Stardust scattered on pages, sunshine kissing a rose, fragrance lost in color or sorrow in the eyes of a beautiful girl. Once your heart is touched by exquisite beauty of Parveen Shakir’s poetry, it’s hard to describe it without being poetic. Her poetry is a rare combination of intensity of feeling, beauty of imagination and masterful command over words. All these attributes combined with a unique and absolutely spell bounding feminine expression make Parveen Shakir one of the greatest voices of our time.
Some five decades ago, a girl used to live in a neighborhood in Karachi. She was born on the twenty-fourth day of November, of the year nineteen hundred and fifty two in an Urdu speaking Syed family. She was as beautiful as her given name Parveen, which means a cluster of stars. Her heart was even more beautiful. She was a born poetess, naturally gifted with a sensitive and creative imagination. She started writing at a young age and astonished the world of Urdu poetry with the serenity of her beautiful feminine expression and command over the craft. Her poems were like a splash of fresh and vibrant colors in a monotonous and dry poetry scene. The great Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi saw the future of Urdu poetry in her poems and became a mentor and a father figure to the young girl.
Young Parveen Shakir
Parveen Shakir’s first collection of poetry Khushbu (Fragrance) was published in 1976. It became an instant sensation and earned her much critical acclaim and public following. She also won the prestigious Adamjee Literary Award for it. Thus began the age of Parveen Shakir. In Khushbu, she appears as a young sentimental girl who has great aesthetic sense and an eye for beauty. She is absolutely in love with her femininity and never tries to hide it. She asserts herself and wants the world to believe that a young girl’s innocence and feelings are worth expressing and worth knowing. A poet’s heart is love’s abode and it didn’t stay away from her for too long. Soon, a young man appears in her poems. Her feelings and expression becomes intense and passionate. Her world is turned upside down. She appears to be madly in love. That bright girl is mostly lost in her thoughts now. Poems she wrote in love seem like magic woven into words. Parveen Shakir’s greatest contribution to Urdu poetry is that she revealed how a woman loves a man with all her heart. No other feminine voice was so profoundly expressive and so comfortable with her feelings for a man. But her feelings never crossed from love to lust. There is an innocent eroticism wrapped in abstinence. One also feels a latent sadness throughout her romantic and light hearted journey of fragrance. It finally comes to the forefront when she is disappointed in love. She feels that her sentiments aren’t reciprocated and is amused at her lover’s faithlessness. Her world of dreams is slowly shattering and with it comes realization of bitter realities of life. The difference of personalities and social status is looming large in their relationship. There were more disagreements and sadness. He finally leaves the girl heartbroken. This is where the real poetess is born. She notices the painful process of gradually becoming strangers. This separation has robbed her of happiness. She feels that he has taken all blessings with him to live a happy life and left sorrows and wounds for her. When her frustration takes the best of her, she feels used, betrayed and forgotten. Tragedy wrapped in a tragedy is that she cannot even mourn her loss, is expected to take this heart break as normal and move on with life. Khushbu is a beautiful love story written in verse and woven with tender feelings. The hero of the tragedy was real. Parveen Shakir fell passionately in love with him when she was still young. He was a bright young man all set to join civil service. When he did, his success and status added to the hurdles in their union. The greatest of which was that they belonged to different sects of religion. They finally grew apart. Parveen took it to her heart and expressed it in her poetry. Khushbu traces her evolution from a sentimental girl to a woman who has loved and lost. The young man in her life had left her mainly because he was a distinguished civil servant and could get proposal from a wealthier and resourceful family. Parveen took this humiliation to heart and shaped her life according to it. She herself cleared the civil service examinations with high distinction and was appointed to a post in Customs department, proving to him that she was no less talented and able. One of her elective subjects was Urdu literature. A history was made the day she sat for its examination. Parveen Shakir, a candidate for civil service was asked to write a note on Parveen Shakir, the famous poetess.
Suntay hain qeemat tumhari lag rahi hai aaj kal
Sub se achay daam kis ke hain batlaana humein
Takay us khush bakht taajir ko mubarakbad dein
Aur us ke baad dil ko bhi hai samjhana humein
(One hears you are being auctioned
Let me know who pays the highest
So I could congratulate that fortunate trader
And then I have to console my heart too)
On her wedding day
One can’t say whether she got over this heart break or not but life did move on. Parveen Shakir’s second collection of poetry Sadbarg (A Hundred Petals) came out four years later in 1980. By this time, she was married to her cousin Syed Naseer Ali. The sensitive girl of Khushbu had considerably matured in these years and become a strong woman. Love and emotions are not everything in the world to her now. She has seen great fame and had her share of criticism too. She has deeply felt hypocrisy in the society. Some people criticize her just for voicing her thoughts and opinions. She has experienced workplace harassment which ends up strengthening her belief in feminism. Most importantly, she is a married woman now. Khushbu’s shy girl has become a confident married woman writing freely on sensuality and marital bliss. She beautifully writes on rediscovering herself in marriage and seems to enjoy it. Later poems in Sadbarg give a strong feeling that shadows of sorrow and grief are taking over her happiness. It seems that the dream had gone sour, this time taking the best of her hopes with it. Her grief was profounder than ever.
At the end of every collection of Parveen Shakir’s poetry, it seem like life has ended for her. But every time nature gives her another reason to live and be happy for. Her third collection Khud Kalami (Talking to Oneself) presents the strong image of a mother. All her sorrows have momentarily faded in the light of her child’s eyes. Parveen Shakir gave birth to a baby son. He was named Murad. In these poems, one finds beautiful depiction of a woman’s feelings of pregnancy and being a mother. She is overjoyed at bringing a new life to the world and absolutely adores her baby. The pain of motherhood is a new feeling and makes her appreciate her own mother’s love. Some poems in this collection reflect struggles of her professional life. It seems she is having a hard time managing ever increasing responsibilities and feels divided between her professional life, household duties and motherhood. The poetess inside her finds no time for herself. Referring to her job in the customs, she writes
Hindsay gidh ki tarha din mera kha jatay hain
Harf milnay mujhe atay hain zara sham ke baad
(Numbers eat away my day like a vulture
Words come to see me in the night)
Reciting her poetry in a mushaira
Once the bliss of motherhood becomes a part of life, she is once again surrounded by sorrows. Melancholy has intensified in her poetry. It seems that marriage is not working for her and she feels like living in a prison of loneliness.
In 1986, Parveen Shakir was appointed second secretary in the Federal Bureau of Revenue in Islamabad. She left Karachi, the city of her birth and moved on to a new life in the capital. Her final collection of poetry was Inkar (Denial). It emerges as a reflection of her entire life. Nearing the age of forty at that time, she’s becoming increasingly conscious of her dying youth. She finds refuge from such disturbing thoughts in dedicating her life to her son. It seems that separation from her husband also happened during this time as reflected in a couplet.
Maatam ki fiza hai sheh e dil mein
Mujh mein koi shaks mur gaya hai
(There’s an air of mourning in my heart
Someone has died inside me)
Parveen Shakir wasn’t just a romantic and a sentimentalist. She had sound political and social consciousness. There’s a poem in Khushbu titled Mushtarqa Dushman ki Beti (Daughter of a common enemy). It relates an instance of ladies from Pakistani and Chinese delegations sharing their common sentiments against India. When Lata Mangeshkar’s melodious voice comes from the radio, they forget everything and find themselves appreciating the beauty of her music. Another poem was written in the backdrop of Islamic Revolution in Iran. Inkar includes a couple of poems Parveen Shakir wrote against the military regime of 1980s. On Defense Day, 6th September 1987, she wrote a poem asking God to guide the soldier back to border where he really belongs. The second poem reflects regime’s reaction on the first poem. Another poem Shehzadi ka Almiya (Tragedy of the Princess) reflects Benazir’s Bhutto’s predicament in her first term in office when she was expected to shower undue favors upon her party workers who claimed to have struggled against the long military dictatorship.
Parveen Shakir was a celebrated poetess. She not only enjoyed great fame and fan following but also a literary standing among her fellow intellectuals and writers. No Urdu Mushaira at home or abroad was complete without her. She would recite her poetry in an exquisite style, repeatedly responding to praise by raising her right hand to forehead in a graceful aadab. She also appeared on television a number of times in different capacities. When ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan sang and immortalized her ghazal Ku Baku Phail Gayi Baat Shanasai Ki, Parveen Shakir was seen sitting in the first row of the audience in its television recording. For her outstanding services in literature, she was awarded Pride of Performance, one of Pakistan’s most prestigious civilian awards in 1990.
On the chilly morning of 26th December 1994, while on her way to office, Parveen Shakir’s car collided with a bus which resulted in her immediate death. She was forty two years old. None of her relatives were in Islamabad at that time. Her close friends and people from the literary circles made arrangements for the funeral. One of her brothers made it to the graveyard at the time of burial. A rose was matted to earth that day. With her died a beautiful era of Urdu poetry. Her tragic death left behind a great sadness.
Parveen Shakir’s unpublished poetry was collected by her close friend Parveen Qadir Agha and a group of notable intellectuals and published as an incomplete volume under the title Kaf e Aaina (Edge of the Mirror). Later, her entire works were collected and published in a single volume Mah e Tamam (The Full Moon). Apart from the beauty of Parveen Shakir’s poetry and its artistic attributes, Mah e Tamam is such a complete and honest reflection of her creator that it can be read as an autobiography in verse.
The road in downtown Islamabad where Parveen Shakir met her tragic end in a fatal accident was named after her
In a letter to a friend around the time of Parveen Shakir’s tragic death, legendary novelist Quratulain Haider wrote:
“Parveen Shakir’s death is quite shocking. Untimely death of a young and beautiful artist, she would become a myth”.
It was a true foresight, for Parveen Shakir did become a myth and an inspiration for all generations of poetry lovers. Her tragic and untimely death immortalized her. World was blessed with only one Parveen Shakir. And lost gems are never found again.
Mar bhi jaun tou kahan log bhula hi dein ge
Lafz mere mere honay ki gawahi dein ge
(People won’t forget me, even after my demise
My words would be my testament)