Her life is a revolving
Of languid and sequestered ease;
Her girdles and her fillets gleam
Like changing fires on sunset seas;
Her raiment is like morning mist,
Shot opal, gold and amethyst.
From thieving light of eyes impure,
From coveting sun or wind's caress,
Her days are guarded and secure
Behind her carven lattices,
Like jewels in a turbaned crest,
Like secrets in a lover's breast.
But though no hand unsanctioned dares
Unveil the mysteries of her grace,
Time lifts the curtain unawares,
And Sorrow looks into her face . . .
Who shall prevent the subtle years,
Or shield a woman's eyes from tears?
To read the poem is to be conjured of a Muslim woman going in the burkha, the blackly veil, gown and slippers, naqab or hijab. Just the eyes are visible and nothing else. She is under the veil from head to toe. How to identify her? How to be introduced to her? Hence, the poem The Pardah Nashin before us for a reading. A pardah nashin, a veiled persona, protagonist is the chief attraction of the poem under our deliberation and discussion. One cannot see her, but she can from her pardah as far as she can kaleidoscopically. Through the holes, she can, and rarely will she lift it and that too purposively if the need be and that too with a prior permission. We do not know who the dark heroine is; the queen of the heart. Sarojini Naidu would have seen her, met her often in Hyderabad or the bazaars of it which she is describing it here in this poem, but how much advanced had she been when she took a note of and described into her poetry even in that age so ahead of times. E.M. Forster too speaks of the purdahwallis and ghumtawallis, the purdah system in his one of his prose-pieces, but he found it so drastically changed it during his second visit just after the independence perhaps. The poem as a subject-matter is one of human rights, women studies, gender bias, patriarchal hegemony and Asiatic studies. It is a feministic issue. The poem opens our eyes in respect of gender equality, human rights and womanly existence.
The burkha is a long enveloping garment worn by the Muslim women in public and hence a burkhawalli is the protagonist, mouthpiece of this feminist poem. The poetess says that her life is a revolving dream of languid and sequestered ease. The girdles and fillets gleam as these keep fastening the garment at the waist and the headband hair too. The fillet means a band or ribbon worn round the head as for binding the hair which but looks like changing fires on sunset seas in their gleam. Her raiment, whatever call you, clothing, attire or garments is opal, gold and amethyst. Here the poetess has given a different look to the poem after calling the dress raiment and when describing the dress, she uses the words, opal, gold and amethyst. Just like the morning mist it appears to be discarding the nightly shroud and wrapper. It is opal, colours seem to be swimming within it, transparent and translucent as well. Apart from opal, golden the raiment appears to be amethyst, just like a precious stone of a violet or purple variety of quartz, trying to dress in a decorative way, in the best possible manner.
The maiden under the dark blackly veil is almost secure and free from the thieving light of the impure eyes who may not see her with lustful looks her beauty and youth to follow her or hold in admiration of to die for her as love lies it forbidden here and Laila cannot meet her Majnu. The cover also guards her form the coveting sun or the wind’s caress as these do in the desert lands of Arabia saving from heat and dust and desert storms and swirling sands. The covering keeps her delicate as well hiding from sun and dust. She is guarded well and secure behind the purdah, curtain of the theatre, an artiste in the making. She is just like a jewel of the turbaned crest, a secret of some lover’s breast. The poem is indeed a portrait of an artist, the artist as a young burkhawalli, purdahwalli and this takes us to the imagery of Andrew Marvells’ To His Coy Mistress. Sarojini Naidu herein seems to be the writer of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and The Portrait of a Lady and the Pardah Nashin is but her My Last Duchess, Mona Lisa’s much debate and discussed smile. But only Browning can question it, why did his duchess smile? Had there been some artist here, the model would have been in Madame Tussauds’ museum of wax models. If not, it is here a beautiful human mannequin, an art piece of Naidu and in this regard Beharman’s painting of the last leaf art model and the photo making of the model millionaire cannot be forgotten.
But she is also a living character of flesh and blood. She too has love in her heart. She too has a body and a soul. She is not merely a slave. She also wants to fly like a bird as she is after all a woman. She has also her freedom, her human rights. Though the dress is a beauty, she can definitely wear it, but to oppress and suppress her, throttle her freedom are not going to work. How shall we keep her in the dark?
A thing of beauty definitely it glistens. But who can check the advancing steps of time, age and ageing as time does not leave, spare anyone who ever be it. Her youth and beauty are also as such doomed to be shrunken and shrivelled. Though none can lift her veil, instead of that it will slip through the passage of time one day when sorrow will peep into the eyes of hers to find that she is also after all a woman and her breast filled with the milk of human kindness which but she cannot forsake it. Who can check tears from her eyes falling, tricking down the cheeks? A woman’s tears only a woman can know it, not a man, only a female, not a male.
The Pardah Nashin as a poem describes a veiled beauty peeping through the purdah, the veil, the hijab or the naqab, the headscarf or the covering over the face. But when she peeps, looks through the lattices it strikes a different chord. A tailor can explain it well as it is also a fact that clothing has a say all through the poem directly or indirectly as we cannot do without taking the dress, attire and reflection into our scrutiny and assessment. Her looks through the lattices piercing may also hint towards Arjuna’s looking of the bird-eye for archery if to compare and contrast with differently. Her looks also may relate to the stories of the modern-day lens-eyed looks of the spectacled, powered girls.
While reading the poem, several pictures come to the eyes as if someone from the country were going on the bullock-cart driving it hurriedly to meet and bid goodbye to the theatre girl acquainted with at the village fair ground and in the meantime the train whistling off from the halt with the things of heart remaining unshared, unsaid to with the strange heroine met by chance and fallen in love with strangers which she should not have done it. The other image may be of someone peeping through the house arrest or the prison cell. The other image may be of a green, red-necked parrot lying caged and speaking ‘Buti bhejo, Sita-Rama, Sita-Ram, Gopiji, buti, buti bhejo’. The situation is almost like that. The poem also conjures up the image of the clouded skies and the moon shining through. When we think of the purdah system, the Sati system, child marriage and the widows subjected to tyranny also dance before the eyes. Once the purdah system wreaked havoc and India grappled with, struggled to come through casteism, illiteracy, backwardness, underdevelopment, poverty, hunger and above all, inaction, lethargy, fatalism and belief in the Unknown. The last of all, not the least, is Sarojini Naidu the James Joyce or the Henry James of The Pardah Nashin? Is she the Dark Lady of Shakespeare?