Meena Kumari's flirtations with the pen are as seductive as her on-screen persona and now fans have an opportunity to know about the poet in her with a book containing a compelling selection of her poems in Urdu translated into English.
"Meera Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema", translated by academician-writer Noorul Hasan and published by Roli Books, has poems in which the late actress talked about love, loneliness, wishes, illusion, a window of dreams, silence and innocence. According to legendary composer Naushad Ali, Kumari's poetry clearly reflected her angst. "All her life she was exploited by people for their own ends, and was so frustrated that she took to drinking and writing poetry to fight her feeling of betrayal," he once said.
Haunting, crystalline and precisely observed, Kumari's poetry reveals a side of her personality that was rarely on display in her films. It proves beyond any doubt that she was a much more sensitive and self-aware woman than her fans tend to realise.
Hasan says not many know that Kumari had a way of her own with the pen as well. "Soon after her death in 1972, Gulzar sahib arranged for Hind Pocket Books to publish a collection of her poems. I chanced upon this slim paperback volume at the Howrah Railway station the same year and have had the pleasure of dipping into that now more than moth-eaten prize paperback for over three decades," he says.
"What struck me most about the poems was their amazing immediacy, their power to take you in without any fuss and bother. Plain as conversation, Meena Kumari's poems strike an uncanny intimacy or rapport with the reader," he says.
Her imagination hovers over a wide range of subjects from the very personal and idiosyncratic to the more objective though equally heartrending, as expressed in poems like 'The Dumb Child' or 'Empty Shop'. The sheer audacity of her statements is the raison d'etre of her poetry.
In her poem, "Aakhri Khwahish", translated as "Last Wish", Kumari wrote, "This night, this loneliness/ This sound of heartbeats this eerie silence/ This silent rendering of ghazals/ By sinking stars./ This solitude sleeping/ On the eyelashes of Time/ This last tremor/ Of the feeling of love/ This pervasive symphony of death -/ These are inviting you!/ Come for a moment/ Decorate the dream of love/ In my closing eyes."
In the introduction, historian-critic Philip Bounds and researcher Daisy Hasan writes, "Poetry was the medium through which Kumari distanced herself from her public image and criticised the industry that had brought her to public attention in the first place.
In that sense her poems tell us as much about Bollywood as they do about herself." "If the main goal of her writings was to register the ebbs and flows of her own inner life, many of her poems also focused on those aspects of commercial entertainment which corrupt our understanding of human personality.
"Irritated by the sense that the Indian public saw her simply as a tragedy queen, Kumari began to write poetry in Urdu in an effort to evoke the subtler elements of her sensitive and questing sensibility. Indeed, she was the only prominent actress of her time whose gifts extended to literature as well as film," they say. According to Hasan, Kumari's unadorned, screaming verse reminded him of snatches of Donne, Firaq, Wordsworth and Ghalib.
"This is not to say that she is anywhere near the dizzying heights scaled by that august fraternity. Her poetry is slight, casual, a kind of intermittent adventure or a holiday she allowed herself from her self-consuming stardom. "As a poet, she resembles her screen persona, coming across as a wayward, sensuous, sacrificial lamb kind of woman. Her imagery is soaked in the immemorial customs and traditions of an ageless India.
Her voice is very often the tremulous, quavering voice of an invincible Indian woman in the direst of straits," he says. In trying to put these translated poems together in a volume, Hasan hopes to contribute to conveying another image of Kumari which deserves as universal an acknowledgement as her immortal image as the queen of the Bollywood firmament of yesteryears.