… in which I tell you about a poet I’ve known for many years, and with whom I’ve had many late-night conversations about life, love, poetry, and the darkness. Our conversations can aptly be termed the love child of Star Trek and general mysticism. We may get abstract when we talk but we don’t scoff at Instagram, selfies, fashion or beauty like intellectually minded people sometimes do. Also, we’re not into communism – at least, not that we know of (What is communism, even? I’m shitting hand-made organic self-care products and cosmetics as I write this, so…). Nerdy, but somehow not nerdy — as you can see, this is already a lot about me as well as Fatima,
We go to Mouthful in DHA for the purpose of this piece. What should I ask her, I wonder? I know her so well, and yet, there’s always more to discuss each time we meet.
I start by reminding her of a moment she shared with me while we were walking around DHA recently; we had to be careful on our walk back to the car. It was parked a long way off. Men laughed too loudly as we passed, nothing threatening, just this way guys here have of turning up the volume while you’re walking by. They managed to gawk at us while speaking to each other — fascinating. It was then that Fatima, in her soft voice, remembered a moment from her life in Karachi in which she was standing at her balcony at 2 AM.
WHEN SHE LOOKED AT THE STREET BELOW, SHE COULD SEE CAR SHOPS AND WORKERS, A BOY WORKING ON A BICYCLE, AND A GUY SITTING ON A MOTORBIKE. HE SAT ON THE BIKE, SHE SAID, “WITH EASE OF BODY AND EASE OF MIND”.
“Just the way he sat — I looked at him with real envy,” she added. “He owned that street.”
After ordering, I ask Fatima how she would describe herself, etc. “A poet and an artist, but not mainstream. An underground worker, a worker in the shadows, capturing abstract moments.” What does that work include, precisely? “Working with metaphor, listening in to the silences between people.”
Can you see why I never get bored of listening to this woman?
Talking to Fatima is like getting a free ticket to a spoken word poetry session if she deigns to speak to you. She doesn’t favor small-talk. Sometimes, she reads tarot cards, which she interprets using free association and general poetic awesomeness. It’s more an exercise in free association than prediction, but I’m amazed by how much she gets right. The way Fatima does poetry is more than a little magic.
At the restaurant, I probe into her teenage years – when she first left her hometown, Karachi, for New York. She was there for an undergrad in liberal arts. “My major was undeclared for two years – I studied Philosophy, Buddhism, other things. I finally settled for English.” How did she discover that she was meant to write poetry? “I’m still trying to find what I’m meant to be.” But then she admits, “I found poetry when I fell in love, at 18-19. The colors of the sky were different, it was a feeling I’d never known before. It’s like being handicapped in a sense — you can only express parts of you through writing.”
So what was it like being a 19, 20 year old in New York, discovering that she loves to write poetry? “It was full of wanting to discover. Full of adventure. It was like the Fool’s card in the Tarot. It leads to its own share of suffering, but that’s what a poet does, isn’t it?”
At this point, we decide to order tea and gulab jamun. Black tea with milk, ‘separate chai’, as the café slang goes. One of the servers goes down, comes back and informs us they only serve mixed chai. We argue about chai for a while – the manager sticking to his guns about not serving separate chai. According to our logic, though, anyone who can make mixed chai has the ingredients for separate chai, so why the rigidity? We shift to Masoom’s for tea and dessert.
“I write poetry to create an alternative reality, besides it being a necessity and a natural inclination.” To us, the chai incident exists in different realities as well; there is a dry, point to point version of the incident as well as a deeper interpretation based on body language, tone, and energy. We saw the event through a poetic lens, and here’s how Fatima summed it up (the facebook link above).
“Poetry – it’s another lens on your camera, another way of seeing,” then referring again to the Chai incident, she adds, “He made the air so unwelcome.” We find it ironic that the incident occurred after a conversation about ‘owning space’ – and exactly when we felt we were, in fact, owning public space — airing our soul in a conversation at a restaurant, speaking for too long, relaxing too much, and obviously not concerned by how we were being ‘viewed’ by the people around us, whether we were at a table or on the road taking pictures. Like this picture, by the way. The men lounging around this area were excessively preoccupied by us; their volume also turned up a few notches when we seemed consumed by the camera instead of them. The loudness, I feel, is an answer to us choosing not to see them; but the question is, why should we? We’re not their — mothers.
Speaking of realities, couldn’t our version of reality – our alternative, poetic version – be the real reality? I ask her. “For me, it is. I always operate from the alternate stance. Poetry helps me tap into that magical time when you are just yourself. When your alternate reality is THE reality.”
Even thinking of our version of events as an ‘alternative version’, though, is a symptom of having been marginalized. Who’s to say the poets are wrong, and the boring people are right?
The next day, Fatima comes over. Somehow, “A sky full of stars” by Coldplay is playing in the background. It prompts us into a discussion about love.
“YOU CAN FEEL AN ALMOST GRAVITATIONAL, ENERGETIC PULL FROM THE PERSON TOWARDS YOU,” SHE SAYS. WE LISTEN TO THE SONG AGAIN, AND SHE SAYS IT REMINDS HER OF “AN EXPLOSION, A BIG BANG BURSTING FORTH, THE FEELING OF A BEGINNING.”
The song reminds me, suddenly, of a random incident from my past. Maybe it’s the lyrics. In London, it’s around 10 at night, must have been November or December. I’m walking to the tube station with some people. We’re going to get on different lines and head to different parts of the city when I stop one of them and demand that he come up with a spoken word poem on the spot. Earlier at the pub, some of us were playing a game in which we come up with random words and someone else turns them into a poem. Still, demanding THIS guy to come up with a poem – this specific, extremely stoic, stubbornly rational kind of guy – is downright cruel. It’s my last laugh before I go home. I throw maybe five words at him: ranting, stars, I, night. I am not expecting him to suddenly stop, turn to me and say, “Ranting am I, under the stars, tonight…”
It gave me pause. Like seeing a gazelle attack a lion, or watching a tiger eat broccoli or something like that. Downright spooky. And that’s the power of poetry.
I ask if she has any writing rituals. She replies as if she hasn’t heard the question, making it clear that the question, to her, is the height of insanity. “When the rush of a poem comes,” Fatima says, “time stops… It’s a meditative state, like listening to a strange song alone in the fields, for the first time…”
It’s a Tori Amos approach as opposed to say, Calvin Harris.
We listen to another Coldplay song, and Fatima tells me how she grew up reading “so many romances.” Victoria Holts were some of her favorites. “Reading romances, coming across so many interesting men,” she laughs, “true love had to be something different from the books to capture my heart.” This is a reference to her husband.
Before she leaves, we discuss how our conversations have been interludes between life. We’ve known each other a long time, and these conversations are what we come back to after every discovery, each adventure. We’ve seen things, Fatima and I, but it is as if the seeing happens purely for the pleasure of discussing them later. Sometimes we meet after years, other times, months.
Can you see us right now? Sitting together, sharing another cup of tea, and viewing life through the ‘poetic’ lens. That is what we live for. To me, Fatima is the quintessential poet, a mystic. I’m going to leave you with her poem ‘Qandeel’s revenge’. I picked this poem because many people have written about Qandeel Baloch, but this one touched me :
Not too long ago, I the hated demon
The averse punchline in the grim
used to walk the streets of urban cities
and wash away the sins of men and women.
Since then, it has been a sudden demise
And I have fallen from my pedestal –
No longer alive.
So, “How am looking?” is what I ask you
Is it fair to ask you this now –
Now that it’s all over?
‘Love me or hate me’ you know you can’t
Escape me. I reach your roots like spider-veins
And I beguile your senses…
An after-death exquisite adventure.
But wasn’t it always like that with me?
An adventure with a ‘one women army’
My amazonian warriors, following me
The way Indian dancers follow their lead dancer
in Bollywood movies.
I search for an answer now, please do answer
“How am looking?” So from the vintage view of the
Outsider, please do tell,
And ignite the bell
Of Your Lord’s strange and strong mercy
“How am Looking” beyond all veils
of life and death?
Literary works that left a mark on Fatima :
The Avignon Quintet by Lawrence Durrell — “I spent several months reading this volume and nothing has ever been the same since. Durrell’s language casts a spell on you. I visited Avignon to relive the spell of this white city… it was like being inside the book. The charming lanes, where one could feel Sylvia roaming. I fell in love with Bruce… only to find out that he was a flawed, dark character. In essence, it was a world to roam in—5 separate novels that stand alone and together in a masterpiece.”
Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami — “I recently read Kafka on the Shore. The surreal connection with persistent desire struck me.”
Dracula by Bram Stoker — “An old favorite. ‘It is dangerous to get a cut in this city’ he says of both Transylvania and love.”