Let’s Barter Silence and Sounds
By Sarosh Latif,
Urdu translations by
Sarosh Latif is an academic and teacher and her first poetry collection, Let’s Barter Silence and Sounds, portrays social injustice and gives voice to the voiceless, particularly women.
As a debut, the collection is unusual because Latif’s poems in English are all published alongside their translations into Urdu by Nodan Nasir. The book would have benefited from a title page and an introduction, however, and it would have been good to have Nasir’s name and biography in English, as they appear in Urdu only.
In Pakistani English literature, the poetry written by women has consistently addressed patriarchy both in Pakistan and other lands, and highlighted its injustice and brutality. These burning issues have gathered increasing momentum in recent years. Latif adds to this discourse with her biting criticism of age-old customs, including those under the euphemistic title ‘honour killing’.
In the ‘The Legacy’, she encapsulates, in a few spare lines, the fate of a runaway couple and their child, hunted down in desolate landscape. The poem begins: “High up on the rugged hills/ against the dusky sky/ stood two shadows./ They heard an ominous tread.” The devastating line which follows — “The woman killed the man and herself” — provides an unusual reversal of gender roles.
A debut poetry collection showcases a poet with great promise and has much to offer, including pertinent and topical comment on our time and age
Here, the weapon of death is wielded by the woman, not the man; therefore, she makes the choice to die to protect both, instead of being captured and suffering a fate worse than death. As such, the poem provides an interesting intertextual engagement with Jamil Ahmad’s short story ‘The Sins of the Mother’ and leads up to the tragic legacy the couple leaves behind: “a wailing child/ muffled/ under a sheet/ of crawling black crows.”
Latif uses nuance, suggestion and metaphor to advantage in several poems, including ‘The Quest’. Here, the images of a woman labourer, juxtaposed with that of a married woman, embody the accepted possibilities the future holds for a young girl. But she does not identify with either. Instead, “standing alone/ in the moorland” she recognises herself “in the eyes of a girl/ who, last night was stoned to death.”
The poet continues with her exploration of women and their suffering in ‘A Social Agreement’, which revolves around an educated, upwardly mobile, professional couple. “He gave her four kids and a rented house/ She gave him a car and the freedom/ To sleep with and deceive as many women/ as he wants.” But he likes to refer to himself as a happily married man and supports feminist causes such as the Aurat March, while she works in an office and hides that she is but a battered wife, covering up her bruises with smiles and make-up.
Latif’s poems frequently look at different aspects of loneliness, too, including the enchanting ‘From Loneliness to Solitude’, which merges the real and surreal to tell of the narrator’s discovery of a stray cat and their ensuing friendship. In ‘Barter’, she writes of a fortuitous meeting between a couple — a lonely man and a melancholy woman — where the human qualities and comfort they bring each other thereafter, are symbolised by the therapeutic herbs they exchange.
Several poems make a moving comment on memory, absence and loss. ‘Echoes’ celebrates the life a couple shared together; it culminates with the surviving partner’s sorrow and solitude. In ‘A Futile Effort’ which consists of four verses, the narrator in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) recalls her life in Scotland and the images of the river Clyde, the cafes and tourists there and, above all, her lost love, “the one/ Who was my courage, my wings and my flight.”
In marked contrast, in ‘A Journey of Some Miles’, Latif incorporates images of stars, clouds, expanses of sky and a perceptive fortune-teller, to tell of illusion, romance and betrayal.
The links between literature and the emotions of the writer permeate ‘Esto Momento’ [This Moment] which portrays the grief and solitude of a suffering man and captures that moment when he decides to picks up a pen to unburden his soul and sits down to write.
The power of the written word, self-censorship and the writer’s responsibility are central to ‘I Am a Liar’, which describes the suffering, violence, corruption, lawlessness and deprivations which the narrator has avoided in his/her writing, until that moment of self-revelation: “Let me write all this and my pen will bring/ Thunder in rage, poison with rain/ Else a half poet and dead poet I will always remain.”
Latif also plays on the negative in the fiercely feminist ‘She is Not Me’. Here, she challenges the stereotypes of chattering, empty-headed women. Instead, she makes a strong assertion of the narrator’s sense of self as an independent, self-reliant Pakistani woman, and her identification with women who fend for themselves and their families, whether they be field workers, nurses, teachers, weavers or public figures.
Some of the best poems in the collection are those having a clear political content. ‘Go Back to North’ — addressed as a warning to a “beautiful migratory bird” — tackles an important ecological issue: the Special Permits granted to visitors from desert lands miles away, to hunt down this rare, threatened species. Meanwhile, ‘The Harbinger’ portrays the harsh life of a man who works night and day, lives in “a narrow shack” with “parasites of disease/ Growing inside his frail skeleton” and longs to be overtaken soon by death which will open out a happy, idyllic afterlife for him.
‘The Hobbits’ portrays the sub-human conditions of urban life with its noisy traffic, garbage, dirty sewers and canals and “countless children, fewer schools.” While ‘The Red: Dedicated to Laal-the-Band’, plays on the words “red” and “laal” to celebrate egalitarian socialist ideals and culminates with the lines “Oh peasants and labourers let me colour you in red/ Let me lead you and bring a change.”
However, there is a major problem with this collection: the quality of poems varies drastically. Several, such as ‘Renovation of the Soul’ and ‘Unknown 20-10-15’ require much greater attention to poetic and linguistic details. In some instances, including the very first poem ‘The Knots of Season’ — which has been rendered into Urdu as ‘Mausam Ki Kaatein’ — the translation improves on the original.
Still, Sarosh Latif is certainly a poet with great promise and Let’s Barter Silence and Sounds has much to offer, including pertinent and topical comment on our time and age. It is a welcome addition to English language poetry in Pakistan.
The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 19th, 2021