Poetry at Sangam




Translator’s Introduction

Hijab Ismail (later Hijab Imtiaz Ali) came to the attention of the public in 1932 with the publication of a collection of three novellas entitled Meri natamam muhabbat (My Unfinished Love). Influenced by the writer Yildirim who was well known for his free translations of Turkish fiction, Hijab broke new ground in setting her tragic and sometimes Gothic love stories in imaginary landscapes at times reminiscent of the Eastern Mediterranean and at others of South India, where she grew up ; exotic backdrops often served to disguise her subversive intent, which was to chart the lives of educated, priviliged Indian Muslim women whose destinies were circumscribed by the rigid rules of class and clan. One of her interests was in psychoanalysis: forbidden loves and convention-defying desires are at the core of her fictions, particularly the later works, which feature hysterical heroines, alcoholic heroes, suppressed homeorotic and even incestuous longings, observed and chronicled by a first-person narrator who is, herself, a poet and writer struggling to develop a fictional narrative and explore the sensibility of its characters.

In 1936, she married fellow-writer Imtiaz Ali Taj, moved to Lahore, took a pilot’s licence, edited two magazines, and ran a publishing company with her husband. Though her output of full-length fiction was sporadic, she produced at least three novels: Zalim Muhabbat (Cruel Love), which focuses on a triangular love affair between a man, his fiancee, and his foster brother and childhood companion: Andhere Khwab (Dark Dreams), in which a psychoanalyst races the roots of a young woman’s hysterical fantasies of strangualtion and her obsession with alcoholic men to her childhood fixation on her alcoholic father; and, later in her career, Pagalkhana (Madhouse), a futuristic anti-nuclear novel. But she was more prolific as a writer of short fiction, of which she produced several collections: her part-playful, part-romantic approach continued to endear her to a large public. When she died at the age of about 90 (some said 96) at the end of the last century, her entire oeuvre, which included plays, poems, essays and translations along with her long and short fictions, had been constantly reprinted in new de luxe editions for about a decade.

The luminous, sensuous texts translated here are taken from a 1993 reprint of one of her least known works, Adab-e zarreen (Gilded Letters), which was first published in 1936. Straddling the genres of prose poem and, with their fragments of narrative and dialogue, what is now termed flash fiction, they employ a linguistic register that combines a classical, Arabic- and Persian-inflected lexicon with a syntax of colloquial intimacy and startling lucidity.

She may have also been influenced by The Songs of Bilitis, the work of Pierre Louys, an author she was reputed to have liked. Hers are nevertheless original works firmly located in the sphere of her own linguistic and cultural imagination. They are also generically unusual, as the prose poem was not very common in Urdu at the time; in fact they refuse to be contained within generic boundaries, ranging from formal verse-like structures to loose ribbons of prose swathed across the page.

While translating these texts, I have also been reminded, over and over, of their similarity to Mughal and Pahari miniatures: their dwelling on heroines both indoors and out, lazing, playing music, hunting; and on landscapes in which bright animals are presented against a richly-coloured background, with the deliberate use of flat or limited perspectives which allow us to view different scenes and heights simultaneously, letting the eye dwell on sky and sea, hilltop and foothill, branch and thorn-bush. Nowhere is this technique more compelling than in the texts that employ a modicum of linear narration, where elliptical transitions of space (from staircase to vineyard) or time (from early twilight to darkness) reflect the shifting emotions of the first person narrator, and remind the reader of a sequence of miniatures, or of an unfolding scroll, in which we see the same character in different places at different times of day.

Though I have attempted to maintain the narrative and imagistic structure of her texts, I’ve occasionally and minimally reparagraphed them to maintain the thematic unity of each one, as Urdu – particularly in the quasi-poetic style she employs, with its sentence fragments and irregular lineation – has a very different appearance from English on the page, always resembling calligraphy; this is one of the many features of my mother tongue (which include an extreme compression I have attempted wherever possible to approximate) that are nearly impossible to reproduce in English. She can also be rhetorically romantic in the manner of eighteenth-century Urdu poets (‘Lord! My tortured soul’!) in a way that her youth and the times permitted (beyond the boundaries of language, as is evident in writings from Spain, France, and China produced at about the same time). In at least one of the stories I’ve curtailed some of her repetitive sentimental refrains. Thus my work on Hijab’s poetic prose remains, at best, a muted reflection of its many shades.

From Gilded Letters


1. Summer Afternoon

Underneath a mulberry tree a bird weighs its wings      and
from guava branches green parrots unacquainted with the rules of music shrilly sing. It must be afternoon.


2. Rain

They’re back again – those days that make me dream.

God knows what secret these rainy days in eastern climates conceal: you see great gleaming drops, purple rain-clouds, and like the verses of some forgotten poem, all the incidents of your life’s story revisit your memory. And hapless you’re pushed back for an hour
        or two into the realm of reverie where you see half-remembered faces and listen to the lilt of yesterday’s popular songs.

What a time this is, this season of rain, for a dreaming mind. Often, during
rainy days, at random I’ve thought up the chapter of an unfinished novel, or explored the behaviour of a character from a story. But before I put my thoughts down on the page the rainy days are over, the rain leaves for some distant shore, and these narrative musings, these romantic fantasies, are lost in the clouds, and God knows where they’ve wandered, leaving no trace, to return with the next monsoon.

But then the fragrant winds of the next monsoon begin to blow and the nightingale sings rainsongs in the trees, the sea’s waves reflect
        the blue of clouds and my study is draped in cloud shadow and
        with them, word by word, those thoughts and tales are refreshed
in my mind.

Friends say (and perhaps they’re right) that a sensitive heart and a story-loving mind are heaven’s gift: but Lord! this tender heart of mine is the only cause of my restlessness today.

        How fortunate those people are, who learn to live like sturdy mountains,
        unaffected by the hot and cold gusts of their times,
        who watch the wind stir the wheat in the wind one day,
        on the next see thorn bushes grow in the same place and remain unmoved,
        people who can forget the past so easily, and do forget.

And then there’s me with this unfortunate memory: it stores up tales from who knows where which emerge, like a python, to swallow every happy moment, devour every playful thought.
So this is heaven’s gift: this tender heart of mine, that fills my friends with pride?

Listen! It was a rainy day: like a poet’s train of thought the rain fell in an unbroken pattern. I was sitting by my library window, looking at the landscape through binoculars, in imagination turning the pages of some satisfying yesterdays in the diary of my life.
        The window was open. The sea was turbulent and floating on its blue waves I could see stories of my life, dispersed like broken beads. I opened the door and went out to the garden. The clouds had burst and dissolved.
        I stood beneath a guava tree of medium height, listening to old songs playing on time’s lute.

Parrots sat in the branches, nibbling at guavas and throwing them down. Purple clouds raced each other towards the sea. The moist smell of rain was on the wind. Crows, carrying bits of straw in their shiny beaks to build their nests, hopped from one tree to the next.

In another part of the garden, my pet rabbits and peacocks were dancing like tribals performing some ancient ritual. The sky seemed like a boat, sailing on a sea of contentment.
        But, my friend, my desires – my half-dead desires – were trying to breathe and
        my mind had wandered to lost valleys.

It’s true: people with dreaming minds, affected by every minor incident, are never at peace. You envy my state, you say? Listen: people who remember everything don’t live a life worth envying. Bear that in mind.
You were wrong.

Now it was afternoon. The lanes were empty and the roads were silent. I couldn’t see a passer-by.
        Only, from the distance, the music of a goatherd’s lilting flute reached me, accompanied by the sound of the rain-laden wind, or the sorrowful, constant crowing of faraway roosters.

I came back to my library.
Does contentment, I thought, really vanish in the wind and the rain?
I sat down by the window, counted the waves, absorbed in my story and my dream.

Only the world of my reverie remained.


3. Love

I saw my friend’s pale face and said: All you gain from love is listlessness and shadows. Eradicate the word from the world’s literature. Love spreads sorrow, struggle, conflict: it never gifts a moment of grace.
        Look, read the poem carefully: where you see love claw its lines, erase the verse.

But my words made her shiver and in the garden she looked like a sliver of light cast by the moon on the grass. She answered: How would we live then in this darkness? What would life’s upheavals mean to us? You perhaps can bear the darkness in a house without candles; but then you wouldn’t be able to read the world’s sacred texts, nor even – crazy as you are – would you see that in the book of songs beside your lute there are
so many unsung melodies.

I smiled when I heard her response, and pulled my blue silk shawl with its pattern of painted ships around my shoulders.
Tonight she’d compared love to light. It was a charming notion.


4. Heat

Black bumblebees flit around the edges of lotus leaves. Parrots carry purple mulberries in their red beaks. The high hill peaks are no longer green: grass grows almond-brown instead. Lambs graze in the dry grass of the foothills. In wild places, bees buzz around honey-laden flowers.
        Hot days, luminous like a poet’s dream, warm as musk.
On such days, it seems, light’s born: it pours from cerulean skies, bathes wood, rock, water. On hot days the sun shines down on hares that dance beneath the trees.
        Look, my friend: a single star up there in the sky gleams
like light reflected in a fawn’s eye. The sun’s last rays slide off birds’ bright wings, like snowflakes melting.
Hot days: ripples in a river of light.


5. Autumn Morning

That morning her face was pale and the sound of the wind was mournful like the echo of a dirge sung by a man sitting in a dark cave.
I didn’t say a word to her nor did she try to speak because we both agreed that two women in love should never talk to each other on bad-weather mornings. I stood by the window silent for a while counting the sea’s mottled waves as she sat quiet on the couch plucking music from broken strings.


6. A page torn from an old book

An autumn morning emerged from dingy cloud-curtains. Dust hung heavy on the wind. A sandstorm rose on the seashore. The wind from the wilderness bent branches of olive and fig. Doves cooed in the graveyard. From a distance I could hear the songs of fishermen and boatmen and the shrill call of cormorants in the flightpaths above them.

I stood alone on the steps leading from the ground floor to the garden, looking at leaves on the rosebush blighted by weather and wind.
I watched the sea’s waves clash with the purple horizon and I thought
of a time I’d lost.

My heart seemed to part from my body as in my mind’s eye I saw a scene replayed:
you and I, five years ago, riding in the woods, shooting at wild deer and rabbits like princesses from Baghdad on the backs of our Arab ponies, with our long curly hair blowing behind us in the wind and our dark eyes chasing the beasts that hid in dense foliage and dark bushes.
        Today I remember how we loved the pleasures of the hunt. But those days, those times, are gone.

We sat barefoot on the edges of streams, catching fish when your father wasn’t looking, and the blue satin ribbons that tied back our hair blew behind us in the wind as we ran around in the garden like wild deer.
        But those days, those nights, are gone. And now this morning. This autumn mourning.


7. Parting

Some time ago I would look at the bluish sea from the window and my ragged pulse would beat more regularly, my erratic movements gain a new grace, and people said that on my lips that love silence a slight smile played for hours. It’s strange: how along with the surge of the black and white waves of the sea today my pulse is throbbing too. God! What’s the secret?

Some time ago I would watch the high white sails of ships on the sea and my face would flush with joy – and my black eyes, too, would shine like comets, and I’d sigh with envy at the luck of travellers sailing on those ships I’d seen. But not today. Today these sails fill me with fear, steal the colour from my face.

Some time ago the artificial lights of the port reminded me of fate’s natural glow but today that’s no longer so, electric lights descend like a horde from the wilderness and I prefer the dark nights of the rainy season. Because, my friend, because this time we’ll certainly be separated. Oh God, we’ll be torn apart.
                The ship slowly sails from the shore, like breath departs from a body.
        And behind you the world looks like a lifeless body.


8. That morning, remembered

                Morning, at last.
                I put on a blue-green dress embroidered with sea shells and artificial pearls. The bright weather had brightened my cheeks and a smile broke on my lips. I’d tied my red-streaked black hair with a golden ribbon so that, in those hours of anxious waiting, it wouldn’t bother me more.
I looked out from my window and I thought the sea’s purple and white waves were trying to collide          with the sky. In that endless purple deluge my eyes were looking
for your ship which was to arrive in an hour, in an instant.
                I peered out into the garden. The servant girl was picking fruit for the morning’s breakfast.
        She looked up, startled. I looked down and tried to hide my smile but I couldn’t, I just smiled on.
                That morning I felt my soul was one long peal of laughter.
                Along with the servant girl, mischievous birds were whistling teasing songs in the branches of the cedar tree and the crimson
roses were whispering among themselves about me, laughing
at my restless movements. I felt that every creature in the garden, in
the world, was celebrating your return.
The organ-like notes of the wind’s song wafted in through my open window. I was in a land of dreams and stories.
                Seeing my restless anticipation the servant girl placed narcissi here and there in big silver vases.
        My dog, favourite companion, sat down on the doorstep to wait for his beloved guest. Looking at the scene I felt that the shadow of some celestial morning was fallen on my little house. I went back again and again to the window to look out at the sea. I was waiting for the ship, yes, your ship.
                A few moments passed. The sun’s rays were gilding the waves. On the distant horizon          I saw the sails of your ship. Now the universe seemed to me like a musical instrument that only played the lyrics and melodies of celebration.
                I still remember that morning: beautiful traveller, your ship had reached the eastern shore.


9. The luck of travellers

                Every day I wake up watching the endless dream of my life and I hear the roar of the blue unending sea.
                And every evening I fall asleep to the sea’s fearful sound. I’ve been cast away to spend my days here in silence
        on these eastern shores, where the sun’s like burning coals for twelve months of the year.
                Often I’ve watched, on the horizon, tall ships with splendid sails, and I felt that on its blue line a giant angel, radiant
        arms spread wide, was flying towards the void. Often my desolate eyes have held up mirrors to those white, white sails.
                God! In this lonely wilderness, I sit for hours on the shining sand, this white bed of seashells, and sigh with envy
        at the luck of travellers. And the serene ships leave the port, to disappear in the sea’s purple waves. God! Failure! Is freedom
         apportioned only to travellers?
                When life’s upheavals leave me drained, when my lonely dreams yield only hollow meanings,
        when disloyal friends abandon me and I want to die and the world’s just a meeting point of tribulations,
        I often ask: whose forehead bears the lines of redemption?
                You, travellers, freed from the world’s snares, oblivious to life’s tug of war, swim like fish on a sea
        of redemption and peace. You go far, so very far, crossing the sea, passing new islands, surveying,
        from your distance, exquisite coastal settlements: freed
from the world’s cares, leaving behind life’s lawlessness,
        your faces smiling, the lines of redemptions etched on your foreheads.
                Perhaps, on some abandoned shore, you lost a vital breath: smiling you search for it, and smiling go away….
        Is it true, then, that in the world, freedom and levity
were apportioned only to you? Do you have, then, some spell
        to turn the world into a place of into a wide sea of surging waves for us to sail on, like travellers in some stalwart ship,
        in search of our real country?


10. The night before the ceremony

                I came down from my room to the ground floor on that grim evening of January 3. The next morning an innocent
        was to be sacrificed at the altar. I wanted to play a final song
of separation on the lute but then I saw my uncle,
        in a black silk evening jacket, strolling in the garden with a dazed expression. (I remember his face, as white as a lotus
        in December, as dull as an autumn leaf.) Listless, he flung his cigar into the rosebushes and sank into a seat beside pots of narcissus flowers.
                You know I’ve always liked to compose verses while I cut bunches of grapes from vines and now, because I was looking
        for a task to divert my anxiety, I went out to the nearby vines and busied myself, cutting their fruit.
        The sun was setting in the sea: it seemed as if a giant python was waiting to swallow the sun. Then darkness fell.
        The evening breeze stirred the lilies in their pond. The songbirds slept in the olive branches. From your distant
        bedroom window, electric rays escaped, lit up the flowerpots
on the terrace. A curtain of silence covered the garden.
        The still scene made me restless.
                I went on cutting grapes and sighing thought about life’s struggles. What hidden anguish had made me so restless
        in these last few hours? I sat down on a stone seat among the vines and I knew, my friend, I knew this
        was your last evening.



                The clouds conceal the world’s shadows, and light dissolves into darkness. Wind, waves, earth
        are silent.
                Sometimes, from distant pathways, the chance sound of a gull’s piercing whistle mingles
        with the rainy wind and echoes on the empty shore.
                And sometimes, from the wavelets, there’s a melodious call
like an angel’s song
        in a vision.
                The sun sets slowly and with it, my beloved friend, my old desires
        cease to breathe.
                        The sun will breathe again – but my desires will die forever.
                The world slowly sinks into darkness – and light is banished from the world.
                The rainy evening, the dark evening, spreads its wings and tries to take the world into its embrace.
                And now the sun has set. Set in the dense rainclouds.        The lights have vanished and the night has sat down to rest by the riverbank like a        weary