‘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