There are three women Urdu poets — long settled in North America now — who continue to surprise and elate their listeners and readers. It is no small feat to keep freshness of expression and relevance of themes alive for such an extended period of time. In most cases, even the best among the lot — poets and storytellers alike — either get weary, or begin to repeat themselves.
This is not the case at all, however, with Ishrat Afreen, Nasim Syed and Shahida Hasan. When it comes to their individual idioms and style, the three of them remain quite distinct from each other. But there is also a convergence among them, because of the existential questions that bother them and social concerns that they share.
Afreen has a deep, sombre voice. When, many years ago, I was introduced to Afreen’s work, somehow she immediately reminded me of another poet who had settled in North America a long time ago: Irfana Aziz. It is unfortunate that Aziz, who turns 80 this year, remains lesser known today than she should be among the literary circles in Pakistan and India, even though her contributions span more than five decades.
Like Aziz, Afreen is also compassionate about the suffering humanity has to bear. But Afreen takes her deep, sombre voice to another level and creatively challenges the very nature of being, human relationships, societal functions and their inherent dysfunctionality.
There is a sureness in Afreen’s expression and her language has a stable disposition. These make her sound settled and resolved in her understanding of life. But, is she really resolved? The moment her reader begins to think like that, the poet starts raising new questions herself. Then, along with her reader, she takes on these questions with the confidence of a seasoned artist. Afreen has liberally commented on socio-political upheavals, but refuses to submit to the demands imposed by sociology on art.
Nasim Syed is provocative in the social realm and quixotic when it comes to the idea of a global revolution. But then, what is the point of being a poet if you are not idealistic? Syed has grasped the classical poetic tradition quite well, but her closest affinity remains with the Progressive Writers’ movement of yesteryears.
She partakes from the same goblet carrying the cocktail of revolution and romance that the Progressive poets of the 20th century stirred, blended, drank themselves and offered to others. From Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ali Sardar Jafri, to Majaz Lucknavi to Makhdoom Mohiuddin, there was a galaxy of those who sincerely believed in an ideology and provided a physicality to the abstract idea of a revolution — thus metaphorically turning the idea of revolution into an animate human beloved.
Syed takes it beyond her male Progressive predecessors mentioned above by introducing a definitive womanly voice and bringing the plight of women into the folds of the suffering of the working class. Here, to an extent, she shares her themes with Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, her elders in the craft.
But Syed’s poetic treatment is different. While both Riaz and Naheed have their moorings in the Progressive Writers’ movement, the feminist poetry they introduced in the realm of Urdu verse is a separate strand from their poetic response to other social and political issues. That was the need of the hour as well. But with the change in times, Syed enjoyed the opportunity to connect the two strands —one of women and the other of workers, which include both women and men.
There is a storm hidden under the calm surface of the sea of Shahida Hasan’s verse. Like Afreen, she comes across as unruffled and serene. However, the more you read her, the more you understand the sense of perpetual angst that her words bear. I have quietly observed Hasan’s journey over the last three decades, from being steeped in the tradition of classical Urdu ghazal, to graduating to the point of pushing the borders of established poetic imagination.
The cerebral content in her poetry has increased with time. It is interesting how, in matters of art and literature, binaries are professed between ‘feeling’ on the one hand and ‘thinking’ on the other. For me, there are none. Whether these are matters of the heart or those of the mind, it is the aesthetic appeal that would determine the value of a piece of art.
Therefore, a perfectly rational idea — if expressed creatively — can qualify as literature. And if a purely romantic feeling is poorly expressed, it will leave no impact. Ideas are important and feelings make us human, but that ability to touch the soul comes with the aesthetic sense. An elevated aesthetic sense will, then, essentialise the mastery over shape and form.
Hasan’s verse reminds me of what Italo Calvino famously wrote: “…we consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.” With a comfortable command over shape and form, Hasan has the ability to effortlessly present contemporary experience in traditional form and style.
In recent years, social media platforms and increased global travel have made it easier for readers and writers of a language to connect across different countries. However, writing in Urdu or any other South Asian language in linguistically alien habitats will remain a challenge. Other than the three poets I have mentioned, there are many other distinguished poets and writers, both women and men, who continue to write in their native tongues.
I see this landscape changing with the coming generations. Some years from now, there will still be mentionable women and men, of Pakistani or South Asian origin, writing poetry in North America. But if not entirely, they will be mostly writing in English. Or even Spanish. We will be reading and writing about the likes of Shadab Zeest Hashmi and Zakia R. Khwaja — brilliant women of Pakistani origin, writing exquisite poetry in English.
The columnist is a poet and essayist.
He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora.
His latest collection of verse is No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 19th, 2021