Nationality: Indian. Born: Pakistan, 31 January 1954. Family: Married; one daughter. Career: Poet, visual artist, and filmmaker; has had six solo exhibitions of drawings. Address: B-2, Purshottam Bhavan, Little Gibbs Road, Malabar Hill, Bombay 400 006, India.
Critical Studies: "Discreet Rebellion: The Poetry of Imtiaz Dharker" by A.K. Tiwari, and "Unveiling Womanhood: Dharker's 'Purdah'" by Rashmi Chaturvedi, both in Women's Writing: Text and Context, edited by Jasbir Jain, Jaipur, India, Rawat, 1996.* * *
Imtiaz Dharker's maturation as a poet is an impressive phenomenon in contemporary Indian writing in English. She has moved from the frankly polemical diatribes that made up her first collection, Purdah: And Other Poems, to a highly condensed, prophetic utterance able to combine directness with obliquity. Her indignation at oppressive social structures has by no means lost its force, but the outrage has found a new fluency and a medium that can fully bear its weight.
Even Dharker's early writing sometimes shows an adroit handling of form. Thus, in "Grace" the doorkeeper of a mosque decries the defiling presence of a menstruating woman:
He rolls his reason on his tongue
and spits it out.
You know again the drought
the blazing eye of faith
can bring about.
Another example is seen in these lines from "Purdah I":
She half-remembers things
from someone else's life,
perhaps from yours, or mine—
carefully carrying what we do not own:
between the thighs, a sense of sin.
The controlled intimacy of tone, which is achieved by casual and partial rhymes, a line adapted to speech, and a sly manipulation of the reader's complicity, persists in Dharker's second, breakthrough collection, Postcards from God. The eponymous series of twenty-eight poems that make up the first part of the book is organized by what might have been little more than a witty conceit: a carefully lowercase god addresses his/her human constituents as a fellow traveler. It is remarkable that Dharker pulls off this risky device, for it is no mean feat to play god in a manner neither Olympian nor coy. Some of the poems are illustrated by Dharker's own Kathe Kollwitz-like drawings, mostly of the human face in agony. But their power comes from the vivid colloquialism of Dharker's images. In "Question I" god has "the biggest remote control / of all." In "Taking the Count" god is a dhobi, a washerman "bow-legged from carrying a bundle / that has always been too big for me":
Every day, I take the count,
I separate the dusters from the sheets,
I beat and rinse and squeeze and pound
till each one is ready to be thrown free,
laid across the ground
under the white-hot critical eye.
Rows of souls washed clean,
all accounted for,
spread out to dry.
Dharker's vision is mystical, but at its most sharply realized her poetry approaches the jeremiad, its political criticism raised by moral fervor to an intense rhetorical pitch. "6 December 1992," which allusively commemorates the outbreak of communal violence in Bombay, visualizes "the whole world / changed to glass":
Glass leaders laugh
and the whole world can see
right through their faces
into their black tongues.
And through the crystal night
the bodies begin to burn.
Dharker's poetic grasp is occasionally less sure, however, as in "Adam from New Zealand," where the speaker refuses to collaborate in a visiting journalist's quest for information about the Bombay poor:
How can I serve up Zarina
or her brother Adam
to their random cameras?
They will smile shyly.
The aperture will open
to swallow up their souls.
The self-righteous "I" is problematical, permitting the poetry of protest to slip into an anecdotal sensationalism.
Dharker's writing always recognizes the centrality of the image. A filmmaker as well as a visual artist and poet, she is painfully aware of the proliferation of the image through the mass media, particularly in Bombay, the established center of the Indian film industry. As god remarks in "Aperture," one of his postcards,
I placed eyes everywhere.
Men added more.
The pupil, dilated,
the open aperture, the watching lens.
The wound in the forehead,
These are the organs
of a predatory power.
"Question II" gnomically asks, "Did I create you / in my image / / or did you create me / in yours?" Against the manifold images propagated by neofundamentalist religion and corrupt politics, in "Living Space" Dharker shores up the timely and uncompromising integrity of her art:
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
as if they were
the bright, thin walls of faith.