Reminiscing the Mystique of South Asian Poetry: A Thousand Words

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Kelly Baird/Staff

The use of words has been significant in many cultures across the globe. Not so long ago in South Asia, too, people would enjoy sipping tea (or desi rum) and speaking to beings in person. Yes, actually “speaking” and not “texting.”

Ah, those were the days, when the sweet words of Hindi and Urdu poetry mingled into conversation like the color of saffron blending into tea: effortlessly and indistinguishably.

As Heeral Shivnani writes her first poem in the dialect, she discovers the undermined mystery of words. Indeed, they can be interpreted in myriad ways, by myriad people. She shares with us her self-discoveries beneath these lines, hoping we too can do the same.

Hazaar baatein kahi thi humnein,

jo kisi ne na kahi

Hazaar baatein suna gayi humein,

jo kisi aur ne na suni  

Koi musaafir in hatheliyon pe daastaan de gaye,

toh koi bezubaan hi beh gaye

Ab in shabdo ki baazar mein, doondhne chali hoon mein woh kuch lafz,

jo they toh mere, bas kho gaye hain kahin

A thousand things were said by me,

that no one said before

A thousand things were told to me,

which no one else heard

Some travelers left stories in my hand,

and some left without saying a word

Now in this bazaar of words,

I have started searching for those words that were originally mine,

but are now lost…

My dad always says that you should rarely change the perfume you wear. It should become an emblem, such that when someone’s olfactory picks up the same scent somewhere, it reminds them of you. I realized, that words might actually have the same power. So much so, that even after you travel the world, alter identities or seek refuge in a foreign land, hearing those same words again draws you back into a familiar space — just as the aroma of wafting spices and crackling mustard seeds in hot oil do.

That is why, I refuse to let go of my mother tongue in which I think, feel and emote best. Unable to manifest its beautiful script onto paper, I instead choose to carry the rhythm of its words on my person, like a cloak that shall hopefully emanate an unforgettable fragrance.

…Waakai, humne dekhe na kabhi they aisi rahein,

jin mein bandishein lage hain har chaurahe

Jabse guzarne lage hain in galiyon se,

kabhi khud se hue hain wakif,

toh khud se hue hain paraye

Indeed, I had never seen such streets,

in which there are boundaries every at every turn

Ever since, I have started trodding along these lanes,

sometimes I become familiar to myself,

and sometimes even more distant…

Upon moving from Dubai to Berkeley, I had to suddenly learn to breathe in a new air, gather nutrients from fruits of an unfamiliar soil, absorb water with imprints of a foreign kingdom and be perplexed by alien odors along the streets of Telegraph. Little did I realize that I was a tree whose leaves had suffered great changes, along with my notion of home.

…Socho toh ye kora kagaaz, bhi hai hum jitna hi bebas

udta chalaa yahan se waahan, kisi ek farishtey ki khoj mein

Jo bas aaye, aur likhde sabhi, woh saare shabd sahi,

Toh wajood usse bhi mile koi

If you think about it, even this white paper,

is as restless as us

It flies with all along with the wind,

as though in search of an angel,

who would simply arrive, and write upon it,

all the correct words it needs,

so that like the others,

it finds its purpose as well

Hazaar baatein kahi thi humnein,

jo kisi ne na kahi

Hazaar baatein suna gayi humein,

jo kisi aur ne na suni

A thousand things were said by me,

that no one said before

A thousand things were told to me,

which no one else heard

Today, I walk along Sproul wearing a handcrafted Kurti, comforting in its scent of handmade vegetable dye, which somehow does not dissipate even upon repeated washes with harsh chemicals.

As I breathe in the cottony starch borne from the earth of my land, I get several questioning looks – not from anyone else – but often from those very people who hold same ties to that land; often those with the same color of my skin. “Why are you wearing an Indian outfit today?” “Is there a Bollywood party or something that I don’t know of?” “Aren’t you feeling chilly in that girl?”

Yes, friend. I am chilly today. I am suddenly cold in my soul from having to actually think before answering what home exactly is to me. So much so, that I am now reliant on this piece of cloth as my sole sanctuary.

Contact Heeral Shivnani at [email protected].

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