Annie Zaidi is one of those rare contemporary writers who has tried her hand at different formats and dabbled with various styles – poetry, novellas, short stories, articles, play scripts and even a few short films. A keen observer of society and one who calls a spade a spade, the Mumbai-based writer commands a strong voice, a sense of social justice, and a flow that keeps the reader going. For be it feminism or terrorism, democracy and politics or women’s rights, she lets the world know unequivocally what she thinks.
Zaidi is also the editor of Unbound: 2,000 years of Indian Women’s Writing and the author of Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales; co-author of The Good Indian Girl; and has had her work published across several Indian and international anthologies and journals including Mumbai Noir, Women Changing India, and Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now.
Scroll.in talked to her poetic avatar, the Zaidi who writes “I will not smear my bed with platitudinous dreams” and “Freedom is... what? A well-cooked meal that you don’t have to cook yourself. And soap”.
Zaidi grew up in southern Rajasthan in small townships, with the only other town she knew being Lucknow, where she grandparents lived. Her grandfather Ali Jawad Zaidi was a famous Urdu writer and read and wrote in four languages. There were books all around. And though others in the family did not officially “write”, there was an “undercurrent of culture and an appreciation for the arts in the family”.
An early start
Zaidi’s mother wrote a few poems as a young girl, painted well and had illustrated and designed some alphabet books published by Frank Brothers in Delhi. “She’d stopped writing by the time I was born. But she and her siblings were readers. We were bought books and comics as gifts, and told stories by our grandparents,” recalls Zaidi, who was chanting nursery rhymes by the time she was three and reading independently by the time she was six.
“When I was eight, I fractured my leg and was in hospital for weeks. This is when I turned into a voracious reader. I think it’s the same for a lot of writers – as children, an illness or some other family circumstance forces them to stay indoors a lot, and reading becomes their main distraction.” She believes that had it been television and not books to her rescue, she may never have become a reader and therefore, not the writer she is today.
Funnily enough, she had never planned on being a writer. She wrote poetry in college, but was equally interested in drama, dance, debates. “I’m certain my dancing was better than my poetry back then,” she jokes. “But once I began to use my mind, my words, for more than (teenage-y) poetry, something shifted. I suddenly had much wider access to books and my exposure to the world was widening, deepening. I kept writing short stories on the side and decided I wanted to get published.”
When she approached the few publishing houses she knew, her work was not accepted. But Zaidi saw this as a learning curve. “As a writer, I would have sunk if I had been published at that stage. It was promising prose but half-formed. I stuck with journalism and started blogging when blogging became a thing. Four years later, the local publishing scene had changed enough for editors to look for upcoming talent. So I started getting published,” she says.
Over the last decade, she has written poetry alongside her other work. But these were usually in short bursts, when she was feeling driven to it. “There were a couple of years when I participated in a self-regulated exercise of writing 30 poems, one a day, for a month. But these were often not very good poems and I’d end up keeping only two or three. In general, I try to write a little everyday but there are bad days, even bad weeks. It could be as little as an hour a day, or as much as four hours.”
Looking back, looking ahead
Zaidi has also noticed changes in her style of writing poetry. She recalls how as an undergraduate student, she’d write poems two pages long, full of pure self-expression. When she looked at them years later, she was struck by how awful they seemed to be. “I felt embarrassed by the little-ness, the self-involvement of that teenage self and destroyed the whole lot, which is a pity because I could have laughed at the poems now. But I also wrote some short stories and essays, which I still own up to.”
So she didn’t always believe in her own work? “If believing in one’s own work means that one believes in the worthiness of the text one produces, then I don’t think I believed that. Worth what, to whom? However, I never had doubts about the value of storytelling. Human civilisation is built on the back of language and the arts. But everything that really matters to humans, their sense of self, their complex systems of education, of law, of power-mongering – all of it is based on the writing down of ideas. We are who we think we are, depending on what story has been told to us.”
As she read more, experienced more, and started understanding the interconnections between the political and the personal as a journalist, Zaidi’s poetry also began to change. “There became more of an argument in my poems; like a conversation I hoped to have with a reader. A poem ends when it wants to end, unless I’m trying for a form, like a sestina.”
When someone has dabbled with so many forms of writing, does it require compartmentalising the brain to focus differently on each? “There are no mental compartments. Now that I write for a living, I have to only decide the form based on who I’m writing for and how much space I can take up. At a creative level, I just have to decide what the thing I’m thinking wants to be. Sometimes, a line comes to me and I know instinctively it belongs to a poem. Sometimes an image crops up and I have to choose between drama, film, and short fiction. Sometimes I begin writing a script and then decide to turn it into short fiction instead,” says Zaidi, adding that the poet’s role in modern-day society is to “tell people the truth”.
Is that where her sense of activism come through in her writing, especially when it comes to women’s issues and empowerment? “It comes from my own experience, mainly. The personal is political like nothing else can be.”
And in her own experience, is there a certain way women writers are perceived in India? “Perceptions have changed a fair bit. For instance, it’s much rarer for women to adopt pen names. But I also think that the question is better put to male readers and writers. Research suggests that women read more than men and that men read men more often while women read both. I’m not sure I know how my generation of female writers is seen by society at large and whether my male contemporaries are seen differently. We are still subject to the same patriarchy, the shout-downs and the online rape threats as other women. But that applies to any woman showing signs of agency or pushing for change,” she asserts.
Having worked with translations from various Indian languages in Unbound: 2,000 years of Indian Women’s Writing, does Zaidi believe that a translation can ever really do justice to the original? “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to translators. It is usually a selfless labour of love. The point of translation is to capture the text, its narrative, its spirit, its form, its structure and to render it into another language. A good translator manages to retain most of the elements of the original.”
Despite that, she feels that there are some things that cannot be fully translated, like Urdu ghazals. “I have yet to see a translation of Ghalib’s or Mir’s ghazals that evoke in me the same mix of wonder and pathos and joy that come with the original. And yet, I can say that. For someone who doesn’t know any Urdu, perhaps a translation suffices? Who knows?”
One thing’s for certain, be it poetry or prose, the strong-willed Zaidi derives much pleasure in writing, a relationship that seems to only be blossoming. “It’s all about having an idea and being able to tease it out, lay it down into the shape of something new.”
Talking of Flowers
There was a poet who said once
your talk is the talk of flowers.
He said it in Urdu of course,
so perhaps this is not what he meant.
To talk of you is to shed flowers
from my mouth is also
what he might have said.
To talk of you is to talk of scented
creatures grinning up at the morning
plush with themselves and the aching
to be witnessed and named, dancing
in their skins, coaxing seed
up and out.
The panicked response of still life
to someone’s riotous need to mean
more is to think of you.
The brief and the tender,
the easily sold and binned,
the easily crushed
and not even through malice,
is to think of you.
To feel sun and dew
on skin cracked raw,
to quaver as roots fling themselves out
of ankles and affix you to earth
is to think of you.
To speak of you is keep watering
the snowdrops long after spring.
To speak of you is a rosewater rinse.
To speak of you is to soak jasmine
garlands overnight in a bucket.
To speak of you is to tear
open a marigold and eat its
To speak of you is to swear
never again then again be stained
by the taste of sugared roses
in betel leaf.
To speak of you is to speak
of beds on wedding nights
fields of mustard
a song with a mandolin in it
and a honeymoon suite occupied
Five Newspaper Reports Re-written for Greater Clarity
1. All Eyes on HSC Results
how many eyes are trained
on the higher secondary exam results,
hard to say but eyes are slitted sleek
with yesterday’s failing
eyes follow monkey eyes gibbering
through a bazaar, rubbing neon
out of the black lids of night
eyes are fixed upon a street gone
grey with too much going away
lost foundlings blinded by concrete,
eyes wait on the road divider
holding the skeleton of a bunch of red roses
that grazed the shin of a passerby
who looked but saw nothing
except a flower pot that he used
as a spittoon
eyes are intent on sum assured
insurance plans and a new toffee car
bought by a semi-friendly neighbour
with good skin
eyes are wildly careening between
CAT, MAT, GRE, TYBSc,
UPSC, PMT-PET, NET
yet, most days they are fixed upon
the luminous face of a PhD guide
who won a gold medal for every exam
he ever sat and comes to uni in blue fleece
and real leather sandals.
2. Nation Outraged After X gangrape in Y town
forty one percent of the population
recalled other instances of mutilation,
murder along with the caste and age
of various name-changed victims.
twenty point five percent of the population
silently measured their hemlines against
newsprint inches devoted to the said crime.
roughly thirteen percent of the nation
was looking at a girl of eighteen
crossing the road.
an unknownable fraction of the nation
was buying bottles of acid.
zero point five percent of the nation
roared about state culpability and blocked
two arterial roads that led to a jam that will
occupy the front page tomorrow.
the rest of the nation was busy watering
money plants, relieving itself
between stalks of sugarcane,
changing diapers and being rocked
less than one percent of the nation
had the stomach for details of intestine,
perineum, bladder, womb and the neck
of a girl who swung from a tree
that did not belong to anyone in particular.
3. India rolls red carpet for Chinese FMs first trip
Call us Munna.
A single name will do
for both, and for either one.
No, we don’t have school names.
Who went to school?
About that red carpet,
there was actually more than one.
Twenty feet long, each one and six feet across.
Before all this loading rolling unrolling
there was the weaving.
Carpets, yes, much nicer than this junk.
No, don’t ask how long that was.
There was no calendar in the room.
4. Year on, dead couple not forgiven
Forgiveness is a trick,
a dirty one played by children
who have not learnt to wipe
the green stain of love from their eyes
after they have been thrashed.
Forgiveness is an exposed brick house
with no boundary wall to stop the man
who answers the call of a she-wolf
wearing a plaited rope of debt for an anklet.
Forgiveness is lovers hacked
for their art of caress undress
the exhumation of soul from under flesh.
Forgiveness is a foreign thing.
A denim jacket with rivets thing.
A plastic tweety bird ring that nobody
in the village had ever bought and
if the young had any thought of such things,
they’ll think twice now.
5. Two Palestinians Shot Dead After Attacking Israelis
Two people armed with knives
were killed after they (separately)
rushed towards (different groups of) Israelis
armed with guns.
Two people set out from home (or whatever
remained of that feeling called home).
It is unclear if they kissed anyone goodbye
but preliminary imaginings indicate
they held that thought awhile.
It is unclear if their homes had been bombed
or if any children died in the shelling.
It is unclear whether they rebuilt or relocated
and if they had, whether they were bombed
a second time.
It is clear they had access to kitchen knives.
It is clear they rushed towards wielders of guns.
It is clear the guns would be used.
The colour of their skin is clear.
Their olive trees, their pets, their throaty
mother tongue, their last words were
not so clear.