Addressing the human condition, my poems deal with the injustices, untruths, false hierarchies and exclusions prevalent in society, which essentially diminish our humanity, what we could be as human beings. I trust my poems speak for themselves, and do not need lengthy explanations of what they are about, why they needed to be written and realized in the minds and hearts of others.
ALPHABET OF ERASURE
Begins with a bloody Caesarean,
a daughter, perfect almost, relegated
to live in the shade if not in oblivion –
crossed out, the way people looking at you
look straight through as if you were invisible,
hidden from your own timeline.
A life sacrificed fulfilling
other people’s dreams may not be the same
trauma as forced physical mutilation –
leaving you diminished, grief-scarred.
No different to being blotted out, bleached
reefs of coral as the earth’s treasures disappear
species by species, glacier by glacier.
Every time we lose a language we lose a view
of the world, a slow sclerosis of vision –
not the same as knowing all is illusion.
When barbarians run the city,
begin to obliterate truth and beauty
in the name of progress and diversity,
rewriting the past with their version of history –
remember half-truths and post-truth are also effacement.
Before you know life’s taken the fork
in the road without any signs
down the path of dispossession –
country, family, faith, freedom, language, memories …
nothing you can claim your own.
You learn an alphabet of erasure –
amnesia, anorexia, anosmia, aphasia, ataxia –
every measure of loss between A and Z
and silence the language of oblivion.
for Jyoti Singh Pandey
Do not ask if I dare to dream
of a land where I can walk free, without fear –
the sacrifices made to flicker in that flame
of hope. Did not know the price would be so dear.
Life is a gift I thought, did not expect
it to be cheap, callously plucked – half-chewed
bones tossed drunkenly after the feast.
In the night of the splintering womb
my dreams turned into nightmares.
No mountain could carry my grief, no ocean
wash away my shame, no wind dry my tears.
Do not ask how many times I touched the heart
of grief prised open like a pomegranate,
my seeds spilling like rubies.
This is no time to forgive and forget.
Battered and broken, no hope of being mended,
my sorrow speaks in myriad voices, will not be silenced
till the sacrilege of rape and violence is atoned.
How long must we suffer, burn like incense,
hold on to faith, dreaming of change?
We have a whole world to rearrange.
After centuries of dreaming we are awake, alive,
know what holds us together when things fall away.
As long as I can summon the strength to pick myself
up when cast in the gutter, and rise like a phoenix –
I’ll let the universe know it does not exist without my dreams.
Note: Poem inspired by the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey who was gang-raped in a bus in Delhi on 16 December 2012. She later died in a hospital in Singapore, where she was sent for treatment by the Indian authorities. According to Indian law, as she was raped, her name was initially not publicly disclosed. Even after her death newspaper reports did not mention her by name. The Indian media called the 23 year-old woman, Nirbhaya, the fearless one. It was her father, Badrinath Singh, who revealed her name; he wanted the world to know who she was.
TO LOSE EVERYTHING
My journey begins with a pair of high-heels –
the first thing I saw as she stepped out of her Jaguar.
Slick and poised, the lady called herself Madonna,
always bought something when she visited my stall.
Smoking a pipe she would smile, watch me haggle.
She took me under her wing, spoke of worlds
beyond my dreams – London, Paris, New York, Berlin.
I am from a small village with a handful of houses,
where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
As children we never had enough, always needed more.
Was it so wrong? She gave me gifts – silk stockings,
shoes, scarves, dresses – made me feel special.
Father wanted me to marry a decrepit landlord,
young men these days work and settle abroad.
Life stretched out like an endless dirt road.
One night I left, thinking of making a fresh start.
Some parents give their children roots, others wings.
How would I know there were so many men wanting
the same thing every day, never a day of rest?
The bosses raped us when we slept, even when we bled.
Men are the worst of all animals. And that woman
who traded me into a life I wouldn’t curse my worst enemy
with, what punishment would be right for her?
I believed in God once, now I don’t know what to believe.
When the police arrested us I was not worried.
They sent me to hospital, finally the pain stopped.
It felt like a different kind of hurt, abandonment,
when no one offered me a cup of tea, none there to comfort
me, hold my hand even for a moment. I was alone,
knowing how easy it is to lose everything.
Never thought it would come to this –
I’d be the one to bear witness
to the truth about my sister’s disappearance,
unveiling the family skeletons, bringing disgrace.
A butterfly with its wings severed, I survived
trying to forget how free-spirited Shafilea died.
Then it was my turn, the arguments were the same –
arranged marriages, family honour and shame,
how we haramzadis preferred besharam western ways.
I was tired of the secrets and lies, the endless alibis.
My parents never thought of their daughters
as rehmat, God’s gifts. I felt Shafilea’s loneliness,
trapped like a caged bird unable to sing or fly.
Each time she tried she was returned to her prison,
defeated, failing to keep body and soul together.
No one helped – not the police, not social services.
Joking innocently with firangi men, declining
an arranged marriage with a stranger from Pakistan,
planning instead to be a lawyer, find her life partner.
She wanted to glitter, be gay. Was that so wrong?
Could my parents not see things have changed?
My father’s no ideal Muslim husband. Why the hypocrisy?
Shafilea created such a scene after they dragged
her half-drugged to the airport, drinking bleach the day
they introduced her to a rich, old, gnarled dragon.
How much pain must one bear before swallowing poison?
She was taken to the hospital, her stomach washed.
But her young body was ravaged, her reputation sullied.
Even Allah will not forgive her, the elders proclaimed.
The stain on the family honour kept spreading
as gossip galloped like wild fire through the village.
After they returned my parents were more determined.
The fatal evening mother picked Shafilea from her job,
she was dressed in a skirt, short-sleeved top, stiletto boots.
Tempers flared as Shafilea refused to change her attire,
wear traditional clothes as good Pakistani girls did.
My parents swore revenge as they pinned her down
on the settee, gagging her with a plastic bag.
Struggling to breathe, Shafilea fought back, her limbs
flailing helplessly as father punched her rag-doll body.
The moment we heard mother whisper: Let’s finish it here,
a shudder rippled down our spines, a warning loud and clear
to the rest of us as Shafilea’s body gave up the fight –
her life and dreams snuffed out like a flickering candle.
We watched trembling, huddled upstairs, not a cry escaped
our stunned lips as her body was wrapped in plastic.
How could they do this to their own flesh and blood?
We froze as father drove off with her body into the night.
Knowing neither fear nor courage could save us,
we held on to our shame all these years.
What forgiveness could we hope for after such trespass?
Alesha’s Confession: Poem based on the honour killing of Shafilea Iftikhar Ahmed by her parents in Warrington, Cheshire, United Kingdom, on 11 September 2003. It was her younger sister, Alesha, whose confession lead to the arrest and conviction of the parents. On 6 October 2016, legislation was passed by the government in Pakistan to make honour-killing a crime.
Helmeted musclemen gliding on steel escalators
in the City bomb-proof buildings against terrorists.
Space-walking on huge walls of glass,
they examine me as they would any other lass.
Smiling, they take a random walk unafraid of vertigo
like the stock market index raring to go.
Who said men seldom make passes at women with glasses?
Real men do, particularly at women in city offices.
Cubicles, now shatterproof, hold fragile egos.
Men in dark grey suits shuffle in corporate shoes.
Pin-stripe suits come and go, talking of P/E ratio,
top-down, bottom-up methods of the intelligent investor.
As I mend the rules of the old boys’ network
and demand my share of the profits of my work,
I hit the invisible glass ceiling each time
I stand up for myself as if that was a crime.
A single, Indian female, I am trapped, alas,
in a cage of bomb-proof, shatter-proof glass.
The Jurassic laws in the City continue to spawn
dinosaurs that even Spielberg cannot improve upon.
Next time these helmeted musclemen blow me a kiss,
I will signal to them to rescue a woman in distress.
Note: Written after the Bishopsgate bombing, City of London, by the Irish Republican Army on 24th April 1993.
NO LAND, NO HOME
(With acknowledgement to Mahmoud Darwish)
Those who have no land, no home,
washed in like debris on a beach, imagine
not a painted ceiling, but a sky promising
nothing, not even the company of clouds.
Those who have no home, no land
expect no ceremony, seek refuge in exchange
for all we own – dreams sealed in our hearts,
names of loved ones dissolving under the tongue.
Those who have no land, no home
have no hope that glimmers, no heaven
that illuminates – only the freedom
to die from longing and exile.
Those who have no home, no land
tossed between unknowns, transformed
into stone, continue to believe in miracles,
trusting the universe to take us home.
Those who have no land, no home
know what it means to be effaced –
shorn of a self, turned into ghosts.
Emptiness expands to fill our days.
Only the wind listens to our secrets,
chatters at the edge of shivering coasts.
How can we thank the wind for revealing
the truth to the trees, sky and seas –
a home, a home, a life for a home –
crying out for those who have no home?
Shanta Acharya, born and educated in Cuttack, won a scholarship to Oxford, where she was among the first batch of women admitted to Worcester College. A recipient of the Violet Vaughan Morgan Fellowship, she was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy for her work on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Author of eleven books, her publications range from poetry, literary criticism and fiction to finance. Founder of Poetry in the House, Acharya hosted a series of monthly poetry readings at Lauderdale House in London from 1996-2015. She served twice on the board of trustees of the Poetry Society in the UK. Her latest publication is Imagine: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, India; 2017).