Cat pent up

by Harris Khalique

Maki Kureishi, who passed away some years ago, has been one of my favourite poets. She is certainly one of the best English-language poets from Pakistan who lived in the country and, along with Taufiq Rafat and Daud Kamal, blazed the trail for many others. There is a definite quality to each poem she composes. Every once in a while I pick up Wordfall, an anthology of three poets published in 1975, including herself, Taufiq Rafat and Kaleem Omar, or the selection from her complete works published in 1997, both by the Oxford University Press. Besides bringing immense pleasure and a sense of literary accomplishment, her work also goads your social and political consciousness in a distinctive way. I have always felt that as events shape nations, words shape individuals. Kureishi’s language, imagery and introspective awareness of the world she belonged to contributed to shaping the inner feelings and outward approach of many of her readers, I being one of them. I insisted on using her work against the will of my supervisor when writing on a social science subject. This happened at the expense of losing marks for quoting poetry. But poetry is magic, like love is.

Lamartine said that, “Sad is his lot who once at least in his life has not been a poet.” But sadness has many dimensions, and both being a poet or a reader of poetry makes you sad as well. Maki Kureishi’s poem “Kittens” had a strange effect on me today.

It once again confirmed the limitations of our discourse and made me feel contrite about these geo-political debates, notions of imperialist and anti-imperialist agendas, and sensational talk shows run by smart alecks of anchors on numerous television channels. In “Kittens,” Kureishi writes about her cat being dismayed and slinking away after delivering too many kittens. They were so many that all couldn’t be adopted by the kind friends either. She then writes,

“My relatives say: Take them

to a bazaar and let them go

each to his destiny. They’ll live

off pickings…”

But the poet is wary of them being so small that they could be stepped upon, kicked by shoes, battered by heels or eaten up by gaunt street dogs. They may also starve to death. Then she remembers that the European thing to do is to drown them in warm water.

“…Warm water

is advised to lessen the shock.

They are so small it takes only

a minute. You hold them down

and turn your head away.”

She then describes what will happen in the water, callous details. Then she adds further and relates her own confusion,

They are blind and will never know

you did this to them. The water

recomposes itself.

Snagged by two cultures, which shall I choose?

The policies of the successive governments of Pakistan delivered too many kittens in the form of millions of uneducated, unemployed and deprived youth, who become cannon fodder for terrorist outfits today, whether in tribal areas or urban centres. The self-serving and myopic liberal segments of society, belonging to the idle rich class, took these kittens to the bazaar and left each to its destiny. These kittens survived gaunt dogs and battering heels.

They virtually lived off pickings and became cats. Many years ago, their dismayed mother, rather than slinking away, could have taken charge and try to feed, clothe and educate its kittens. It did not. The keepers left them in the bazaar. The cats know all this and are angry. And as the Italian proverb goes, “A cat pent up becomes a lion.”

The writer is an Islamabad-based poet and rights campaigner. This article was first published in the NEWS

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