My courage is a battleground, my desire a spark

Hi, folks,

Here you have a handful of poems by Pakistani poet Sara Shagufta, about whom I wrote on my previous post. The poems were translated to English by various translators and were published in different places. You can find the respective sources and translators after each poem.

Hope you enjoy! She is a poet who deserves to be rediscovered.

Happy WITMonth reading! 🙂

Yours truly,



“The Moon is Quite Alone

The shadow of the cage is imprisoned too
I am becoming the shadow of my apparel
My hands become infused into others
The earth is alone
Why did the lone river flow into the sea?
How lonely that decision must be.
Those who die leave me in a sulk
I wake up burning in a fire
My echoes booming in the stone
Drowning in the mud
What tree will grow?
The name of my sorrows is: child
In my hands, I hold broken toys
And in my eyes a human being.
Countless bodies beg me for eyes
Where do I let myself begin?
The skies are younger than I am
Flight does not have a floor
Whose voice would a pair of hands be?
Suffer my lies
When you set the birds in the forest free
Fire tastes the torch
And I dry clothes on the parapet of my being
In my distances is the eye
I wear my sorrows
I am about to wear a garment of fire
Shall I tell you the name of my shade?
I give you the moons of all the nights.”

  • Source: We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry, ed. and tr. Rukhsana Ahmad (Women’s Press, 1991)
  • Translator: Rukhsana Ahmad



Another translation of the same poem above:

“How solitary is the moon

The shadow of a cage is too an imprisonment
I continue to become the shadow of my clothing
My hands become a part of others
The mud is now lorn
Why did the river travel on its own to the sea?
How solitary, the act of choice

Severed, I am severed from those who die
And I wake arising in the fires
I am reverberating in the stones
I am drowning in the mud, wondering which tree ahead lies

My sorrows; thy name is child
In my hands, toys in pieces
In my eyes, humanity
A multitude of bodies are asking me for eyes
I do not know where my own beginning is

The skies are younger than I
Flight does not require a landing
Whose voice do hands represent?
You will have to live with my lies

When you enter the jungle and free the birds
The lantern gets a taste of fire

I hang clothes out to dry on the roof of my person
Within my distance lies an eye
I dress myself in my pain
I, she who dresses herself in garb of fire
Should I tell you the name of my shade?
To you I give the moons of every single night.”


“Woman and Salt

There are many types of respectability:
A bridal veil, a slap, wheat
Stakes of imprisonment are hammered into the coffin of respectability.
From our house to the pavement, we own nothing
Respectability is simply how we cope
Respectability is the spear they use to brand us
The selvedge of respectability begins on our tongues
If someone were to taste the salt of our bodies in the night
For a lifetime, we turn into tasteless bread.
What a strange market this is
Where even the dyer has no colours to sell
On the palm of space, I see kites dying as they fall
I deliver babies in imprisonment
Legitimate offspring need a playful earth
You, who deliver babies in fear, have no pedigree today
They know you by the name of one wall within your body
Your gait defines your status
A beautiful gait
A false smile, has been chiselled on your lips
You haven’t wept for ages
Is that what a mother is like?
Why have your children paled?
To what clan of mothers do you belong?
That of rape, imprisonment, a compartmentalised body
Or of daughters bricked-up alive?
In the streets your daughters
Knead hunger with their own blood
And eat their own flesh.
Which of your eyes are these?
How many times have the walls of your house been bricked-up?
You let my laughter label me
And declared your son’s name to be the currency of the time
Today, your daughter tells her own daughters
I shall brand my daughter’s tongue
Blood-spitting woman is not made of metal
She’s not a bangle-thief
My courage is a battleground, my desire a spark
We were born wearing shrouds on our heads
Not rings on our fingers
That you might steal.”

  • Source: We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry, ed. and tr. Rukhsana Ahmad (Women’s Press, 1991)
  • Translator: Rukhsana Ahmad


“The house of empty eyes

The house of empty eyes is expensive
let me become a line of dust
God has forgotten to create
a number of people
let the sound of footsteps linger
in my desolate eyes
The taste of fire
is a lamp
and the taste of sleep
is man
pull me as tight as stone
so people won’t know
I have no tongue
With God’s tongue in my mouth
sometimes I become a flower
sometimes a thorn
Give the chains freedom
for man is more of a prison
than they are
I have to die alone
these eyes
this heart
give them to some
empty person”

  • Source: An Evening of Caged Beasts: Seven Postmodernist Urdu Poets, ed. Asif Farrukhi, tr. Frances W. Pritchett and Asif Farrukhi (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Translators: Frances W. Pritchett and Asif Farrukhi


“A Mortgage of the Moon

Our tears were given eyes
we wrangled with our vivacity
and became our own bans
The hollering of stars reaches the earth before skies
I untangled death’s hair
and lengthened my lies
Sleep plays with eyes a game of marbles
The evening tholes hypocrite colors
I mortgaged a moon to the skies
I am a lantern in death’s hands
I see a death-chariot upon the wheels of birth
My human is inhumed in turfs
Lift your prostate heads
Death’s left one child in my lap”


“Words of Fire

Every critic and non-critic
wants to bark in my body
and prepares a shroud for me with his breath.
My greatest crime—that I am a woman.
When I refuse to laugh with them, they grow
and queue up to tell me about their thirsty cups,
What is more they wash out the cups with the
leavings of shame.
I cannot be abused in this way,
and they cannot look beyond a circumcision”

  • Source: Words Of Fire: The Writings Of Sara Shagufta, tr. Manushi (unpublished)
  • Translator: Manushi



Is there no country wider than a woman’s body ?
Many houses have spat on me for my writings
But I cannot write according to their taste,
I am filling my skirts with broken-off knockings
on many doors
I feel as if I am hammering nails into water.
Everything will be washed away—
My words, my womanhood.
The sea needs waves, and woman needs a
I revolted, I alone, I live alone in a courtyard.
Once I was immured within four walls, now I am
immured in bed.
I who can measure any man by one part of my
How can I put my whole body in the balances ?
Birds do not twitter around bunches of flowers.
Today I have told the sun
To stay at a distance.
Today I will wear the anklets of darkness, and
Today I have dressed myself
In wandering pathways…
Today I have made lances from my bangles
And written with them a story”

  • Source: Words Of Fire: The Writings Of Sara Shagufta, tr. Manushi (unpublished)
  • Translator: Manushi



…We have been threaded onto this necklace of
closed rooms—
What sorrow impels us to sell our houses ?
Sharp points of loneliness have been driven into
my veins,
Still they say to me : ‘Come, let us walk in the
I am alive only in my eyes,
My lips have turned to stone…
My shroud is being stitched with poisoned
And they say : ‘How nice you look in white!’
…When you dig up this grave
You will find a bird buried in it…
I will look slowly that I may count the wrinkles
On the brow of time,
I will sleep lightly that sleep may not run away
with my life,
I will laugh softly that tears may not cheat me,
I will step lightly on the soil that my sorrows may
not be buried,
Build my house of waters,
That my spirit may wander—
Today a mad dog has bitten the winds—
Today I will speak to you naked,
Because my childhood garments have grown
small for me.
And my eyes are now able to breathe.”

  • Source: Words Of Fire: The Writings Of Sara Shagufta, tr. Manushi (unpublished)
  • Translator: Manushi


“My Three Flowers are Thirsty

Falling of the mother’s tears to the ground
Is mere a thing of fun for the folks around
I’ve only seven days left to meet the death
The farewell shouldn’t be something like that!
The motherly hand is going to rest,
The tales would be weaved by my clothing’s thread
Thou don’t wail, as so much depressed is my blood
Thou don’t need to shower petals over my gravestone
As, the departed eyes would continue to live somewhere around

Maniac I wasn’t but they’re
Who stepped into my blood
I wish I could gift thee, wrapping my eyes
The eyes, which have been the most spendthrift
I had shared out a plenty of smiles
That my lips were bereaved of their own

Somebody shares food on my soul’s behalf
And himself starves
Someone carries my bier on the shoulders
And then goes past

Three flowers of my garland are left thirsty
Before then I get soften into the mud
Please do justice with me ___
Pardon me for my wrong ways,
I’m like a rope wavering in the well
That could burn to ashes
But couldn’t quench its thirstiness
On thy palms, I wish to put my eyes
And to many, I don’t even want to say goodbye.”

  • Source: Alchemy, March 19th, 2019
  • Translator: Arshi Yaseen


January, 1982
Karachi Psychiatric Hospital

I woke up that night to the screams of women. I don’t know when I’d fallen asleep, or passed out, but when I woke up, the manic, lost, women were all around me, walking, shambling. I remember that night, my first night in this asylum – I had retreated into the corner, into the shadows, and looked through the bars, bars that had been chained with many locks. The locks were like eyes: the eyes of a man’s vigilance. As I focused, the lock slowly extended to reveal the form of a man, a man sprawling on the bed: I thought of the violence of beds, of my marriage. The man on this bed was my husband – a man who used to beat me metal-blue to eliminate his fear of women. There were other ways of elimination: polishing his black boots and making them shine, washing his clothes, suspending them onto a hanging wire. And the starvation. And the rising lilt of his family’s voices: awaara. A cuss word, a slap – his marriage to me? – The violence of a mongering dog, his teeth digging into my flesh. His skin the color of a chameleon turned blue. Me? I was a churi, a glass bangle. The house? The impersonation of a ghetto. My agency, his anger. So I ran. I ran to a divorce, yes, and I reached my destination after six months of torture. But the six months led to psychosis. So my mother dragged me here, to this mental asylum. Then I woke up, that night, to the screams of women.
This evening, I am being released. I sit in the courtyard of the Karachi Psychiatric Asylum and write this. Half an hour ago, the women bid me farewell; they gathered about me: we all began crying together in loud, mournful tones. The eye on the lock shut itself: the door was opened. They stood clinging to the bars, still crying. I turned and asked, perplexed: “Aren’t you happy for me girls? I’m finally free.” “No Sara Shagufta.” They spoke, almost in one voice. “Don’t you know? You’re now stepping into the real mental asylum.”

  • Monologues from the Mental Asylum, an excerpt from The Lost Journals of Sara Shagufta, 1982, translated from the Urdu by Asad Alvi
  • Source: Papercuts Magazine (Desi Writers’ Lounge), v 19, Spring 2018
  • Translator: Asad Alvi


“Color Thief

So evening has come
and it’s begun to steal our faces

You’re a little thief
I’m no thief, man

I stepped down into the sea
and it stole no color from my clothes
a bit of my breath, for sure
was taken by the waves
it seems she too is a saline thief

When’s the last time you dove in the dirt?
to steal soil is big tough toiling

If I took a dive into the earth
it would steal every breath in my body
and it wouldn’t be me who’s the little thief

On every road there are several colored paths
and in some unseen place
one color only saturates it all

You can take the colors of the caves
but truth be told the greatest color thief is the sun
until we arrive at its pure light all it shows is this color
and that one

See—in the mirror our eyes diverge
even the wind is sometimes called “looking glass”
catching your hem and mine
isn’t she also a little thief?

Did you come out to steal or be bathed in this raiment—
look—when the waves hurl themselves at the stony face of the coast
she blanches in the froth

and when the wind entwines the trees in a dance
nothing but green can be seen all around

When a man cries
he floods himself in salt tears
and colorfast he drowns—

Tell me
how does the color of the sky climb down to our earth

If I told you these fine secrets
they’d snatch me up
steal me away

So before I tell you

Just steal the color of this stone
as much color as the force with which I smash it
It will intone the same hue

the color pulverized
all laid out
but even water’s gloss or glaze
does nothing to pull its pigments out
Isn’t it also a weeping man?

Our talk of uprooted flowers cuts like a dagger
these eve-harvested blooms
the depths of night have made black

Go slowly, slowly
they may hear our soft footfalls
but they can’t hide from us

This fire, this blaze
it can’t be extinguished—
but if the light were silenced
you would find suddenly
you are no thief

In the hour when lengthening shadows steal the light
it is their theft, not mine or yours
not ours

If I stop taking what isn’t mine
my house will be without an ember
my bread will sit like this
pale and unbaked in the darkness

My hunger beckons the life, the raiment, the color
it leads me back to the uprooted flowers
who know I’m a thief

When the dark caves of our pupils are stolen
we claw our way out to snatch our colors back

I stole the sea’s color and made a floor
I stole the colors of eyes and made walls
I stole the sun’s color and made shade
I stole hunger’s color and made a stove
I stole the color of shit-talk and sewed my garments out of it

And when fire’s color was taken
my bread sat unbaked

the stones went silent
and the little oil lamp’s flame
began again to burn the void.”

Antonio Rizzi, Title page for the annual Novissima, 1902

2 thoughts on “My courage is a battleground, my desire a spark

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