Adeeba Shahid Talukder, a translator of Persian and Urdu poetry into English, makes an audacious attempt to invoke the sensibility of the ghazal in her contemporary American verse. That a young, first-generation American writer can have such a feel for the ghazal is not a given, for the genre is full of traps, arising from gender, from the audience, from the poet’s voice, to the poet’s relationship to the tradition. Talukder escapes, successfully, from each of these in turn.
With respect to gender, the ghazal has been dominated by the male gaze, by the theme of the female as the object of desire, and of male suffering leading to transcendence and renunciation, not fulfilment. Talukder turns this around by passionately personifying the image of the desired.
Goddess, beloved, flame, they sat: all beauty converges in you.
Men gather at saints’ tombs, but rush to your doorstep…
Let them gaze at you until you begin to tremble.
Talukder’s audience are not the poet’s friends, as in the male ghazal. They are the men who pine after her. She imagines herself as the bangled and bejeweled diva entertaining her soupirant as in the last scene of the Bollywood movie Pakeeza.
Hold your wrists
Beneath your jewels.
Now dance; the city awaits you.
The city is Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Shahr-e Jaanaan, the city of the Beloved. It’s a city that strips the intimacy from the poet’s inner world. In such a city, Faiz (d 1984), one of Talukder’s acknowledged masters, sees himself condemned to having his sins revealed and punished. The city is Faiz’s audience.
Talkuder’s shahr-e jaanaan is New York City, with its specific places, Roosevelt Island, Washington Square, and 23rd Street. These are the scenes of her performances: dates with men that end awkwardly, family disputes. As in many immigrant families, Talukder’s quest for self-actualisation worries her mother, who fears that her unstable daughter will not be able to find the suitable boy.
You’re getting older, and there are few such boys.
Talukder chose the poetic voice of the driven-mad-by love heroes of Persian romances, Majnun and Farhad, and revels in the gender-switched persona. It is she, not the men, who wander in the lanes of the Beloved, or are drunk with passion. A romance gone bad, especially bad from the point of view of a South Asian family, leads to a breakdown.
(I) scissored my hair so it fell like rain.
Smothered my palms with lotion and talc until they silvered
At last. They told me to stop.
They told me I was no prophetess. But I was for I was wrathful.
My aunt pulled
Mina into the kitchen
Said, now listen closely,
And promise me you’ll be strong.
Your sister has gone mad.
Talukder’s voice is both choice and raw, reflecting the courtly politeness of Delhi’s courtesans and the clarity that comes from manic depression. She uses the tropes of Urdu poetry to explore her psychological states, and they are surprisingly effective.
That night the window air was open
The full moon luminous
I waited for my mother to turn,
To see me as a bride
I wanted to tell her
The world is adorning itself for my wedding;
Finally Talukder chooses a particular relationship to the tradition. Her poems are infused with echoes of Ghaleb, Insha and Faiz. The Ghazal has always practiced the art of citations. A great poet was once accused of copying verses from a rival. He responded, “if I don’t steal from him, from whom should I steal?”. This gives the ghazal a gnomic, timeless voice. It is surprising and refreshing how the lines of Ghaleb and Insha, across two centuries and two continents, can express the dreams and vulnerabilities of a young New Yorker.
This small book of poetry suggests that just as the ghazal was able to survive the translatio imperii from Iran to India, it has also been able to survive and perhaps flourish in a third language, English, and on the banks of the East River.
Ms Talukder’s readings of some of the poems are available on Youtube. These were Zoom meetings organized during the lockdown. What they lack in polish, they make up in intimacy.