The Ghazal in Contemporary English Poetry

An 1870 panorama of Marine Drive/ Unknown

The ghazal is ubiquitous in Indian poetic and musical thought. From Rumi, the Sufi mystic, to Mirza Ghalib and Muhammed Iqbal, the Ghazal has been a constant mode of expression, and it is this form that poet Harnidh Kaur uses to write her poem.

Sometimes I breathe more water than air in Bombay.
I found broken bits of home in Bombay
The blood of this city runs dark with iron.
It’s all sucked away by the railroads of Bombay
The streets here flood with water every year.
We all have just learned how to swim in Bombay.
We don’t know how skin feels without the sweat of another.
I have learned how to push and pull from Bombay.
Crawford Market sells do-it-yourself dreams, now-
We’ve learned how to put them together in Bombay.
The slums stud the edges of this city, dripping in.
We have decided to call them the real Bombay.
Sometimes I’m asked why I love Bombay.
I learned how to build myself a home in Bombay.

Harnidh uses commonly exploited motifs for the city- the trains, the monsoons, the sweltering heat, the poverty, and turns them on themselves, forcing readers to question what Bombay really means. Most of the audience for this poem knew when Mumbai used to be called Bombay, or have transgenerational memories of the nomenclature. Bombay, however, stands for more than just a name. It was a spirit, a way of life, and that is what Harnidh aims to encapsulate within this ghazal. There is an affective quality to this poem that can make a reader ten thousand miles away remember the city. Harnidh reaches into the hearts and mind of the reader, and urges the reader to think about Bombay, and what Bombay means.

Harnidh says, “I’ve grown up listening to ghazals because my father loves them. It just fit, especially when I think of how a ghazal’s couplets flow and how they match the rhythm of the city. Bombay is the love of my life. This city fascinates me, and I searched long and hard for a ghazal that would encompass all that it means. I didn’t find a single on, so I decided to write one myself.” The ghazal, too, expresses a sense of admiration for the city, without glossing over the struggles its residents face. She chooses to begin the ghazal with an invocation of the monsoons, suggesting that it is so fundamentally interwoven into the fabric of the city. The expression of nostalgia sets the stage for the rest of the ghazal.

In a way, the poem is the manifestation of childhood memories of the city. Harnidh adds, “I used to live very close to Crawford Market in 2004, or so, and I was in 4th grade. My mother used to take me to the Market with her whenever she went, and I was allowed to buy some candy for myself (despite the diets I was on). It’s always felt like a special place since.” The form of the ghazal, too, is inspired by her father, and she tells TMAC that “I’ve grown up listening to ghazals because my father loves them. It just fit, especially when I think of how a ghazal’s couplets flow and how they match the rhythm of the city.”

The poem reflects a depth of research into the intricacies of the ghazal. While the Ghazal has been a staple of Hindustani music and poem, Indian poets writing in English seem afraid to coopt a style that is recognizably Indian. Harnidh does take the plunge, but she maintains that she adopted this form after considerable research into Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals in English, and Michael Creighton’s ode to Delhi in a ghazal. The urge to structure her writing instead of leaving words to their own devices comes from the removal of the need to break rules, and Harnidh says that “There’s a sense of urgency when you start [writing], an urge to run amok with words without reigning them into structures.”

Griselda Pollock’s avant-garde gambit of reference, deference, difference is clearly at play here- Harnidh refers to the classical canon of ghazals by adopting its form immaculately, defers to works by of Agha Shahid Ali & Michael Creighton, and differs from them by writing a ghazal about Bombay, one that is unique and different. This marks Harnidh’s coming of age, one where her experimentation is bound by years of experience and by research, rather than an impulsive urge to break rules for the sake of breaking them. Unlike the universe, art and literature tend to move towards a particular and peculiar order, not disorder.