In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes:

[W]hen people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. …It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. (40)

I found my way to poetry through my maternal grandmother, Sadiqa Manzoor. She was all the regular things a woman of her generation and class was meant to be – wife, mother, homemaker, well-spoken, well-presented, dignified, deferential towards her husband – but she was also a scholar and teacher of Urdu literature, and a lover of poetry.

I called her ‘Barri-Ammi’ – a literal translation into Urdu of the French grand-mère. Why we translated from French rather than the nearly identical English, I do not know, but I suspect my mother and grandmother’s penchant for treating language like plasticine had something to do with its genesis. Where the ‘grand’ in English suggests elder status, in French and Urdu the first half of the word also means ‘large’ or ‘big’, something that the novelty of the Urdu term necessarily underlines. It was appropriate, not because she was particularly large but because she made a big impression.

My grandmother’s home language was Persian. When she got married and moved shortly thereafter to the newly created Pakistan, Urdu took Persian’s place. English was always present, from her convent school days in British India to her life as a bureaucrat’s wife in the post-partition world. So much so that she nearly did her MA in English literature before deciding to switch to Urdu. Her understanding of Persian gave her an advantage when studying Urdu, much as a knowledge of French or Latin can be useful while studying English literature. Urdu and Persian poetry, in particular, enchanted her, an enchantment she was eager to share with her students, guests who lingered long enough at the dinner table to listen, and me.

Poetry was always a part of life for us. One of the first sounds I remember is my maternal grandfather’s voice singing a ghazal. I don’t know what the poem itself was, or indeed whether it was in Urdu or Persian, but the way the words worked together, the way the wall vibrated with his deep voice, made me hold my breath and listen. I wanted to know why what he was singing made the people around him shake their heads, sigh, and call out in appreciation, some mouthing the words of the chorus or the rhyme along with him.

It was common for discussions around the dinner table to be embellished or supplemented by poetry as well. Snatches of Hafiz, Mir and Ghalib, of Faiz and Faraz, would be recited. To my delight, sometimes us children would be asked if we understood or, assuming we didn’t, someone – usually Barri-Ammi – would break down the classical Persian and high Urdu into simpler Urdu and show us how the words were related to each other, teaching us to divine the meaning of the verses from that connection. Unsurprisingly, a lot of what was being said was over my head – what could a toddler know of god, grief, longing or the treachery of the ubiquitous ‘beloved’? All I knew was those words together meant something greater than I could fathom, and I wanted to know what that something was.

I was two years old when I demanded that Barri-Ammi teach me to read. I think I had hoped that reading would be the key to figuring out what everyone was really talking about. Once I could pin it down into writing, I’d be able to understand. I believe Barri-Ammi understood what I wanted, but of course she knew better. She decided to introduce me to both the Roman and Perso-Arabic alphabets at the same time. While one marched stolidly from left to right, the other swirled not just from right to left, but also hung over and under lines as it pleased. There was a joy to it, a sense of possibility that I didn’t quite understand but felt nonetheless. Though the former was what was reinforced when I started my schooling in Geneva, albeit in French rather than English, I am grateful that she taught me early on that language need not be anchored to a single direction.

Although a lot of my grandmother’s Persian was lost on me, that understanding of poetry as a source of joy, beauty, hope and even sustenance was not. English may be my dominant language, but that curiosity, that desire to find my way into the gaps and spaces of language and find something profound there, comes from my time around the dining table with my grandmother guiding me through Persian and Urdu.

One of those times, when I was ten, my grandmother handed me an eight-volume set of poetry books in English. They were small hardcovers bound in golden cloth, with the poets’ names embossed on the spines in gold lettering. While English poetry could never really achieve the delicacy of Persian and Urdu, she said, here were some poets who perhaps came a little close. She hoped I would eventually choose to study Urdu poetry, but for now, as my life prioritised English, these poets and their work would see me through to developing my own poetic sensibilities in the language. I think what she didn’t say was that she hoped that my early acquaintance with these mostly Romantic poets would keep me open to the classical mode in Urdu, which she saw as more refined than modern poetry in either language.

It must have been a fraught decision. As a teacher, my grandmother clearly wanted to encourage and nurture my development in the language towards which I seemed most inclined. As a grandmother, she wanted to ensure that at least one of her grandchildren had access to her language. I think, somewhere along the way, the ‘language’ she decided we had in common was not Persian, Urdu or even English, but poetry itself.

I think that is why I find myself conflating language and poetry so often. For academic purposes I must remember to disentangle them, to be careful of my terms, but really I find any demarcation made between them flimsy and porous. After all, can a language really be said to be alive without poetry?

Bari-Ammi started losing her poetry to dementia in the last years of her life. By the time she died, in July 2023, she was almost completely silent. She had become so quiet, in fact, that the nurse only realised she had stopped breathing because the pulse oximeter stopped blinking. At 90, she was one of the last members of her generation to go and she took with her an encyclopaedic knowledge of Persian and Urdu poetry that I doubt any of her descendants will be able to rebuild.

It is strange to feel a connection to language snap like that. While I have many of her old books, both gifted to me and pilfered from her collection, their pages are in danger of crumbling to dust under my fingers if I try to read them. If they disintegrate, I doubt I will be able to find replacements, so I don’t touch them. I feel their presence though, and think of how, once upon a time, through the upheavals of war, partition and migration and despite the restrictions and requirements of her life, my grandmother fought for the chance to fall in love with their wonders. I think of how that love of words and language and rhythm became woven into the fabric of our family, and how we drew to ourselves more and more people who shared that fascination. We may have lost a direct connection to Persian with her passing, but that is only one of our languages. We have others, and poetry lives in them all.

Winterson, Jeanette. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? London: Vintage. pp 40.

Nadia Niaz is a writer, creative writing academic, counsellor and the founder of the Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Her debut book of poetry, The Djinn Hunters, was published by Rabbit Poetry Journal in 2023.