A Psalm of the Vain

Juairia Haque Mahi

Contains mentions of forced marriage, domestic abuse, and mental breakdowns.
Reader discretion is advised.

People don’t have enough time
To espy the teen girl,
Daily conning at the last bench for two hours or three,
Sweating it out, biding time
to catch the bus before other competitors,
Striding or trudging, or lack thereof,
Only to prove herself worthy enough to her father.

One day, her father held her palms
and handed her to another guardian’s arms.

A Psalm of the Vein illustration for Mahi

People don’t have enough time to notice
The youth who got castigated;
He who harked himself getting labelled ‘selfish’
For slinging his hook from a place
Where he pushed mountains to set.
In return, they choked him to death. 

The conniving youth stood up firm
and leaned against the tiles,
Shrouded his face by both palms,
To conceal his grimace.
He held ajar the door knob,
and shot through the pitiless quod,
with scant resources to even run a month.

People don’t confer enough with each other
About the loving man who sold his darling for a few lakhs,
Only to buy a piece of land
To show off his skint brothers.

His darling stands alone at night on footover bridges,
To pay off the debt with the highest interest,
Reckoning the mean target,
Only to return to the same man
Who has already turned his back
On the “debauched” darling.

People take no notice of the schizophrenic man
Who sets forth History and Literature
At the top of his lungs,
Round the clock on his rooftop,
Hallucinating a space filled with audiences.
His kindred, orthodox fanatics,
ween him to be possessed,
and believe that he must be immured.

One night, actuality split.
He tugged off bricks
and hurled at the glasses and tins—
towards people who got peed off by his harangues;
Monologues of Shakespeare;
Sermons of sins, eternity, and theism.
His grizzled father, effing and blinding,
came to cumber his psychosis. 

The man lifted a brick
and heaved at his father.

South Asian Authors Exploring Modern Poetry

If someone asked me why South Asian Authors deserve more representation when it comes to modern poetry, I would say: In short, South Asian modern poetry is multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural. The long answer would, obviously, go beyond that. Modern South Asian poetry isn’t rigid; instead, it is thematically multivalent. Authors are exploring concrete themes more than before, i.e. social factors, war, power structure, politics; instead of simply sticking to abstract beauty, nature, virtue, and morality.

Among said themes, the portrayal of war and oppression in modern South Asian poetry is dominant.

South Asian Authors Exploring Modern Poetry
South Asian Authors Exploring Modern Poetry - Illustration by Joyita Faruk

While modern Indian poetry in English is accused of writing in the language of oppressors, along with not being authentic to the Indian experience, scholars are positively looking into the possibilities of thriving beyond geographical borders, as English was used by writers to penetrate the power structure.

We need to consider that a large part of South Asian poetry was bred from diasporic writers who intermingled native linguistic textures with English. 

One such example is Agha Shahid Ali’s use of imagery and Kashmiri traditions in “A Country Without a Post Office”. Thus, these diasporic writers both resisted the hegemonic power and utilized the language of said power to represent indigenous individualities.

Ethnic violence in Sri Lanka has had a crucial impact on Tamil poets, hence their poetry has thematically been about ethnic violence, overthrowing Sinhalese’ dominance, Tamil nationalism, war, and peace. Even Bangladeshi modern authors largely deal with topics like liberation war, oppression, and glorification of freedom fighters.

South Asian Authors from A War-Torn Country

While scouring Afghan poetry, I came across an intriguing form of poetry – Landay. Landay conveys the collective experiences of Pashtun women and their voice against the oppressed mute-state.

For example:

Female south asian authors of Afghanistan

You sold me to an old man, father.

May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.

Making love to an old man

is like fucking a shrivelled cornstalk blackened by mold.

Landay,

Anonymous Female South Asian Authors

For many Afghani women, poetry is a prohibited form of art. Hence, women write under pseudonyms to criticize the oppressors, ironically expressing the women’s plight. Landays become poems without poets.

The other form of Afghan poetry these days is “Taliban poetry”, expressing fury at the Americans and the fright of living under the threat of bombing.

A Deeper Look Into Other Regions

Among the South Asian countries, Pakistani poetry is offbeat, infused with fresh similes. Sinhala, the largest ethnic language of Sri Lanka, is itself a poetic language. Munidasa Kumaratunga was one of the most successful modern poets who blended folk poetry with the classical to create a sophisticated poetic diction necessary to express a modern sensibility in Sinhala poetry.

Bhutanese poets’ work is well-received among its literati besides folk poetic compositions like lozey and tsangmo. Among all the themes explored by South Asian authors, Maldivian poets’ works have less inclination towards murky themes; rather, themes like romance, spirituality, and self-reflection are found to be quite common.

Willfully Underrated, Dearth of Literary Research

The fact that the world barely knows this region’s modern poets’ work – is a case in point to support the claim that Anglophone poetry is overrepresented in the literary sphere. The underrepresentation of South Asian poetry in South Asia itself, let alone the rest of the world, explains how dominant Western poetry is inaccessible literature for the masses. Even if modern Bangla poetry and South Asian translated literature have somewhat been able to achieve global recognition; vernacular poetry like Sinhala, despite providing some of the earliest evidence of regional poetry, has been lagging. 

Regardless, an undeniable emotional bond despite having differences and individual characteristics ties the work of South Asian authors’ together. Though the poets from different South Asian countries have distinct traits and perceptions, they seemingly share certain common insights and concerns. From Nirmalendu’s revolting ideas, G.B. Senanayake’s fear of intellect that overtook emotions, Kamala’s advocacy of freedom to choose; to Mehagama Sekara’s longing for country life, Daruwalla’s stance on individuality.

Natives can now resonate with these modern poets’ works, unlike classic inaccessible elitist poetry; that’s where the modern authors have bested. We can only hope many more literary studies are conducted regionally, thereby South Asian authors’ work getting the recognition it truly deserves.