Waqas Khwaja is one of Pakistan’s leading English language poets. He is also known for his skilled translations of Urdu and Punjabi poetry which were published in Modern Poetry from Pakistan, a 2010 collection he co-edited with Iftikhar Arif. Themes of migration run through his earlier collections, Mariam’s Lament and No One Waits For The Train.
The latter is the first full-length book of poetry about the Partition written by a Pakistani in English language. His new collection, Hold Your Breath, challenges the political rhetoric of prejudice and violence towards migrants and people of colour which has gained ascendancy in the United States — where he lives and teaches (though he continues to frequent his native city, Lahore).
Hold Your Breath is dedicated to Eric Garner, an African-American held in an illegal chokehold by a policeman in Staten Island, New York in 2014. He can be heard in a video of his seizure saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died. His killing led to public outcry and his words became the title of a song and the rallying cry of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Khwaja writes that Garner’s last words remain for him “the most potent metaphor/for our age”.
The very last poem in the collection, a breath, a word, makes repetitive use of Garner’s phrase in the second half to startling effect.
The poem continues in English for another seven couplets, capturing unspoken and buried histories of deprivation and loss where “my body’s grime” becomes a metaphor for dark skin. On the next page, the narrator reveals a second, buried language which marks him out as the “the Other”. Here, the poem breaks away into Urdu. Interjected with Garner’s words in English, Urdu phrases create an extraordinary and unusual tour de force.
Khwaja’s judicious and effective use of Urdu phrases also emerges in some other poems such as I was born an Enemy which looks at the conflicts created by an education in English and reinforced by a colonial legacy. He writes of growing up reading English books, “Not knowing yet of race or color, caste, class or creed/Not understanding yet differences in belief/Oblivious to gender”.
He learns to admire and identify with English authors, his English teachers and their language. He begins to find himself an alien in his own land. He becomes aware gradually of ‘differences’ and soon learns that no matter how hard he tries to obey ‘their’ laws and customs, “I was not the right color, the right race/Not from the right society/Not the right society”. He is the monstrous Caliban, “Forever conspiring, forever prone to treachery/Forever preparing to commit an atrocity”.
The title poem, Hold Your Breath, is addressed to the reader in the second person — you. The words of the title become both figurative and literal in this lament for the dark age in which we live. The age is embodied in images of night that few hope to live through in order to see a new dawn.
The collection includes several poems which revolve around memory and a sense of loss. I dream of my father enshrines images of the poet’s late father, a prominent lawyer in Lahore, and recalls his own years of working as an apprentice lawyer. Triptych recalls personal associations with the landscapes.
The first two poems in the section about memory and loss tell of the poet’s enchantment with the sea and the hills, respectively. The third is a love song for the city where he grew up and which he loved for its beauty and its imperfections.
Other significant poems include Going Back. It describes the poet’s impressions of his visit to Pakistan after a long absence: “No, it does not feel like home/All is familiar as before/Nothing seems to have changed.” Everywhere there is dust, limp leaves, people queuing for water, electricity failures, the sound of generators whirring, a disorderly and corrupt political structure.
He goes on to write of the United States where he finds himself caught in a state of limbo. Here “the fight is all about fuel”, not water; destructive chemicals are being poured into the Earth, the rich carry on with their self-involved lives with impunity, with the assumption that their fears are legitimate, and the poor are left to fend for themselves.
Khwaja’s poems also challenge today’s politicised use of faith as a source of conflict. In Primer, he achieves a sense of unity and harmony through a clever permutation of letters in holy names found across cultures, languages and faiths which give expression to creation, linkages and etymology.
The poem traverses four pages, incorporating names sacred to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.
His celebration of difference and unity in diversity continues in Today I am a Muslim weaver. He uses irony and humour in I am afraid of Muslims to comment on ignorance, prejudice and xenophobia which are common among the followers of all religions, even among those who do not adhere to any faith.
The poem culminates with deserts, mountains and rivers guffawing at humans and their foibles and insanity. Khwaja’s innovative, strongly political work sets out to diminish the perceived barriers of difference and “otherness” in today’s globalised world. He bridges the linguistic and cultural divides by experimenting with words and sounds in poems such as Piya torey nain which is written in homage to Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, two classical musicians from Lahore.
The poem, which cascades across the page, plays with Urdu and English words and music and leads up to the textual expression of traditional subcontinental musical notes, the sargam. Its culminating lines begin: “gamapa, gamapa, gamapadasa, gamapadasa/mapadenada, mapadenada” and continue on to “tananaderderdeen tananadererynaan”.
Throughout Hold Your Breath, Khwaja continues to expands his creative horizons by such experimentation with both the language and the structure of his poems. In that he also expands the horizon of Pakistan’s English literature.
This was originally published in the Herald's August 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.