Category Archives: Imtiaz Dharker

‘Minority’ by Imtiaz Dharker

I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.

All kinds of places and groups
of people who have an admirable
history would, almost certainly,
distance themselves from me.

I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;

like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.

There’s always that point where
the language flips
into an unfamiliar taste;
where words tumble over
a cunning tripwire on the tongue;
where the frame slips,
the reception of an image
not quite tuned, ghost-outlined,
that signals, in their midst,
an alien.

And so I scratch, scratch
through the night, at this
growing scab on black on white.
Everyone has the right
to infiltrate a piece of paper.
A page doesn’t fight back.
And, who knows, these lines
may scratch their way
into your head –
through all the chatter of community,
family, clattering spoons,
children being fed –
immigrate into your bed,
squat in your home,
and in a corner, eat your bread,

until, one day, you meet
the stranger sidling down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.

This is another wonderful poem by Imtiaz Dharker. I think Dharker is one of the most exciting poets writing in English today; her work is so fresh and relevant, and I love the way she doesn’t shy away from subject matter that is politically taboo. I particularly love the way she explores identity in her poems.

Minority gives a very insightful depiction of what it feels like to be “foreign” in many places. The poem begins with the line, “I was born a foreigner”. How can you be born a foreigner? Well, sadly today in many of our Western societies (including in the UK and in my adopted country, France) the children of immigrants can be made to feel this way. The poem says, “I was born a foreigner… and “carried on from there/ to become a foreigner everywhere/ I went”. The speaker in the poem seems to belong nowhere – “even in the place/ planted with my relatives”. On returning to the country of her parents, this speaker feels like a foreigner, too. In this situation, many people understandably feel incredibly displaced and victimised, as they find themselves facing prejudice from both the country they were born in, as well as the country of their parents and relatives.

The speaker tells us “I don’t fit”. She compares herself to “food cooked in milk of coconut/ where you expected ghee or cream” or an “unexpected aftertaste/ of cardamom or neem”. I love this use of taste to describe a feeling of being foreign; it’s so evocative. A country’s cuisine is essential to its culture and so I think this is a very clever inclusion here. I also find it very interesting that Dharker imports flavours from her own very multicultural identities, which are (as well as British) Pakistani and Indian.

The subject of the next stanza if language, and this is something that I can relate to personally, having lived, studied and worked in abroad for several years now. The speaker talks about “that point where/ the language flips/ into an unfamiliar taste”, and words become a “tripwire”. Is she talking about accent here, where the language might “taste” differently on the tongue? Or is she talking about being unable to find the words for something? I have heard many people say this about being bilingual; it is incredibly frustrating when you cannot think of a word in the language you are trying to speak, because you are afraid that you might be better at one language than another. This only adds to the feeling of not-belonging that runs all the way through this poem.

The penultimate stanza explores the act of writing, and its role in the creation of identity. Dharker uses beautiful language to describe herself (or the speaker) going “scratch, scratch” at the “growing scab on black and white”. I just love this description of writing as a “scab”. She is writing to make sense of a wound, or even to heal it. Dharker encourages the notion of the transformative and healing power of literature here, and then she remarks upon its democracy. “Everyone has the right/ to infiltrate a piece of paper”, she writes; the page is not prejudiced; it “doesn’t fight back”. Poetry becomes a medium through which the speaker can freely express herself — a way she can communicate. And perhaps the message will get through to people; literature is a great teacher of empathy. “Who knows”, writes Dharker, perhaps these lines will “scratch their way/ into your head” — break through the prejudices that “community” and “family” can breed.

Perhaps one day, she writes in the final verse, you (the reader) will meet “the stranger sidling down your street” and recognise that face “as your own”. I just love the way the poem suddenly turns on the reader, near the end, with that very direct “you”. Dharker is putting the reader on the spot; these questions are now directly put to us. This poem beautifully displays its author’s belief in the power of literature to transform, educate and create understanding, and I think it’s a wonderful piece.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Blessing’ by Imtiaz Dharker

The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.

Imagine the drip of it,
the small splash, echo
in a tin mug,
the voice of a kindly god.

Sometimes, the sudden rush
of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,
silver crashes to the ground
and the flow has found
a roar of tongues. From the huts,
a congregation : every man woman
child for streets around
butts in, with pots,
brass, copper, aluminium,
plastic buckets,
frantic hands,

and naked children
screaming in the liquid sun,
their highlights polished to perfection,
flashing light,
as the blessing sings
over their small bones.

I think this is the second poem by Imtiaz Dharker that I have posted on this blog. I just think she is an extremely exciting poet; she uses such bright, colourful language.

I love the opening of this poem, with its image of skin that “cracks like a pod”. This phrase delivers a strong image of dehydration, of drought, and of cracked earth in the heat. The cracked “pod” brings to my mind a pod of seeds, scorched by the sun so that it will never produce or grow or bear fruit…”There is never enough water.” The simplicity of this second statement to me amplifies the tragic ramifications of its significance. Nothing can grow — nothing can live — where there is no water.

In the second stanza, as the poet invites us to “imagine the drip of it”, I find that the sound of the words here are so cleverly evocative that they even make me thirsty! The sibilance of the “small splash”, and the pleasing clanging of consanants in “echoing”, “tin” and “mug” deliver such a strong image of water that is so needed after the image of the “crack[ed].. pod”… It is significant that the poet describes this sound of water as the “voice of a kindly god” because it emphasises to us that very often the people in such a situation (where water is so scarce), view the advent of such a commodity as a kindly act of god. What else is there to do when you have no possibility to improve your situation? What else is there to believe when you have no possibility of educating yourself? I imagine this poem to be set in India somewhere, because of Dharker’s background.

There is a “sudden rush of fortune” in the third stanza, when the municipal pipe bursts. I think this is very clever, the way the poet draws a parallel between financial wealth and the water. Notice that the water is “silver” — so much more bright and expensive than the “brass, copper, aluminium,/ plastic buckets,/ frantic hands” that scramble to trap just a bit of the precious liquid. I think the fact that the water comes from a “municipal pipe” is important. To me, this evokes the idea of a mistake on the part of the authorities — the pipe burst and so the water got out. When I read this poem it makes me think of corrupt authorities that could help their people, but don’t. And when the pipe bursts, the reaction is a furious scramble to get as much from the happy accident as possible.  The people in the poem are described as a “congregation” here; again we have some ambiguous religious language that (to me) enforces the notion of superstitious, uneducated people, who do not know how wronged they are by the authorities.

For a moment, in the final stanza, the people — “the naked children” — become perfect, even godlike, as everything around them seems to turn to water. They stand in the “liquid sun” and are turned to gold, “polished to perfection”; they are rich as they stand in the world that has come alive thanks to the water. I think this is such a clever, and beautiful image because it really brings home to us the significance of water — how absolutely indispensable a commodity it is — and how a “rush” of water can be a miracle and a gift from god for those who are not fortunate enough to have been born in a country where it is taken for granted.

The final line, “the blessing sings over their small bones” is so very beautiful. I love the use of “sings”, and the “small bones”, and think it just reinforces the idea of the children’s mortality, reminding us that without water, they would certainly die.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Living space’ by Imtiaz Dharker

There are just not enough
Straight lines. That
Is the problem.
Nothing is flat
Or parallel. Beams
Balance crookedly on supports
Thrust off the vertical.
Nails clutch at open seams.
The whole structure leans dangerously
Towards the miraculous.

Into this rough frame,
Someone has squeezed
A living space

And even dared to place
These eggs in a wire basket,
Fragile curves of white
Hung out over the dark edge
Of a slanted universe,
Gathering the light
Into themselves,
As if they were
The bright, thin walls of faith.

I have only recently begun reading Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry and I have found it very refreshing. The way she explores cultural differences, identity and the idea of ‘otherness’ really fascinates me. If you read just a little of her biography you will see that she is well placed to talk about those issues; raised in Scotland by Pakistani parents, she attended a Calvinist school as a Muslim, and now lives between Mumbai and London with her Indian Hindu husband. Her poems are bold and brave, often political and always relevant. I really recommend reading more of them.

I chose this particular poem for today’s blog because of that startling image of the fragile, white eggs hanging precariously in the midst of what I suppose is an Indian slum or shanty town.

There is an irresistible playfulness about the language used to depict the chaos of the shanty town. I love the almost tongue-in-cheek tone of that opening phrase and ‘explanation’ of the “problem” with the place — “There are just not enough/ Straight lines”. But this playful tone certainly does not detract from the seriousness of the poverty being described; the squalor and precariousness of existence here is made tangible through the balancing beams, the nails that “clutch at open seams” and the whole structure leaning “dangerously/ towards the miraculous”. That word “clutch” in particular, and that beautiful, off-beat rhyme scheme using “beams”, “seams” and “leans” really creates, I think, a sense of how the whole town is seemingly holding together by a thread.

People have “squeezed” a “living space” into this place. I just adore this second half of the poem. There is something so triumphant about those eggs. Someone has “even dared” to hang the eggs there, so fragile and white and in such a dirty, dangerous, unpredictable environment. The wire basket is such a flimsy protection for them. There is incredible faith displayed by the person who has hung those eggs there. It reminds me of Yeats’ poem He wishes for the cloths of heaven when it goes, “I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Leaving the eggs there in the middle of the shanty town was sort of like leaving your dreams under somebody’s feet.

The way Dharker describes the eggs at the end of the poem to me is just exquisite: “gathering the light/ into themselves,/ as if they were/ the bright, thin walls of faith”. The bright, thin walls of faith! It’s so beautiful. To me, that is just what faith is — bright and beautiful and heroic — but at the same time so fragile, its “walls” paper-thin like eggshell.  Of course, the reality is that these eggs are in a position where they will most likely get broken, and the message about the atrocious conditions of shanty towns can’t be ignored. But the faith that put the eggs there is still heroic and startling, and that is why I chose this poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh