The Dawn: Feb 05, 2016

Punjab Notes: You can hear her singing in the dark

Mushtaq Soofi 

“In the dark times will there also be singing? “Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times”. But singing about dark times which do not seem to end in this land of woes, requires courage a few among our literati can muster. Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, a poet, broadcaster and rights activist, never pretended to appear courageous but what she did, expressed immense courage that she imperceptibly embodied. She challenged through her poetic expression the inherited class-based politico-economic structure and patriarchy-driven socio-cultural norms which flaunted conformity and compliance as apotheosis of civilization. Human civilization of which we feel proud, is defined by power, be it that of class or gender.

Being a socially conscious artist, Nasreen exposed the nature of political system that had an inbuilt tendency to deny the people their legitimate share in all the things life offered. She showed us the insidious interior of the system’s devious exterior. Being woman, she explored the complex process of how patriarchy created gender bias reduced female to a commodity. How societal norms, cultural values, customs and traditions ultimately end up as oppressive tools to be used subtly or not so subtly against the have nots and women is what engages her at emotional and experiential level. We find in her poetry an organic link between political oppression and patriarchal practices. In her imaginative reconstruction, the distinctions between interior and exterior, and inner and outer disappear unmistakably hinting at the totality of life that eludes contemporary individual who is forced to experience it as fragmentary and fragmented.

Nasreen in fact picked up fragments, prosaic and ordinary, and arranged them with such an artistic skill that a whole new world came into being that was fresh and familiarly unfamiliar. She was one of those poets who found the reality of life in the ordinary, realising that the extraordinary grew out of the ordinary and the abstract was born of the concrete. So in such a context the ordinary when touched by Nasreen, a poet of keen imagination and humanist vision, turned extraordinary as it came up impregnated with new meanings.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that Nasreen Anjum is the female voice, soft but strong, dominating our poetic landscape that on the one hand debunks woman as she is perceived and on the other celebrates what she potentially is, a source of life and protector of what it offers. She is ruthless in exposing not only the oppressively dominant male but also slavishly subservient female who carries an internalised image of female projected by male as somewhat less than human. One of her short unpublished poem says it all: ‘I have heard the pains conversing / I have heard, inside the man resides another man who doesn’t let him live/ these two men are born simultaneously as twin? Or the other man is born of the man later/ can you tell me? /my man has gone out somewhere/ when he comes back; I will ask him and let you know’. If we want to know the answer, we will find it somewhere in Nasreen’s poetry where we find man comes up as companion and exploiter, confidant and tormentor simultaneously.

A theme that runs through her poetry is the absolute rejection of political oppression that denies freedom of individual and collective in the name of the system. Her mastery over language makes her expression nuanced and highly suggestive. Her poetry is like wind; you feel it but cannot hold it in your hands. She generally avoids the allure of clichéd concreteness and contrite revolutionary ideas the so-called leftist poets are so enamoured of in our part of the world. She is neither a feminist nor a political poet in the traditional sense. She defies patriarch as much as she defies dictator.

There is no one among us who has the sensitivity and imaginative skill to say: ‘Hey, who are you weaving my bed with my insides/ Place my heart at the foot and my eyes at the head? I have to embroider on the pillow/ when earth’s neck is bowed, you don’t load the sky on it — ‘(translated by Khwaja Waqas).

Nasreen Anjum Bhatti was no doubt a multifaceted woman. Remembering her may prove to be the nimiety of emotions. But emotions, we all know, have a short life. What will have a long life is her poetry which relentlessly explores how ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. What is true of woman is also true of man; he is not born, but rather, becomes a man who in a patriarchal structure by denying woman as full human being denies the opportunity of growing together in freedom. —

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