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.

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21 responses to “Parveen Shakir, Women Poets and Tomato Ketchup”

  1. Ayaz Khawaja says:

    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.

  2. Kashif says:

    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…

  3. OMAR says:

    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.

  4. Raza Rumi says:

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

  5. S says:


    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.

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