Mirrors of Human Existence

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Interview 

 

Shuddhashar: What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?

Tamoha Siddiqui: I strive to explore and convey experiences and perspectives unique to me. My poetry often resides at the intersection of all my identities: a middle-class South Asian woman of Muslim heritage, a feminist, a language teacher, the daughter of a freedom fighter, lover of nature and animals, a 30-something wannabe adult in search of romance and self-love…the list continues. I know that I am perfectly placed to tell my own story, and in doing so tell the stories of all who might relate to me or any facet of my identity. That’s what I am primarily trying to do through my poetry.

 

Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?

Tamoha Siddiqui: I think we are living amidst a great social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental transformation. It is perhaps one of the most challenging, devastating, but also hopeful, times to be alive–a time when the future of humanity rests on a knife’s edge. I also believe that artists have a golden opportunity here to reflect, record, and perhaps even shape the direction of the contemporary era. I have personally found myself responding to various current events such as world or local (Bangladeshi) politics, the environmental crisis facing us, violence against women, linguistic and cultural hegemony, the adverse effects of neoliberalism, rise of Islamism and fundamentalism in Bangladesh and so on.

 

Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?

Tamoha Siddiqui: Literary pieces by women, especially women of color, have inspired and informed my own writing. Of these, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has probably impacted me the most as an example of work written in English that authentically captures a distinct South Asian flavor. I also have a lot of respect for Roy’s political essays and everything she represents as an author and public figure. Similarly, Maya Angelou’s poetry inspires me to write about empowerment, beauty, positivity, and strength. She shows me that defiance is more powerful than anger in the face of oppression. Following her example, I am trying to be less angry…’trying’ being the key word here!

 

Shuddhashar: In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?

Tamoha Siddiqui:  My personal identity and experiences are inextricably linked to my poetry. I do not think I know much, but I try to write what I know. Furthermore, I strive to make my poetry as intersectional as possible by highlighting different aspects of my identity. For example, even when dealing with universal issues such as climate change, my identity as a woman or feminist will often shine through and I will find myself overtly mentioning female environmental activists over male activists. Of course, I have immense respect for male activists too, but I just want to play my part in ensuring equitable representation of strong, influential women in art and media.

 

Shuddhashar: How do you use structure, language, and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?

Tamoha Siddiqui: As an applied linguist, I find myself thinking a lot about the nature of languages and their politics. Hence, I made the conscious choice early on as a poet and writer to use blended language in my poetry whenever I have the opportunity. As a multilingual speaker, I think, speak, teach and even dream in a blended language. So, it only seems natural to also write using resources from multiple languages to showcase the integrated nature of my internal communicative system. Secondly, this allows me to subvert the dominance of English in the present world. By juxtaposing other marginalized languages right next to English, I am making a political choice and placing them on an equal footing with English. Structurally, I prefer free verse poetry because it allows me to focus on meaning over form. Moreover, many of my poems are written and structured in a manner reflective of how I would perform them on stage.

 

Shuddhashar: What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?

Tamoha Siddiqui: I do not see any conflict in the two. I do not believe the purpose of poetry should be constricted to rainbows and butterflies, so to say. I think it is bigger than that. To me, each poem is a small mirror reflecting an aspect of human existence. And human existence is inherently political.

 

Shuddhashar: Does your poetry transcend national boundaries? Does it appeal to different nationalities or linguistic groups?

Tamoha Siddiqui: I think I am trying to be more universal as I mature as a poet. For the first 30 years of my life, I lived in Dhaka, a somewhat culturally and linguistically homogenous city. Now, having lived in a multicultural university town in North America, I realize that my vantage for most of my life has been quite low. Hence, my poems were relevant to a specific audience only. I became aware of this issue since my arrival here in the USA, and I am trying to find ways to overcome it. It is a hard balance to write universally without losing one’s authentic identity and culture, but other writers before me have achieved this, and that inspires me.

_________________________________________________________

 

 

Poems

 

 

 

Response Poem to Alia Kamal’s Painting, “Smoke and Fire

Smoke and Fire_Painting_ Alia Kamal

“মাইয়া মানুষ হইয়া হাতে সিগারেট”
“বুকে ওড়না দে, মাগি”
“মহিলা একটু বেশিই ফাস্ট”
“উফ! নিজেকে যে কি ভাবে!”1

 

Voices rise; a toxic hurricane
discarding and dismissing you
like unwanted danger
a freak of nature.

 

Your femininity is a cage
carefully customized to cater
to “motherhood” and “divinity”
enmeshed in clever conspiracy.

 

It leaves no room for you
or your defiant lips
your collarbone your cleavage
your sensual skin your sexuality…

 

There is no room here for you
this show is run by patriarchy
and the sharp whip of gender roles
is quick to try and put you in line. Wh-tch!

 

But you don’t seem worried.
You have your eyes on the horizon
–you have built a fire deep in the forest
and the light, the light can be seen from the sky.

A red teep2 of independence burns on your forehead
and the smoke of your gaze heralds revolution.

 

1“Heh! A cigarette in a slut’s hand”

“Cover your breasts, whore”

“That woman is a little too modern…”

“Who does she think she is?”

2A mark (such as a red dot) worn on the middle of the forehead by some South Asian women.

 

 

 

A Pair of Jeans and T-shirt

 

How very scandalous!

A pair of jeans and t-shirt.

How very promiscuous!

A pair of jeans and t-shirt.

 

In a world where hungry eyes grope, feast, scratch

Is it not your birthright to shrink and hide?

Or do you actually like the attention…hmm?

 

We watch and we know and we talk

Of her shameful womanhood

Protruding

Like two prickly thistles.

 

Her rounded buttocks

Rudely staring

And pinching cheekily

The cheeks of hujurs1.

Tsk tsk.

 

No, we will not veil our scorn

for one who does not choose to veil

her tamarind chastity.

 

No we will not lower our gaze

Unless she lowers

her vulgar self-worth.

 

What a slut!

What a whore!

What a frightful vision!

A woman clad in a pair of jeans and T-shirt.

 

1hujur (Bengali): An Islamic clerk; (colloquial) a staunchly religious person

 

 

 

Collective Disapproval

 

I breathe in

the collective disapproval

as I invade their spaces

clad in skinny jeans,

and a Monroe T-shirt.

 

I can taste

the sharp tongue

of their minds;

eels thrashing around

in the pool of holy verses.

 

I smell the stench of their rebukes:

“…Astagfirulla1…”

“…in the month of Ramadan…”

“Where’s your hijab, whore?”

and count the movement of

fast-spinning eye-balls.

 

I can feel

the heat

of their gaze,

the aggression

of their smiles,

the lust

of their morality

branding

my firmly turned back.

 

The unpublicized rape

of my independence.

 

1Astagfirullah (Islamic):  a short prayer of redemption or an expression of shame, literally translating to “I seek the forgiveness of Allah.”

 

 

 

Response Poem to Scott Trageser’s Photograph of a Dead Elephant

Photograph of a dead elephant_Scott Trageser

 

Did our barbarity push you over?

My tender friend

banana lover?

The history of life

is sketched

on your skin,

yet your being

wedged

in death and despair,

a last scrambling bid

for air.

 

Your tusk

is buried

in dirt,

but it’s our good sense

drowning

in filth,

insane

intoxicated

thrills,

muffled by

‘alternative’

facts.

Alternative facts?

Bullshit.

 

Resuscitate

the one percent

that use your teeth

to decorate their greed,

while your eyes

draw visceral cries

from the few still incubating

unmarketable

compassion

unprofitable

kindness

unsweetened

truths.

 

কি হবে

এত বাল ফেলে,

মরেই তো যাব

তাই না?1

It’s no longer comfortable talk

for polite company,

so just sip your organic tea

quietly

and sell your soul

to barcodes-

we have lost this game

to our iPhones.

 

So bring us the fucking green bills

and choke them down our throats

lest we envision a green deal

that make poor

of billionaires.

Poor

billionaires?

Fuckers.

 

When rich men sell our fate

like Manhattan real estate

when their sons

cuddle carcasses

like trophies

won in matches

when coal

is glorified

and villains

made of a windmill,

you know it’s just family

business

It’s art

of the new deal.

 

So abandon

the one percent

impeach

the one percent

rise

against the one percent

and scream-

scream Goodall

scream Wangari

scream Greta:

 

This

your plastic

is savage.

This

your veal

is savage.

This

your apathy

is savage.

 

When children march out of schools

to make a leader out of these fools

you know its time

for something

necessary

something

radical

something

explosive.

 

“This

your praise

is empty.”

This

your promise

is empty.

This

our future

is empty.

 

What have you done?

What have we done?

Did our barbarity push

our planet over?

Like an elephant

wedged

between death

and despair?

A last scrambling bid

for air.

 

1What the point of even giving a fuck? We are going to die anyways, aren’t we?

 

 

 

My English

 

Four months since my landing,

East Lansing

is a calendar clean city

I sip through the expensive windows

of my Uber ride.

 

The driver,

a mature white man,

is jolly and warm and pleased

to have an exotic client

from…

“India?

Sri Lanka perhaps?”

“Bangladesh,”

I announce.

Careful to pronounce

the name of my home

loud and clear

so that it’s later not butchered

with anglicized shears

but to no avail;

 

“BAng-la-Desh?”

He barely recognizes it

and tells me about the one time

he had heard about it

when a cyclone had hit

or some other disaster

born and bred

in third world countries like mine.

I attempt to change the narrative.

 

I tell him about the brimful beauty

of my Bangladesh.

He’s very impressed with me.

He attempts a compliment.

“Only four months here?

But your English GOOD!”

Somewhere deep within

I choke back an ignition.

You see,

I am very brown

and very polite.

I am gracious in my thanks

and careful

in my quiet,

but my mind is an attack

fuming against the fine-lined snobbery

of the west.

I grind my teeth.

“Of course, my ‘English good’!”

“I have only been learning it for like, 23 years!”

I rant in silence.

 

My “English good”

because we were ruled

for 200 years

by people who borrowed this language,

stitching some inflections here,

stealing some vowels there,

butchering some words slowly

and calling it their own

(as is the history of all languages and lands).

My “English good”

because those very same people

borrowed and butchered and stitched and stole

a subcontinent,

and called it their own.

 

My “English good”

because I had to learn it

to try and elevate myself

to the levels of my forgetful masters

looking down from the high center

of this divided

universe.

My “English good”

because I am a product

of a post-colonial gaze,

of neoliberal agendas

salivating at job markets,

hoping, one day

my English will validate me

and make me the proud owner

of power

prosperity

credibility

technology

and maybe

even poetry.

 

My “English good”

because my parents learned this truth

and enrolled me in an elite English medium school

that cost them half of their monthly income

and though we never went out to eat

or bought new clothes for Eid,

at least their daughter knew

how to say her tables

in English.

 

My photocopied schoolbooks

could not afford color pictures,

but they had enough English words

to whitewash a brown girl:

Pterodactyl

Symbiosis

Isosceles

Photosynthesis

Horticulture

Longitudinal

Latent

Refraction

Reduction

Linguistic

Imperialism

Hegemony

I learned them all

and slowly forgot to keep space

for my abandoned mother tongue

for the songs of Rabindranath

for the poetry of Jibananda.

The art and literature of Bengal had to wait

as I groveled to structures

in western symbols

signifiers and signs,

learned to write

perfect five paragraph essays

and finally leave

the subaltern behind.

 

My “English good”

because I refuse

to be subjugated

with their percentiles

their IBTs

their ACTFLs

and their GREs.

My “English good”

because I intimately

know it.

Its theories, its phonetics

its lack of geminates

its projected loss

of interdental fricatives.

I can draw vast syntactic trees

showing

the many ways that I have mastered it.

I know its rules,

I know its exceptions.

I learned it well enough to teach it,

to break it

in stanzas

and mutate

it.

 

My “English good”

because I am the long-lost sister

of Rafiq, Jabbar,

Salam, Barkat,

Shafiur

a living photograph of the year

1952

who carries a taste

of language resistance

on the tip

of her very tongue.

My “English good”

because I am ekushey1 February

I am Shahid Minar

I am a lover of language

and a martyr

for words.

 

And though many try to reduce me

to the non-flattering title

of non-native speaking

English teacher,

and though I may still struggle

with syllable stress

and mispronounce

the odd word

when I’m stressed

I know English well enough

to call it my own.

I know it well enough

to challenge in it.

I know it well enough

to dare in it.

Well enough to know

that if Maya

was a slave’s dream,

I

am a colonizer’s

nightmare.

 

So yes,

my “English

fucking good”.

I would teach it back to you

if I could.

 

1twenty-first

 

 

 

প্রীতিলতার জন্য চিঠি

 

প্রীতিলতা,

আপনার কথা খুব মনে হয়।

 

রাষ্ট্রের এই তেতো গুজবের পিল

গলাতে কাঁটা হয়ে আটকিয়ে আছে,

তার চেয়ে হয়ত সায়ানাইড খেয়েই

বুকে বিস্ফোরণ তোলা উচিৎ ছিল।

 

আপনি ছিলেন অন্ধকার রাতের বিদ্যুতের গর্জন;

পুরো একটি সাম্রাজ্য কাঁপিয়েছেন।

আর আমরা হলাম গুঁটিয়ে ফেলা কুকুরের লেজ;

হয়ত আর কখনো সোজা হয়ে দাঁড়াবো না।

 

বুক ফুলিয়ে বলব না আমি বীর বিক্রমের মেয়ে;

আমি বঙ্গবন্ধুর দেশের লোক;

আমি মতিউর,হামিদুর,

সালাম, জব্বারের রক্ত।

 

এনাদের রক্ত যা একটু ছিল শরীরে

তাও ভেজা কাপড়ের মতন মুচড়িয়ে

সংগ্রহ করা হয়েছে,

এখন সেই রক্ত জিগাতলায়, বসুন্ধরায়,

সায়েন্স ল্যাবের মোড়ে রোদে শুকাচ্ছে।

 

প্রীতিলতা,

আপনি আশা ছেঁড়ে দিন।

আমাদের পিঠ ঠেকে গেছে।

চিৎকার করে বলতে পারছিনা

কে কে “চ্যাটের বাল”

“তুলে নিব কার খাল”

কারণ হয়ে গেছি আমরাই আবাল!

একেই কি বলে “challenging times”?!

 

প্রীতিলতা,

আপনি হাসবেন না।

যখন যুদ্ধ ঘরের মানুষের সাথে,

বাতাবি লেবুর বাম্পার ফলনের সাথে,

“Sad” আর “Angry” রিয়াক্সনের সাথে,

টিয়ার গ্যাস আর মোটরসাইকেল হেলমেটের সাথে,

তখন কি আর পেরে ওঠা যায়?

 

তার চেয়ে ভালো রাজপথেই শুয়ে থাকি

কোন দয়াময় বাস ড্রাইভার যদি একটু পিষে দিয়ে যায়

অন্তত বিশ লাখ টাকা লাভ হবে

মা বাবা প্রধানমন্ত্রীর সাথে ছবি তোলার সুযোগ পাবে

লাশের গন্ধ জয় বাংলার আতরেই মুছে যাবে

এইটুক না হয় মেনেই নিলাম।

 

প্রীতিলতা,

এই চিঠি দেখা মাত্র পুড়িয়ে ফেলবেন।

আর আমাকে এখন থেকে লিখবেন না।

আপনার কথা ভাবলেই গা প্রতিবাদে শিউরে ওঠে

–এটাও এখন রাষ্ট্রদ্রোহী অপরাধ।

 

 

 

 

সুশ্মিতার জন্য চিঠি1

সুশ্মিতা, আমার খুব ভয় হয়।

তোমার এই সুবিধাবাদি মুসলমান বান্ধবির কথাটা একটু শোন —

পালিয়ে যাও।

 

দেশপ্রেম চুদে কি হবে?

এই লাল সবুজের বিষাক্ত হাওয়া

ধূমপানের মতই স্বাস্থ্যের জন্য ক্ষতিকর হয়ে উঠেছে।

সবুজকে তো আর খুঁজেই পাওয়া যাচ্ছে না

শুনলাম ওর মা-বাবা আশঙ্কা করছে

ও এখন সিরিয়ায়।

 

তাই সবখানে লালের ছড়াছড়ি।

হলি আর্টিজান বেকারির লাল মাখা মেঝেতে

লাল জবাগুলো জবাই হয়ে গেল।

জুলহায ভাইয়ের শার্টেও নাকি লাল জবা ফুটেছিল

শুধু শুনেছি । ইন্টারনেটে ছড়ানো হিংস্র ভিডিওগুলো দেখা হয় নি।

 

সুস্মিতা, তুমি কি দেখছ না?

পরিস্থিতি 3G গতিতে খারাপের দিকে এগিয়ে যাচ্ছে।

এটা আরেক ধরনের বাংলা-ওয়াশ।

 

নিব্রাসের ছবিতে তরুণীদের যৌনতার প্রকাশ।

ওরা নাকি বেহেস্তে গিয়ে নিব্রাসকে চুমু খাবে

যাই হোক, আল্লাহ তাদের জান্নাত নসিব করুক। আমিন।

 

এক সময় দেখবে লাল রঙও থাকবে না

শুধু থাকবে কালো।

কালো পতাকা আর কালো মেশিন গান।

 

আমাকে আর রঙিলা হাতা কাটা ফতুয়াতে দেখতে পাবে না।

কালো নিকাবের পিছনে যদি কোন সুপ্ত অগ্নিগিরির আওয়াজ পাও

বুঝে নিও সেটা আমি।

গ্লোরিয়া স্টাইনেম তখন আসবে না আমাকে বাঁচাতে

হয়ত মনে মনে ভাববো, “হোয়াইট ফেমিনিজমের গুষ্টি কিলাই”

 

আমার কথা বাদ দেই

আমার মোসলমান পরিচয়ের জন্য হয়তোবা পার পেয়ে যাব।

কিন্তু তুমি?

 

মন্দিরে মন্দিরে আগুন জ্বলবে

হিন্দু পরিবারগুলোকে ঠিক কোরবানির গরুর মতই জবাই করা হবে।

কেউ কিছু বলবে না। সবাই ঘরে বসে কিরণমালা দেখবে।

 

এই আতঙ্কের তীব্র নিন্দা জানাবে ওপর পক্ষ।

হিজাব পড়া মুন্নি সাহা মন্দিরে আধ মরা পূজারির অনুভূতি জানতে চাইবে।

সরকার কঠোর পদক্ষেপ নিবে এই সন্ত্রাসের বিরুদ্ধে

দলের শান্তিপ্রিয় শান্ত ছেলেরা আতঙ্ক দমনের কাজে নেমে আতঙ্কিত করবে সবাইকে।

 

কিন্তু আসলে কোন মোসলমান ভাই বোনেরা আসবে তোমাকে বাঁচাতে?

যারা নামাজ পরে বেহেস্তে নিজেদের জন্য জমি কিনতে ব্যস্ত, তারা?

নাকি যারা অনলাইন শপিং এ নতুন আই স্যাডো কেনার জন্য অস্থির তারা?

অট্টালিকার মধ্যে বন্দি নতুন প্রজন্ম?

তারা অনেক আগেই গাজার নৌকায় ভেসে গেছে।

ওদেরও দোষ না। ওদেরকে তো বাঁচতে হবে।

 

হয়ত ভাবছ আমি এগিয়ে আসবো

ঠোঁট কাটা কবি তমোহা নিশ্চয়ই আসবে, তাই না?

না, আমি আসব না।

আমার আমেরিকান ভিসা তৈরি হচ্ছে।

 

তাই বলছি সুস্মিতা, আমার কথা শোন।

বীরত্ব দেখিয়ে কি হবে? পালিয়ে যাও।

যত তাড়াতাড়ি সম্ভব পালিয়ে যাও।

 

কিন্তু হ্যাঁ, যাওয়ার আগে মনে করে লাল সবুজের একটা পতাকা সাথে নিও।

হয়ত কোন এক দিন লাল-সবুজের রঙগুলো আবারও ফুটে উঠবে।

 

1Written in response to Tasneem Khalil’s article, “What ISIS wants in Bangladesh”: tasneemkhalil.com/https-tasneemkhalil-com-what-isis-wants-in-bangladesh-20e9de5feb5a#.qnhftfc4b

 

 

 

Profile Photo Credit: Ata Mohammad Adnan

 

 

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