Poems by Bilquis Zafirul Hasan

(Translated by Arjumand Ara)

POETESS

God does not give sufferings
Greater than the broadness of one’s bosom.
But in my heart He has put the vastness
Greater than the earth and heavens.

I

No
I do not complain, nor do I reproach You.
Like You, I too, have written stories, pure in nature.
I have carved characters, blameless and innocent.
Then instilled in them the sorrow of failures, unfulfilled desires,
Punishments and disgrace, as You did.
Sometimes, I crucified them upon the cross of guiltlessness.
Sometimes, I pushed them into the blind caves of solitude.
Sometimes I imprisoned them in the prisons of their own existence.
I pushed through their bosoms the daggers,
The wounds of which will never be healed.
But – what else could I do?
To make a story out of a story
One has to accomplish all these things.
Your limitations – who else, if not I, would understand.
I know, the way you have written me, as story
You did it, excellently!
OCEAN, O OCEAN!

Ocean! O ocean!
This dreadfulness of your streams,
These whirling vortex and roaring storms,
May only be a way of your flowing waters!
But – the straws?
They are facing gusts of the billowing waves,
Nobody knows, as to where they helplessly flow.

You are grand and magnificent – your depths are fathomless.
The surges of your waves are all boundless.
You may not know the pain of being fragile and helpless.
You may not have experienced all this,
As the roaring of boundless waves is always carefree and mindless;
To storm and surge is just a habit of flowing waters.

But these defenseless straws do always bear the brunt,
Of your flowing waters, of the storm of vortex.
If these straws get drowned, nothing would happen.
Neither your surges would be subdued nor your greatness would be questioned.
But when will end this pain of being wasted?
Ocean, O ocean!
SUICIDE

There are several ways of committing suicide.
She may choose any of them.
She may die by consuming poison,
Or by setting herself afire – after dousing kerosene.
By jumping from the seventh floor,
Or by throwing herself before a running train.
By hanging from a roof, or a ceiling fan,
Or by drowning herself in an ocean.
There are several ways, indeed.
Each of them more horrible than the other – and easy too.
But the most horrible is – to die while living.
In this, nobody can notice – that a person is dead.
This is no innovation –
Many have tried this before me,
And have succeeded.
And the best thing about this
is that
One takes no chance of being saved.
TREACHERY OF THE LAND

In fact, the land does not own any thing.
She is owned by one who gets her registered.
Before she bears fruit, she is divided among the owners;
Distributed in small patches.
One who owns one of her patches, has the right
To decide whether to cultivate
or not to cultivate her.
She is dug and beaten
Yet she yields the dues to those who are called her claimants.
The land – is always very faithful.
But there remains in her – something from being shared.
Otherwise, how do there grow
These wild cacti – boorish celsia.
These illegitimate, yet very own, children of the Land.
MELON AND KNIFE

Either a knife falls upon a melon, or a melon upon a knife,
It causes no harm to the knife.
Which, that gets cut, is always the melon.
The knife remains, as always it is, sharp and shining –
Prepared to cut another melon!

A hoodlum whistled while passing from her street,
Seeta no longer steps out her home – she is forbidden from going out.
A neighbour began to peep about – my brother sent his wife to her parents.
After being raped, Savitri died, committing suicide.
Yes! –  a knife falls upon a melon, or a melon upon a knife,
Melon has to get cut.
But,
Is there no difference between a woman and a melon?
BANU

What a great shock! Banu was not such a woman.
It is already past twenty years
When she first stepped into this house.
And during these twenty years – she did not utter a single word
(of dissatisfaction) to anybody.
– Neither a complaint, nor reproach.
She used to be busy in everyday chores, day and night.
Poor woman – she didn’t find time even to have a chat.
She used to live on – whatever was left from others consumption.
What about her desired articles? She was such a woman,
who did never change her clothes even on a festival!
She used to serve her mother-in-law, bear the whims of her sister-in-law.
For her brothers-in-law, for her father-in-law,
for her husband – for all – she was ready to sacrifice her life.
During these twenty years – she did not go to her mother’s house, even once.
From the day when she stepped down from her bridal palanquin
She did not cross the door of her husband’s house.
What happened then to such a woman?
Why did she consume the poison of rats? Who knows – why!
What a great shock! Banu was not such a woman!
DARKNESS

The darkness prevails only because
You did not light a candle, yet.
Do no sit idly
Light a candle – see for the fuse
Possibly, the electricity has gone
Because the wire is fused.
Then – change the fuse-wire.

If you do not know, how to make fused-wire – then
Sit frightened in this dim light of a candle
And pray for the morrow to come.
Sit for all night in this darkness.

Do remember – the darkness is
Only a name of no light.
Bring light and see – where does the darkness go?
GOOD WIVES – A SERMON

Dear good Ladies!
A woman is blessed with the promise of Heaven who
Adorns herself before her husband comes back to home,
Decorates her hair with strings of beads;
And keeps ready the odorous dishes of appetizing food.
Keeps ready fresh hot bread and soft bed;
Puts warm and cold water in two separate jugs –
(Yes, who know if he would like to use cold or warm water!
One cannot anticipate his desire.)
So that when her demigod, her master comes home,
He gets everything ready he needs, without demand.

And yes, dear ladies!
Do not forget to keep ready
A cane-stick, quite strong –
Who knows that the tired soldier, coming from the battle-ground of troubles,
Unfortunately,
Might be returning with injuries of failures.
When he comes back – he does not take the trouble to search for it.
He may push down with the help of this cane-stick
The colourful silken robe from the shoulders of his virtuous wife,
And Sprinkle the blood of his failures on her tender body;
So that he is able to sleep a blissful sleep.
(Yes, he is your metaphorical God. Were you allowed to worship someone other than God, its he, your husband. He saves you from the burning sun of the world, inside the secure walls of his house. Your subsistence depends upon the earnings of his hard work.)
Therefore, my dear ladies!
A woman is blessed with the promise of Heaven
Who spends her life as her husband willed.
If he calls the day night, she says it night.
She keeps herself alive for him, even if dying.
And she dies for him.
She would be sent to the Paradise, directly.
She would not be questioned for her sins,
They all will be pardoned.

In her sermon,
The preacher thus spoke, and then kept quiet.
She just announced the good news of deliverance of a pious wife.

But where will such a husband go?
– about this, she did not utter a word.

O God! O God!
For generations, in long queues, these are worthless maids!
Do instill in them a sense of being themselves.
HOUSE

No doubt – this is your house.
Your wealth was spent in its building.
It was your hard-earned money.

Your name is written on every brick.
But my blood – ? My toil – ?
What became the kneaded clay for these bricks – was my blood.
The walls of your house are raised over the base of my hard work.
How can you drive me out of this house?
I too, have written my labour,
With the ink of my blood, over each brick.
Do not give, if you don’t want to,
My right, my share, in this household.
Return it, as my wages.
I absolve you from paying back
My blood, which was spent on its building.
Bilquis Zafirul Hasan (born on September 1, 1938) is an Urdu poetess based in Delhi. Her first collection of poems Geela Eendhan (Damp Firewood) was published in 1996. Her second collection Sholon ke Darmiyan(Amidst the Flames) appeared in 2004. She writes short stories as well, and her only collection Weeraney Aabaad Gharon ke (Deserts of Inhabited Homes) was published in 2008. At first glance the mainstay of Bilquis (both in poetry and prose) seems to be the sufferings of woman. While writing on woman as mother, wife, beloved, or just a woman as opposed to man, we see her standing forlorn, unheard, neglected, abused and exploited in every role. However, the beauty of Bilquis’ narration lies in her moderate voice and subtle use of irony to drive home her point. She stands beside all, exploited and humiliated. Woman being the greater victim of injustice and abuse, she naturally walks to the centre of her poems. Besides woman, she is concerned with war, abuses of power, communal riots, besieged identities in a hostile environment, displaced and homeless people (see her poems on trampled Iraq, victims of Gujarat riots etc.). All the poems translated here are from Geela Eendhan.

Arjumand Ara is a prominent Urdu scholar, translator and activist. She is an assistant professor at the Delhi University, and is associated with the progressive writers movement. Recently, she translated the autobiography of Ralph Russell, a prominent indologist and Urdu scholar, who died in 2008.

Silent Questions from the Wife of a Worker Who Reads: A Response to Brecht

Questions From a Worker Who Reads

Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

(“Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” – translated by M. Hamburger in Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, Methuen, N.Y., London, 1976)

Silent Questions from the Wife of a Worker Who Reads

Manali Chakrabarti

So you say, it is you not the kings, who built the Thebes of the Seven Gates.
Your forefathers hauled lumps of rocks when Babylon was Resurrected all those Several time – after each demolition.

You ask about the Houses where the Builders of gold glittering Lima lived,
I ask silently who kept the houses, the children, the future builders.

You ask, where did the masons go when the Great Wall of China was finished,
History did not record it.
But what about the patient unheard voices who made the shacks and hovels Homes,
Who waited with hot gruel for the masons?
Who do not even have the Great Stone Wall of China as a Silent testimony,
Should a Future day Historian choose to enquire.

Alexander conquered India, Caesar beat the Gaul,
Philip of Spain laughed and cried with the fortunes of the Spanish Armada,
Yes they had soldiers to fight their wars.
And cooks too, and a thousand others to assist them in their noble endeavours.
Their triumphs and their losses in the battlefields and the seas were not theirs alone.
There were the ‘not so great men’ behind these ‘Great Men’
Should you dig O! Present day historian you may still find them

But wasn’t there anything else happening then, when the men, Great and Small,
Were making History?
Wasn’t there an ordinary child being born and nurtured anywhere?
And houses kept, vegetables grown, clothes made and rice dehusked.
Who made the ends meet in times of war and scarcity?
The Men were away.
Who sang lullabies while the roaring canons decided the victors?

I listen to you, while you question the past with your new found knowledge.
You roar, you thunder, I sew silently a pattern on the pillowcase.
Would my story visit you in your dreams – mine that I share with my foremothers?
Would my child be able to decipher the words hidden in this pattern,
As you do now for those in the history books?

I did not cook for the victors; I did never cook for the past,
I always cooked for the future – where every morsel was important.
It was no feast – lavish fare strewn around and men doused in drinks,
I never cooked to commemorate great events,
I cooked the humble daily gruel soaked in parsimony and care,
This was to write a different history,
A history  for the future.

Behind your vocal questions to history and all its records and reports
Is the Great Wall of my Silent questions.
Who has the Answers?
I wonder.
Maybe I do.

Manali Chakrabarti is an economic historian, presently affiliated with the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.

The Siege

Ahmed Faraz

My enemy has sent message for me,
That his army-men have laid siege around me.
On every tower and minaret of the city-wall,
His army-men are standing with bows in their hands.

The lightening-wave has been extinguished
Whose fervor awoke volcanoes from the soil.
Landmines are laid in the waters
Of the streamlet that came flowing to my street.
All people—outspoken and bold, are now bodily torn.
And all the rebels are sent to gallows.

All the mystics and mystic-initiates, all the guides and leaders
Have gathered in the high-towered palace, hoping favours.
All the honourable judges, ready to take oath,
Are sitting on the way, like adamant beggars.

You have been an admirer of poets’ dignity,
Those stars of the art’s sky are now before you.
At the wink of a ruler’s buddy,
A number of begging poets would gather before him.
Weigh the footing of these dauntless and the faithful
Look around you; see yourself, who is with you.

If you want to protect your life, the condition is this:
Put your pen and paper in the killing-yard.
Otherwise, you are the only aim of archers this time.
Therefore, shun off your sense of honour in the street.

Seeing these conditions, I told the emissary:
He doesn’t know what the History teaches us.
When a night murders a sun,
A new morning carves out a new sun.
Therefore, this is my reply to my enemy:
I am neither greedy for favour, nor afraid of revenge.
He takes immense pride in his sword’s power,
But he can’t judge the grandeur of a pen.

My pen is not the character of that protector
Who takes pride in besieging his own city.
My pen is not the bowl of that debased,
Who bestows praises upon the usurper.
My pen is not the tool of that burglar
Who breaks the roof his own house.
My pen is not the companion of that night-thief
Who throws up a lasso on the unlit houses.
My pen is not the rosary of that preacher,
Who keeps counting the moments of his prayer.
My pen is not the scale of that arbiter,
Who keeps two masks for his face to cover.

My pen is the safekeeping of my people.
My pen is the law-court of my conscience.
That’s why, whatever I wrote, I wrote with passion of life.
That gave to my poems the supple of bow, and the tongue of arrow.
Whether I lay cut here, or be spared, I believe,
Somebody will wreck this wall of oppression.
I swear for my torment-stricken life,
The voyage of my pen will not be futile.

The passion of love did not get a nature that weakens the lover.
Instead of seeing the height of the cypress, you are gauging its shadow!

Translated from Urdu by Arjumand Ara

Ahmed Faraz (1931-2008) wrote this poem, Muhaasirah (The Seige), when General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq overthrew the democratically elected government of Pakistan under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977.

To the artists

Ahmed Faraz

You sprinkled gold-dust on the forehead of the Earth
But lived yourself in the gloomy expanses.
You wove an Eden of dreams for others,
But burnt yourself in the inferno of misery.
You listened to the heartbeat of humanity,
But spat blood for all your life.

Whenever the world burnt in the fire of war,
You sang lullabies of peace.
Whenever blew the storm of destruction
You showed the beacons of light.
The human civilization owes its blooming to you,
But you had to face the arrow-dart of tyranny.

You adorned your masterpieces with your heart-blood,
But your hands were chopped off, as reward.
You led the world to the springs of nectar,
As reward, you had to drink the bowls of poison.
Alas! You had to die at the hands of the world,
Though you lived all your life to serve the world.

You were not a messenger, a claimant of heavens.
You talked about earth, with the earthly people.
You gave to the dust the spark of stars,
Though you were deprived of your eyes.
You healed the wounded hearts of people,
But in return the world crucified you.

From the castle and court to the street of gallows,
The chain is the same, as it used to be in the past.
You were denied the fragrance of a garden, while alive,
But after death, you have a grave with flowers covered.
O the saviors! How long this suicide!
There are vast distances between earth and heavens!

Translated from Urdu by Arjumand Ara

Ahmed Faraz (1931-2008) was a prominent Pakistani Urdu poet known for his progressive radicalism and defiance against oppression in post-colonial Pakistan. The above poem is taken from his collection Dard Ashob.

Time is not any dog

Avtar Singh Sandhu ‘Pash’

If not Frontier, read Tribune
If not Calcutta, talk about Dacca
Bring the clippings from
Organiser and Punjab Kesari
And tell me
Where are these eagles  flying?
Who has died?
Time is not any dog
That can be chained and driven wherever you like
You tell us
Mao says this and Mao says that
I ask you, who is Mao to say anything?
Words cannot be pawned away
Time itself can speak
Moments are not speechless.
You sit in the Ramble
Or drink a cup of tea from a side stall
Speak truth or lie –
It doesn’t matter,
You may even jump over the corpse of silence
——-
And O rulers, ask
Your police and tell me
Whether I am imprisoned behind the bars
Or this policeman standing across?
Truth is not a whore of AIR
Time is not any dog.

Translated from Punjabi by Pratyush Chandra
Note: (1) Frontier, Tribune, Organiser and Punjab Kesari are names of weeklies and newspapers published in India. (2) AIR stands for All India Radio.
Avtar Singh Sandhu ‘Pash’ (1950-1988) was a celebrated revolutionary poet from Punjab (India). The above poem is taken from his collection Loh-katha (Iron-tale).

The wailing wall or the Walled City (Summer 2004)

Bhaswati Sengupta

tentatively we string
truths we see
into tales and songsset loose they rush pell mell
at the thick wall of silence
that guards the city
wherein dwell keepers of virtue
and makers of law with
the creators of culture

if the wall did not bar
tales and songs that do not fit
if it did not enclose
norms forms and names
that define the diameters
of art and its practice
if my songs or yours
ever found their way
past that wall
there would be chaos

reality would go berserk
alignments and alliances turn awry
questions run helter skelter
authority would lose its might
and society its sight

order order barks the wall
over the clamour
of our shattered songs
which blow wild with the wind