Knotted Tongue

Aamer Hussein

Artwork by June Glasson


One day in the first months of the 21st century I received a letter. It read: I'm a poet. I'd like you to participate in my book launch and also say something about my poetry. The writer enclosed some poems whose words were like drops of rain and arrowheads of fire. The letter came from my old country.


I met her: she was 24 and her name was Zohra. Small, with long curly brown ringlets, and very bright. During the four or five hours we sat talking it seemed as if we'd known each other before. It seemed as if there had been many such meetings.


I lived in the city and she by the sea some distance away. We'd meet sometimes but often only speak on the phone.


A year went by. Then the war came and engulfed us in its tribulations. Zohra said: I'm going home. I want to go home to do something. Here one's tongue is useless. The bastards seal our lips and leave our arms paralysed. I can't speak any more, neither verse nor protest. Here I'm a vagabond, I carry my home on my back. Once home my deprivation will become my language of freedom. I want to write poems in my mother tongue.


Zohra went back. Poems would arrive from our country, and letters too.


Another year went by and Zohra came back to this city. She said: There each sound gets stuck in my throat. One can't even sing, let alone shout. Better for me to stay away for a while from our homeland. If I could just find a job...


She brought gifts, among which were recordings of ragas played on the sarod and the veena. After she left me, I listened to them all night long.


Once we set off together on a bus journey. In a distant town, following the literary event, someone spoke in favour of the war and her temper flared. On the bus journey back she slept with her head on my shoulder. When she woke it was dark outside, no moon, no stars. She said: It's happening again here. Knots in my tongue. But at home each sound gets stuck in my throat. I can no longer speak, let alone write poetry. If I could just find a job... I'll be 28 soon. I'm losing my mother tongue. I'm a vagabond, I carry my home on my back. Now I shall turn this foreign tongue into a whip and lash them with their words.


In a glass hall on the banks of the river, one afternoon. White swans skimmed the surface of the water. She'd gathered her thoughts into poems and read aloud two. Then said to me, You read the rest. People heard her poems and were moved. That afternoon I told her about a job. I said: I'll take you. Let's travel together.


The day before our trip her cousin called. Zohra had been injured in a traffic accident. A car had collided with a motorcycle. The driver left her unconscious on the road and ran away. Her uncle said: She's in hospital. She's just come to. She's thinking of you. She says you must come to see her when she's a little better...


Two days later he called again. Zohra had left us. They were sending her body home.


A friend of hers came to see me some days later. She said: When it was your birthday a few months ago I went with Zohra to look for a gift. We tramped around many shops. Zohra said, What can I buy him? He has everything. Books. Paintings. Then she heard the sound of the sarod in the market. Did you hear that? Yes, he'll like that! Off she went in search of those notes.

translated from the Urdu by Aamer Hussein and Carole Smith