Ghazaling in English – A Canadian Poet’s Literary Journey


I was first introduced to ghazals by my father. Well, not really. I first heard ghazals at my father’s house. He would plunk in tapes of Pankaj Udhas, a famous ghazal singer, and my sister and I would groan, “Dad! Not this again!” Being an avid Bollywood movie watcher, I picked up a few Hindi words here and there. All I could understand of Pankaj Udhas was his constant longing to drink, to drink until he was drunk on love.  At that time, I didn’t understand the poetry behind the words- the craft behind the voice. Ghazals occupied the world of the older generation. When I heard ghazals, I imagined a room of old men sitting on the floor- drinking endless cups of chai (or wine, depending on how secular they were), spitting out wah! wah! at the appropriate junctions. Wah has no equivalent in English. It is utter and sheer appreciation for the poetry of a line, for a vocal riff, for the phrasing of the heart through music. The poet’s name is usually included in the last line of the ghazal itself; a verbal copyright. Some poets used their names given at birth, and others created a pen name (takhallus). My pen name is Israh, inspired by Sura Al Isra from the Qur’an:

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things).

(The Holy Qur’an, 17:1)

Writing is a journey through night. It is a process of polishing a gem until it sparkles in the light of day. In order for a literary jewel to shine, the poet has to surrender to the darkest recesses of the soul.  St. John of the Cross referred to it as “the dark night of the soul”. To write without the fear of exposing oneself; this is the key to being an authentic writer.

In the first year of my MFA program, I took a poetry workshop with Dionne Brand. Brand exposed us to various forms of poetry, and asked us to experiment with them. In one class, she said “Today, we’re going to try writing ghazals”. Ghazals? I thought. How can one write a ghazal? Ghazals are songs. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the tradition of ghazals in English. A handful of Canadian poets had tried their hand at writing ghazals, or “anti-ghazals” as they called them: Lorna Crozier, John Thompson, Phyllis Webb. However, it was when I read Agha Shahid Ali that I realized it was possible to write Urdu in English.  By writing Urdu in English. To write Urdu in English is to take the essence of Urdu’s poetic beauty and find a space for it in the country of my birth: Canada.  I would inherit a form dating back to the 7th century, but write in the language taught to my ancestors by colonizers: my mother tongue of English.

English, a colonial tongue, contains words derived from South Asian languages: curry, jungle, opal, saffron, juggernaut, widow, jasmine, bangle, monsoon, lilac, musk and mango to name a few. I decided that if I was going to write ghazals in English, my refrains would consist of words from Hindi, Malayalam, Arabic, Malay, Urdu and Sanskrit. The last word of each line would be an affirmation of my complex ancestral history. If I couldn’t speak the language, I would speak through the form.

But how would those versed in the ghazal tradition respond to my attempt at writing ghazals in English? It was a taxi driver in downtown Toronto that reminded me of my unique identity as a Canadian South Asian writer.


To enter someone’s car requires trust. I make it a point to observe their trinkets- sometimes it’s a large rosary hanging from the mirror, or a shiny CD engraved with a Qur’anic ayat. Or perhaps a card of Ganesha taped to the dashboard.

The car might smell like new leather, or cigarette smoke masked by cheap cologne, or strawberry scented air freshener, curry, sweat, betel nut.  The same smell of auto rickshaws in Bombay. Except one can easily fall out of an auto rickshaw (there are no doors), and subsequently get trampled by a herd of cows. Cows own the right of way on most roads in India. But Toronto cabs have doors. There are no large animals but there are bicyclists, who could easily get thrown off balance by a taxi driver swerving to the curb without warning.

To observe silence in a taxi, unless I’m on my cell phone, is rude. Strange. Unbearable. Even a discussion about the weather, or politics, or where I’m going is better than staring out the window with my mouth shut and my eyes shifting focus.

If I don’t ask “Where are you from?” first, they most certainly will.  We’ll chat without seeing each other’s mouths move. We’ll just meet each other’s eyes through the mirror.

After many taxi rides over the last 5 years, I’ve learned that a taxi ride is a lesson in how not to judge a person by their profession.

Late for a magazine interview I was conducting at a cafe, I hailed a cab on Bay Street. The taxi driver had honey coloured eyes. He was a doctor back in Pakistan- Lahore to be exact. I could tell from the sing song in his thick voice. Lahore. I had read about Lahore in Sufism class. Lahore is the city of saints, where the tomb of the famous poet, Baba Bulleh Shah, is located. A few years ago, in Kerala, I remember watching the video of a pop song on MTV India. A Bulleh Shah poem turned into a catchy tune.

Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun

I know not who I am

The taxi driver and I spoke of ghazals, and I told him I was writing a collection in English. Like many connoisseurs of Urdu ghazals, he was taken aback. Urdu is the language of poetry. I concurred. To write a ghazal in English would be like watering down a strong cup of coffee. He lamented. The flavour, the taste, the strength is lost.  But I don’t speak Urdu, I told him. How else can I connect to a literary tradition that has belonged to my ancestors, and their ancestors? He was amazed that someone of my age was writing in a form that is mostly reserved for older, white haired men. As we reached the entrance of the cafe, he quoted Mirza Ghalib:

Na Tha Kuch To Khuda Ta, Kuch Na Ta To Khuda Hota

Duboya Mujko Hone Ne, Na Hota Main To Kya Hota?


When nothing was, then God was there; had nothing been, God would have been,

My being has defeated me, had I not been what would have been?

This couplet was of the few Urdu couplets I had memorized by heart. It reminded me of the humility of writing in a form more ancient than my great great grandfathers.  Reading ghazals from the past was quite an experience for me.  I was often shocked by the candour and elegance of the language. The combination of both left me wondering, “How can I write about post-modern ideas with candour and yet maintain the elegance of the language?” In the poetic language of the past, readers were more willing to accept lofty ideas. In our post-modern world, language is becoming simpler and simpler to heighten communication. As a result, writing in an ancient form while maintaining thoughts and ideas from the present is quite a task. The ancestral poet within me and the post-modern poet within me may never reconcile. In reality, we cannot reconcile ancestry with our modernity—they simply have to co-exist. With this observation, I translated the parallel existence onto the page.

The English ghazal is a reflection of the limitations we face in defining ourselves. Similar to the constraints of writing in the ghazal form, we are defined by the labels that are given to us. However, it is through those limitations that we find the strength to push back.  We are forced to become more creative, defiant, innovative and reflective. The ghazal, therefore, is perfectly suited to my own journey as a writer who embodies many identities. The demand for “exotic” writing in Canada must come to an end. The South Asian literary identity is more fraught than arranged marriages, mangoes and spices. The question is, are Canadians readers willing to embrace the uncertainty of the culturally diverse, simultaneous, literary identity?

The soil in my DNA traces its history to many homelands. To dip my pen into the blood of my ancestry and plant seeds on the page in the land of my birth– this is the ultimate goal. Whether the seeds take root depends on my beloved reader.


Sheniz Janmohamed is a Toronto Poet and writer whose first book of poetry Bleeding Light has been published by TSAR