Mother I’ve Been Saved


The translation group all found this scalding poem by Zehra Nigah, who was born in 1937 in Pakistan, extremely powerful. In it an aborted female foetus appears to reassure her mother that it is better not to be born female anyway. But is the voice actually bitter with irony? As we workshopped the poem our interpretation wavered – is the child comforting the mother who suffers the agonies of being female? Is the bloodstained procedure truly a cause for celebration, like that evoked by henna decorations? Or is the mother guilty; haunted by her act?

Marion Molteno talked us through many of the subtleties of Urdu poetry, and there were also many Urdu speakers in the group, so I learnt a lot. How kohl is used as a kind of medicine, to protect the eyes from the sun. How the practise of satte-vatte (usually referred to in England as watta-satta) - means give-and-take, and refers to the practice of exchanging women as brides when a brother-sister pair marry a sister-brother pair. How a turban is a sign of honour, and the ultimate humiliation is to have to lay down your turban in front of someone in shame.

We debated many of these lines in intricate detail, but a notable argument was over whether to use Mother, Mum, Ma or Mummy. The literal translator, Rakhshanda Jalil, had translated it as ‘Mother’. The Urdu uses maa, so it was tempting to reach for the homophone in English, but we felt Ma would sound too much like dialect. The closest equivalent was perhaps Mum, but did that sound too cosy? What were the class connotations? Mummy was considered as the speaker is a baby, but then that was finally dismissed as too posh or sentimental and we ended up back at the original Mother! Although it sounds formal, this is perhaps appropriate as the daughter has never known her mother, and the cool quality could suggest anger. 

Clare Pollard


Notes on Zehra Nigah’s I was saved, mother

Meanings of words/phrases

common structural words:

main            I     (’n’ not pronounced - it just shows that the vowel is nasal)
maa            mother
mera / meri / mere    my
apni            my own
teri / tere        your
woh            they
ki / ka            of, belonging to
men            in (’n’ not pronounced) 
se            with, from
se pehle        before
ya            or
jo            [here it means] if    

1st stanza

bach gayi - was saved
lahu - blood (khun is the more common word - and in the video in 2013 she used it)
kachhe  - imperfect, (the opposite of pakka which has a broad range of meanings - well made, ready, good, etc. A pakka road is tarred, a kachha road is untarred and full of potholes. kachha lahu is very striking, as you would not normally talk of blood not being ‘ready’ for its purpose.
mahndi  - henna, used to decorate a woman’s hands and feet for marriage or other special occasions. It’s reddish brown, so the comparison with dried blood is apt, but also striking as henna represents happy occasions
por - pore 
por por      - every pore. The repetition is a common way of saying, This applies to  every item in that group. So here it means, ‘throughout the whole body’.
rach gayi –dyed, drenched; the colour has ‘taken’.
[So por por men rach gayi creates an image which (like henna) is normally associated with creativity, yet is used here in a powerfully negative way.]

2nd stanza

gar - ‘if’ (it’s short for ‘agar’ and is mainly used in poetry if needed to fit the metre). Followed by:
phir bhi - even then; and in the next line by:
to - then, still 
[So the sense of these lines is ‘Even if I had been born, still these negative things would have been my fate. The ‘If’ is understood through the following 2 stanzas as well, and the subjunctive is used in them all to show it’s hypothetical.]

naqsh - appearance, features; painting, picture, map, imprint;  often used in poetry
ubhar aate - [if it] would have welled up [become visible out of nothing] 
lahu se bhar jaate - would have filled with blood - [which switches the poetically beautiful image of ‘naqsh’ to a tragic one]
aankhen - eyes
raushen - light, bright, responding to light
aankhen raushen ho jaatin - [if they] had become able to see
surma - (also called kohl)- dark eye-liner, used as cosmetic for centuries to ornament the eyes, make them sparkle and look larger. Mothers applied it to their infants' eyes soon after birth, believing it could prevent the child from being cursed by the evil eye. In Urdu poetry it is also used as a symbol for something that gives clear sight. (Translated as ‘antimony’, or ‘collyrium’, neither in common use in English.)
tezaab - acid: men sometimes throw acid in the face of girls who reject them (aiming at the eyes or face.)
lag jaata - would have been applied to (as in, apply make up). 
[So It’s a bitter paradox - she refers to a custom which is meant to beautify the eyes, and turns it into one that cruelly disfigures.]

satte-vatte - the literal meaning is give-and-take, but it refers specifically to the practice of exchanging women as brides when a brother-sister pair marry a sister-brother pair. Common among poor and ill-educated communities. Theoretically it is supposed to discourage the boy’s family from ill-treating his wife, as their daughter would be vulnerable. In practice it seems to have the opposite effect, causing revenge violence against women.
bat jaati - literally, would have been divided. In context it means - as RJ translates it - bartered.
[Phrases with a repeated rhyming word are common in daily speech - eg ‘shaping-vaping’ (from English: ‘shopping’). The 2nd word usually can’t stand on its own, it’s just there to rhyme, and to say, ‘and so on.’ (Hence sometimes in Indian English, ‘He went shopping and all’.) Using it here emphasises that it’s an everyday occurrence to regard girls as something you can just get rid of in this way.] 
kaari - ‘honour’ killing - a horrific practice whereby women are murdered by the men in their own family supposedly to protect the honour of the family. 
kaam aa jaati - would have been done to, dealt with (in this way) would have been useful; but also has a more sinister meaning – it’s said of those who die in war; so ‘would have been martyred’.
khwaab - dream, hopes (for a good life)
adhoora – unfulfilled, incomplete
reh jaata - would have remained

3rd stanza

jo - literally ‘which’, but in these lines it has the effect [here] of ‘if’
qad - height, but also metaphoric, stature
barhta - [if it] had increased
thora sa- ‘thora’ is little, adding ‘sa’ emphasises that it might be very little.
baap - father
chhota - small
chhota parta - would have become small
chunni - scarf (worn around shoulders and over head, symbol of modesty)
sar - head; sar se - from my head
dhalak jaati - [if it ] had slipped
bhaai - brother
pagri - turban, also seen as sign of honour
gir jaati - would have fallen
In both lines, her fate as a girl is shown up - that everything she does is potentially seen as reflecting on the honour of the males in the family; she can’t grow or behave naturally without them seeing this as a threat.

4th stanza

lori - lullaby
sunna - to hear
sunne se pehle - before hearing
neend – sleep  
apni - my own [ie, by emphasising this she suggests that the unborn child’s own kind of sleep is quite different from the kind her mother would have evoked by singing a lullaby - it’s the ‘sleep’ of non-existence; or death]
so gayi - went to sleep
anjaan – strange, lit. unknown
nagar - place [often used for a part of a town - eg Jamianagar]
aai thi – had come
kho gayi - got lost in, disappeared into

Grammatical forms that she uses powerfully:

The verb jaana comes in many forms in this poem.
jaata, jaati, jaate - present tense, masc, fem, pl
gayi - past tense
It’s root meaning is ‘to go’ but it is used grammatical to form the passive [which emphasises that everything is done to her, not by her; perhaps also an element of destiny.] 
bach gayi - [my life] was saved
rach gayi - [colour] was spread, absorbed
The repeated bach gayi is particularly powerful. You expect it to mean ‘saved from being killed’ - but actually the foetus was killed - so in this context it means ‘saved from being born a girl into a world where terrible things happen to girls.’

jaana is also used in a compound verb form. The 1st verb carries the substantive meaning, but doesn’t show gender or tense; jaana as the 2nd verb shows the grammatical markers, and its effect is to intensify the meaning of the 1st verb, make it more conclusive, more definite.  She uses this in almost every line. It is totally idiomatic but she uses it here particularly effectively to intensify the meanings - these things that happened to her were intentional, final, total. 

It also brings sound repetition, driving the point home:
lahu se bhar jaate                     would have been filled with blood
ankhen raushan ho jaatin    if my eyes had acquired sight
tezaab ka surma lag jaata     acid eyeliner would have been applied
satte-vatte me bat  jaati     would have been bartered
kaari me kaam aa jaati         honour killing would have been done to her 
khwaab adhoora reh jaata    dreams would have remained unfulfilled
sar se dhalak jaati        (if it had) slipped off my head
pagri gir jaati            his turban would have fallen
apni neend me so gayi    I slept in my own sleep 
kho gayi            became lost

Marion Molteno

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