My acquaintance with Parveen Shakir's poetry began in late 1995 in Lahore, where I had gone to attend a media conference of journalists from South Asia. At the end of the conference, those of us in the Bangladesh team --- Enayetullah Khan, Badal Rahman, Shakhawat Ali Khan, Matiur Rahman, Syed Kamaluddin and I --- decided to have a tour of a market in Lahore before flying to Karachi on our way back home. At the solitary bookshop in that particular market I was happily surprised to know of Parveen Shakir the poet and immensely sad to be informed that she had died a year previously in a car crash. I asked the salesman to give me a copy each of Parveen Shakir's collections of poetry, Khushboo and Khud Kalami, that I spotted on the shelves. He was happy to oblige. As I was about to pay him, Mintu bhai (our very dear Enayetullah Khan) stepped forward and asked me if I could read Urdu. I said indeed I could. But he would not take my word for it. Asking me to read a few lines from Khud Kalami before the salesman, he told the salesman to confirm if I read correctly. I read, which reading was duly confirmed by the salesman. Mintu bhai was thrilled. I walked off with the books, which after all these years form part of my little library at home.
And in all the seasons that have gone by since that December day in Lahore, I have kept in touch with Parveen Shakir through reading, and then re-reading, her poetry. I have watched her recite on youtube and I have wondered why death often comes to the young and the promising at just the point where they are ready to give more of themselves to the world. Shakir, a highly educated Pakistani civil servant and a respected poet in her country, was only forty two when she died in December 1994. Hers was a tragedy that has been hard to ignore by those who have delighted in her poetry. For me, it has been the images and the influences that mark Shakir's poetry which remain an endless source of literary ecstasy. There were all the love poems she composed, together with the ghazals which have given her a prominent berth in Urdu poetry not just in Pakistan but in neighbouring India as well. And knowing as we do of the contributions made by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmad Faraz to Urdu poetry in South Asia, it is not hard to fathom the niche Parveen Shakir created for herself in a world traditionally dominated by men. Observe the following:
Wo to khushboo hai hawa mein bikhar jayega / masla phool ka hai phool kidhar jayega
(He is the fragrance that will give himself to the breeze / the problem is the flower's, where will the flower go?)
All good poetry is heart-wrenching poetry. And in that simple line, Shakir speaks of the torment a woman in love goes through when her lover turns his back on her and walks away. Shakir gives you a new perspective, that of a woman mourning the departure of the one she loves, which again is in sheer contrast to the poetry of rejection which we are wont to get from men. That the heart breaks in women too, with a crack that is as loud as can be, is what you experience in Parveen Shakir. And yet the poetry of heartbreak does not come raw or prosaic. There is the subtle yet pronounced imagery Shakir employs in her poetry. One keeps coming up against such presences as fragrance, air, flower --- khushboo, hawa, phool --- as also badal (clouds), baarish (rain) and titli (bird) in her verses. And the verses, of course, ranged across a wide expanse, often extending themselves into ghazals exploring the innermost recesses of feeling. Read, again:
Chand meri tarah pighalta raha / neend mein saari raat chalta raha / jaane kis dukh se dil girifta tha / muun pe badal ki raakh malta raha / main to paaon ke kaante chunti rahi / aur wo raasta badalta raha . . .
(Like me the moon went on melting / all night long it travelled in slumber / who knows in what sadness the heart was imprisoned? / it went on rubbing the ashes of the clouds on its face / I went on choosing thorns for my feet / and he went on changing his path . . .)
There was a spirit of the fiercely religious in Shakir's ghazals, as these invocations to the Creator make clear:
My heart is fiery, and to reach thee / it shall render my body a canoe and my blood a river . . .
And it is then back to romance, in a defiant statement of self-assertion:
I will live my life away from you / like an exile . . .
Parveen Shakir's poetry rests on a plenitude of similes and metaphors, as her emphasis on fragrance, clouds, birds, et al, demonstrates so clearly. There is too, in her free verse, a free-wheeling, unapologetic use of English terms, a style which often left her verses open to criticism from the purist quarters of Urdu poetry. But for Shakir, the use of English in certain instances was motivated by two factors. In the first place, it was necessary for her to bring to her readers the contemporary trends, however unpalatable, which marked the use of Urdu as a language of the masses. In the second, through employing English words and terms in certain instances, Shakir hits home with the point she tries to make in the poetry. That said, there were in Parveen Shakir certain shades of influence --- of T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats --- that came from her reading and assessment of these two predominant poets of the twentieth century.
Modernism is what punctuates Parveen Shakir's poetry. Her diction is direct, her attitude is unembarrassed and her approach is one of the no-nonsense kind. Observe, yet once more:
Ab kya jo tere paas aaoon / kis maan pe tujh ko aazmaoon / zakhm ab to saamne se khaoon / dushman se na dosti barhaoon / titli ki tarah jo urh chuka hai / wo lamha kahan se khoj laoon . . .
(What remains for me now to come to you? / By what standard should I test you? / My wounds strike me from the front / I make no friendship with the enemy / that which has flown like the bird / from where shall I retrieve that moment?).
(Parveen Shakir --- Pakistani poet, columnist and civil servant --- was born on 24 November 1952 and died in a road accident on 26 December 1994).