Feb 25, 2024
Feb 25, 2024
Imtiaz Dharker- A Study in Prescriptive Social and Religious Sanctions
Imtiaz Dharker (1954-) lives with the passion of an undaunted rebel, not to retreat and not to fail. The intensity and eloquence of her life and poetic accomplishment have dumbfounded the male-chauvinists and have left her female counterparts in soaring spirits not only inside the Islamic social, cultural and religious setup but also outside it. That is why her life and poetry make a fascinating study in the crushing indictment of the suppressive prescriptions against the freedom, dignity and respectful living of women, especially in the Muslim society. Imtiaz confirms our convictions that socio-cultural and socio-religious restrictions on women have robbed them of all their potentialities leaving them not only physically and mentally handicapped but also psychological wrecks age after age. The lived experiences of Imtiaz have been honestly expressed in her poetry with the courage of conviction. Her humanistic and feministic concerns with her anguish and agony, sympathy and protest give the message silently, though its deafening explosion has been felt everywhere. That is the reason that her rebellion has caused a flutter in the petticoats of the guardians of orthodox religion, custodians of culture and the pettifogging politicians. The substance, spirit and style of her daily living hold everyone to sway.
Indian women writing poetry is not a new phenomenon in literature. It is quite old. Eunice de Souza tells us: “Women have been writing poetry in India since about 1000 B.C. on religious and secular themes, and it is among these rather more distant ancestors that contemporary women writers are likely to find congenial voices and styles.” Eunice de Souza goes on to trace their great verse accomplishment till today. The emotion and passion and the gusto of their expression abundantly reveal what poetic power and poetic gift are in these instruments of the harmonies of nature. More abundant and fulfilling is the promise of fast increasing number of the buds and flowers and twigs arranged, displayed and placed in all their spontaneity in the bouquets of female poetic artistry and accomplishment today. Female voice is divinely gifted with harmony and musicality if sung in creativity, not otherwise. So the orchestra of female voices is presented best with all its magic and melody when the male sensibilities are well-attuned to it. May be the modesty of male –chauvinism forbids the acknowledgement of their own past monopolistic gains and the present sense of their loss! Imtiaz obviously and rightly has a proud claim to be among them. The present study includes only Purdah group of poems and “I Speak For the Devil” and her “Postcards from god” and “The Terrorist at My Table” have been deliberately kept out of purview for such is the demand of the present venture.
Imtiaz Dharker regards herself as a Scottish Calvinist Muslim and her poetry is a confluence of three cultures. It reflects and depicts her deeply sensitive and keenly insightful understanding and response to these three cultures. Her sincerity in handling the issues of social, cultural and religious significance sensitizes the reader equally well. The delicacy and the tenderness that run in her silky strains awakens us to the wrongs and songs of the daily life of women under the norms, rules and sanctions laid down by the patriarchal society for power dynamics. She captures even the fleeting moments and thoughts with the rare touch of the artist who is heart and soul, mind and spirit, body and intellect, integrally and indispensably associated with all that is the fragile fabric of life. The surety Imtiaz gives and the impact she creates in so doing leaves the reader stunned. The exquisite simplicity of her style lends to her poems an inimitable brilliant conversation, a lively and stinging comment trapping us in the enchanting romance of The 1000 Nights deconstructed as a morale-booster to feminism.
Obviously, Purdah was necessary in the beginning of Islam when the Arabian countries were torn by turmoil and social strife. Thus purdah ensured safety to women then and it also became a symbol of high status.
However, today, purdah is viewed as a flagrant violation of the basic rights, freedoms and dignity of women. Purdah is treated as symbol of repression on women as it is devastatingly ruinous to the personality of women. To be covered from head to foot in the black veil is more indispensable to Muslim women. There has been and is a sporadic revolt and heated controversy in the print and electronic media against this practice to regenerate and rejuvenate female psyche. That is why its evils are viewed as outweighing its good. Imtiaz Dharker, with her social and cultural growth and lived experiences spanning three countries- Pakistan, England and India- has shown her subtle artistry in exposing the Purdah System in her title poems, poems related to it, in all its complexes of theme and style. The symbolism inherent in purdah also finds its subtlety and simplicity in alien cultural setting.
“Purdah-I”and “Purdah-II” need to be read with “Honour Killing”, “Prayer”, “Grace” and “Battle-line.” This group of poems is packed with vast immensities. We have a fine experience of the force of courage and the force of conviction in the landscape of Imtiaz’s poetry, though her poetic potentiality is no less strong in other poems. “Purdah-I” is a discreet protest and an eloquent criticism of the tradition of veil strictly sanctioned and imposed on Muslim women. Our attention is focused on the turning point in the life of a Muslim girl when she suddenly becomes conscious of her sexual growth, others are perhaps more conscious.
The conservative society, cautious and conscious, must teach her some manners, decorum and dignity for the woman in the purdah is –
People around are the same; their looks are changed with a purpose –
They notice her shame but purdah is a protection against undesirable, vulgar and vile looks of staring people. So Eunice de Souza regards “purdah not just as concealing garment but as state of mind.” Purdah is suppressive and deadening to the intellectual awakening and growth of a woman and it is damaging to her personality. Purdah is a symbol of alienation and isolation from the outside world. It is a wall between the woman and the world. The result is that she is devoid of the first hand experience and the enlightenment this world has to offer. There is nothing refreshing in it; it curbs and restricts the speech and full expression; it is a repression of will and choice. Her mind and memory are stuffed with impressions from other women; their consciousness of sex and the feeling of sin associated with it grow to a stifle –
And the doors opening inward and again inward reveal her seclusion. In fact, the poem is a self-examination of the purdahnasheen and also an honest and courageous scrutiny of other people.
In “Battle-line”, Imtiaz better builds a situation depicting man-woman conflicts demarcating the boundary lines with check points and demolishing the same at will. The poetess questions –
The nations or the lovers or husband and wife behave the same after the battle-lines are drawn –
Here both the protagonists seem to have reached a tacit accord.
They appear to be the hopeful prayers of the poor. The observer is quite ironical when she questions out of sheer curiosity –
The answer to this question lies in not saying anything and the message is conveyed in willful and tactical silence, in the subtle irony of the question itself.
Imtiaz has killed many birds with no stone but the best is yet to be in her “Purdah-II” where the lioness is fiercest in her silence and kaleidoscopic depiction of the veiled Muslim women in an alien social, cultural, political and religious atmosphere. We hear the compassionate voice of the speaker but not her views. This voice forcefully expresses her serious humanistic and feministic concerns and the poetess achieves marvelous artistic success in the fulfillment of her poetic purpose.
However, another great poem, a high tragedy, deserves to be briefly discussed before this remarkably dramatic lyric. That high tragedy is “Honour Killing”, the first poem in “I speak For the Devil”.
It so happened that a young woman was brutally shot dead in her lawyer’s office in Lahore in 1999. None else but her family did so. It was a poignantly moving and heart-rending scene. What was her crime? She had asked for a divorce. Instead of having the heart, or for that purpose even head, to condemn the killing at any level, it was welcomed as “honour killing”.
Imtiaz Dharker’s sensitivity could not remain dumb or mum and it burst forth in her poem “Honour Killing”. It’s reading makes a powerful impact and it sensitizes the reader, awakens and rouses his conscience to the urgent feminist concerns. She says:
What is left in after the easy cage of bone is squeezed and what is left out? The closing of the poem reveals greater dimensions of tragedy:
The poetess understands the gravity of the situation and strongly feels that women must voice their conscience and protest against such deadening discriminations and devastating sanctions. Initially the price may be high and the tragedy too deep for tears but it is earnestly desired for the freedom and happiness of the future generations of women suffocating and rotting in such an environment. Of course, this world of dark rationality has not been the same since then. Radical sensations and thinking have set in and the emboldened spirit has started showing itself even within those confines and with considerable success. Not riddance but reformation is in sight.
“Purdah-II” is more elaborate, more dramatic and more eloquent in voicing the imminent concerns of lasting significance. It is a poem about many women and all merge into one. The movement of the poem reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. All these women in the poem merge into one woman; they all serve the same servitude – physical, psychological, social and cultural. Those who try to break cover with the hope and dream of a free new world face uncertainty and suffer excommunication. So the poem is an undaunted criticism of the way the society works against the freedom, dignity, will and choice of women even in alien land, here England.
The tenet of the Islamic faith, “Allah-u-Akbar”, comes as a reassurance and a comfort even there. The early morning call comes and the mind throws black shadows on the marble. The speaker reveals how Muslim women offer namaaz in a strange land.
A group of twenty women hears the mechanical recitation from the hustling pages of the holy Koran without understanding a world, its meaning or sense. This is the shallowness of the traditional education with no light of knowledge. These words are nudged into the head as a pure rhythm on the tongue. They rock their bodies to this rhythm and this gives to them a sense of belonging. The 15- year old, new Hajji who had cheeks pink with knowledge and startling blue eyes, throws a flower slyly on the book before a girl. It was the offering of the same hand with which he had prayed at Mecca. Imtiaz observes the sanctity of prayer in this sanctity of love. The impact of this incident was so powerful that it brought about a great physical and psychological change in the girl and she was unmindful of the punishment on the Doom’s Day.
This was a turning point in her life and her dreams were colored with the brightest shades. A girl from Brighton, Evelyn, noticed this blooming change in her –
This results in her traditional marriage. All these girls are fated to live and die with no will or choice of their own. They are “unwilling virgins” who had been taught to bind –
This veil is not only a concealing garment but a purdah of the mind. And –
Men who appeared in their life earlier or men about whom they dreamed are thing of the past, a matter of history. These girls feel a sense of pride in them and surrendered gladly to each other’s passionate delights –
Faith alone makes up for the years of loss. They made many sacrificial ceremonies to save the man and the child and what tense and dreadful moments those were looking to and waiting for the justice of God.
How ironical it is that these women have to observe purdah from God even!
She can even recognize the region to which they belong before they speak. Some of these women dare and break cover, these ghosts of the girls. The speaker wants to share the experiences of these females who have been reduced to mere ghosts in such inhuman conditions.
The speaker tells us about two girls, the swan-necked and tragic-eyed, Saleema and Naseem. Saleema had learnt from the films that the heroine was always pure and untouched. She surrendered herself to the passion of the mad old artist and wondered “ at her own strange wickedness.” Still there is worse in store. She gains age after losing her youth and womanhood in the continuing process of being bought and sold, annual pregnancies and marrying again. Then a revolt? Again she receives a sign of life behind the veil, finds another man and becomes another wife, begging approval from the rest. She is badly bowed under the burden of such a life.
Ranjit Hoskote in his Review published in “The Times of India” writes,
The interview of Imtiaz Dharker with Arundhati Subramaniam was published in “The Hindu” and he said,
Purdah-I and Purdah-II are marvelous modern poems of a living Indian English poetic genius who herein shows the undaunted conviction and revolt against a highly sensitive and explosive issue pertaining to the emancipation of women from a society with deep-rooted conservatism. The significance and insignificance of this social, cultural and religious prescription in the alien culture with ignominious liberal social setting has also been revealed with equal ease and poise. And Imtiaz does so on her own terms and none can dare watch the tragic drama behind and beyond the veil otherwise!
The Review of Imtiaz’s Poetry in “Poetry International” observes:
Surely, here, the vision of Imtiaz is broadened into all-embracive cosmopolitanism smoothly crossing all geographical, historical, religious, cultural and social boundaries and the subject of humanitarianism has been superbly handled. In these poems, numbering above seventy with, Imtiaz Dharker appears at her best. The poems in this book, even if read at a stretch, slide with the inexhaustible variety of images of the devil in all the three sections of the book, although the middle section forming the title holds the centre stage. Each piece reverberates with the message against the torn and terrifying conditions of life here and there and everywhere. The irony in the smiling welcome to the devil doesn’t go unnoticed even by a casual reader of poetry which becomes a serious business later. These poems are, in fact, “a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.” It is not an escape from personality; it is a sound expression of personality to live full-blooded life. To be more precise and exact, these poems redefine life in the face of new potential challenges. The total emphasis of Imtiaz is on courage and conviction, honesty and humanity to fulfill the purpose of living hither.
Imtiaz is comfortably at ease and never loses her calm or disturbs her poise while she is dealing with or handling the sensitive strains of politics or poetry, purdah or pretension, virtue or virility, sexuality or sanction, grace or gaudiness. Her soul feels the torture and atrocity, agony and anguish and, then she raves in her songs with the artistry felt only in the poetic pilgrimages of the masters. The divisions and boundaries-raised, erected and created geographically, historically, culturally, socially or religiously, by man are looked down upon as the bogeys and ghosts of the devil in man. She wants to demolish them all so that man as man moves unrestricted and unrestrained wherever, whenever and however he likes.
The message of One-God, One-World and One-Man resounds with a rare magnanimity and prophetic yearning. Her vision of cosmopolitanism haunts us with the rarity of emotional and humanistic arousal. This agony of the universal soul finds its honest expression in “Not a Muslim Burial” where she devoutly wishes her body to be burnt, and not buried, so that her ashes are scattered with all her creation and its instruments mixed in it in a country she never visited. Or her body be left in a running train moving to unvisited and unseen country. How poignant is the closing of this lyric!
Devil is a lad-of-all-work; devil is a dad-of-all-work; devil is do-all; devil is woo-all. It appears that even God is helpless at the hands of the Devil. In a very little piece, “The devil to god”, we hear devil’s devilry to God:
Devil awakens god to the bitter truth that those who serve and promote the Kingdom of God in the human world are far from being His devotees. These lines are an unsaid and un-promised assurance to The Master, “Sir”, to do better justice to the implementation of his programmes. Not only this, God himself is unaware of how the angels in His employ are misusing the divine powers and authority and all His programmes are a miscarriage in the human world.
Whatever consummates in delivery is a poor miserable achievement and fulfillment. Even the devil is ashamed that how his plan or programme was misrepresented. If such are God’s script writers, devil would like to apply for the job and has the sure confidence that he would do better than god’s own men. Imtiaz comes to believe in “Possession” that:
Everywhere there are devils. They may have different forms, shapes, uniforms and figures. Those who believe that they can get rid of the devil are sadly mistaken. She says:
That is why, the devil has the honest courage to advise in “The devil’s advice”:
The poetry of Imtiaz has an inimitable touch of simplicity and spontaneity in all their profundity. This lends an added force to her thought and emotion. This “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is everywhere in her poetic landscape and the effortless ease with which Imtiaz conveys her message creates an atmosphere of purity, freshness and innocence symbolic of nature untouched and undisturbed by the craftiness and crookedness of human civilization which has given birth to corrupt metropolitan culture with its debased social, economic, political and religious values leaving man under severe stress and strain. Devils alone are privileged licensees and we have a variety of cheats, pimps, spivs and scamsters influencing the daily working of human society. In the poems wherein the spokesman is the devil himself, Imtiaz is unsparing and relentless without losing her innocence and poise. In “The Devil’s Day”, she says:
She also reflects on:
In one of her shorter lyrics, “In Bed with The Devil”, Imtiaz makes us realize the force of devil’s working:
The poets too sacrifice all their concern for art, society and humanity when it comes to their survival. What can be more ironical? In “The Devil to The Poet”, the poet is straightforward to tell us that to play politics and to work for politics is indispensable to the existence of the poet. The poets meddle into politics whatever be their pretensions about their commitment. She says:
In “Mischief-maker”, the poetess feels the haunting presence of Shaitan in front, behind, around and everywhere. It is his omnipresence that has its haloed influence on our life everywhere. In another poem, “The Location”, we have a clear vision of such a presence:
Imtiaz finds TV no less a devil in the poem “Remote Control” that flickers to life:
You can’t trust anyone. It is not possible to share your secrets with anyone. Once you share your heart with anyone, you are undone. At the same time, who keeps secrets? Only devil. In “Secrets”, the poetess says:
People with honest and straightforward living feel worst when they have to conceal anything to themselves:
That is why Arshad’s uncle from Bradford switched off the TV set one day while all in the family were watching it. The uncle dragged it out, smashed the screen and carted the corpse away to the dump while everybody was left dumbfounded. And the uncle was the happiest of the souls in “Dealing with The Devil” when he said:
This was perhaps the daring start of Arshad’s uncle to kill other devils in similar feats of encounter.
In another masterpiece, “Greater Glory”, Imtiaz exposes the hypocritical and shameful conduct of man when she reveals the humiliating plight of God. She says:
In fact, the poetess has expressed her disgust for the prescriptive religion which has taken away or brutally crushed the humanity in humans. Where is the holiness and divinity of God and where is the faith and devotion of man? The freedom, frankness and fearlessness of Imtiaz deserve an honest pat! Her gentle mock, subtle irony and rapacious raillery in the totality of human conduct on the existential level transcended into absurdity have a well-defined obligation to man as man. This man, djin-possessed, devil-enamored and god-beleaguered, is conflict-ridden, torn-asunder, lulled and dulled by the debasing and dehumanizing socio-religious practices. And then there would be an exciting fun and festival on the Day of Judgement. “Last House-Full Show” is a lively and hilarious scene in the theatre packed beyond capacity. God, the Almighty, sits in judgement with the Heads of the States and the Heads of the Governments. The entire mass of mankind, the good and the bad, the tyrants and the terrorists, yankee boys and girls, poor and the prey, powerful on the dais and the helpless sufferers in the auditorium- all are in a festival mood. Look!
We are assured that-
It is not to be a documentary or a black and white-
What a spectacle of
more and more. A huge crowd outside clamoring and begging for tickets, the black marketeers doing a roaring business. A King Kong hand could have brought about a devastating calamity but some miracle saved them all. No one waits to see the scroll of credits or discredits. People are still rushing from all corners. Suddenly the show comes to an end as –
We experience that the subtle and delicate use of irony in Imtiaz is more a message than a weapon; weapon often fails, the message never, may be it takes a little longer. In “Slit”, she tells us about how men keep on plotting for revenge and use callousness and cunning in the process:
Here some dignitary is blown to pieces by a garland so sweetly and obsequiously offered to welcome, to idolize. And the idolization was there and it shook the world. Hence this tenderly expressed concern and anguish lauding men’s rare genius for revenge is known only to men carrying holy books, not holy men, and to omniscient God! We see and feel that Imtiaz expresses herself honestly and in an enviously direct manner without any sense of fear or loss. She exposes such powers, our Saviors, who decide all havoc and disaster, hullabulloo, social tensions and the daily round of life. In “Saviors”, we are told:
These are highly suggestive lines about masks for men and masks for women. And they are all “the defenders of the faith.”
Imtiaz feels that man is unjustly suffering when God and devil are engaged in fierce struggle to establish their supremacy and sovereignty. She suggests that it should be a war of power and pluck, politics and diplomacy, wits and hits, between God and devil only. Let God’s angels and Devil’s diplomats hold conclave to avoid confrontation at any level. They have their own territories to rule. Why should man be bruised or branded, crushed or crutched in this eternal hostility? The poetess tells God and Devil in direct terms in the poem “Lines of Control” to settle their scores once and for all and decide their own kingdoms without making man a prey to their battle of wits. She says:
This is a highly symbolic poem packed with vast immensities. This short lyric brings out the maddening dilemma of man. He remains torn and tense all his life between what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is immoral. All schools of thought have failed to help him in resolving this significant existential issue. So with all the glitter and gloom, delight and despair, pomp and paucity, prayers and pooh-poohs, absurdity is the outcome. All that man does to achieve a sense of belonging leads to alienation and isolation whether he is at the heights or at the bottom or dangling in the space like a Trinshaku. In such a helplessly conflicting situation, there is the glowing optimism that breeds our happiness. We can live better without thinking or doing evil to ourselves or to those who are connected with us. Shakespeare’s maxim in “Hamlet” seems to offer the best solution to rid man of his tearing dilemma: “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Farewell! you both God and the Devil. In “Guardians”, we are told:
Then the firm resolution for salvation is daringly expressed in “In your face”-
Imtiaz is poignantly concerned with the contentious issue of virtue and vice, good and bad, moral and immoral. In all honesty, she wants to rid human life, afflicted with this torn-between-the divide, of this issue so that human is comfortable with life as it comes to him and as he wants to live it ignorant of the teasing question. Freedom from this unresolved teasing dilemma would let man live untroubled and un-tortured by God or the devil. Everywhere on this earth, both the regents, the supremos of their respective kingdoms, and now relentlessly invading the kingdom of man, have infected, intimidated and bullied happiness. So both should retreat to their territories with their legions and leave man to himself.
We have not seen heaven or hell and we know nothing about their existence in geography or in spaces but all religious teachings regulate our conduct here with their hope and fear. Or we know only that we have decorated these kingdoms with immortality and we are mortals here.
And it is like striking a petrol tank with a match stick. The closing of the poem reveals the essence of the freedom and ecstasy of the divinely created spirit when she longs for dancing, rolling, flying, rattling and clunking-
In the final analysis, we may say that Imtiaz’s simplicity is a spell, her lyricism is a lull, her challenge is a charm and her effort is exorcism. Her submission is her challenge; her advocacy of the devil is her soul’s adventure into the devil’s domain to understand the regent’s governance and his indisputably faithful servants and disciples. Imtiaz may be devil’s advocate but not his disciple; she may be his admirer but not her follower whereas we are all otherwise. This is our sham; this is our cant; this is our pretension; and this is our purdah- our life and living! So let’s not lift it or remove it, it will decimate us all. This alone is the secret of our advancement and our very existence. All-pervading influence of the devil, wherever we see the escape-route, it is guarded by the devil and we need be devils to cheat him to succeed only to find ourselves among the celebs of the kingdom. This is what is happening behind the veil and beyond the veil!
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