Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The Marketplace of Voices by Waqas Khwaja


Several years ago, on a cold winter morning in Lahore, I arrived at the office building where I worked an hour or so early, only to find that the janitor was just opening its doors to let in the cleaning crew. Here was a small bustling group of cleaners with brooms and rags and pails of water, one of the sweepers already commencing his vigorous application of the broom and raising cloudlets of dust in the corridor. I thought it best to step out into the street on the side of the building and take a walk while I waited for things to settle down. Very little traffic was about in the street at the time, and all the stores that lined the street opposite still had their shutters down, some secured with heavy padlocks, others fortified with wooden slats or planks bolted at either end. Each store had a narrow ledge extending in front, and there, on one of these, I saw a figure of an elderly man wrapped in a brown chador, a shabby brown cap on his head, sitting with his knees drawn up, bent over an open notebook and scribbling away with no apparent consciousness of his surroundings. I walked up and down the sidewalk on my side of the street and looked at him curiously from a distance as I passed and re-passed him several times. Then I crossed over to the other side and started walking casually toward him from behind. Perhaps, if I was lucky and he remained unmindful of my presence, I could peer over his shoulder and get a glimpse of what he was so absorbed in writing. Perhaps, I could greet him and engage him in a conversation. But as I approached him, he seemed instinctively to become aware of my presence and shifted his position so as to hide what he was writing, and all this without lifting his head or looking at all in my direction. In that brief moment, though, I got a glimpse of the page in front of him. With a barely suppressed gasp of surprise I saw that the whole page was filled up with coiling circles in neat row after row from top to bottom.

Who was this person? Why was he sitting there all wrapped up on this cold grey morning scribbling away? Had he suffered some grievous tragedy? Did he carry in his heart some deep unmitigated pain or sorrow? What had he experienced that he was trying impossibly to put down on paper? He had become aware of my presence, and, realizing that he was uncomfortable, I walked away and returned to my office. But the man and the image of him deeply absorbed in making coiling circles on the page—I gathered from the notebook that he may have pages and pages of them— stayed with me for a long, long while. It was out of this strange encounter that the idea of a collection of poems on the experience of being uprooted, displaced, and left alone, homeless, and friendless, that such a person might have written was born. It struck me vaguely that such a state may indeed be seen as the human condition. However, once the idea took shape, the mind automatically attached it to the break-up of the subcontinent, the populations dislocated as a result, and the carnage and slaughter that followed. This, then, the silence and the meaningless scribbling, is the origin of my collection of poems, No One Waits for the Train. But that is not all. In that old man wrapped in a brown chador, I saw something of myself, which is why, I think, I was so drawn to him in the first place, though I did not realize all this at the time. Now, I think sometimes, I am that old man, and that old man, physical and real though he was, was also in some unexplainable way a manifestation of my inner self. As Ghalib (1928) says:

Nash wo numa hae asl sey Ghalib firou ko

Khamoshi he sey niklay hae jo baat chahiye (Ghalib and Chugtai, 1928)

From the root, Ghalib, the young branch breaks forth and spreads

Only from silence emerges that which needs to be said (Translation mine)


In No One Waits for the Train I assume the voice of a Kashmiri refugee who had been forced to flee to the newly created state of Pakistan because of the violence incident upon the division of India. I have no personal experience of Partition and the riots, killings, and upheavals that followed it. But I have heard stories from scores of people in Pakistan and India who were directly affected by it, and I have read accounts of the times by people who had experienced the dislocation first hand. The event looms large in the consciousness of a great number of Indians and Pakistanis (it certainly does in mine) and has afflicted the political engagements of the two countries since that time and also the way populations either side of this artificial border view each other. In my own family history of infectiously nostalgic Kashmiris, one male ancestor migrated to Lahore, in present-day Pakistan, from Pampore, a small town near Srinagar in Kashmir in the 1870s, when excessive rains caused widespread famine in the area and the extortionist policies of the Dogra raja made it impossible to recover from that catastrophe. The personal bit of history played a considerable role in my desire to understand the displacements, divisions, and derangements of the past that continue to be so intertwined with our perceptions of the present. In No One Waits for the Train, I reimagine the migration of that ancestor to have occurred nearer the time of Partition itself to Amritsar, first, and, only after the disturbances caused by the division, to Lahore across the newly demarcated border—thus eliminating the intervening generations that gradually assimilated to the adopted culture and environment. This reassembling allows me to explore the emotions of confusion and alienation that may have been shared by a large proportion of the population in the northern part of the Indian sub-continent. This character, whose voice I assume for the frame narrative, himself recovers and transmits other lost voices of the past, that of a strange prognosticating old woman he and the young girl he is in love with encountered in the mountains of Pampore in his youth, that of his grandmother’s, that of his mother’s, fragmentary voices of the poets and Sufis of Kashmir, Punjab, and the bhakti tradition, and his own, initially subdued into silence by the brutalities witnessed on both sides of the border, and, ultimately, caught tentatively in the process of shaping for itself an identity, liminal indeed, but an identity nevertheless, that would help him to cope with the madness of the past. It is as if the events of the Partition have transformed his “manhood” to an indeterminate middle ground, as if they have robbed him of his capacity to act or react in socially determined ways, or in terms of gender roles and expectations, but the liminal space he has come to inhabit allows him to see the events and the characters that are engaged in it in ways that may not have been possible had this sluicing into the middle ground between genders not occurred. Whether this is a conscious choice or a sudden flash of recognition, it is a transformational moment in the text in that it rejects the categories of worth and worthlessness in a world constructed on patriarchal values and assumptions and propelled by imperial designs:

I remember all this as I sit here

My spirit clothed in a drab long robe

The pharon that once an invading emperor

Decreed for all the men of the valley

To extinguish

All sense of manhood in them

To make them think and act like women


This would be my dress of choice today (Khwaja, 2007, 21)


All the voices that this persona is able to inhabit and/or ventriloquize are indebted to this moment of cognition. The poems of No One Waits would not be possible without this slippage, and its embrace, by the poetic persona.




Part of the difficulty for the postcolonial writer is to bring to the reader or audience the consciousness of its entire milieu. The allusive field for such a writer exists not only in the area of overlap between the colonizing and colonized cultures, but also on either side of this interfused space. And when the language of the former imperial masters is used to compose a work of literature, it is accessible fully neither to one side nor the other. For the reader immersed largely or wholly in indigenous culture and language, it is either opaque in parts or a subversive appropriation of what to itself is a rich and vital way of constructing the world with its sustaining mores and manners, its normalcies, contingencies, latitudes, and compulsions. For the reader from the imperial center, or one trained and grounded in its traditions and perspectives, the text with its “local” or “native” interpellations may appear queer and strange, an oddity of sorts, hybrid and exotic, yet, paradoxically, a distorted, and distorting, reflection at the same time, quaint mimicry, if you will, of metropolitan conventions and paradigms from the empire’s own original and originary models, imaginative strategies, and narratives. The postcolonial struggles to overcome both kinds of biases in his/her work. In this sense, the postcolonial move or project is like gender studies and feminism, or like critiques of racial prejudice and classism, all theoretical constructs that seek to deconstruct and diagnose injury and damage caused by various hierarchies of differentiation and division that determine the power dynamics in society.

Consider these observations from Langston Hughes’ (1926) celebrated essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain:


’…this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in

America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour

racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as

little Negro and as much American as possible…

But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element,

and they are the majority . . . and they do not particularly care whether they

are like white folks or anyone else . . . They furnish a wealth of colorful,

distinctive material for any artist because they will hold their own

individuality in the face of American standardizations…

The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and

misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the

whites. ‘Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we

are,’ say the Negroes. ‘Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our

illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,’ say

the whites.


(Hughes [1926], Gioia et al., 2004, 148-150)


With just a minimal switch of pronouns, “Negro artist” to “postcolonial artist,” “whites” to “former colonial masters,” and “American standardizations” to “Western, or British, models,” this could very well describe the predicament of the South Asian populations, complicated, though, crucially by another little detail: South Asians have their own native languages, their own vernaculars, hundreds of them, which are the most widely-used mediums of communication between them, and in which at least the “low-down” folks, something like 80-90% of the population, feel most comfortable expressing themselves. But these languages were mostly rendered irrelevant under the colonial regime, and the native élite that has replaced the British imperial administration after nominal independence from imperial rule continues to ignore and marginalize them, most certainly in Pakistan, as regional or tribal in retaining the old order with only cosmetic changes in language policy.

In Pakistan, English remains the language of official business, of statutes and legal codes, of law courts, and premier institutions of learning, in short, the language of power, while Urdu, not native to any part of the country, is designated as the national language and used as the language of everyday life and political campaigning to establish a second layer of linguistic hegemony over the regional vernaculars. Only a small percentage of writers use English as a means of creative expression, and these writers are like exotic birds of privilege in a largely disenfranchised population. Considering their education and training, it is not surprising if they betray a tendency to emulate writers from the British, American, or Western tradition. But in the changed political status of the former colony, even if that change in effect may be largely nominal, sooner or later such an approach will be seen as alien and alienating by the general population. Unless, then, the use of English is indigenized, so that the language is made one’s own and is informed and infused with the rich and diversified culture, history, and consciousness of the region, writing in the colonial tongue will only end up perpetuating the biases, misperceptions, and exploitative regimes of the empire. The postcolonial writer’s first task, keeping in mind what Langston Hughes suggested in the racial context, is to get rid of the self-loathing that was inculcated over the course of imperial rule, and which is reaffirmed and renewed every moment in the language and laws, the institutions of learning and the administrative machinery that the empire has left behind, and which is now daily reiterated, replenished, and reinforced by the complicity of European powers and the United States in maintaining their hegemony by strict surveillance and control of the world’s wealth and resources long distance, through multinationals, international trade bodies and commissions, international banking regimes, the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the like, in the name of enlightened stewardship, free markets, fair trade practices, and security interests.

In the deliberate manner in which this world-wide machinery is set up and the objectives it aims to fulfill, this more abstract form of colonialism parallels the kind of control and manipulation that women too have been forced to combat in the face of remorseless and unrepentant patriarchal exploitation and mischaracterization of the female. Once they have woken to their condition, however, there has been no turning back.

In the following passage from Adrienne Rich (1971), where she sees writing as “Re-vision” in critically interrogating and reimaging the retailed verities of patriarchy, what applies to women may apply equally well to the populations caught in the postcolonial prison house of demonized existence:

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering

an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a

chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we understand the

assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this

drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is

part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A

radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work

first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have

been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as

liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male

prerogative, and how we can begin to see and name—and therefore live—

afresh. A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not

going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution.

We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we

have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.


(Rich [1971], Gioia et al., 2004, 313)


Here too, for the “male” substitute “imperial” or “empire,” for “women,” “the colonized,”for “feminism,” “postcolonial,” and for “sexual identity,” “personal identity,” and the passage may offer some insight into the struggle of the formerly colonized populations as well. The poetic persona given voice in No One Waits for the Train is engaged in precisely this process of “re-visioning” and finding a self, an identity, outside the prescriptions, exclusions, and judgments that have led to the bleeding and breaking apart of the land and alienating its inhabitants from each other:


A tainted crop

Tainted without knowing the taint

Not hybrid but marked

By the disease of violence

The disease of history

The train of history

The train of disease

This train is not my train

This is not the railway train

I boarded

To ferry me across

To the other end

Of night

This is not my train (89)


He seeks, thus, to elude the prison-house of history, not by simply ignoring or erasing it, but by identifying and dismantling its binaries of disparagement and exclusion that provided the building blocks of its edifice.



People of the postcolonial world are all born into a state of exile from their land and its domestic cultural legacies and practices. It is a state they inherit from the moment they take their first breath, and it is one they are constrained to live with for the rest of their life. It is also a state that will be reinforced repeatedly as they begin their journey toward consciousness and self-cognition, and continues through the phases of individuation and self-realization. There are many variations of this state, but two broad categories may be relevant to the condition that is described here. Those that are born to the dispossessed and marginalized who attempt, without imposing their values on or threatening anyone, to remain connected with or true to their homegrown practices, manners, and traditions will be faced with an unalterable historical fact—that their past, and consequently their present, has been changed irretrievably by colonial intervention. They have become strangers in their own land and their knowledge and skills rendered secondary and inferior under a new, imported, dispensation.

Those that are born into privilege are trained in the ways of the privileged, a class entitled to govern and rule, to learn, adopt, and apply perspectives and narratives of its former colonial masters, and to internalize their assessments and judgments about the “natives,” their “natural” proclivities and propensities, their manners and customs. Notwithstanding that these “natives” happen to be fellow citizens, they are seen as a species apart and beneath in that they are bereft of the means, skills, learning, and perceptions of the master, and thus in need of enlightenment and paternalistic guidance.

It is likely that there is also an undercurrent of unconscious (or grudging and secretly recognized) self-rejection and self-loathing among the privileged élite, who continue to ape the former ruling race, to aspire to be one of them, which, they must know at some level they are irrevocably disqualified from by accident of birth, family background, skin color or ethnicity, religious and cultural heritage, and provenance. But they can fulfill the role of helpers, informers, supporters, sympathizers, and collaborators, and for this they are thankful. The privileged then are engaged in continuing the work of the only partially dismantled former empire. Their models and ideals all pertain to the “mother country” while they see their own with alien eyes, as outsiders, “objectively,” they would argue without consciousness of the irony infecting that term. Their elevated sense of self and its assigned role, learned in educational institutions and administrative infrastructures left to the post colony by its imperial masters, is often unable to sustain itself in their interactions with the citizenry of the “mother country” during which they become servile and submissive earnestly in the good old colonial tradition. Among their own kind, they assume an imperious and autocratic demeanor, an air of haughty aloofness and incorruptibility, all the while prey to the same lures and seductions, and capable of the same pettiness, that many humans anywhere are susceptible to. What this confederacy of interests defeats is the internal mechanism of resistance, protest, and change that all societies possess and forces on them institutional and behavior patterns of a foreign system and culture as the impossible and incongruous ideals to imitate and adopt. There is no problem with individuals taking this decision for themselves, but when persons who have the power and the position to make policies and determine the direction for a society or State, take such an approach, it affects the lives and rights of others and ends up being a hugely destabilizing and traumatic experience for a large majority of the population that has no interest or inclination to follow the same path. Individuals, or families, may move across the class and culture lines defined here, but neither the condition of being a stranger in one’s own land nor of being a stranger to it is displaced by these migrations. One group will inevitably see its world from the eyes of the (colonizing) outsider, the other will always be conscious of the disruption by outside powers of the cultural conventions and paradigms that gave sense and meaning to its life.

This internally conflicted and fractured consciousness also finds articulation in the series of poems that comprise my book, but instead of taking an exclusionary approach the poetic persona embraces the entire experience, whatever is attractive and admirable in it as well as that which is ugly and disfigured, to explore the possibility of a way that could provide an escape from the injustices of the past by perhaps reaffirming and establishing the dignity and sanctity of all living creatures and the environment that sustains them. In the pluralistic society that the subcontinent of India was for several extended periods over the last five thousand years, and continues, mostly, to be, it is inevitable that no boundaries are permanent, and that no forms of belief and religion remain closed and endogamous. The continual interactions and cross-fertilizations have made it impossible to sustain a notion of pure and uncontaminated forms and identities, and this is a beautiful development, but it is the kind of beauty against which an unnecessary and extremely vicious war is waged as partisans, proclaiming one system of beliefs and values or the other, vie for superiority and domination. In the tradition of bhakti and Sufi poets of the subcontinent, the poems in No One Waits for the Train strive to remember the space that brings people together without the encumbrance of the ego, in their humanity, without greed, ambition, or competitiveness, respectful equally toward all living creatures and manifestations of nature.



Colonialism, in the sense of occupation for economic, and often political, exploitation of people, occurs at many levels and in many historical layers in India. It is not restricted to only the British or European powers. The Aryans were probably the first to colonize the sub-continent (though this is now disputed by some historians), displacing the builders of Indus Valley Civilization around 1500 B.C., and they were followed by Achaemenids (Persians), Greeks, Arabs, Central Asian Turkics, Mongols, and Pushtuns (or Afghans). The Achaemenids, Greeks, and Pushtuns controlled mostly north western India, roughly modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the Arabs conquered and absorbed Sindh for a while.

The Portuguese control over Goa, starting in 1505, was not relinquished until the invasion of the island by the Indian military in 1961, but the French, who had set up factories in Surat and Pondicherry in the late 17th century, and fought against the British for ascendancy in India through most of the 18th century, were rendered politically irrelevant after the British defeated Tipu Sultan, a powerful local potentate and their most formidable foe who was being supported by the French, at Seringaputnam in 1797. British rule in India itself came to an end in August 1947 when two independent states were carved out of the sub-continent, perhaps as an act of vengeance against Indian demand for independence, or as a strategic move to keep the region in a state of division and disputation to prevent it from becoming a competitor in the foreseeable future.

These waves of colonial appropriation and dispersal have had a deep and lasting influence on the people of the Indian subcontinent. Considering the two broad descriptive categories of “colonies of settlement” and “colonies of exploitation” in currency among postcolonial critics6 (Young, 2001), India offers a complex case study. At least two major historical instances, the displacement of the Indus Valley Civilization by the Aryans (around 1500 BC) and appropriation and adoption of the country by waves of Central Asian invaders, from the 10th to the 16th century, as their fiefdom and home, provide features of what may be termed today as a “colony of settlement.” Under British rule, India was a “colony of exploitation,” governed by the East India Company for the first hundred years, from which, while retaining the category, it evolved also into an imperial colony after 1857 when the British government assumed direct control over it. India, then, with due allowance for the singularity of its position, can be seen as an example of both a “colony of settlement” and a “colony of exploitation.” Its populations, thus, have had to cope with the pressures not only of dealing with multiple foreign interventions and appropriations, but also of working with a plurality of languages, alien as well as indigenous, to find ways to come to terms with their experiences, their environment, and their identities over the course of the last five thousand years or so. At times, they have been forced to learn the language of domination (the court or the center) to find expression for their day-today needs, their petitions, their survival, and advancement, while keeping their vernaculars out of public discourse. At others, they have found vernaculars and speech forms mixing promiscuously with each other, and coupling freely all the while with the court language, to forge a kind of link, or people’s language, a fascinating hybrid new tongue, Urdu or Hindi or Hindustani, as it was once called interchangeably. This new language, which developed from the vernaculars in interaction with the court languages, Turkic and Persian, and may be seen as a democratic or popular response to and creative interaction with them, came itself to be seen as a language of division in the latter part of the 19th century when the Hindi-Urdu controversy divided the Hindus and Muslims, with Muslims claiming Urdu as one of the defining characteristics of their nationhood along with shared religious beliefs and history, and Hindus disputing this by pointing out its indigenous roots, promoting the name of Hindi for it, and insisting that Devanagari, as opposed to the Persian script, be used for its written form. Since 1947, when it was declared the national language of the newly created State of Pakistan, it has assumed the position of the privileged language of the center imposed upon the constituent provinces of the country, in none of which is it the first or native language. Language migration and politics, then, have been throughout history, and are today as well, a thorny issue and animated negotiation between vernaculars and the dominant language or languages continues unabated. Figures provided by different agencies vary widely, but even the most conservative number independent languages spoken in India at over five hundred. Over seventy distinct languages exist in Pakistan. As in India, most people in Pakistan are inevitably multilingual. In polyglot societies, this is just a condition of existence. Yet, language also continues to be a source of disaffection and division among the people of the sub-continent.



Colonization’s dirty little secret may be that it does not originate only from nor is it confined exclusively to power dynamics between states and nations. Exploitation on the basis of race, class, or gender is also a form of colonialism as is persecution because of religious difference, sexual preference, skin color, age, clothing, speech, physical or mental disability, and a variety of other categories applied to groups within a society. These kinds of discrimination may be the consequence of military and/or political subjugation of certain groups, or they may be independent of it. However, in that they are always meant to secure economic advantage for the dominant group and are invariably a source of economic benefit to those who rely on them to retain their power, prestige, and legitimacy, they closely resemble the regimes of colonization. As seen above, Langston Hughes’ description and analysis of how racial discrimination works and Adrienne Rich’s account of the gender bias and its effects demonstrate that, barring the difference in domain over which control is exercised, there may be little that separates colonization and other forms of discrimination. A complex infrastructure facilitates and perpetuates both forms of hegemony and control. As Todorov (1999) points out, colonial oppression works essentially by controlling the means of communication. This is accomplished not only by establishing the dominance of the colonizer’s language but also by controlling the means of production and dissemination of texts. To ensure the perfect working of such a system and eliminate the possibility of uncertainty and an undesirable challenge or intervention, colonization privileges certain forms of text as authoritative and definitive, written, printed, strictly edited, and regulated, over oral narrative and tradition with its attendant vagaries and instabilities. Crucially, it also reserves to the colonial establishment the right and the power to interpret a text and its signs and symbols. The movement, then, is toward greater clarity, certainty, and, consequently, rigidity, so that what was ambivalent and negotiable, free, perpetually evolving, and adaptable, adjusting itself to time, circumstance, and context, becomes hardened and unalterable, timeless in the principles and truths it enshrines. Gender roles and expectations, racial prejudices, class consciousness, definitions of sexual normalcy and deviance, discriminations of color, caste, creed, weighted notions of north versus south, west versus east, all depend for their propagation and continuance on control of the means of communication. The reviled and derided other—the native, the lesbian, the homosexual, the effeminate oriental, the grasping Jew, the womanbashing, Jew-hating, terrorist Muslim, the caste-ridden, abstraction-loving Hindu, the fully mature woman addressed as a doll, the man-child, benighted, savage from Africa, the dumb blonde, the lazy, good-fornothing poor, the masses akin to cattle and sheep—struggles to fight back against these stereotypes in a voice that the power that defines the norms, that controls the air waves, that regulates (and often owns) the presses and the publishing houses, doesn’t recognize, cannot hear, will not understand.

It admits only what it deems is enough to keep in place the semblance of its fairness and tolerance of debate and disagreement, only what allows just enough steam to be blown off as to prevent the possibility of an explosion or a revolution, only what is considered within the realm of its own established rules of courteous and civilized discourse. And so those who suffer this perceptual disfiguration continue to do so over the slow and grinding centuries even as they strive against it from age to age, finding relief and respite in small, temporary, signs of outward accommodation and relenting that serve only to lull them into a false sense of security and redress. This is why Adrienne Rich’s idea of “Re-vision” becomes central to a reappraisal of received perceptions and texts retailed as authoritative, of stories seen as master narratives, of forms promoted as timeless and universal. It is an existential necessity for the dispossessed and the marginalized, the reviled and the discredited, to recover lost works and discarded voices, with all their variables, and to bring them back into the discourse as they engage, at the same time, with contemporary reality on their own terms in fresh, intimate, life-sustaining ways. The subcontinent provides many examples of the regimes of internal colonization, as does, probably, any other region of the world. As a writer, I cannot see how these can be ignored. It is another subject that is at the heart of the No One Waits for the Train collection:


And how can I persist

When crumbling words sputter upon my lips

Nothing connects

And a crater

Opens up on my tongue

My mouth filled with pebbles and fire

This is the birthplace of my speech

No rock outgrowing rock

Or the alphabet of trees

But a burning wasteland where I forage

Among ruins of lost languages

Pick out piece by piece

Discarded vowels and consonants

To resurrect the sounds

Of disabled vocabularies

As hot winds sweep

Across devastated homelands




The Indian sub-continent is one of the richest in the variety of religious beliefs and practices it offers for any comparable region of the world. The people of the Indus Valley Civilization are believed to have worshipped a Mother Goddess and available evidence suggests that they were probably a matrilineal society. Many forms of animistic worship are still practiced in India. Apart from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the most well-known of the ancient religions, there is the Sikh religion, that had its birth in the 15th century with the inspired ideas and shloks (verses) of Guru Nanak who aimed to combine the best of Hindu and Muslim beliefs to bring together the two communities. Over twenty per cent of the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, is composed of shloks by the 12th century Muslim saint Baba Farid. Christianity is said to have been brought to India by the apostles St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew—the first believed to have arrived in Kerala, south India, in 52 A.D. There is copious folklore in the north that tells of the lost tribes of Israel traveling to India through the Frontier region between Pakistan and Afghanistan and onwards to the valley of Kashmir. Islam was brought to the Sindh and parts of the Punjab in A.D. 710, less than a hundred years after its birth in Arabia. Then there are the traditions of Islamic Sufi and Hindu (or often polyreligious/ iconoclastic) bakhti (devotional) poetry dating from the 12th to the 19th century and preaching self-abnegation, simple living, and the virtues of a life of service to fellow creatures. Both males and females were part of this tradition in which sometimes the male poets chose consciously to employ a female poetic persona in their verses. Thus a vast and diverse treasure-trove, much of it in written form, but a lot more in continual interfusion and inter-pollination orally, of scripture, sacred verses, devotional poetry, and songs that could be simultaneously subversive, revolutionary, spiritually liberating, resistant to regimes of oppression, politically radical and revolutionary, is part of the consciousness of South Asian populations. And it is obviously still an ever-growing body of shared religio-spiritual inheritance if literature in the vernaculars is taken into consideration.

It all starts with the artifacts and remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, its dancing girl standing proudly with her hand on her hip, its toys and votive objects with moving parts, the mother-goddess statuettes, the seated bearded male figure, and miscellaneous figurines from across five millennia of history. Among the constellation of religious texts, works, and compositionsin the periods following that are part of the cultural consciousness of the inhabitants of the sub-continent, even if they are not directly familiar with them, are the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, inclusive of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Jain Sutras or Agamas, Buddhist Jatakakahanis, and the various Shastras, the Bible, in the original and its various vernacular translations, the Qur’an and its translations, the Guru Granth Sahib, the poetry of the bhakti poets, Farid, Lal Ded, Nanak, Kabir, Mirabai, Tulsidas, Bartarihari, Tukaram, Bhagat Surdas, and of the Muslim Sufis, Baba Farid, Amir Khusrau, Shah Husain, Bulleh Shah, Qadir Yar, Sultan Bahu, Khwaja Ghulam Farid, and others. Among secular texts, though the distinction is not always clear, for most of these are spiritual and moralistic as well, are the Panchatantra, Kalidas’ Shakuntala, Śuka Saptati, Kathasaritsagara, Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, the Tuti-Nama, Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasana-e-Azad, Rajab Ali Beg’s Fasan-e-Ajaib, and the poems of Habba Khatoon, Damodar’s Heer, Warras Shah’s Heer Ranjah, Mian Mohammad Baksh’s Mirza Sahiban, the songs and stories of Rabindranath Tagore, the ghazals of Mir, Ghalib, Zauq, and Momin, the poetry of Iqbal and Faiz. Of course, the English and European writers introduced during imperial rule, and others that readers may have discovered on their own are not to be excluded either from this vast storehouse of influences that make up the intellectual and imaginative life of the sub-continental citizen. The list is by no means exhaustive, nor is meant to be, but only illustrative of the rich heritage that informs the cultural consciousness of a person who grows up in the pluralistic environment of the subcontinent and is receptive to its multifarious influences, traditions, cultural and artistic productions, and legacies. And why is it at all necessary to chart, however sketchily, this cultural landscape? The simple answer is that a writer born into or steeped in this tradition would also be drawing from its rich resources, alluding to texts, ideas, symbols, and voices that should be immediately recognizable to an audience living this reality every day but may mean nothing or very little to a readership and audience from another social and cultural tradition that has little familiarity with it.

A conscious choice was made in No One Waits for the Train to reflect the kaleidoscopic multifariousness of this sub-continental legacy, not for its own sake, but to illustrate, one, the pluralistic, porous, continually interacting worlds one inhabits here and, two, how, contrary to notions propagated by the empire, the idea of a shared and common life, across differences of color, creed, class, and gender, dedicated to service and love of all living creatures is also indigenous to the sub-continental consciousness.

Writing in English does not necessarily mean that the models, strategies, and devices, as well as the field of allusion and reference would also come exclusively from the English tradition, or, if the writer’s sympathies are a little broader, the European or Western tradition as a whole. To use the language of the Empire does not need to mean that the prejudices, judgments, and perspectives of the Empire or its cultural consciousness must be adopted as well. The use of English in the colony that has successfully freed itself from the hegemony of English imperialism can, to my mind, only be justified if it is employed as one of the native languages, i.e., if it is indigenized and informed with the social, cultural, historical, and philosophical freight and value that local languages carry, if it is transformed into a live and lively spoken language in the area, not one that I may acquire competence in only through foreign texts, through books and movies and television programs based on how others elsewhere speak or enact it in their daily lives. Without the conception of a contemporaneous local spoken environment in which people from all walks of life voluntarily and freely employ it, a postcolonial writer is left with the recourse only of imitating the models from the “mother country”—and even its representative spin-offs in other parts of the world, the settler colonies of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the like, are seen as less reliable and somehow inferior in their usage, competence, and example. In my own poems, references and allusions are integral to the socio-historical context corresponding with an attempt to articulate intersecting and interfusing cultural, religious, and historical sensibilities that constitute the consciousness and psyche of the poetic persona. It is important to me that as a writer I shape my medium of expression to my needs and interests and not to let it shape me to its own so that it overwrites what is intended to be expressed with the biases and prejudices of its imperial usage and prescriptions.



Since Pakistan was created as an independent homeland for the Muslims by separating it from India, it has become customary to pretend that only Muslim history is relevant to its people and that the pre-Muslim past has no bearing on them or their consciousness. With each passing year, this alienation has deepened, and indeed Muslim Pakistan has largely erased from public memory how many of its customs, manners, rituals, and behavior patterns were adopted from its non-Muslim neighbors in all those years preceding 1947 when they lived together in a richly multicultural society, or how many of them are merely carried over from time past before an ancestor converted from one of the local religions or sects to Islam. As a writer I feel a pressing need to recover those lost memories and histories. Poems like ‘Useless Knowledge,’ that salvages and reclaims ancient folk and mythic histories of the valley of Kashmir, and ‘Amarkatha,’ which recoups the stories behind the origin of place names in Kashmir in the process of narrating the journey of Shiva and Parvati to the cave of Amarnath, are efforts in that direction.



Kashmir is often recognized in local accounts to be a land of gentle, tolerant, and mystical people. It was once largely Buddhist, and this seems to be the earliest recorded religion of its people. There are claims, though, that Hinduism was also practiced at the time and others that Kashmir was the original home of the Aryans. However, there is also a widespread tradition that Kashmir was the place where the lost tribes of Israel came to settle after their years of wandering, and where, it is believed, they gradually lost their distinctive beliefs and customs and converted to Hinduism. When the Muslims arrived in the 14th century, it was governed by a Hindu raja and the Kashmiri Pundits were a powerful part of the ruling establishment. By the end of the 14th century Kashmir had become predominantly Muslim and remains so to this day. There are conflicting accounts of how this happened. The Kashmiri Pundits and Hindu scholars argue that Islam was forcibly imposed on Kashmir. But there are others who paint a rather bleak picture of Brahminic tyranny against which women and men were already protesting, notably the mystic saint and poet, Lal Ded, also known as Lalleshwari, or affectionately as Lalla, who had left her Brahmin husband because of the persecution she faced from him and her in-laws. She is said to have one day torn her clothes off her body and left her home naked to become a Shaivitesanyasi or yogi. It was her encounter with Shah-e-Hamadan, it is said, that led to her conversion to Islam, and this, it is believed, caused widespread interest in the new religion. Hindu historians hotly dispute this account and say it never happened. But both communities revere Lal Ded as a saint and her Vakhs, or “verse utterings,” are on everyone’s lips in Kashmir. She is one of the inspirations of the book for her courage to break away from an abusive domestic situation and find fulfillment, not in hatred or violence or selfinjury, but in a whole-hearted devotion to truth and renunciation of the self:


With a frail thread I tow my boat

Hear me, God,

And bring me safely through

Like water in earthen cups

I waste and seep away

So lead me home, O’ God

Get me safely through


(Lal Ded 1320-1390)


Kashmiris have a saying, there are only two authorities in Kashmir, Allah and Lalla.


It seems to me that what we call “truth” (or “Truth”) does not reside necessarily in what we generally recognize as facts, actual verifiable events, and hard evidence. The world as we know it is comprised of nothing but stories, tales, recounting, mediated through voices, many and diverse, individual or communal, from generation to generation, and what we may apprehend as “truth” may lie in tiny seeds and sand grains in these very narratives that remain unstable and forever shifting, interfusing, taking off on their own. Through them, through their various recounting, we reimagine and reconstruct our world continually. Thus, not the unalterable written word, but the flexible and ever evolving oral retellings and rewriting offer for me the possibility of escaping the barred cells of authoritative histories in which we have shut ourselves up. The Rajtaringini (Chronicles of the Kings of Kashmira) by Pandit Kalhana, part myth, part folktale, drawn from written record stitched to a bit of rumor, that’s the kind of “text” that enchants and fascinates the mind and holds out a promise of renewal. It is this kind of source, often rejected and dismissed as inferior and unreliable, that to me holds people together in a landscape which has dreamed them up and which they have brought into their intimate selves by dreaming every feature of it into existence.



The poetic persona in No One Waits for the Train attends a Christian Missionary school in Srinagar before the family moves to Amritsar, and this brings the awareness of British presence in the subcontinent along with its attendant ramifications. There are echoes from the Bible and poets from the English tradition as well in the poetry of witness that the fictional character writes. He is also well aware of the harm that imperialism has done, most significantly in robbing the people of their language and subverting the meanings of words, ideas, and sustaining concepts. Since he lives for a couple of years in the city of Amritsar in the Punjab, before the Partition-enforced migration to Pakistan, he becomes acquainted with the work of the great Punjabi mystical poets also—among them Nanak, Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, and Mian Mohammad Buksh, as also that of the bakhti devotional poet-singers, Meera, Bhagat Surdas, and Kabir, whose works were composed in Hindi, or Purbi, an earlier folk form of that language.

Their ideas and influences enter his own work as he records the devastation of a country breaking apart on being made aware of its diversity as exclusionary differences and as its people decline into uncontrolled savagery and blind hatred against those who only moments before the division were fellow citizens, neighbors, friends, and respected members of a shared society. When, later, he meets the namelessValmiki, a follower of the poet Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, a book sacred to the Hindus, though Valmikis set themselves apart from Hindus by claiming kinship with the older, dispossessed tribes of ancient India, this ordinary, anonymous, wayside person offers an account of his forgotten people that awakens him to a new sense of the complicated wrongs of history in some of which he, who has just lost his entire family to the madness of partition, himself, may be implicated:


we are your chuhras

we bring our rude songs

to your bungalows

for a pittance

out in the vast lawns

we present the ghost dance

of our past

we who are dispossessed

bring you

the taste

of possessing

a forgotten culture

and you sit back

in your deep sofas

and turn us out

after all is done

cracking up in laughter

at our helplessness


(Khwaja, 2007, 77)



Ultimately, it is the sub-continental oral traditions of poetry and storytelling that have provided the direction for the poems contained in this collection, for it was my intention from the start to attempt a long poem, or a series of poems, in English in this mode. Telling an extended story through a series of poems and yet not losing narrative interest or that special quality that makes a poem work, so that each individual piece could function independently as a poem and yet have its own part in the narrative, seemed like an impossible task. Yet poets in the villages of the Punjab or in public gardens like the Hazuri Bagh in Lahore often enthrall audiences for hours on end with narrative poetry, and not a person moves until the entire rendition is over. Then there is the art of Dastan-goi, oral storytelling in prose in sessions that last hours at a time, an art form that faded away around the beginning of the 20th century and has been revived again only a few years ago. In this form too the prose is so rhythmic and laced with internal rhyme that it sounds close to poetry.

But I did not want to rely much on overt rhymes nor on accentuated and dramatic rhythms. The swift switching of scenes and situations however, was a feature that appealed to me very much, and I noticed in oral performances that this is what kept the audience continually engaged and interested. However, there was one thing even here that I could not replicate in a written work—it was the impromptu improvisation of the oral poet or storyteller on noticing or sensing the slightest sign of waning interest or change of mood and which is such an exciting feature of such a performance. Yet even this feature could be inserted in the written poem as a surprise or unexpected shift in focus or interest in anticipation of possible fluctuations in reader receptivity or reaction. The shift in voice is also a significant part of oral rendition, and it may occur with change of character or mood, or in response to a certain situation, and this too is a device I made use of in my poems. Oral performances generally tend to be somewhat dramatic, but though it is important for narrative poetry to make use of dramatic situations in order to avoid monotony, for written poetry it is best that the drama be understated as the dynamics of reading off the page and listening to oral performance are very different. These and countless other concerns and apprehensions about what, initially, in my mind, amounted to a long poem in several parts were a cause of much anxiety until I slowly found my way to the realization that each piece must have its autonomous identity and that all together should then give the entire collection a narrative coherence and logic. The individual pieces then came to find expression in a variety of free and stricter forms, some drawing from the bhakti and Sufi voices, others capturing the lost voices of childhood, celebratory, narrative, minatory, or mythic, and yet others from English verse forms. The rhymed prophetic song of the old crone at the end of ‘Useless Knowledge’ is based on the moves of the game of hopscotch, which is what the queer old woman seems to be enacting “[o]n a smear of starlight” by the mountain side as she mutters the words.

In sub-continental poetic tradition, even written poetry is orally transmitted for the most part. Thus poets recite their work at mushairas, and ghazals and nazms are picked up by famous singers and composers, set to music and sung so that they reach a much wider audience than a book or print publication would be able to do. Even those who do not know how to read and write become, in this way, acquainted with the poetry of celebrated poets. The poems in No One Waits for the Train, though they are unlikely to be ever set to music and sung, were written, however, keeping the aspect of oral transmission in view, deliberately avoiding the vocabulary and diction that would appeal to only a small group of sophisticated readers of literature in English. The question I posed for myself was “Can worthwhile poetry be written today that could potentially reach as wide an audience as the novel and still be appreciated by exacting critics and readers of literature?” With this in view, and keeping in mind the nature of oral tradition as a model, as also the nature and experience of the poetic persona devised for the work, the diction of the poems is kept deliberately simple.



The question of voice is ultimately a matter of identity too. But when so many different currents make up the stream of one’s identity, what is one’s identity? Perhaps, it is a shifting, contingent, perpetually negotiable quantity. Perhaps it is a fallacy to think of it in the singular. Perhaps what we think of as the self is many selves, and we have multiple identities within us. And if that is true, then it complicates the question of voice as well. Is there such a thing as a distinct and recognizable voice that is peculiar to each poet? There must be, on the evidence of so much that has been written and said on the subject by poets and critics alike. If this is so, then what is that voice? How do we recognize it? Perhaps what we call poetic voice is not a single, pure, and uncontaminated entity at all. Perhaps it is a composite of many voices, just as identity may be a composite of many identities. Perhaps it is not to be confused with the voice of the woman or man who is the poet in person. It may be the manifestation of the artistic range, the artistic possibility—an imaginative medley that in its peculiar blend can only be found in that poet and in no other. Every poet is expected to stake out the area that is peculiarly its own, but could this area not be enlarged, modified, or substituted for another during the course of a lifetime? I should like to believe yes, it could.

You cannot live like this,” someone may say, “with all the histories active and alive within you. You need to make a choice. You need to decide who you side with, who you support, who you belong to.” My response is simple: all countries that suffer colonization and imperialism themselves become colonists and imperialists, if not in fact, then in their dreams and aspirations. If only we could escape the binaries of history, perhaps we would find a way not to repeat the injustices of the past. The binaries are the building blocks of colonization. Without them it could not have been constructed, legitimated, and perpetuated. In the marketplace of voices all voices are to be heard. None should be ignored, and I can ignore none.

In the end, I am with the bhakti and Sufi poets whose quest it is to escape from the self, not to identify, define, or strengthen it, to abolish the ego, not to serve it or to feed it. Bulleh Shah interrogates the self until nothing is left, and he finds it then standing outside as the other and laughing at him. In this he sees the unity in the difference that meets the eye, but also the difference, the other, he carries within himself. And he confronts this conundrum of voice and identity by raising the most fundamental question of all, “Who am I?”


Bulleh! Who am I?

Neither a believer within a mosque

Nor steeped in rituals of unbelievers

Nor unclean among the pure

Neither Pharoah nor Moses

Bulleh, Who am I?

Myself the First and Last

I recognize no other

No one is wiser than I

Bulleh! O lost one

Who stands there, outside, alone?

Bulleh, Who am I?


(Bulleh 1976, 17-18. Translation mine)



Works Cited

Ded, L. 1320-1490 Vakh 1. Kashmiri Saints and Sages Kashmiri Overseas Association USA, Inc. 2012. http://www.koausa.org/Saints/LalDed/Vakhs1.html. Translation mine.

Ghalib, M. and M.A.R.Chugtai 1928. Muraqqa-e-Chugtai: Divan-e- Ghalib, Mussawar Lahore: Aiwan-e-Isha’At. Hughes, L. ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ 1926 in Gioia, D.,

D. Mason, M. Shoerke, and D. C. Stone, eds. Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004, 148-151.

Khwaja, W. 2007. No One Waits for the Train Belgium: Alhambra Publishing, 21, 77, 81, 89.

Rich, A. ‘“When We Dead Awaken”: Writing as Re-Vision’ 1971 in Gioia, D., D. Mason, M. Shoerke, and D. C. Stone, eds. 2004

Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004, 312-322.

Shah, B. 1976 Excerpts from “Ki Janaan Mein Koun” in: Nazir Ahmed, Syed ed. Kalam Bulleh Shah. Lahore: Packages Ltd., 17-18. Translation mine.

Todorov, T. 1999 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other University of Oklahoma Press. Young, R.C. 2001 Postcolonialism: A Historical Introduction Massachusetts:



This chapter has been uploaded onto the website with permission of the author!


On Sun, Jan 6, 2013 at 10:07 PM, Khwaja, Waqas wrote:

Dear Gabriel and Hatto,

Great to follow your exchanges on the prickly issue of language usage and colonial disruption. Am attaching the printer's copy of the the book "Poetry and Voice" (ed. Stephanie Norgate, Cambridge Publishers; it should have been released by now) which includes my essay "The Marketplace of Voices" I wrote I wrote for it on the formation of voice in "No One Waits for the Train." That's chapter 9 in the book, and it might be of interest to you in connection with the subject of the present discussion. I don't believe I shared this earlier, but if I did so, please accept my apologies. I am in sympathy with what you say about writing in English, Gabriel, when you have your own native language, with its rich vocabularies and tradition, and one that the English and English speakers deliberately disparaged and discredited, relegating it to a state of irrelevance in their efforts to absorb (appropriate) the land and its people for their own purposes and needs. The anxiety and guilt about writing in the "master's" language has never quite left me, but I see what can be done to detoxify it for my own use, to stir up, destabilize, and "stain" it with the active presence of the cultures, language/s, and perceptions of my own land and its histories and appropriate it to my own use, and it is in those spaces of insurrection, intervention, and "contamination" that for me the possibility of writing poetry in "english" exists. Call it pinglish, chinglish, pakistanese, or what you will. This is the harm caused by colonization and imperial vandalism, and the symptoms would just not go away. To become conscious of them so as not to repeat the process may be our only option of recuperating the self-respect that is the condition of healthy societies and of all civilized communication and interaction.



Chapter 9 can be found in the book:

Poetry and Voice“. (2012) Edited by Stephanie Norgate, Assistant Editor Ellie Piddington. Newcastle on the Thyme: Cambridge Publishing House


Acknowledgements .................................................................................. viii

Foreword .................................................................................................... xi

Helen Dunmore

Introduction ................................................................................................. 1

Stephanie Norgate

Part I: The Music of Poetry, the Voices of Childhood and Old Age

Chapter One................................................................................................. 8

Poetry: “The Music of Being Human”

Sarah Wardle

Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 17

Like a Fiend Hid in a Cloud”: Finding a Voice to Write about Childhood

Vicki Feaver

Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 38

Something Like The Sea: Thinking Through My Father’s Aphasia

Philip Gross

Chapter Four .............................................................................................. 51

Voices Echo, Fade, Remain

Stephanie Norgate

Part II: Voicing the Demotic, the Legendary, the Spontaneous

and the Euphoric

Chapter Five .............................................................................................. 62

Well, Let Me Tell You Now”: The Dramatic Monologue

of The World’s Wife

Olga Holownia

vi Table of Contents

Chapter Six ................................................................................................ 76

Simon Armitage’s Voices

Ian Gregson

Chapter Seven............................................................................................ 89

Kolatkar’s Spontaneity

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Chapter Eight........................................................................................... 104

The Voice of Euphoria in John Ashbery’s Poetry

Vasilis Papageorgiou

Part III: Transitory Voices: The Creation and Representation

of Poetic Voice through the Pressure of War, Migration, Exile

and Bilinguality

Chapter Nine............................................................................................ 114

The Marketplace of Voices

Waqas Khwaja

Chapter Ten ............................................................................................. 137

Dragica Rajčić: Writing Women and War in the Margins

Laurel Cohen-Pfister

Chapter Eleven ........................................................................................ 148

Reclaiming Lost Stars: Contemporary Female Voices from Bosnia

Tatjana Bijelić

Chapter Twelve ....................................................................................... 161

Forgetting the Crow: Bilinguality and Poetic Voice

Jane Griffiths

Part IV: Giving Voice to Place: Suburbia, Gardens and Wilderness

Chapter Thirteen...................................................................................... 172

Finding a Voice where they Found a Vision”: Eavan Boland’s

Postcolonial Vocalisation of Suburbia

Rose Atfield

Chapter Fourteen ..................................................................................... 187

The Language of Flowers? “Voice” in the Garden

Lesley Saunders

Poetry and Voice: A Book of Essays vii

Chapter Fifteen ........................................................................................ 210

Translating Wilderness: Negative Ecopoetics and the Poetry

of Don McKay

Hugh Dunkerley

Part V: Beyond the Single Voice: Inner and Outer Voices of Poetry

Chapter Sixteen ....................................................................................... 222

Last Least of Her Voices”: The Voice of Poetry

Michael Wilson

Chapter Seventeen ................................................................................... 235

A Choir of Trees: Discovering the “Voice” of a Poetry Collection

David Swann

Afterword ................................................................................................ 247

Contributors............................................................................................. 251

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