'Blessing' by Imtiaz Dharker
Imtiaz Dharker was born in 1954 to a Muslim family in Lahore, Pakistan. She grew up in Glasgow, where she studied Literature and Philosophy. She now lives in Bombay, India, where she works as a poet, artist and film-maker. Bloodaxe have published two collections of her poetry, both illustrated with Dharker's own drawings.
'The reason I'm in India is because I married an Indian. And it has become home now. Though sometimes I feel as if writers don't have homes, that I belong in the cracks between countries, and I actually maybe prefer it that way. For me, my identity has nothing to do with nationality, or religion, or gender. It has to do with beliefs and states of mind.'
'Blessing' is from Dharker's first book, published in 1989.
'The scene of 'Blessing' is the largest slum in Asia — Dharavi, on the outskirts of Bombay. Bombay is the city of dreams. They've come from all over India and they're living in conditions which to anyone else would look squalid but to them it really is the hope of a better life. And because it is not an official living area there is a shortage of water. So when a pipe bursts, it's like a gift...
(left) The Dharavi slum (right) a young boy picks through the rubbish for srap metal which he can sell
The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.
Imagine the drip of it,
the small splash, echo
in a tin mug,
the voice of a kindly god.
Sometimes, the sudden rush
of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,
silver crashes to the ground
and the flow has found
a roar of tongues. From the huts,
a congregation : every man woman
child for streets around
butts in, with pots,
brass, copper, aluminium,
and naked children
screaming in the liquid sun,
their highlights polished to perfection,
as the blessing sings
over their small bones.
Imtiaz Dharker reading two poems
Analysis of poem
'Blessing' is a four stanza poem with some inconsistent usage of end-rhyme, dealing with the major event of a broken water pipe in a deprived slum on the outskirts of Bombay. The imagery used in the poem emphasises the poverty of the people and how important and how sacred drinking water is to these people. The poem starts with a short, two line stanza that serves the purpose of framing the poem and establishing the context or back story of the poem.
The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.
Here the 'skin' could be a literal reference to a person's skin that has become chapped and chaffed by constant exposure to the hot sun, or could a more figurative reference to the dry dusty ground that also cracks and splits during heatwaves and droughts. Also, when a person becomes dehydrated their lips and gums begin to shrink and their skin becomes dry and loose. The word 'pod' refers to a seed pod that opens in the hot weather to release it seeds. When taken together these descriptive words paint a rather bleak, even violent image. The poet's choice of words reminds the reader that we are dealing with hot country where thirst is common, after all, 'there never is enough water.'
The second stanza begins by asking the reader to imagine water dripping into a cup, to imagine the tiny splash as the water droplet hits the bottom of the cup. It is as if the person describing the dripping water hasn't had a drink in months and, just like a man dying of thirst in a desert, is fantasizing about a delicious drop of thirst-quenching water. Like the first stanza, the second stanza reinforces the idea that within the context of this poem water is a very precious and rare thing, not to be wasted at any cost. The fact that the tiny droplet of water creates an 'echo' in the mug suggests that the mug is almost entirely empty, like a drop of cool water hitting a parched tongue. Moreover, what kind of person owns a tin mug? A rich man, or a poor man? We could say that the reference to a tin mug implies that this person is also very poor. Most interestingly of all, the last line of the second stanza personfies the echoing splash of the water as 'the voice of a kindly god', which not only makes the water seem even more precious and divinie but also part of a god and therefore something miraculous and deeply special.
The third and longest stanza of the poem tells us a story of a burst water pipe and how suddenly this precious resource was transformed from a tiny, precious drip into a powerful torrent of water. Such is the value and importance of water to these people that throughout the poem it is refered to as if it was a precious metal like gold or silver.
The poet describes the gushing water as a 'sudden rush of fortune' like someone winning the jackot on a slot machine and the money rushing out of the machine. As the precious water splashes onto the ground the word 'rush' could suggest that people are 'rushing' around trying to save as much of it as they can. We are told that it is the public (municipal) pipe that has burst, which could either be a water pump that is available to everyone or maybe just a large water pipe that runs through the slum. Either way a large water pipe has burst and it is a cause of some panic and excitement. Again the poet uses figurative language to compare the water to precious metal when she writes 'silver crashes to the ground'. Caught in the right light water can look like silver, or a highly polished mirror, only in this instance the poet uses the word 'silver' to emphasise how precious a commodity it is. As the water beings to flow and drain away it finds a 'roar of tongue.' Now, this is an interesting metaphor and also an example of what we call synecdoche which is a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships. In this poem the word 'roar' refers to a group of people since we only have one tongue each and therefore the plural 'tongues' suggests a group. It could be that the tongues are 'roaring' with thirst, or perhaps that people are merely shouting and their combined voices constitutes the 'roar' of a crowd. I think that the poet is being purposefully ambiguous (not being clear) to make us think about the idea of thirst and to remind us that there are lots of other people involved in this event. And indeed, as we read on we learn that people are started to issue from this huts carrying all manner of pots and pans to carry the water, so perhaps the 'roar of tongues' is actually a shout of alarm and panic to tell people that they need to try anf save as much of the water as possible.
We should also note the word 'congregation' as this word has two important means within the context of this poem. Firstly it refers to a congregation or group of people, but it also refers to a group of people in a church or being given religious instruction. What we see here is the poet using ambiguous religious language, the effect being to make the process of saving the spilling water a kind of religious ritual, which in turn emphasise the precious nature of the water. The poet has already described the water as a gift from a 'kindly' god, so if the water is a gift from god it is only right that the act of collecting it should bear some resemblance to a religious ritual. This is also further evidence that these people are religious people and that they see accidents as acts of god and not just freak occurances.
People from 'all the streets around' rush to save the water. This could mean that their water somehow restricted, perhaps they have to pay for it and as such a burst pipe represents a chance to save some free water. Maybe it is rationed in case it runs out. I can't imagine people in a British city would all rush out to the road with their pots and pans and buckets to save water if a water pipe burst on the street! Again we see they use cheap containers to save the water and their 'frantic' hands also suggest that there is an atomosphere of panic. However, all is not doom and gloom since the small children are playing in the water, the highlights in their hair 'polished to perfection' after a life spent outside in the hot 'liquid' sun.
Blessing: Revision questions
Content and Meaning
1) Briefly explain what happens in the poem.
2) What sort of environment is the poem set in? Give evidence to support your answer.
3) What do we learn about the religious beliefs of the people in the poem?
4) How does the phrase ‘municipal pipe’ suggest social inequality?
5) What is the ‘blessing’ in the poem?
1) How does the way the poem is divided up into stanzas reflect the stages of the poem?
2) The second half of the poem forms one long sentence. Why do you think the writer chooses to do this?
3) Why does stanza two begin with the word ‘imagine’?
4) What idea is repeated in this stanza and what is the effect of this repetition?
5) Why do you think the poet has chosen not to put any commas between the words ‘man woman child’?
1) How does the poet stress the shortage of water in stanza 2?
2) What techniques are used to make the water seem precious?
3) How does the poet show the size of the response to the water?
4) What does the use of the word ‘frantic’ suggest?
5) Which words in the final stanza suggest that things have improved?
Use the answers to these questions to annotate the poem in your anthology.