Parveen Shakir: The Bold, Brilliant and the Beautiful

Originally wrote this article for Youlin Magazine published here:


Yeh kaun loge andhairon ki baat kartay hain?

Abhi tou chaand teri yaad kay dhallay bhi nahi

(Who are these people speaking of the dark?

When the moons of your memory have not waned still)

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost, upon the sweetest flower of all the field.” – Shakespeare.

In a society tainted by stale traditions and muffled voices, Parveen Shakir’s advent was like a breath of fresh air. Where a large part of the society deems an expressive woman to be ‘immodest’, it is not hard to imagine the challenge women must face in voicing their feelings and satisfying their creative impulses. Making her mark as a romantic poet here required an act of courage.

After Parveen’s untimely death, Parveen Qadir Agha established the Parveen Shakir Trust to pay homage to her dear late friend. This trust continues to organize yearly events to promote Urdu literature, the most recent of which was the Urdu Literature Festival held in Islamabad on May 30, where contemporary poet Amjad Islam Amjad commemorated Parveen Shakir and described her as a “beautiful blend of tradition and modernity” and the quintessence of “a new thinking woman”.

Parveen was a multi-faceted lady: a celebrated poetess, a professor and a civil servant. She held a Masters degree in English literature from Karachi University and one in Public Administration from Harvard.  Interestingly, when she appeared for her Civil Services Examination, she found a question about her own poetry in the Urdu literature section.

Parveen’s soul-stirring poetry has been compiled in multiple collections: Khushbu (Fragrance), Sad-barg (Marsh Marigold), Khud Kalami (Soliloquy), Inkar (Denial), and Kaf e Aina (The Mirror’s Edge). All of these were well-received and earned her various accolades for outstanding contribution to Urdu literature.

Parveen introduced feminine syntax – the use of first person feminine pronoun – in Urdu poetry which was not a norm before.

Javaaz dhoond rahaa tha nayi mohabbat ka

Woh keh rahaa tha kay main uss ko bhool jaaun gi

Sama’aton mein ghannay jungalon ki saansein hain

Main ab kabhi teri awaaz sunn na paaun gi

(To make grounds for seeking love once again

He said that I was going to banish him from my thoughts.

Amid the tangle of these dense forests

I will never be able to listen to your voice again)

In Parveen Shakir’s poetry, an oft-expressed theme remains the feminine perspective on love and what love entails: beauty, sacrifice, romance, intimacy, separation. With unmatched elegance, she writes about pining with unrequited love, committing one’s heart to a reciprocated one, and discovering the depths of love after the hour of separation. The last being expressed aptly by this couplet:

Hum tou samjhay thay kay ik zakhm hai bhar jayega

Kya khabar thi kay ragg-e-jaa’n mein utar jayega

(I thought it’s just a wound that would heal at last,

Little did I know it would spread out to every part of my existence)

On one hand, Parveen’s poetry is imbued with shades of loyalty, a fulfillment found in love and reciprocity, the desire for a love that lasts:

Dil ko uss raah pe chalna hee nahin

Jo mujhay tujh se judaa karti hai

(My heart refuses to go down the path

That tries to separate you from me)


Kaanptay honton pe thi Allah se siraf aik dua

Kaash yeh lamhay thahar jayein thahar jayein zarra

(My quivering lips continue to utter just this prayer

That the time stops, that these moments freeze forever)

On the other hand, there is palpable disillusionment with the idea of love that can last a lifetime. Her poems make repeated allusions to skepticism of men’s steadfastness in love, touching upon themes of pain, betrayal and separation.

Tum ne tou thakk kay dasht mein khaimay lagaa liye

Tanhaa kattay kisi ka safar tum ko iss se kya?

(Fatigued by travel, you have halted to respite in the desert

What do you care if someone is left all alone to continue this journey?)


Tu badaltaa hai toh be-saakhta meri ankhain

Apnay haathon ki lakeeron se ulajh jaati hain

(Whenever you change, my eyes unwittingly

Wander over my fate in the pattern of my palms)

This contrast is not a contradiction but a reflection of different shades of human emotion. Parveen paints a painfully realistic story of realization, growth and evolution which anyone with an ability to feel can find relatable.

Her words reflect the undying love of a woman who, when she loves, does so with unparalleled passion. She ends up hurt but she is not scared of loving, selflessly. What is impressive about her approach is that, despite the hurt of betrayal and parting, she leaves no trails of bitterness, vengeance or self-pity in her poetry.

She has no hatred to spew:

Tera pehloo teray dil ki taraah abaad rahay

Tujh pay guzray na qayamat shab-e-tanhayi ki

(I wish for you a well-pleased life, a contented heart,

And a hope that you never have to suffer the agony of loneliness)

She is unapologetically sure of herself:

Kon chahay ga tumhe meri tarah,

 Ab kisi se na mohabbat karna

(No one will love you the way I did,

 So do not fall in love again ever!)

Her thinly-veiled confidence in herself gives her grounds for a lucid optimism even amid darkness:

Tujh ko kho kar bhi rahuun khilwat-e-jaa’n mein teri

Jeet paayi hai mohabbat ne ajab maat kay saath

(I lost you but in your hours of solitude, you always feel me by your side

My love suffered a defeat, yet strangely it emerged victorious)

Apart from ghazals that mainly revolve around the themes of romance, Parveen also broached bolder societal taboos in her free verse. Additionally, she wrote about other social issues and expressed concerns for the poor in her writing.

Charagh bujhtay rahay aur khwaab jaltay rahay

Ajeeb tarz ka mausam meray watan mein rahaa

(The lamps continued to smother; the dreams continued to burn

A strange season of gloom had descended upon my country)

Characterized by a rhythmic flow and soulful lyricism, her expression was a balanced blend of ornate and simple language. She also occasionally juxtaposed English phrases in her Urdu free verse, introducing a degree of creativity and originality in her style. At places, there are also mild shades of sensuality set forth with a natural grace. She also used metaphors and personifications making her poetry more profound and vibrant, as illustrated here:

Abr barsay to inayat uss ki

Shaakh to sirf dua kerti hai

Masla jab bhi utha chiraghon ka

Faisla sirf hawa kerti hai

(The cloud pours at its own will,

The branch can only pray for it to rain.

It is only the wind

That gets to decide the fate of the lamps’ flame)

Parveen Shakir parted from us young and at the peak of her brilliance, but she left indelible words for us to remember her by. We keep her memories alive; we utter her verses in our regular conversations without our realizing (baat tou sach hai magar baat hai ruswayi ki, for instance), ensuring she continues to live amongst us.


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