sunday sounds

'I am South Asian-American, Pakistani-Indian': Sophia Pandeya speaks on her poetry of love and loss

Scroll caught up with the poet for a discussion about her tangled roots and absorbing poetry.

Sophia Pandeya is a South Asian-American poet currently based in California. Her poetry is luscious and verdant. Meanings and ideas sprout out from each line, some reaching for the sky while others burrow deep into the soil. For the past year or two I have been reading and falling in love with her poems.

Pandeya has published in prestigious journals such as The Adirondack Review and her first volume, Peripheries is currently available on Amazon and receiving excellent reviews. On her website Sophia identifies herself as “an in-between, an inhabitant of hyphen”. That thing, the hyphen, is both a separator and a joiner. And an indicator of something ‘missing’. An ambiguous, even scary, place for most people. But for Pandeya, it is home and a wellspring of inspiration.

Scroll caught up with Sophia for a discussion about her tangled roots and absorbing poetry.

Tell us about your background. Your roots are in both Pakistan and India, is that right?
Both my parents are from India, my father was born in Allahabad and my mother was related to the only female dynasty in India, the Begums of Bhopal. Most of my father’s family migrated to Pakistan but my mother did not migrate to Pakistan until 1959. Her first husband was the Indian politician, Rafiq Zakaria, so I have a half sister and half brother who are Indian. Connections to India came full circle through my husband, Raam, who like my father is also from Allahabad.

What does "home" mean for someone such as yourself?
"Home" has always been rather fluid. My father was a doctor in the army so we would get posted to a new city every two years. (Karachi-Maripur-Sialkot-Dhaka-Karachi-Peshawar-Rawalpindi). We were living in Rawalpindi during Gen Zia’s coup, in the aftermath of which my father was “purged” from the army and we moved to Malta. I’ve lived in London, Jeddah, Thailand, New York City, Canada, and now California. But I love and feel at home in Karachi, the city of my birth.

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Lineage

What impact has all this moving had on your poetry?
Exposure to the unfamiliar became an incubator for introspection and consequently, art. I was always the new girl in class and did not have the same freedom as boys to go outside and play cricket or football. This led to a more or less solitary childhood. My hours were filled with reading and listening to music and gradually with writing and painting.

You have called yourself “an inhabitant of hyphen". That’s an intriguing identity. What does it mean?
I am South Asian-American. Pakistani-Indian. Growing up I was surrounded by an oral Urdu culture, but ironically I wrote poetry in English, in secret, in silence. So the orality was completely missing. It has taken me three decades to step-by step fashion my own voice out of my hybrid Urdu-English existence to the point where I feel I can dance, not just walk, on the tight rope of those hyphens.
When did you realise you had poetry within you? Was that the same time when you considered yourself to be a poet?
By the time I was 11. My earliest memories are of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), an immensely beautiful place. The event that became a catalyst for me to begin writing poetry was loss, which came in the form of twin separations: from my father who became a prisoner of war, and from my beloved green-gold and sonorous Dhaka. I wrote my first lines when I was six, shortly after my brother, mother and I were evacuated to Karachi.

Meenavicular

As a global citizen with roots in many territories you have said on your website that you are “engaging with borders that are linguistic, cultural, religious, temporal, personal, geographical and metaphysical”. This seems to be a common theme or artistic territory for many "immigrant" writers and artists. As borders are things that demarcate one thing or place from another they are usually seen as being "limiting" by writers. Does this theme by definition not limit and ‘hem-in’ your artistic vision?
What I was trying to convey in that statement is that my poetry is essentially liminal in nature. It engages with borders in an attempt to illustrate their absurdity, to dismantle rather than be defined by them. A case in point is the jingoistic nationalism promulgated by both India and Pakistan to justify the artificial border between them.

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Crossing the Border at Wagah

One of the strongest themes in your poetry is language and words. How they are both beautiful but dangerous. How the meanings of words are changed over time and even abused.
Language has been a victim of this hyper nationalist narrative. If you turn on the state news broadcasts in India and Pakistan you find heavily Sanskritised Hindi and a heavily Arabised Urdu. I talk about this in the a poem called Shipwreck :

the heart is a couplet, a twin
fracture scattered
in the shipwreck of language
she picks up an in-breath
gulps down the clearest silence
like water, needing
no translation, only
in the exhale, words
have a country
a meaning
they must cross &
uncross the tangled
lines, the barbs
of borders
that say this is Hindi, a smear upon the other’s forehead
& this is Urdu, a bird we are trying to cage
in long, slender bars
of Nastaliq, so banished
from flight, she parrots
a false fortune
history clipped
at the wings to bury
a mongrel past

Clearly you adore language.
I am in love with language. But language is much more than words. It is also touch, that sensuous sacrament into which we arrive as babies, cuddled and kissed, gurgling with pleasure, cooing with joy. It is through touch that language is birthed and blossoms. Language is also the notes of the musical scale. To quote Ustad Bismillah Khan: “There is no Hindu note and no Muslim note there are just these seven notes!” Listening to this language (music) plumbs our deepest parts. Pure sound makes up our universe and resonance is the key to joy. Language is also the stroke of a brush as well a pause between words. Silence is a language.

But you seem to have a particular love for Urdu.
I consider myself fortunate to have been caressed by the lush tendrils of one of the most beautiful and sensuous languages on the planet. My mother wrote Urdu poetry, my aunts and uncles recited it and so, unlike my peers who attended private English medium schools and whose Urdu was dismal, I had a keen appreciation of my mother tongue. So, yes, I am in love with language, especially Urdu. And when something you love is abducted by a political power grab masquerading as piety, that is an impetus to write.

What do you mean?
This is what happened with the phrase Khuda Hafiz being turned into Allah Hafiz because a mullah decided that Khuda was too inclusive a term for God. And that it must be Allah and come in an Arabic box. (Of course, the irony that Allah is the God of the Egyptian Coptic hymns, some of the most beautiful music in the world is completely lost on them!) A whole generation of young people in Pakistan have never heard of Khuda Hafiz!


The Names of Birds.

In much of your work I get a strong sensation of "loss". Of night and even a longing to be hidden in the darkness of night.
The impetus of my poetry has always been love and loss. In as much as words have a kind of immortality they reflect a desire to salvage something from the ephemeral nature of our existence. The Japanese call this "wabisabi". Night and language, both are an invisible skin… and the night is not silent. It is the darkness which allows you to listen without distracting eye-flowers, to feel the texture of her breath on the nape of your neck. The night is most definitely a woman, and a wing. Or you could say the pages of day and night are the wings a poem needs to take flight. But the night is needed more, for it is the black wing that carries the poet’s ink.

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Scherezade

A poem like Shipwreck could be construed as making political statements. Is it important for you as a poet, to speak political words? If so, to whom do you speak them?
As the saying goes the personal is political and vice versa. On my father’s side there has been a history of involvement in politics in the sense that my uncles and aunt were all firebrand leftist/socialist/communists, who spent a lot of time in jail. Then living through 1971 and witnessing my mother cry herself to sleep every night because she had been separated from my half siblings in India. Then marrying an Indian-American from a Hindu family and fighting prejudice on both sides of that divide! All of these events have made me feel it is important as a poet to express my feelings about the pernicious lie of hyper nationalistic identity politics being spread and swallowed by large swathes of the population on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but I know there are others who feel as I do.

I speak to anyone who will listen! To Pakistanis so that they can hear someone who has a perspective other than the imposed narrative of a country based on a creation of an ‘other’. To Indians who may read this and know that there exist thinking, feeling minds on "that side" who do not look upon them with a narrow vision.

Your poetry’s been called an "aerial root". What does that mean?
That’s a term I coined for my poetry because I think it perfectly encapsulates the liminal nature of my writing. The banyan tree expands horizontally rather than vertically and its roots hang in the air so they are exposed to the environment while at the same time being attached to the mother root. I think both are extremely important, receptivity to the new and connectedness to the old.

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Tab Tak Nahi.
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