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Yasmeen Hameed has published five collections of poems from 1988 to 2012 and edited anthologies of Pakistani Urdu poetry, writings on Faiz Ahmed Faiz and new Urdu fiction. Her poetry has a wide range and many layers. She traverses a terrain of genres with equal felicity in both the ghazal and nazm. Her ghazals are particularly remarkable because she has adapted the classical form to contemporary subjects. I discovered her poetry with Be Samar Peirron ki Khwahish (The Desire for Fruitless Trees). The collection’s title was enough to draw me and what caught my attention was the existential angst articulated in simple words. Her words had a clarity that dared the reader to examine his/her own experience. I was moved to read the poems again and again:

[Who will write the complete narrative, the full story?/ How difficult was the path; who will write this?/ In the division of night and day/ Whose share was less? Who will write this?]

Hameed’s recent selection, Hum Do Zamaanon Mein Paida Huay [We Were Born in Two Realms], includes a thoughtful preface from her editor Razi Mujtaba, an introduction by Najeeba Arif and an essay by Hameed herself in which she raises critical questions on the relevance of poetry in our times. An observation that stood out was her reflection on the relationship of writers with their own work: “It is difficult to enumerate the levels and layers of experience and emotional awareness that a writer has. To what extent a writer can express or articulate the awareness depends on the writer. A writer draws upon experience culled from the depth of his or her being.” Hameed feels the “creative experience” is individualistic and holds the writer in its ambit. But there is a critical lens that every writer possesses that connects creative output with the larger discourse of poetics.

Hameed’s self is not easily apparent in her poetry. As a woman, she cannot, and does not, want to escape her female identity, but she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve either. In her poetry there is an undertone to probe the life of women as lived in the current social set up; her views are a blend of what she experiences and what is perceived. They reflect our current modes of behaviour and thought. For example, in the following poem she alludes to false beliefs, denial of real problems, and justifications that people hold on to because they are afraid to face the truth:

[Slime sticking in our breaths/ Is not dust/ Beneath the layer of withered leaves/ On paths, lots of flowers are blooming/ Timber from uprooted trees/ Is useful — more than it used to be/ Weather is not quite as cold]

Hameed’s poetry interchanges from personal emotions to questions about this universe, the reality of life and death, the relationship between body and soul — the search for truth. Life lessons have been gathered into her poetry in such a way that the act of writing acquires an exigency, an urgency beyond the quotidian anxieties. Hameed’s poems provoke us to think:

[Life is an odd affair/ When it was done/ I had this thought/ Let’s try to live again and see/ Live in a way so that/ After one impediment/ We become free of decisions, intentions]

I met Hameed some years ago when I was invited to the Lahore University of Management Sciences; I was keen to hear from her about her connection as an author to her own work. How did she feel about her individual poems? Did she have favourites? Did she obsess about how a poem appeared on a page, or the ordering of verses in a ghazal? Reading her essay ‘Chand Baatein’ [A Few Points] in the present volume, I’ve found some answers.

My questions were driven from my own efforts to resolve puzzles of contextualisation and literary history in the case of Ghalib. How can an author be invisible from the text so much so that it is only the language that speaks? There was a trend in literary criticism that advocated liberating the text from the author’s intent or presence. While I agree that close reading yields a rich cache of interpretive possibilities, one cannot entirely ignore the creative self of the writer that mediates between the emotions and the words. A poet can take an individual experience and express it as transcendent, but a poet can also present a universal phenomenon from a personal lens. Hameed’s poetry integrates the personal and the universal with seamless ease. For example, here are a few lines from the title poem:

[O wind laden with sharp twigs!/ There are no eyes in your path/ For you to injure/ O water full with filthy slime!/ No one is thirsty today/ The history of our times/ Is different from the history of our hearts/ We were born in two realms]

Hameed does not flaunt her identity. Her poetic voice is ambiguous; there is a distance between her and the subject of her poems:

[I am compelled to raise a wall within myself/ I live in one and the other part is where I meet the world]

The experiences of womanhood seep into her poems; her feminism is strong but nuanced:

[However much I walk/ The path grows longer/ What colours I wear/ Are remarked upon/ My manners of speech/ Are deliberated on/ Then my silence/ Is a subject of inquiry]

Writing is a perpetual search, a desire to communicate, a restless edginess that keeps the creative energy going. Every age has its own prisms, its own critical lens and reading attitudes. Hameed’s poetry has an expansiveness that crosses genres, rises beyond the confines of feminism; it is like a breeze that touches us with both sorrow and joy.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 21st, 2018