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A poet's voice

Imtiaz Dharker's new book I Speak for the Devil is a series of line drawings and poems. The concerns of her previous works — identity, gender politics, freedom and communal conflict — are evident, along with other exciting input. ARUNDHATI SUBRAMANIAM speaks to the author about her work and beliefs.


In a language of her own... Imtiaz Dharker.

MEETING Imtiaz Dharker is a little like reading her poetry. The approach is understated; the tone sophisticated without being mannered, quiet without being bland, impassioned without being dogmatic; the conversation uncluttered and precise, willing to turn exploratory, but never given to unguarded self-revelation. And then there is her face — finely etched, reflective. A decidedly interior face. "Better to meet in books" is a line from a Eunice de Souza poem, evoking the sense of unease one often experiences when meeting an artist after knowing her art. Not so, however, with Dharker. For Dharker, terrain gives you space, engages you without overwhelming you, is incisive without being aggressively minimalist. "This is a good year for me," agrees Imtiaz, looking characteristically unruffled on an unseasonally hot day in uncrushed white linen. "It has been about travelling, reading my work, meeting other writers — everything I enjoy doing. There was the Indian Council for Cultural Relations' (ICCR) literary conference in Delhi where it was wonderful meeting writers like Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer and Vikram Seth — and there are other events coming up as well: a literary festival in Barcelona, where I'm one of the six international writers invited, and the Cuirt Festival in Ireland. And after that I intend to spend June with friends in a rented villa in Tuscany."

With the publication of I Speak for the Devil by British publisher, Bloodaxe, in 2001, Dharker's work has been in the spotlight yet again. Conceived like her earlier collections, as a series of poems and line drawings, the book paradoxically represents both an extension of, and a departure from her earlier work. The abiding concerns are still very much in evidence: home, freedom, journeys, geographical and cultural displacement, communal conflict, gender politics. But there is also something unmistakably new. An iconoclastic in-your-face exultation — an unabashed celebration of a self that strips off layers of superfluous identity with grace and abandon, only to discover that it has not diminished, but has grown larger, more generous, more inclusive.

Dharker's poetic journey is an interesting one to map. Purdah (1989), her first book, explored a somewhat interior politics through an exploration of the multiple resonances of the veil. The result was a work of rich texture and obliquity — 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 work, where anguish at a metropolis ravaged by extremism and fundamentalist intolerance expressed itself in an idiom that was flat, terse and — in contrast to the earlier book — unveiled. With the new book, the poetry journeys further. The landscapes of the self and the city expand to embrace the world — not exactly surprising in a poet born in Pakistan, reared in England, and who now divides her time between London and Bombay. And so Glasgow meets Lahore and Bombay meets Birmingham in this book with an ease that is casual, playful and unapologetic.

The fevered search for sanctuary ("Tell me,/ how can I come home?") of Purdah 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", uncircumscribed by race, nationality or gender. No longer does the city come and collide with her (as it did in Postcards); 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. The emergent self is protean, shifting, cunning, humorous, unencumbered, sometimes angry, but equally capable of accepting its own absurdity and inconsequentiality. "Well yes, if the starting-point of Purdah was life behind the veil, the starting-point of the new book is the strip-tease, about what happens when the self `squeezes past the easy cage of bone'," remarks Dharker.

She acknowledges that displacement here no longer spells exile; it can mean instead an exhilarating sense of life at the interstices. "I may never be able to define my home, but the question is, do I want to? Where is my home anyway? In Scotland under a particular group of trees? In the texture of a fabric? The feel of rain? In the end, you carry these things with you wherever you go. Home for me is here, but it's also in the smell of the south of France. Cezanne and Van Gogh are my relatives. And when I went to Punjab, I felt I was genetically programmed to know that landscape of flat sugarcane fields. I'm sure I shall feel the same shock of recognition when I bite into an olive in Tuscany."

In a cultural climate that favours monolithic cultural identities, Dharker's unabashed embrace of unsettlement as settlement clearly isn't designed to curry favour with the conservatives. In her poem, "Not A Muslim Burial", for instance, the persona begs for cremation and for her ashes to be scattered "in some country/ I have never visited./ Or better still,/ leave them on a train,/ travelling/ between."

"During the Delhi conference," recollects Dharker, "someone in the audience asked whether Indian writers felt that they had a duty to foster Indian culture, to create a synthesis between East and West, between tradition and modernity. I replied that the result of such a synthesis was likely to be a synthetic response!" The "back to the roots" obscurantism clearly needs to be resisted at various levels."

"I don't have to use Indian mythology in my poetry to prove my credentials as a South Asian poet. And I don't have to pretend I owe any allegiance to the Indian miniature tradition to validate my drawing," she declares. Likewise, she points out, she has never chosen to include glossaries to demystify certain words for an overseas readership. "I don't see why I need to explain myself. Readers who are interested shouldn't have a problem approaching the work on my terms." The same conviction underlies her prerogative to stay with poetry rather than move to its more fashionable cousin, the novel. "The writing of poetry and the public aspect of it are two completely separate areas, and that's the great luxury of being a poet."

There's also the purity of the poetic form that attracts her. "I feel the same excitement about the unadulterated line in drawing. It's true that poetry doesn't receive the same respect as the novel, or drawing the same as painting, but there's no point getting angry about it. I'd rather spend that energy writing or drawing." For the process of stripping away superfluity has been not merely cultural and political, but psychological and emotional as well. "It's been about cutting away unfruitful frustration and anger. Of course, the anger never quite disappears, particularly when you see what's happening around you in this country, the way people are being pushed around by religion and politics. But meanwhile there is also the smell of coffee and the taste of olives..."

And what of the readership for poetry today? Dharker holds no apocalyptic views on the subject. "I don't think the audience has dumbed down. It's just that there's so much communication nowadays that poetry, which in any case is a demanding form — often feared for its abstruseness and non-linearity — requires more effort to read now than it did 30 years ago."

The metaphor of the striptease in the new book leads the reader inevitably past the repudiation of status quo politics, through psychological excavation to the realm of the existential — the mystical. "I'm disturbed by words like `spiritual' levels because I see the body as part of the journey, not as polarised from spirit," says Dharker. "But of course, there is a quest, an attempt, a mad hope that something could get better if the poem was written — not for the world, of course. May be for God. May be just for me." She pauses, and adds, "I guess you could say I write because I'd rather take those three steps that it takes to make a poem rather than just sit here."

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