Parveen Shakir, Women Poets and Tomato Ketchup

Posted on February 22, 2007
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, People, Poetry, Urdu, Women
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Raza Rumi

An email from a Pakistan based writer friend made me recall Parveen Shakir. The poem, Tomato Ketchup, written most probably in the memory of Sara Shagufta (the modernist Pakistani poet who committed suicide in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath).

I am not drawing conclusions or imagining comparisons. My writer-friend is neither suicidal nor at the end of her creativity. In fact she is brimming with optimism and energy. However, she faces the constraints and circumstances that are not uncommon. Like Sara and Parveen Shakir she has to mediate between multiple identities, struggles and conflicts. That she lives in a society that is becoming increasingly less tolerant and dominated by fundamentalism is no help either.

Back to Parveen Shakir: she was Pakistan’s popular poet who died in a tragic car accident in 1994. After graduating she taught, then joined civil service. She was widely read and loved poet. However, she braved the difficult terrain of Pakistani womanhood and more importantly the male defined and dominated literary world. Her success was attributed to her innate talent and use of language. The literary evaluations of her work have been mixed.

The poem below explains this a little. I found it here.

Tomato Ketchup

By Perveen Shakir
(translated by Baidar Bakht and Leslie Lavigne)

In our country,
A woman who writes poetry,
Is eyed as an odd fish.
Every man presumes
That in her poems
He is the issue addressed!
And since it is not so,
He becomes her foe.
In this sense,
Sara didn´t make many enemies.
She didn´t believe in giving explanations.
Before she could become the wife of a poor writer,
She had already become
The sister-in-law of the whole town.
Even the lowliest of them
Claimed to have slept with her!
All day long,
Jobless intellectuals of the city
Buzzed around her.
Even those who had jobs,
Would leave their stinking files and worn out wives
To come to her,
Leaving behind the electricity bill,
And the children´s school fees and wife´s medicine.
For these are the concerns
Of lesser mortals.
Morning through late night,
Heated discussions would take place
On literature, philosophy and current affairs.
When hunger knocked in at their empty stomachs,
Bread and boiled pulse
Would be bought collectively.
Great thinkers,
Would then demand tea
Declaring her the Amrita Preetam of Pakistan.
Sara, the gullible,
Would be very pleased with herself.
Perhaps, there were some reasons for it.
Those who were responsible for supporting her,
Always fed her on Kafka coffee
And Neruda biscuits.
Because of saliva-soaked compliments,
At least, she could have one meal,
But for how long?
She had to free herself
From the clutches of wolves.
Sara preferred to leave the jungle itself.
As long as she lived,
The connoisseurs of Art
Kept nibbling her.
In their circle,
She is still considered delicious,
But with a difference:
They no longer can take a bite of her!
After her death,
She had been elevated
To the status of Tomato Ketchup!

And now excerpts from the email message from my friend that reminded me of this poem:

“… I have been doing a lot of soul- searching! Lets face it there’s not much else to do now!! I am so confused as usual, about my writing, which is constantly changing from language based prose-poetry writing to more story based fractured narrative. You see the problem is that I want it to be an honest reflection of life and both ways of looking at life are true. Now here I am lost again. On another note, the good thing in recent times, is that I have decided I am definitely not going to ….

So that chapter has definitely closed.

As for my writing, I got word from my poetry publisher ….who thinks my prose is “brave and lyrical”. Quite flattering and inspiring. He wants more poetry from me. I just wish some ….publisher would take a chance on my prose and publish the damn thing. You see the issue is also that I am so taken up with survival and dealing with mediocrity that I can’t give all of myself to writing and its killing me. I am longing to just sit in front of the computer and fly. I wish you knew how exhilarating it is for me Raza, I feel like I can see things move and yet I feel damned to be talented, if indeed I am at all. I wish I had none of it. It is such torture and yet I couldn’t live without it. I hope I am not depressing you. Even those who are close to me think I am half mad and underrate my writing and its obsession as a figment of my own imagination or just an inflated ego to make up for what I haven’t achieved in life.”

I am not sure what to write back. One thing is certain – I want her to retain her ‘bite.’

Raza Rumi is an international development professional and an avid literati. More can be found at Raza Rumi’s blog: Jahane Rumi. This is based on article that was first published at desicritics.

21 Comments on “Parveen Shakir, Women Poets and Tomato Ketchup”

  1. Samdani says:
    February 22nd, 2007 2:42 am

    Very pertient in light of yesterdays story about the Ministers killing.

    Iqbal had said:
    Hain sakht bohat banda i mazdoor kay auqaat

    But really, being a woman in our society is even tougher!

  2. Zahra says:
    February 22nd, 2007 3:00 am

    Thank you. This is anice break from all this shouting we have had here recently.

  3. Naveed says:
    February 22nd, 2007 4:39 am

    Raza, first time i read “Tomato Ketchup” was here

    I wonder if more of Parveen Shakir’s English translations were available locally in print; else the net reveals obscure links that reveals wonders. Thanks for this wonderful reminder of Parveen Shakir

  4. MQ says:
    February 22nd, 2007 6:15 am


    Sorry, if I sound as if I am nitpicking, but the line is:

    Hain talkh bohat …

  5. Raza Rumi says:
    February 22nd, 2007 6:33 am

    Dear Naveed and other readers

    Many thanks for the comments. You are right about the paucity of translations. This is true for most Urdu poets (except Faiz). First of all translation is quite a challenging art and secondly, the ‘market’ for translated Urdu verse is rather thin..

    Alamgir Hashmi has translated many poems. I had posted one translation on my blog that you may wish to see here:

  6. Samdani says:
    February 22nd, 2007 8:01 am

    You are right MQ.
    But thanks for being polite about it :-)
    Comes as such a surprise here given the way most people discuss things. Even when they agree they seem to be fighting!

  7. February 22nd, 2007 9:08 am

    But the good thing for our society is that it is changing with a fast pace. Now women are more visible than twenty years ago. We have more coeducation institutes, more working women and even government recruited women as cadets. Burqas are disappearing too. Girls are already dominating in education and all top spots are filled by girls in every field. I hope if society’s change kept the same pace, one day men will have tough time to survive in women dominated society.

  8. Kazim Aizaz Alam says:
    February 22nd, 2007 11:21 am

    Very nice post Rumi.
    We live in a “shameless society” where men look down upon women in general.
    From my personal experience, I can say that even in good organisations, male workers tend to think they are more productive and efficient as compared with female workers.

  9. Bundagi says:
    February 22nd, 2007 11:46 am

    it reminds you of the fact that life is just this…unfair yet it keeps flowing either way…

  10. Raza Rumi says:
    February 23rd, 2007 12:09 pm

    Mera Pakistan is right. Our society is changing and we should recognize that..
    However, it is a long journey to a society and system when we appreciate and respect the value of each human life irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion and soci-economic background.
    We are moving there but the road is fraught with obstacles.

  11. S says:
    February 23rd, 2007 1:50 pm


    Is your friend looking for a market to get her prose accepted–if so, could you ask her to look up Reputable online and print journals in the U.S and Canada are usually open to new voices, and now that most material pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, she’d be sure to find some place that can be home to her workplay.

  12. Raza Rumi says:
    February 24th, 2007 9:00 am

    S, many thanks for the comment and advice. I have alerted her of this option.

  13. OMAR says:
    February 24th, 2007 9:03 am

    Nice post about an important poet but also about our societal prejudices. I think poetry is itself part of the solution and can assist in changing social perceptions.

  14. Kashif says:
    February 28th, 2007 7:56 am

    Ammi passed away recently and is buried in H-8 graveyard in Isb. For the last month and a half that I was in Isb, my visits there were frequent and every time I noticed how there were always fresh flowers on Perveen Shakir’s grave. Made me happy somehow.

    Perveen Shakir also wrote the first televised song of Vital Signs (no, it wasn’t Dil Dil Pakistan). She was a true modernist yet in a very traditional way.

    May she rest in peace…and may we have more like her…

  15. Ayaz Khawaja says:
    July 19th, 2007 1:11 am

    Pakistan is a collage of so many things – the accent of many colorful patches a mosaic of heritage, culture and history.
    Going through a turmoil again — only a few decent minds and hearts won’t be able to save it unless we really create an army of people who have a sane mindset craving and struggling to find the peace and harmony for the generations to come.

    A Rat Race is going on. People are humiliating and killing others for money and status. Political and Religious Zealots are roaming with a very different type of agenda. People are losing the family and moral values.

    Extremism is not the answer — moderation in every department in every walk of life is needed — every single citizen has to take the responsibility to make a better Pakistan.

    Great site — keep up the good work.

  16. Ayaz Khawaja says:
    July 19th, 2007 1:31 am

    The present Law & Order sitaution and the agencies have inherited the twisted-corrupt minds and activities which have been in practice from the day one.

    The Police of Pakistan is just a part of the system which makes them stay like that. Only a major blow or revolt can fix it but I don’t see any on the horizon yet.

    The social and the economical fabric is so stained and it is very hard to penetrate through for someone who really wants to see an efficient and corruption-free system in the country.

    The recent events of the robberies and killings in the broad-daylight gives a clear idea about the involvement of the Police and the Higher Authorities in such activities.

    The current regime, is taking some steps to take care of the situation but it seems like it is a seemlessly neverending project since every other person is found involved. The entire nation is suffering and somewhat got accustomed to it, if you look at it seriously.

    The removal of Chief Justice is also an episode of the measures taken to curb and alleviate the corruption but it seems like, after this decision, the people have gone blind and supporting someone who has given a bad name to the Justice.

    Revamping the Police Department is not an easy job but it has to be started soon or the Police would be the major reason if anything serious happens to Pakistan – then that would be too late.

  17. khawaja says:
    August 30th, 2007 2:26 am

    wonder if more of Parveen Shakir

  18. rakesh chawla says:
    October 7th, 2007 3:10 am

    this person have power of express her every moment of life
    lucky person,im mad abt her poet she is very great person as
    god know also…im learning to write also abt my life
    my insperation is pareveen shakir…….
    hope god will complete my dreem of write somthng.

  19. atif says:
    November 27th, 2007 2:04 am

    your poetry touch my soul……………….you gave me a new life

  20. May 18th, 2008 7:51 pm

    Ap ki poetrey mujey bohat achi lagti hai seedha dil par asar karti hai .

    Raza Ahmed from Azad Kashmir

  21. Ali Dada says:
    April 3rd, 2009 10:14 pm

    arts and poetry are very interesting. Always refreshes one’s mind.

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