Consciously Political, Consciously of a Multiple Outsider – Studying the South Asian Diasporic Identity in Imtiaz Dharker’s Poetry

Manisha Bhattacharya 

Guest Lecturer, Raja Pearymohan College, Uttarpara, Kolkata, West Bengal


Abstract: Diaspora is what one feels when straddled two cultures; the formation of diaspora can be articulated as a quintessential journey into ‘becoming’; a process marked by incessant regrouping, recreations and reiteration. These together strive to open up new spaces of discursive and performative postcolonial consciousness. Imtiaz Dharker, the eminent South Asian diasporic poet of Scottish-Muslim-Calvinist origin has echoed the words of Nissim Ezekiel, “home is where we have to gather grace” (‘Enterprise’) in her five volumes of poetry where she is posing questions about her roots which go deeper than the ocean, about the language she should call her own, and about the significant parts of her past which can neither be burned nor banished to the soothing limbo of forgetfulness. She is analyzing her journey in the same old ship which has carried her to the new shore which contained all the memories and dreams of a child in a brick house. She considers herself as a shore she has left behind as well as the home she returns to everyday. The voyage does not sing of an exile but a celebration of a displaced life at the interstices and life at the periphery. The paper will try to elucidate how the poet’s voice locates home between countries, between borders, proudly flaunting her allegiance to “another country”, one that refuses to be circumscribed by race, nationality or gender. The paper will also try to examine through the discussion of Dharker’s poetry whether she embraces both a diasporic and transnational identity.

Key Words: Diaspora, Transnationalism, Home, Displacement, Cross-border.

Bio Note: Her interest lays in the broad area of Victorian literature, and literature of nineteenth-century colonial Bengal particularly the novels and the journals of these periods. She tries to take a holistic approach by combining textual analysis, socio-economic, cultural and historical context, and feminist issues.






















Consciously Political, Consciously of a Multiple Outsider – Studying the South Asian Diasporic Identity in Imtiaz Dharker’s Poetry

Over the past decades, the concepts of diaspora and transnationalism have served as prominent research lenses through which to view the aftermath of international migration and the shifting of state borders across populations. They have focused on delineating the genesis and reproduction of transnational social formations, as well as the particular macro-societal contexts in which these cross-border social formations have operated, such as ‘globalisation’ and ‘multiculturalism’. Although both terms refer to cross-border processes, diaspora has been often used to denote religious or national groups living outside an (imagined) homeland, whereas transnationalism is often used to refer to migrants’ durable ties across countries –and, more widely, to capture not only communities, but all sorts of social formations, such as transnationally active networks, groups and organisations. Moreover, while diaspora and transnationalism are sometimes used interchangeably, the two terms reflect different intellectual genealogies. The revival of the notion of diaspora and the advent of transnational approaches can be used productively to study central questions of social and political change and transformation. The objective of this paper is to bring together these two awkwardly juxtaposed conceptions, which talk about similar categories of persons involving forms of forced and voluntary migrations.
Diaspora has become a politicised notion while transnational approaches have not yet found entry into public debates to the same degree. While diaspora is a very old concept, transnationalism is relatively new. Not only in public debates but also in academic analysis, the terms have vague boundaries and often overlap. Does ‘transnationalism’ offer a more analytical approach than diaspora? The former term and its derivatives, such as transnational social spaces, fields and formations have been used to connote everyday practices of migrants engaged in various activities. These include, providing only a few examples, reciprocity and solidarity within kinship networks, political participation not only in the country of emigration but also of immigration, small-scale entrepreneurship of migrants across borders and the transfer and re-transfer of cultural customs and practices. And indeed, the ‘-ism’ in transnationalism suggests an ideology. Yet, it is not clear who would adhere to such an ideology: researchers, migrants or other political agents. These brief references already suggest that diaspora and transnationalism are both at the cross-roads of academic research and public debates. Nonetheless, we have known that meanings of concepts can be inferred from how they are used. 
While both older and newer usages emphasize the fact that diasporic groups do not assimilate in regions of immigration, more recent discussions go beyond the idea of cultural distinctiveness and focus upon processes of cultural innovation. This raises the question of whether migrant integration, on the one hand, and cultural distinctions, on the other hand, may coexist. By transnational spaces we mean relatively stable, lasting and dense sets of ties reaching beyond and across borders of sovereign states. Transnational spaces comprise combinations of ties and their substance, positions within networks and organisations and networks of organisations that cut across the borders of at least two national states. 
First, all cross-border concepts refer to the importance of cross-border or even ‘deterritorialised’ politics, economics and culture. Yet, diaspora and transnational approaches emphasise intense connections to national or local territories, especially in the case of migrants. In this way, the concepts of diaspora and transnationalism are closely related to ‘glocalisation’, which combines the notions of globalisation and localization. Both diaspora and transnationalism deal with homeland ties and the incorporation of persons living ‘abroad’ into the regions of destination. Diaspora approaches usually focus on the relationship between homelands and dispersed people, but also on destination countries. For example, diasporas exist in a triangular socio-cultural relationship with the host society and the homeland. The diaspora literature usually emphasizes the cultural distinctiveness of diaspora groups, while parts of the transnational literature have started to look more extensively into migrant incorporation and transnational practices. Similarly, diaspora studies have posed questions about the link between the cultural autonomy of minority groups and integration. First, ‘transnationalism’ is a broader term than ‘diaspora’ in two respects. One concerns the scope of groups. Diaspora relates most often to religious, ethnic and national groups and communities, whereas transnational approaches connect to all sorts of social formations, including the ones already mentioned, as well as to phenomena such as networks of businesspersons and social movements. Thus, transnational communities encompass diasporas, but not all transnational communities are diasporas. The meanings of diaspora and transnationalism are inter-connected; they espouse similarities (e.g. ‘diasporic transnationalism’) or sometimes even refer to divergent perspectives (e.g. diaspora as simply one form of transnational social formation). In this way, diaspora and transnationalism are crucial elements for questioning and redefining essential terms of the social sciences, for example, ‘community’, ‘social space’ and ‘boundaries’.
Diasporic poets of subcontinental origins like Agha Shahid Ali or Tabish Khair or Imtiaz Dharker often articulate through their poetry a transnational paradigm of identity formation marked by flows of cultural mobility. In the process, the essentialised, unidimensional structures of race, religion or language through which we often seek to construct static, singular moulds of identity are recurrently subverted to yield place to a fluid hybridity that fashions itself through the networking of rhizomic nodes of history, heritage and habitat. Imtiaz Dharker, an expatriate South Asian poet, defines herself as Scottish-Muslim-Calvinist, adopted by India and married into Wales on the condition that they are used in a larger context; not “simply to restrict”. The hyphens signify a threshold space of  continuous negotiations between ‘in there’ and ‘out there’, which on one hand, invokes the anxiety of being rootless and on the other, facilitates the creative tension of “diasporic consciousness”. The poetry of Imtiaz Dharker has travelled a space of “liminality” – from the trauma of cultural exile and alienation to a celebration of unsettlement as settlement- from an anguished indictment of “Purdah” where “the body finds a place to hide”, to a defiant removal of the “black veil of faith/ that made me faithless to myself” ( Dharker 15). Home, freedom, journeys, geographical and cultural displacement, communal conflict, gender politics, urban violence and religious anomalies – these remain recurrent in her five volumes of poetry. In her books, Glasgow meets Lahore and Mumbai meets Birmingham with an ease that is casual, playful and unapologetic.  The fevered search for sanctuary, “tell me/how can I come home?” (Dharker 30) is replaced by a realization that anchor is sometimes to be found in journey rather than in destination. “High on the rush of daily displacement” (Dharker 8), the poet’s voice locates home between countries, between borders, proudly flaunting her allegiance to “another country”, one that refuses to be circumscribed by race, nationality or gender. No longer does this city come and collide with her; instead she opens her front door and goes out to meet the world on her own terms “speeding to a different time zone/heading into altered weather / landing as another person” (Dharker 20). According to Arundhati Subramaniam, “here is no glib internationalism or modish multiculturalism. Displacement here no longer spells exile; it means an exhilarating sense of life at the interstices and an exciting sense of life at periphery” (Subramaniam 3): “I may never be able to define my home but the question is do I want to? Where is my home anyway? In Scotland under a particular group of trees? In the texture of a fabric? The feel of rain? In the end you carry these things with you wherever you go. Home for me is here, but it’s also in the smell of South France. Cezanne and Van Gogh are my relatives. And when I went to Punjab, I felt I was genetically programmed to know that landscape of flat sugarcane fields. I’m sure I shall feel the same shock of recognition when I bite into an olive in Tuscany”( Dharker 14). As we find Jhumpa lahiri enunciating in In Other Words, 

Nothing reminds you how far you are from home more than trying to speak in someone else’s tongue. When the language one identifies with is far away, one does everything possible to keep it alive. Because words bring back everything: the place, the people, the life, the sky, the flowers, the sounds. When you live without your own language, you feel weightless and at the same time, overloaded. You breathe another type of air, at a different altitude. You are always aware of the difference (Lahiri 35).

Now the question that should be posed which place one should call one’s home and which language one should adopt. This concern has been repeatedly expressed by both these diasporic writers through their works.
There is an exultant celebration of a “self” in Dharker’s poetry that strips off the layers of superfluous identity with grace, only to discover that it has not diminished, but grown larger, generous and inclusive. The paper seeks to explore these dimensions of her poetry while being mindful of the nomadic articulations of self and the utopian potentialities they carry. The paper also will try to examine whether Imtiaz Dharker offers both a diasporic and transnational identity.
            The value of Dharker’s poetry lies into fact that they transcend confined borders of immigrant experience to embrace larger age-old issues that are cast into the mould of these new times redefining her Lahore and Glasgow and they reflect the trauma of self transformation through immigration, which can result in a series of broken identities, that from multiple anchorages. Dharker clearly speaks from a position of “in-betweenness”. In Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition”, Homi Bhabha states, “It is not the Colonialist Self or the Colonizing Other, but the disturbing distance in between that constitutes the figure of colonial otherness- the White man’s artifice inscribed on the Black man’s body. It is in relation to this impossible object that emerges the liminal problem of colonial identity and its vicissitudes"(Bhabha 106). If from the above quote we focus on certain key phrases like "the disturbing distance in between" and the "problem of colonial identity and its vicissitudes" that we will enter into certain key areas of experience in Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry collection. Instead of "colonial identity and its vicissitudes" we would have to read diasporic identity and its vicissitudes, since Dharker writing in English belongs to a diasporic Scottish-Muslim community. She was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents in 1954, but brought up in Glasgow where her family moved when she was less than a year old. Dharker now moves between London, Wales and Mumbai. Her poetry hence is caught between her roots and the places she has been continuously visiting, in search of a ‘home’, in search of a ‘language’ that belongs to her. If colonization started this great interface of nations, the process of the intermingling of races has continued with migrations and Diasporas of various sorts.
Dharker’s  second  book,  Postcards  from  God  (1997)  represents  the  inner  turmoil  of  an  individual when  exposed  to  different  cultures. Dharker  not  only  speaks  as  a  Muslim  woman,  but  she  represents  womanhood  as  a  whole.  She intends to cross the boundaries of name, religion and nationality.  Feeling  of  rootlessness,  lack of  freedom  in  speech,  identity  crisis,  religious  anomalies  etc.  are  sensed  in  her  poems  in  her third  book  I  speak  for  the  devil  (2001). I Speak for the Devil takes away further, aspects of gender and religion and is about a journey towards self-discovery and self-refashioning. It starts with a new search for herself where she has cast off all claims of nationality, religion and gender and explores a new terrain for herself. She removes every part of her body before creating a new geography for 
herself and at the end successfully creates her own identity in “Exorcism”: 

I’m letting all the bad things /fall away, I’m no one 
 But myself / No one possesses me.  (Dharker 7-8)
 Poetry International observes:
With I Speak for the Devil, the poetry journeys further. The landscapes of the self, the metro and the country expand to embrace the world. If the starting point of Purdah was life behind the veil, the starting point of the new book is the strip-tease, where the claims of nationality, religion and gender are cast off, to allow an exploration of new territories, the spaces between countries, cultures and religion (Poetry International Web).
However, the poet, Imtiaz Dharker discusses concepts of national identity and how they influence her writing. She says that ‘Nationalhood’ is often used as a camouflage for bigotry, as an excuse for chauvinism, as a means of excluding other - the ideal situation is to be able to enjoy and celebrate the pleasures of your nation and to open up to other culture
              If the poet pitches it right, a collection's title can be made to act as a shop window: a place to signpost intentions, gesture at the frame of mind in which the poems were conceived, the wider landscape to which the poet was referring. They tend, of course, to be suggestive rather than prescriptive (think of Larkin's High Windows, or Don Paterson's Landing Light), but if we are after a quiet hint on how to approach the poems inside, this is the place to begin. Dharker is a definitively diasporic writer and it's easy to see the appeal of the fingerprint – with its suggestions of permanence, immutability, above all of ownership – to a woman in exile, unsure of her place in the world. It stands as a counterpoint to the nagging fear of effacement that lurks around the foundations of this collection and bubbles to the surface in poems such as Her footprint vanishes, which begins "She disappeared without a trace, / they said. If there were footprints / on the sand, the sea got there / before anyone saw and wiped / her off the face of the earth"(Dharker 12-14). This bleak, blank image of annulment – the nameless woman, the unreliable no-man's-land of shoreline, the second-hand reporting that turns even absence into a negative, a rumour of absence – contrasts tellingly with a series of poems set on the south coast of England around history-steeped Hastings, in which images crisp up and colours deepen in terrain that has acquired stability from the stamp of the past. This sense of a landscape imprinted ripples through the collection. The links that Dharker draws between identity and landscape are physically apparent in countryside that takes on the contours of fingerprints, cresting and diving in "folds of soil and mud" (Dharker 17), and in the scrolled, mazy objects (honeycomb, coral, seashells, the "wrinkling tissue" of poppy petals) that collect here [the parallels reach a climax in "Someone else", which begins "Today the tips slipped off my fingers. // they rolled themselves across a field, / dug down, came back as furrows / in the ground" (Dharker 5-6)]. And the resemblance is more than skin-deep: like fingerprints, too, Dharker's landscapes are also capable of yielding clues to our ancestry. The soil beneath our feet conceals "the earth's deep squirm / around an anklet or an amulet, a broken cup", and the earthworm's discovery of "an ivory handle, copper, / . . . the remainder of kings, / clean bone, potatoes, her jewelled hand . . ."(Dharker 18-20). Everything is connected in this universe: fingerprints to landscape, landscape to ancestry, ancestry to identity – and identity to fingerprints again. As we find Nissim Ezekiel saying, “The images in these poems are not merely images created for poetic effect: they are like blazing fires compelling the readers to take notice” (Postcards from Gods: A Collection of Poems).
In Purdah, she memorializes the betweenness of a traveller between cultures, exploring the dilemmas of negotiation among countries, lovers, and children. 'If the poems collected in Purdah are windows shuttered upon a private world, those gathered into Postcards from god are doorways leading out into the lanes and shanties where strangers huddle, bereft of the tender grace of attention. Surely, here, the vision of Imtiaz is broadened into all-embracive cosmopolitanism smoothly crossing all geographical, historical, religious, cultural and social boundaries and the subject of humanitarianism has been superbly dealt with. These poems are, in fact, “a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.”The divisions and boundaries- raised, erected and created geographically, historically, culturally, socially or religiously, by man are looked down upon as the bogeys and ghosts of the devil in man (I speak for the devil).Agony of the universal soul finds its honest expression in “Not a Muslim Burial” where she devoutly wishes her body to be burnt, and not buried, so that her ashes are scattered with all her creation and its instruments mixed in it in a country she never visited. Or her body is left in a running train moving to unvisited and unseen country. “In some country/I have never visited/or better still/ leave them on a train/ travelling/between” (Dharker 22).  How poignant is the closing of this lyric:
No one must claim me
On this journey I will need no name, no nationality
Let them label the remains
Lost property. (Dharker 30)
She must totalize the triumph by demolishing the political and geographical boundaries also so that this world belongs to humanity undivided by man-made conventions, customs and restrictions. Such a world of freedom, of body and spirit, even after death, will be a sure guarantee for the ecstasy of the spirit for which we are divinely created. All these limitations and boundaries are an affront to God and a disgrace to the divinity of man. So life needs to be exorcised of the evil and devilish spirit of culture, religion, politics and geography. This is the world where Imtiaz wants to live and die. There seems to be an intense yearning in her heart for the triumph of the spirit, its absence fires her spirit of rebellion, and the fire is insuppressible and un-extinguishable. She doesn’t belong to anyone in Sialkot, Lahore, Bombay, London, Glasgow, Delhi or Rome. To conclude with Ranjit Hoskote’s words (published in The Times of India):
 The poems are amplified by powerful black and white drawings by the author. The line is Imtiaz Dharker's sole weapon in a zone of assault which stretches over the Indian subcontinent's bloody history, the shifting dynamics of personal relationships and the torment of an individual caught between two cultures, divergent worldviews (Imtiaz Dharker: Press Reviews).
From this analysis, we can deduce that Imtiaz Dharker can be considered both a South Asian Diasporic and a transnational writer as she embraced the cross-border social formations. She beautifully incorporated the homeland ties and stories of dispersed people in her writings which were also an integral part of Diaspora and Transnationalism. As both these terms have no distinctive boundary, they overlap; there is a subtle link connecting them. Dharker comprehended that link and enlivened it through her poetry. She can well be understood as a representative of ‘diasporic transnationalism’.


                                                                  Works Cited
           
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  • ---.  Purdah and Other Poems. London: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.
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  • Subramaniam, Arundhuti. “A Poet’s Voice”. The Hindu. 5 May 2002. Web. 28 Aug. 2018.


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