Sara Shagufta

Sara Shagufta (31 October 1954 – 4 June 1984) was a Pakistani poet.

She was born in the Punjabi city of Gujranwala, but lived most of her life in Karachi. Her family was poor and uneducated, and, as child, Sara was regularly beaten by her father.

Although longing to pursue her education, she could not pass her high school examination. Due to the family’s poverty, her mother married her off to an abusive husband when Sara was in her teens (some sources say she was 14, others say 17). Her husband beat her up regularly, and Sara lost her first child. This was followed by a divorce and, later, by three other similarly abusive marriages and a string of affairs with various men. She had three children.

According to Asad Alvi, who later translated some of her poems, “Shagufta exemplifies what happens to Pakistani women when they enter the bohème of literary circles, the bastion of male privilege.”

Indian author Amrita Pritam, who was a close friend of Sara, says she is “the Sylvia Plath of the Subcontinent”. About such comparison, Alvi wrote: “I am not fond of people employing Western signifiers to assess the merit of writers from the global south. (…) But because, stylistically, they are so dramatically similar, I think the comparison is apt. Plath, like Shagufta, writes in metaphorical disjunctives. I believe Plath is the first woman to try the ‘stream of consciousness’ method in English poetry, just as Shagufta is the first to try it in Urdu. (…) Not only stylistically, but even in sensibility Plath and Shagufta have a great in common — both have written about the chaotic world of women in patriarchal societies, and both have ‘transgressed’ tradition. The last thread of commonality is, of course, their lives: both women went through a failed marriage, suffered from clinical depression, and took their lives.”

Sara battled clinical depression for most of her life, underwent a series of hospitalizations and was submitted to shock therapy. Shortly before her death, she had moved in with Pakistani poet Attiya Dawood. Sara committed suicide at the age of 29, on 4 June 1984.

Sara wrote confessional and political poetry in Urdu and Punjabi. According to Asif Farrukhi, who edited and translated some of her poems for a collection of Urdu poetry, Sara’s poetry reads as “a continuous monologue, an incessant diary in which she kept piling up impression upon impression, image upon image, cut through by lines like quicksilver in sand”. Mubarak Ali considers Sara “Ghalib’s better half” (a reference to Mirza Ghalib, prominent Urdu and Persian poet).

According to Christina Oesterheld, Sara’s poem “Half a Room” alludes to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “It (the poem) mirrors many of the attitudes of male intellectuals, be they critics, fellow-writers or whatever, towards women. (…) How painful it must be to be granted only half a room! But the persona of the poet strikes back, calling her adversaries names like “Half-Freud,” “Half-Rimbaud,” etc., and by revealing the shallowness of pseudo-intellectual prattle.”

After Sara’s death, her family destroyed several of her letters, journals, and unpublished poems. According to Alvi, Sara’s “own contemporaries have paid more attention to branding her character as promiscuous and rebellious, than engaging in any intellectual discourse on her work”.

Two poetry collections, Aankhen (Eyes) and Neend ka Rang (The Color of Sleep), edited by Saeed Ahmed, were published posthumously. Indian author Amrita Pritam wrote two books about Sara’s life: Ek Thi Sara (There was a Sara) (1990) and Life and Poetry of Sara Shagufta (1994)

Asked about the reason why some people in Pakistan have found difficult to grapple with in Shagufta’s poetry, Alvi answered: “I think what they find difficult to grapple with in Sara’s verse is her refusal to be at their whim”.

Books

Anthologies

  • We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry, ed. and tr. Rukhsana Ahmad (Women’s Press, 1991)
  • An Evening of Caged Beasts: Seven Postmodernist Urdu Poets, ed. Asif Farrukhi, tr. Frances W. Pritchett and Asif Farrukhi (Oxford University Press, 1999)

About her

  • Life and Poetry of Sara Shagufta, by Amrita Pritam (1994)
  • “Respectability has many forms: remembering Sara Shagufta”, by Kamran Asdar Ali, in Dawn, July 2nd, 2013.
  • “Still I rise!”, by Chintan Girish Modi, in The Hindu, July 16th, 2016.

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