The poetry of Imtiaz Dharker has travelled an interesting path – from the trauma of cultural exile and alienation to a celebration of unsettlement as settlement; from an anguished indictment of purdah where “the body finds a place to hide” to a defiant removal of the “black veil of faith/ that made me faithless to myself” and the “lacy things/ that feed dictator dreams”. An accomplished artist and documentary filmmaker, she is an important presence in the world of Indian poetry in English.
Born in Lahore, Dharker grew up in Glasgow and now divides her time between London and Mumbai. She writes in English. She has written three books of poetry, conceived as sequences of poems and drawings. Home, freedom, journeys, geographical and cultural displacement, communal conflict, gender politics – these remain the recurrent themes in her poetry.
Her work has been described by critic Bruce King as “consciously feminist, consciously political, consciously that of a multiple outsider, someone who knows her own mind, rather than someone full of doubt and liberal ironies”. Alan Ross in London Magazine terms this “a strong, concerned economical poetry in which political activity, homesickness, urban violence, religious anomalies, are raised in an unobtrusive setting, all the more effectively for their coolness of treatment.”
What makes this poetic trajectory fascinating is the changing stylistic and tonal texture of the work. Purdah (1989), Dharker’s first book, explored a somewhat interior politics by probing the multiple resonances of the veil. The result was a work rich in layer and obliquity – it spoke of doors “opening inward and again inward”, of the subtle interplay of advance and retreat across “the borderline of skin”. A more overt social critique characterised Postcards from God (1994), her second book, where anguish at a metropolis ravaged by extremism and fundamentalist intolerance expressed itself in an idiom that was flat, terse, minimalist, less imagistic – and in contrast to the earlier work – more unveiled. “The poetry of commitment and politics,” observes King, “is seldom as successful.”
With her most recent book, I Speak for the Devil, the poetry journeys further. The landscapes of the self, the metro and the country expand to embrace the world. “If the starting point of Purdah was life behind the veil,” reflects Dharker, “the starting-point of the new book is the strip-tease, about what happens when the self ‘squeezes past the easy cage of bone’.”
So Glasgow meets Lahore and Mumbai meets Birmingham in this book with an ease that is casual, playful and unapologetic. The fevered search for sanctuary of Purdah (“Tell me/ how can I come home?”) is replaced by a realisation that anchor is sometimes to be found in the journey rather than the destination. “High on the rush of daily displacement”, the poet’s voice locates home between countries, “between borders”, proudly flaunting her allegiance to “another country”, one that refuses to be circumscribed by race, nationality or gender.
No longer does the city come and collide with her (as it did in Postcards from God). Instead, she opens her front door and goes out to meet the world on her own terms, “speeding to a different time zone/ heading into altered weather,/ landing as another person”. Here is no glib internationalism or modish multiculturalism. If you trust this voice, it’s because its ‘bigness’ is never grandiose; it is arrived at through a process of concerted exfoliation. Displacement here no longer spells exile; it means an exhilarating sense of life at the interstices. There is an exultant celebration of a self that strips off layers of superfluous identity with grace and abandon, only to discover that it has not diminished, but grown larger, generous, more inclusive.
This issue features seven of her poems – two or more from each of her collections – that will offer some idea of the poetic directions discussed above. Also featured here are a couple of articles based on conversations with the author soon after the release of her most recent book, I Speak for the Devil.
Postcards from God (1)
At the Lahore Karhai
They’ll say: ‘She must be from another country‘
Also on this site
Article by Jerry Pinto
The smell of coffee, the taste of olives . . .
In conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam
Purdah. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Postcards from God. Viking Penguin, 1994. Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 1997.
I Speak for the Devil. Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2001. Penguin Books India, 2003.
Websites featuring Imtiaz Dharker
South Asian Women’s Network
Imtiaz Dharker’s bio-note, poems, reviews, newsclips.
Word 4 Word
Durham Literature Festival 2000; Imtiaz Dharker biography and poem, ‘Postcards from God’.
‘No Man’s Land’ (poem by Dharker) in this online global magazine of politics and culture.
Moving Words – ‘A Woman’s Place’
Online Inset Programme for teachers of English focusing on literature from different cultures and traditions, featuring ‘A Woman’s Place’ (poem by Dharker).
Moving Words – ‘After Creation’
‘After Creation’ (poem by Dharker).
Squatter Speak’ by Tishani Doshi: Review of Dharker’s I Speak for the Devil in The Hindu (Sunday, May 2, 04).