Himal Interviews: ‘Daak’ and the Subcontinent’s women poets

Himal Interviews: ‘Daak’ and the Subcontinent’s women poets

In this episode of Himal Interviews, we bring you Onaiza Drabu and Prachi Jha, who talked to us of their literary project, Daak (daak.co.in), and the challenges and joys of exploring poetry from Southasia.

As Drabu and Jha discussed in the podcast, the four poets whose poetry is read here come from different parts of the Subcontinent, each of whom displayed a unique brand of feminism and femininity, creating a lasting impact on their readers and listeners.

"Women should be seen and not heard" was, and in some contexts continues to be, an oft-repeated talisman in schools, households and public spaces. The violence of the act of silencing women (and subsequently shaming them for being 'heard') is masked by the seemingly benign pretext of upholding their honour and respectability. The mere act of expression, of using their voice to talk about their experiences, becomes a powerful act of defiance.

These four poets dared to be heard, and in the timelessness of their expression and articulation of the joys and trials of womanhood, their voices transcend geographies and politics.

Habba Khatoon

Bara kiny vucchnamai
Gara kamy hovnasai
Zara zara thovnamai
Chhu me baale tammana

He gazed at me through the door
Wonder who showed him where I lived!
And I ached with love in every limb
Forever a young girl I am in desire


Me ha kaer tseay kit poshi dasvaanai
Chhav myaen daanai posh
Be chasai zameen tei cze chukh asmaanai
Siras te chukh sarposh

Pretty posies I make for you,
Come and enjoy my pomegranate bloom.
I am the earth and you are the sky,
You are the lid to cover the secret.


Laej phulai anda vanan
Tse kanan goi naa myon
Laej phulai kwola saran
Vuathoo neeryan khasavo
Phaej yosman anda vanan
Tse kanan goi na myon

The distant meadows are in bloom.
Have you not heard my call?
Flowers bloom on mountain lakes
Come let us ascend these meadows now
The lilac blooms in distant woods
Have you not heard my call?


Laale gati manz tsong zaajaanai
Baale roodus na hosh
Tsu chhaham shama, bu chhas parvaanai
Chhaav myaany daanai posh

Lost in her world of dreams, Leila
Lit her lamp in the dark!
I am the moth and you my lamp!
Enjoy my pomegranate blossoms

(Translated from Kashmiri by Triloknath Raina and Shafi Shauq)


Mahadevi Varma

Panth rehne do aparichit, pran rehne do akela

Anya honge charan haare,
Aur hain jo laut-te, de shool ko sankalp saare,
Dukhvrati nirman unmad,
Yeh Amarta naapte pad,
Baandh denge ank sansriti
Se timir me swarna vela!

Doosri hogi kahaniyan
Shoonya me jiske mite swar, dhooli me khoyi nishani,
Aaj jis par pralay vismit,
Main lagati chal rahi nit,
Motiyon ki haat au,
Chingariyon ka ek mela
Panth rehne do aparichit, pran rehne do akela!

Let the path be unknown, and you alone

Those feet must be someone else's, which were defeated,
Which returned after surrendering their resolution to obstacles,
My feet are different: unafraid of sorrow, eager to create,
My feet measuring immortality,
In their quest to reinvent
They will create a golden era even in darkness.

Those stories must be someone else's
The sounds of which were destroyed in vacuum, and all traces lost in dust,
My story is one which even amazes destruction,
I create every day,
A market of pearls,
And a festival of sparks.
Let the path be unknown, and you alone!

(Translated from Hindi by Prachi Jha and Ashok Kumar Jha)

Priye, main hoon ek paheli bhi

Jitna madhu, jitna madhur haas
Jitna mad teri chitvan mein
Jitna krandan, jitna vishaad
Jitna vish jag ke spandan me
Pi pi main chir dukh-pyas bani
Sukh-sarita ki rangoli bhi!

Mere pratiromon se avirat,
Jharte hain nirjhar aur aag;
Karti virakti aasakti pyar,
Mere shwason me jaag jaag;
Priye main seema ki godpali
Par hoon aseem se kheli bhi!

Dear one, I too, am a riddle

However much nectar, however much sweet laughter,
However much intoxication in your glance
However much weeping, however much sadness
However much poison in the trembling of the universe
Drinking it all, I have an ancient thirst for sadness,
But also the merriment of the river of joy.

Ceaselessly, from all pores of my being,
Flows the torrent and the fire.
I love detachment and desire
Awakening in my breath.
Dear one, I was cradled in the lap of limitation,
But I have also played with the limitless.

(From Mahadevi Varma: Political Essays on Women, Culture, and Nation by Anita Anantharam)


Kamala Das

An Introduction

Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.


It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint.

The Looking Glass

Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers.


On sedatives
I am more lovable
Says my husband
My speech becomes a mistladen terrain
The words emerge tinctured with sleep
They rise from the still coves of dreams
In unhurried flight like herons…
And my ragdoll limbs adjust better

To his versatile lust… he would if he could
Sing lullabies to his wife's sleeping soul
Sweet lullabies to thicken its swoon
On sedatives
I grow more lovable
Says my husband


Amrita Pritam

An excerpt from Kufr:

Eh mera te tera mel si,
Asi pathraan di sej te suttey
Te akhaan honth unglaan potey,
Mere te tere badan de akkhar baney
Te ohna oh aad-pustak anuvaad kiti
Rig ved di rachna ta bahut pichon di gall hai

First Book

That was our tryst, yours and mine
We slept on a bed of stones
And our eyes, lips and finger tips,
Became the words of your body and mine
They then made translations of this first book
The Rig Veda was compiled much later.

(Translated from Punjabi by Prachi Jha and Ashok Kumar Jha)


Main teri seja te jada paira dhariya si
Mein 'ika' nahin san – 'do' san.
Ika salama vyahi, te ika salama kunwari
So tere bhog di khatira
Mein us kunwari nu qatala karana si
Mein qatala kita si 

Eha qatala jo qanuna jayaza hunde hana
Sirf ohana di zillata najayaz hundi hai
Te main usa zillata da zahera pita si
Te fer ik parabhat vele
Ik lahu vich bhijje mein apne hatha vekhe san
Hatha dhote sana

Bilakul usa tarahan jyon hora mushki anga dhone si
Para jyonhi mein sheshe de samane hui
Oha samne khalotisi
Ohi jo apne jache mein raati qatl kiti si

O khudya
Ki saej da hanera bohot gadha si?
Mein kihanun qatala karana si, te kihanun qatala kar bethi?


When I entered your bridal chamber
I was not one but two persons.
One's marriage had consummated and complete
the other had remained a chaste virgin.

To fulfil our union
I had to kill the virgin.
And kill her, I did.
Such murders are sanctioned by the law
Only the humiliation accompanying them is illegal.
So I drank the poison of humiliation.

Came the dawn and
I saw the dawn
and I saw the blood on my hands.
I washed them
Just as I washed off the odors on my body.

But when I saw myself in my mirror,
there she was before me;
The same one I thought I had
murdered during the night.

Oh, god!
Was the bridal chamber so dark that I could not tell
the one I had slain
from the one I did, in fact, kill.

(Translated from Punjabi by Khushwant Singh)

~ More recent interviews and podcasts by us.

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