Wound, Therapy & Vigilance in Sophia Naz’s Poetry – by Uttaran Das Gupta


Very early in Sophia Naz’s Pointillism we encounter the poem “Chappan Churri”, about one Janaki Bai who was stabbed fifty-six (chappan, in Urdu/Hindu) times by a jilted lover, but survived. While this is a comment on the sort of violently obsessive love glamorised in films such as Darr (1993), Raanjhanaa (2013) and others, it is also a reflection on the violence of language and memory:

When I type
churri, autocorrect is also
a stab at language
giving me the option
of cherry, char
cheri, churn, churl
chi, and occasionally, chai

In some ways, this is the running theme of this remarkable book of poems: poetry as wound and as therapy. For many of us in this cacophonous world of post-truth political rhetoric, poetry is wound and also the ointment we apply on it.

American poet and critic Matthew Zapruder argues, in a recent essay (“What Poetry Can Teach Us About Power”, lithub.com, August 16, 2017) that political poetry often uses language in a way different from rhetoric. He writes: “Poetry has social and political uses. The usefulness of poetry has less to do with delivering messages (which we can just as easily get from prose), and far more to do with what poems can do to our language, re-enlivening and reactivating it, and thereby drawing us into a different form of attention and awareness. It is a powerful thing when a poem finds its way, directly or otherwise, to the biggest issues in our social lives.”

Pushcart-nominated Naz’s poetry in this collection — her second this year — addresses some of the most pressing contemporary social and political themes, at times even directly, but always with a certain artistry that make them poignant, and prevent them from drowning in the quicksand of euphemism. Published by Delhi-based independent publishing house Copper Coin, this volume has 32 lyrical poems — in prose and verse — between its bright yellow covers, depicting oozing mangoes that look like breasts with their nipples exposed.

There is no helpful introduction to provide a thematic guide, nor are the poems dated. The only clue the poet offers is an epigraph: “A scar is what happens when word is made flesh”, from Leonard Cohen’s 1963 book, The Favourite Game. While meditations on scars and wounds are ubiquitous, we shall return to that a little later. First, a brief comment on the title, which itself is a rupture of sorts. It is presented as a conjugation of “point” and “tillism” (italics are Naz’s). In a brief note, the poet explains, the title is double entendre. The English “point” refers to both location and gesture; tillism — the Urdu root for “talisman” — aims to “transcend perceived realities”. It might also refer to the late 19th century European artistic technique, which uses points and dots of various colours to compose a painting. It is interesting to remember that Naz has studied art, the Sumi-e painting technique, which uses ink and paper. This is what probably provides her poems with a visual vitality.

If you put this book through the software Wordle, which creates word “cloud” of frequently used words, it is likely that the one to be displayed prominently would be “scar”, and vying for the second spot would be weapons that create scars — daggers, needles, claws, churri. There is even an ode to a scar, where Naz imagines it to be a signpost, a piece of calligraphy, dream, heirloom, meteor, it becomes a wolf howling

at the many
of my teeth

References to the mouth — the vessel through which words and language are articulated — are frequent. There are bites and tastes, and then there is one delightful poem on the guavas of Allahabad, described as “pink”. It is best to also remember that Naz, like so many of us, is a product of Partition, the colonial cartography that carved up the British Indian Empire into India, and East and West Pakistan, exactly 70 years ago. The violence — the actual mutual genocides of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as that of being uprooted from the homes of one’s ancestors and being flung into an uncertain geography — has been the theme of much of Indian and Pakistani cultural production over the decades.

Naz uses the symbol of a guava, the particular Allahabadi one which has pink flesh, as a metaphor for loss:

The hawker in Civil Lines
… was making
a pyramid of winter’s
bright blushing beauties
singing their praises
in your dead father’s cadence

The first time he flayed
an Illahabadi amrood open
offered you a wound-pink cheek
with an unforgettable fragrance
that is when you knew…
…what it means to come back
take a bite out
of your own history.

This sense of loss and an inherited nostalgia is only too common for most of us, in the second and third generation of Partition. For instance, my mother’s family migrated from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1947. Everyone in the family in my grandparents’ generation spoke the particular Chittagong dialect of Bengali, so different from the Kolkata dialect as to be an almost alien language. But, my generation was never taught this dialect, and now it is lost to us.

For Naz, as for many of us, language and poetry are perhaps the only therapy for such inherited loss. A practitioner of Kayakalpa, a set of therapies against degeneration caused by ageing mentioned in the Vedas, Naz is well aware of the regenerative power of words. In the prose poem, “Cowboys & Cow Boys”, she writes: “What I called ganga-jamni, what you called a Venn diagram. Those lines are lost… my mind’s skipping like a cheap cassette.” The poem ends with a long list of female narrators: “Zebunnissa, Shamimara, Jahanara, Shabnam, Nargis, Naushaba, Anjuman, Shagufta, Sheherazade…” It is a reminder of how narrative — history, fiction, poetry — is the only vaccination against forgetfulness; to remember is essential to not repeat concentration camps, wars, genocides.

But this amnesia is not just the territory of nostalgia; it is an alarming contemporary concern. “The United States of Amnesia”, another poem from this book, is a vehement critique of regressive social change haunting the US under the presidency of Donald Trump. Naz uses a few well-chosen examples from history to remind her readers how easily though, right action can be subverted by bigotry:

I know
the smell of genocide. I have watched
women shamed as witches, watched them fall
like dominos on a Salem noon. I have met Sally Hemings
and the strange
fruit of your history America. I have fallen in your uncivil war
…This beast you thought you
tamed? He prowls
the profiled night wearing
a police uniform

Reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg, whom Naz recalls meeting at Naropa, this poem is a cry, not of the wolves we met earlier, but of reason and sheer human civility.

In The Rebel (1951), Albert Camus writes: “We are living in an era of premeditation and the perfect crime. Our criminals … are adults and they have a perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose — even for transforming murderers into judges.” Camus, reflecting on Nazi concentration camps and the USSR under Stalin, warns that crime can assume the image of reason and multiply like syllogism. This is what the poet, politically conscious and sensitive, needs to guard against. Naz performs this task of vigilance with great aplomb in her book.


Note from TBLM editors: Indentations and italics in Naz’s block-quoted work may not be the same as in the original