Asad Alvi is a translator and a poet. His work has appeared in The International Gallerie, Dawn, The Hindu, and Scroll, as well as We Will Be Shelter: An Anthology of Contemporary Feminist Poetry (ed. by Andrea Gibson), and the Columbia University’s Journal of Art & Literature, amidst others. Recently, he served as a contributor at the Clayman Institute of Gender Research at Stanford University to Uprooted: An Anthology of Gender and Illness. In 2016, he became the youngest recipient of the Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Poetry Prize, and was a featured artist at the 2017 Pune Biennale in India. Alvi’s debut book, The Color Thief: The Life and Works of Sara Shagufta, is forthcoming in 2018 by Speaking Tiger, India. He has taught creative writing at Quixote's Cove in Nepal, and is currently editing a second book, a literary memoir.
Monologues from the Mental Asylum
An excerpt from The Lost Journals of Sara Shagufta, translated from the Urdu by Asad Alvi
I woke up that night to the screams of women. I don’t know when I’d fallen asleep, or passed out, but when I woke up, the manic, lost, women were all around me, walking, shambling. I remember that night, my first night in this asylum – I had retreated into the corner, into the shadows, and looked through the bars, bars that had been chained with many locks. The locks were like eyes: the eyes of a man’s vigilance.
As I focused, the lock slowly extended to reveal the form of a man, a man sprawling on the bed: I thought of the violence of beds, of my marriage. The man on this bed was my husband – a man who used to beat me metal-blue to eliminate his fear of women. There were other ways of elimination: polishing his black boots and making them shine, washing his clothes, suspending them onto a hanging wire. And the starvation. And the rising lilt of his family’s voices: awaara. A cuss word, a slap – his marriage to me? – The violence of a mongering dog, his teeth digging into my flesh.
His skin the color of a chameleon turned blue. Me? I was a churi, a glass bangle. The house? The impersonation of a ghetto. My agency, his anger. So I ran. I ran to a divorce, yes, and I reached my destination after six months of torture. But the six months led to psychosis. So my mother dragged me here, to this mental asylum. Then I woke up, that night, to the screams of women.
One such woman was sitting in a corner, decorated in chains like a bride. The other was clinging to the metal bars. The third had been eyeing the clock for hours, until time itself had melted from its surface, and evaporated – was she waiting for someone? My mind revolved around these images for many days. At last, pen and paper were discovered! I told myself: I would write the monologues of the mad women and publish them later.
One day, a woman removed her shalwar and started waving it in the air like a flag. The other was fiercely clinging to the arm of a doctor, refusing to let go:
“No! I won’t go home,” she said. “It’s so nice here! I’ll live here, okay?”
The third had started arguing with an imaginary police-man:
“No, I’m telling you!” she said. “My husband forced me into this business. I’m a very respectable lady otherwise. Those pictures? They’re not me, okay? You believe in those damn newspapers? I don’t. And guess what? I don’t believe in you either. Policemen shouldn’t exist. Those policemen weren’t kind to me at all…. All five of them, weren’t kind…. The pictures in the newspapers! Some imposter perhaps? No my husband…. No, he’s left me now. This scar? It’s nothing really. What?”
And one of them, a young girl who was huddled in a corner, was uttering deliriously to the air: night, night, one man, my husband and his brother, then five men, their friends, my husband and his brother’s friends, the night on the faces of those ghunday men…. night, night.”
Out of all of these, there was one – Mina – a highly educated and cultured girl who became good friends with me. In between the hurry and scurry of the other asylum girls, we would sit and chat for hours on end. She was trained in classical music and had smuggled a tape-recorder into the asylum. Every evening, precisely at the twilight hour, she would play a raag. The music would float into the air. The words of the song went like:
in the Garden, we made love
“I have loved a man, Sara Shagufta,” she told me one day at last. “I am maddened in love. Now my lover has left me, driving me to this state, and I will laugh a laughter of madness and wait for him!”
She began to dance.
Then, I remember how on that day, a chaos had suddenly broken out.
“Stop this naach gaana!” one of the women had said, who was too upset that another woman had stolen her orange and eaten it. She had been given an electric shock in the morning. Now someone had stolen her orange. This was enough to call for an end to the celebration. “Give me your cigarette Sara Shagufta, enough is enough!”
I lunged myself on her: “Not my cigarettes you bitch! They’re my only confidantes!”
By this time, the woman who had stolen the orange initially had aimed for my shalwar – she wanted that too. A fight broke out, and we all aimed for each other’s clothes, tearing them apart until the entire asylum floor was covered in shreds of cotton.
When the nurse tried to pull me away, I suddenly remembered that she had not given me that day’s chai. So I started screaming: “I want my chai, I want my chai!” after which the doctor came to her rescue.
He grabbed me. We got into a terrible fight. My verdict was given: “You will now be given an electric shock, Shagufta. We need to calm you down.” I tore away, and ran to the other side of the asylum, and on one of its walls, I wrote: “Nazi Camp.”
He began grinning.
I told him: “Wait till you watch. I’m going to write a newspaper column on you! Don’t you know who I am?”
“Hah!” he laughed. “I know who you are. There were many like you here, before you came. Many of them wrote columns. Nothing changed.”
“Happy Home” by Sahyr Sayed. 2012. Mix medium. 37 x 50 x 29 inches.
This evening, I am being released. I sit in the courtyard of the Karachi Psychiatric Asylum and write this. Half an hour ago, the women bid me farewell; they gathered about me: we all began crying together in loud, mournful tones. The eye on the lock shut itself: the door was opened. They stood clinging to the bars, still crying. I turned and asked, perplexed: “Aren’t you happy for me girls? I’m finally free.”
“No Sara Shagufta.” They spoke, almost in one voice. “Don’t you know? You’re now stepping into the real mental asylum.”
Sara Shagufta, a 20th century Urdu feminist poet, battled clinical depression for most of her life, and committed suicide at the age of 29 in 1984. In the aftermath of her death, poets such as Iftikhar Jalib wrote that Sara Shagufta “was too nonsensical a poet” and “incapable of intellectual rigor.” The current director of the Anjuman Taraqqī-yi-Urdū (The Centre for Promoting Urdu Language in Pakistan) described Shagufta’s work as “dīvāne kā vabāl” (“the rants of a mad woman”) that can “never be seen as great poetry.” In her 2017 memoir, the Urdu poet Azra Abbas, in a similar vein, referred to Shagufta as a “self-obsessed rambler.” All of these best illustrate Adrienne Rich’s view on the matter, expressed in Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (1975) – “Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience.”
The featured excerpt, taken from Sara Shagufta’s journals which were maintained when she was confined in a psychiatric ward in Karachi, is not only a feminist and Foucaultian attempt to disrupt binaries of madness/reason, but is also a scathing commentary on the violent institutions of mental asylums in Pakistan where such binaries are established and enacted. She shows that the world ‘outside’ of the mental institution that society deems so rational is, in fact, as mad as the perceived madness of the asylum space.