Sahar Rizvi and ’78 Datsun

The beauty of the Frontier provinces in Pakistan, dust in eyes and the rich aroma of culture – prominent Pakistani Poet Sahar Rizvi talks about them to Amitabh Mitra.

I met Sahar Rizvi while searching for poets writing in English for my poetry journal 'A Hudson View'. I was struck by its immediacy and the poetry that is genuinely Pakistani to its heart. I have included only one poem for the reader to understand her literature, that poem being my favourite has stuck to me, it is an adventure in poetry through modern Pakistan.

Tell me about your growing up days, early influences during school that created interest in literature. I think most of the poets and writers have a common streak, an environment, persons and even incidents that pushed them later to the world of writing.

I grew up the youngest by 15 years in my family.  Consequently I grew up amongst adults, and adult literature.  The only age-appropriate books I read were in school, and most of them bored me.  All the schools I attended were either heavily influenced by the British curriculum, or part of it.  And so we read Shakespeare, J. R. R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, and my cousin’s shady romance novels.  I was eager to grow up, and understand all innuendos that hindered me from fully understanding adult fiction.  I was also deeply frustrated that none of the characters in these texts were a reflection of myself.  Almost all the protagonists were white, tormented by what I felt were futile anxieties.   

I took a great interest in my father’s historical, explorer and period epics.  And he would often read excerpts of books such as George B. Schaller’s “Stones of Silence”, and orate tales from his various collections of books dating back to his childhood in Colonial India.  I think his choice in literature had a profound impression upon my life, along with this deeply rooted desire of mine to simply ‘grow up’ and experience these emotions described in texts.  You could say that I completely abandoned reading from 15-18 because I became couldn’t stand to read another novel set in England, which was all that I knew, and these books were imposed upon me by my academic environment, such as ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte.  I merely read what I was forced to, and I supposed that is what caused this inner rebellion, it was not so much the literature but the incumbency made in my curriculum to read them.  There was one particular book I found in my family’s library that shaped my choices in literature as I grew older, it was Sara Suleri’s ‘Meatless Days’.  It was then that I learned of the South Asian women’s narrative, and propelled me to search for writers from strong cultural and ethnic backgrounds 

My choice in literature really blossomed once I left home and entered university.  There I discovered Gabriel Garcia Marques, Moniza Alvi, Agha Shahid Ali, Sadat Hasan Manto, Mohsin Hamid, Rumi, Khalil Gibran, amongst others.  This deeply ingrained desire of mine to find voices from the Diaspora, ones that spoke of history, culture and the chaos and solitude of home.  A voice I could relate to.  And this allowed me to come to ease with my own narrative.

Pakistan in the seventies and eighties, what was the literary milieu like during those times?

Considering I am a product of the 80’s and didn’t spend significant enough time in Pakistan to immerse myself in the literary milieu, I can’t respond informatively enough on this question.  However, I can say that the writers of the 50’s, such as Sadat Hasan Manto greatly inspired me.  Manto’s powerful writing stylistic and politically charged choice of subjects was incredibly unique for social commentators at the time, and he was very daring and brave in this literary endeavours.  At the same time he possessed a tremendous sense of humour, which I found uncharacteristic for accomplished writers of the time, and this intrigued me.  His peculiarity was an endearing quality, that allowed me to see the colourful variety of writers within my own culture, a concept I was completely unfamiliar with whilst growing up.  I consider writers such as him my inspiration for challenging what society deems as proper.  The subcontinent has mostly remained in a state of upheaval for the past century, and therefore it’s almost surprising why more narratives such as his did not emerge.  And this is why I value his writing as a writer of Pakistani origin.

Each city in Pakistan has its own beauty of literature and culture fiercely guarded by the writers themselves.  How did you manage to indulge yourself, assimilating such great works from far flung corners of Pakistan?

My city, Karachi, can best be described as chaotic.  The beauty is not so much aesthetic, as it is beautiful in character.  The sheer multiplicity of people that occupy the expanse of the city is inspiring.  You find such a great disharmony between the rich and poor, that beauty becomes a mere state of mind, and found where you choose to see it.  There is definitely more contemporary writing to be found about the city itself by writers such as Kamla Shamsie.  Yet they miss the mark, and the reading experience can only be appreciated by the privileged class of Pakistan.  Therefore I allow myself to be influenced by the stories I hear, and newspaper reports I read or watch on the news, and they strike a chord with me.  One cannot help by be inspired when you hear these stories and allow them to effect you, as a Pakistani.  There is an inner need to write about these stories from your perspective, and that is what I do. I can’t say I am ‘fiercely guarded’ about my narrative indulgences, but deeply loyal to the stories I tell of home, they are personal and have moved me.

Do you write in Urdu too? Which language do you feel comfortable in writing?

No, I do not write in Urdu because I am only verbally fluent.  I feel comfortable writing in English because it is the language I can best convey my emotions in.  It also describes me, because I have spent most of my life in English speaking countries, and therefore English is the language I think in.  Of course some words and experiences can only be described in my mother tongue, and those are the language limitations and their definitions are lost in translation. And hold so much more resonance in Urdu, that they simply cannot be justified or conveyed in English.

I am sure you have tried translating works from Urdu to English. I have tried and failed because I couldn’t bring the beauty and essence into English. Do you feel the same?

I have translated Urdu works of poetry, but in a very linear and straightforward style.  It’s not the beauty that could not be conveyed, but the subjective importance.  It’s not possible to convey history in a series of words adhering to a strict structural form, which most of Urdu poetic traditions abide by.  It is not possible to convey the anguish of historical upheavals unless one has heard personal familial stories carried down through generations like heirlooms.  Most of the writing I’ve attempted to translate is historically contextualised, and thus I have not been able to justify the original narrative’s intention.  It is possible however to find texts that have been translated, and emulated the poetic Ghazal or Marsiyeh tradition by profoundly experienced and well versed writers.  Unfortunately I have yet to reach this stage in professionalism to attempt this brave feat.

'78 Datsun   – Sahar Rizvi

just you and me in that '78 Datsun
wind bursts through the windows

our faces flushed

mercury rising along the endless
pockmarked Hub River Road
that spears through the Baluchistan Desert
beaten trucks adorned like a madman's canvas swish past
become hypnotic color-wheel swirls in the horizon

those bastard charsis drive faster
their scleras webbed with red
as they choke in cabins thick with homegrown smoke

naswar stuffed under their paan-stained lips
their eyelids flutter like butterfly wings

our heads twist northward to see
the smashed balls of color

we cruise slowly

moving closer a gingerbread house is

an abandoned stone hut
atop a mountain of layered dust
a parched matki at its door

I turn to you and ask
who lives there?

a shrine for some holy man

but obviously not a Baba Ghazi
the dilapidated ruins fade behind the headrest
as my wandering eyes turn away
this never-ending road forks south
the Datsun protests as its heavy body

heaves on a donkey's path

the sandy plain extends into infinity

and infinity gushes skyward

into the Baluchistan plateau
you brake and twist the key
my small brown hand enveloped in yours

we walk to heaven

Janat ul Baki
you show me where your father's bones sleep

run your fingers like undulating snakes
through decades of dry sand on his grave
expressionless as the grains
loosen and dance away in the whistling wind

you tell me how your father

should have had a shrine

but not like Baba Ghazi
he settled for even less

I was only told years and continents later
after we buried you

that your infant son

also lay in Janat ul Baki

waiting for qayamat

Lasbela Hub-Chawki Jumpir
hold your name still
yet the rivers have run dry
and the land-grabbers refuse to leave
I leave you at Janat ul Baki
in that '78 Datsun

spiderweb windshield
sand streams through six perfect holes

it is never the same without you