the portrait at the end, like a shadow, an angel. Instead, we are shown Parveen Qadir Agha’s portrait through the pain of the poet she addresses through her actions.

“You are dead to us,/ the family’s steely silence pronounced,/ and without as much as a word,/ I left forever my father’s house.

“A night that loomed ahead like a mountain’s crest,/ blood-thirsty wolves on all four sides.

“I cried so much that day,/ that were the world an empty cauldron,/ my tears would have flooded it over.”

Embedded here is the deeper truth that for these angels in human guise, actions speak louder than words.

The chilling Macbeth opens with Macbeth, cutting into the story at the point of highest guilt, after the murder of Duncan.

“Startled eyes are accursed to eternal wakefulness./ Sleep slips through the eyes like fish through fingers,/ as if aquiver with the premonition of nightmares to come.”

From here, we swivel across straight to the lip of the ocean, where an old woman sits bowing at the edge, the stains of blood etched in her mind so indelible that all oceans of the world do not contain enough water between them to cleanse her conscience.

“…this dreamless hour/ has come upon a trembling hand too./ On the lip of the coast of Arabian Sea,/ an old woman seeks a cure of musk and ambergris./ Her hand is in the water,/ And in her eyes has dawned/ a thirst for all the oceans of the world.”

While these portraits bear the stamp of their lived time and age, they are not period pieces. They tingle with a humanity that is universal and timeless. While sealing in lines of verse Shakir’s study and observation of characters specific to her age, they testify, at the same time, to how little things change in essence. We walk the earth, going through our motions in different garbs and guises, always the same unchanging blueprint at the core.

The writer a UK-based translator and the author of Defiance of the Rose, a translation of selected works by Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English

Portraits in verse: Parveen Shakir’s study and observation of characters specific to her age testify to how little things ever change in essence