Still writing and drawing on walls
by Imtiaz Dharker
When I was about three years old I took a crayon and drew a giant S pattern on the wall all the way down the hallway of my house.
I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. The script was taller than I was, as high as my hand could reach, and I needed a chair to stand on so that I could continue it upward over the whole height of the wall. As I was dragging the chair over my mother appeared and screamed. She began to scrub at the crayon marks. When this didn’t work she took my hand and shook my crayon out of it. Then she went back to scrubbing the wall, making small distressed noises all the while.
I was puzzled at her reaction. I had taken an empty white space and made it into something else. To me the scribbles on the wall were full of meaning, as much meaning as the lists that I saw people write on paper and pass to each other and nod over seriously, as mysterious as the note the doctor wrote, as promising as the letters that arrived in flimsy blue airmail covers. My mother would read those again and again and keep them as if they were precious, sometimes even in her bra. So why did she want to rub out my beautiful handiwork?
I don’t know whether I would call them writing or drawing, but I knew they were the magic symbols that would give me a way in to another world. I think all I have done since is a continuation of that unconscious act of vandalism.
There is nothing as exciting (and frightening) as the empty page lying in wait for the first word of a poem or the first line of a drawing. A page (or a wall) can contain whole worlds, other writers’ as well as your own.
It was when I first heard a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’, read by a teacher at school, that I realised what words could really do. He made them jump and do somersaults and gave them a life of their own. I began to look for other writers who could do the same. And of course there was no end to what I found, a whole family of poets, all the way from Hopkins to Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy.
I listen to other poets, trying to understand how they have constructed something beautiful. I write, looking for ‘the right words in the right order’.
And I am still writing and drawing on walls.
I left Pakistan when I was a year old, grew up in Scotland, came to India straight out of university and now live in several places, London, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Wales. Many writers have spoken about being rootless in that situation, but to me it feels like a good thing to be between cultures. The most interesting connections happen when bits and pieces from one life collide with another. More and more of us are in this situation now.
So I am quite happy to live in the cracks between borders.
Perhaps writers should never be too comfortable. Being slightly off balance makes you see things from a different angle, and this can be useful especially when you write poems.
My poems deal with things in my everyday life. They may be about the smallest, seemingly insignificant things. For example, when I was a little girl on holiday in Lahore, my mother would leave flowers on my pillow and I would wake up to the scent of jasmine. In Glasgow however grey the city was, my father would by some miracle find exotic fruits like tangerines and pomegranates and those still have a special place in my poems.
In India, the image I see every day of the girl on her way to school with beautifully combed hair and red ribbons may become a poem. The poems in my first book, 'Purdah' started with almost seductive image of the veil and then began to suggest the complex ideas associated with it.
'Postcards from god' was written after the Bombay riots of 1993, using images of a fragile city, which is very much the city I live in.