In a play titled Main Sara (I Sara), the opening scene is of a dark stage with the sound of a train running on tracks. The piercing and ever increasing noise of the engine’s sirens becomes unbearable and then there is silence. In this darkened silence there is a spotlight on a female figure in her late 20s who recites a poem in Urdu.
Respectability has many forms
Veil, a slap, wheat
The nails of imprisonment have been hammered into the coffin of respectability
The house or the sidewalk does not belong to us
We are stamped by the spear of respectability
The lack of respectability starts with our words
If someone tastes our salt at night
Then throughout life we are shunned as unworthy bread
Shahid Anwar’s theatrical interpretation of Sara Shagufta’s life opened in India in 2011. The play in some detail captures the short and at times agonising life of the poet, before we lost her forever when she was some months short of 30. Shagufta at this relatively young age had acquired fame as a poet who shunned convention in her verses and in her personal life. The play reflects this in the scene following the opening poem. The character who recites the verses moves towards the audience and speaks:
“I am Sara Shagufta. People call me Urdu’s first angry young poet. A poet’s wife said this about me; Sara writes good poetry, but has no sense of covering herself (with a dupatta).” Soon after, the character narrates another incident about how, in a gathering, someone said that Sara should create a distinction between her body and her poetry.
Other voices from the shadows then speak, accusing Sara of promiscuity. The female character on the stage replies to these accusations and says that “by sleeping with Sara the elite dogs have achieved nothing.”
Blood-spitting woman is not steam
Nor crushed bangles
The field is my confidence
And embers are my desire
We were born with shrouds on our head
Not with rings in our fingers
That you can steal
Several years before this play was written or produced, I asked a friend in Karachi whether there was material on the Shagufta’s life for someone who wanted to write a literary biography on her. The answer, why would there be interest in the life of a hyper-sexual woman who had major psychological problems, left me a bit perplexed. However, this memory of Shagufta as a promiscuous young woman with enormous literary talent is what one sometimes encounters in discussing her life and death in the polite literary society of present day Pakistan. In interviews with family, acquaintances and friends that were conducted after her death (not by me) one finds contradictory impulses of praise and rejection, admiration and social distancing. Where there is an understanding of the personal dilemmas in her marriages, the custody battles for her children and for her hospitalisation for mental health problems, there is also a denigration of her lifestyle; her staying out late, her befriending men and her romantic liaisons. In these interviews, there arises a sense of social stigma toward Shagufta’s life choices, the reasons for which are at times found in her belonging to the lower classes, with its implicit connotation of an ‘immoral upbringing’. Ironically, in the narratives in which some women distanced themselves from Shagufta by asserting their own respectable background, they also admired her courage to live life according to her wishes; an existence that did not conform to the drudgery of a married middle-class life and responsibilities that many found themselves trapped in.
Main Sara captures the anger, anxiety and creative genius of this young Pakistani poet whose short life was simultaneously filled with moments of brilliance and utmost difficulties, sadness and sorrow. The birth in a lower-class home, the early marriage, the multiple divorces, the forceful separation from her children, the hospitalisation for psychiatric care, the adjustment to the culturally elite literary circles, yet the assertion of individual choice, the desire to live life according to one’s own wishes, the travels, the fame, and finally, death. All this makes for Shagufta’s story, but it could be of many women who pursue their lives on the proverbial other side of the tracks.
In the short space allowed for this article I will not provide Sara Shagufta’s biography nor an assessment of her literary stature (such tasks need more attention, time and care). I open with the play to develop a discussion on sexuality, gender and class as it pertains to Pakistan’s recent past. Shagufta’s life and death allows me to share some developing thoughts pulled from my own research interest on gender and popular culture in contemporary Pakistan. In my larger work, I maintain that in the deeply patriarchal character of Pakistan’s urban and rural life, the social conflicts that arise out of the process of modernisation, rural-urban migration and rapid urbanisation need to also be seriously analysed to understand some of the more systematic moral norms that persist in society around gender and sexuality. Following this argument, Shagufta’s personal life history, irrespective of her literary merit as a poet, permits me to bring a dimension of lower-class women’s participation in the work-force and their visibility in public space in Pakistan to the forefront. In these processes of simultaneous mobility and restrictions is embedded the important question regarding the curtailment of women’s movement and the pivotal issue of personal freedoms (sexual or otherwise). Within this broader context I seek to specifically understand how these issues resonate within various popular genres of representation. For example, in an earlier article (‘Pulp Fiction: Reading Domesticity in Pakistan,’ 2004) I looked at how women’s popular fiction deals with issues of women’s domestic and public life in Pakistan. In that paper I analysed two stories that reflected women’s anxieties around the issue of male betrayal and violence. The female protagonists in both stories were married to men who, in their terms, were not ‘real’ men; one impotent and the other more interested in other men. Within a hyper masculine and dominant heterosexual social more, such fantasies about 'inefficient men' (the impotent, the homosexual), I argued, reverberated with women’s anxieties about the sexually threatening public spaces in which the readers of these stories would find themselves in their everyday life. As women increasingly become the victims of male violence, such stories allow us, I suggested, to fantasize about the reversal of the status quo; providing a social space where men could be portrayed as less masculine, less violent and less threatening.