In the opening credits of the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird, a child hums as she opens an old cardboard box to reveal trinkets, an old watch on a chain, marbles, crayons and various knickknacks and keepsakes. A melody emerges, grows, lilts and lifts — haunting and nostalgic. The child lovingly touches and retrieves the prized possessions and then proceeds to draw and etch.
One can imagine how, as the years elapse and the past gets murkier, every subsequent opening of the box would cause memories to rush back at the sight of each beloved object. How it would retrieve from the recesses of the mind not just impressions of an idyllic childhood, but also an entire era, with its charm as well as its rampant cruelties.
With Comb, poet and essayist Shadab Zeest Hashmi does something equally evocative through vibrant, richly textured and beautifully crafted vignettes, fragments, verses and lyrical essays. In essence a heartfelt memoir, the book resonates with poetic sensibility and fabulous imagery. Noticeably, it is writing characterised by a sagacious and soothing calm, allowing Hashmi the poise to revisit and interpret the past and draw lessons for the present, in the true tradition of the glorious Gandhara civilisation that she so lovingly celebrates in her book.
For writers exposed to multiple cultures and literary traditions, it is arduous to strike a balance between the local and the universal. Falter, and you could become provincial and parochial. Even hopelessly sentimental. Conversely, you could appear unrooted and disconnected. A free floater.
Yet someone of insight, steeped in the intricacies of the local, someone who seeks the ocean in a droplet, can transcend to becoming universal in her appreciation of the complexity of human nature and existence in the true sense. Her appeal would then travel far beyond her immediate context. Hashmi is deeply rooted in all the rich soils that have nourished her and it shows in the depth and wisdom of her writing. In her universality.
Having said that, it is primarily Peshawar to which Comb is a paean. Peshawar, of the loved and cloistered childhood, as well as the gateway of travellers, traders, priests and invaders. Peshawar, with its ancient urban quarters and its long and tumultuous history; its warmth, hospitality and largesse, as well as patriarchy and tribalism; its topography, its flora, fauna and diverse seasons; its balmy days amidst flowers and the surrounding snow-covered peaks, as well as the interminable strife, war and misery that has tormented it and its neighbourhood; and its myths and its legends, as well as its everyday tales.
A poet and essayist presents evocative vignettes and verses that serve as an exploration of multiple identities and a paean to her hometown Peshawar
Peshawar is the beloved remembered from half a world away, as Hashmi retrieves memory after delicate memory to assemble a charming, at times troubling, and always changing world. Peshawar is the local — multifarious, rejoiced and celebrated. Through this local, Hashmi also explores the universal, sensitively and adroitly navigating through themes of growing up, gender roles, creativity, relationships, love, migration, alienation, belonging, motherhood, raising children, identity, prejudice, bigotry, multiculturalism, literature, aesthetics, travel, history, spirituality and more.
What strikes one throughout, is her generosity of spirit. The ungenerous cannot be poets by definition, for they cannot see life in unexacting ways. Or say: “A single feather, milky blue, just fallen on my threshold, is from a Turkestan hill dove flying south from China to Peshawar, I imagine, though it is more likely to have been shed by a buttonquail which is common in these parts.”
Such memoirs can fail in various ways. They can become candyfloss, capitulate to cynicism, or turn into explanations and apologias for a foreign audience. Hashmi’s account is one of the most sophisticatedly self-assured ones I’ve come across in recent times. Her explorations of identity are not tied down by narrow categorisations: “I wish I could glide and hover over rooftops, alighting at will, caring only for the wind current and never minding the boundaries between countries.”
At the same time, she revels in her cultural background, languages, literature, landscape, cuisine, values and normative framework. In what is a work of great empathy, her deep anguish at the horrendous toll of the Afghan wars figures prominently. In a ghazal dedicated to the iconic green-eyed ‘Afghan Girl’ who appeared on the cover of National Geographic decades ago, she says:
“A garden once hung from your name like the perfume of/ Wild apple blossoms, phantom tulips/ In the refugee camp, are you Sharbat Gula, liquor of flowers/ Or a number typed by a stranger?”
As I leafed through Comb — with beautiful art from British/Egyptian artist Salma Ahmad Caller — the impression I got was of the author painstakingly wiping away the grime of centuries and modern misconceptions, strife and forgetting, loss of perspective and misrepresentation, to reveal what lay underneath. And this applied not just to her own persona and perception, but also to innumerable other lives of those from her milieu. What emerged was, at times, still enigmatic, but mostly clearer, purer and glistening, like an old slab of marble with pietra dura in all its gem-like colours, recently salvaged and restored.
The first practising poet to emphasise the importance of the ghazal culture by way of adapting the form well in English, Hashmi’s narrative is not dissimilar to that of a lover who continues to love deeply despite being well aware of the foibles and failings, and even the occasional heartlessness, of the beloved.
Like all essayists who are fundamentally poets, her prose explores meaning through metaphor, imagery and lyricism. Emotive, sensory, colourful, fluid and vibrant, she nevertheless writes to explore thoughts, and hence, profundity is never a casualty in the pursuit of the sensory.
At the same time, she never relinquishes the poet’s touch — whether in describing growing pains, early exposure to class divides and gender discrimination, or the human propensity for violence. Her depictions of these experiences are considered and compelling, emotive, but not emotional, and neither patronising nor didactic. There is pain at having left behind a world that can never be recreated, but there is also exultation at discovering a new one. For such is the journey of life and if one has had the opportunity to experience new homes, languages, cultures and people, how can one be the poorer for it?
Hashmi’s cosmopolitanism is irrepressible, even if at one essential level she shall forever be a Peshawar girl — the Peshawar girl whose heart is also aflutter when she is in Cordova or Granada, which appeal deeply to her sense of beauty and history. For firmly grounded in her multicultural and multilingual roots, she has consciously branched out widely to gather sun from many different sunshines.
Already established and much awarded for her three books of poetry, writers such as Hashmi, along with various other Pakistani writers, are broadening and enriching the literary scene far beyond what appears to literary commentators of meek disposition and modest exploration. They ought to, and will, reward a wider readership.
Combs appear time and again in Comb. They are symbolic in so many ways, one of which is the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives that a single soul is capable of:
“From lampblack and pulp of a city’s map/ A sculpted pigeon rising as emperor/ Inked, alighting on a vacuous alpine lap/ Song of many combs and a single mirror”
The reviewer is the author of the historical novel Snuffing Out the Moon and the critical legal history Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice. He tweets @DrOsamaSiddique
By Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 11th, 2021