Zarina and Her Home
Illustration by Laiba Raja
The first time I saw Zarina Hashmi’s art, at an exhibition called ‘Homelands in Kettles Yard’ in Cambridge earlier this year, it transported me back to a simpler time – excited to use the new Picasso pencil set my mother got for me when I was four, the first thing I learned to draw and colour, what any child learns really, was how to make a home for myself and my family. It was a simple large square, with a sharp triangle above it, a shining, happy sun in the top right corner bringing in light. Tracing this form in Zarina’s work pulled me to her, stirring an almost bodily impulse to get back home.
Last year I moved to Shadwell, a predominantly brown area in East London. I was displaced and drifting in an alien and foreign city, when I overheard two men, a Sikh and a Bangladeshi, walking down the street. They had been talking about a nephew’s fifth birthday. It wasn’t something you saw every day, or at all, in Pakistan – people of different religions, simply walking together as they talk about loved ones, helping carry each other’s Tesco bags as they complained about their bad backs. It was so rarely that one could see what had been preserved despite the internalisation of divisions. I think about that time and laugh because living in Shadwell is like living in a Lahore away from Lahore. There’s a restaurant called Lahore One just down the street, and it makes me believe that sometimes life understands you.
To me, Lahore was much more than a reserve of a magical past, now rapidly urbanising with its din of constructions. It was where the winter sun had the same warmth as my grandmother. Nighttime came at a very respectable time in Lahore – I was in shock when I experienced how quickly the day slips by in London. I was troubled by how unforgiving the winter wind was and how disheveled it left me. Coming across Zarina’s art was nothing short of destiny. It was exactly what I needed to see, hear and feel to realise I was not alone. Loneliness can be crippling, unnerving, isolating and debilitating, but the distance of my actual home in Lahore versus the proximity of Zarina’s work made me recollect a life of nostalgia – simple, unadulterated and sacred.
Zarina’s life’s work is rooted in a quest to find her way back home, from sketches of gleaming lifeboats in complete darkness to views from an airplane window. The compulsion with which she redrew her way back suggests an urgency to return to a place of safety and comfort.
Folding House, 2013
Image courtesy: Zarina Hashmi
In Urdu, Zarina’s mother tongue, which she frequently used in her work, ‘ghar’ (home), the simple four letter word, requires you to put extra effort in its pronunciation. The low baritone tugs at you and you feel it, slowly making its way down to your heart, rooting you. At an early age, Zarina had to abandon the safety of her ‘ghar’ in fear of being killed by the religious majority in a land where she turned into an invader overnight. Her story is specially painful, one that has lived through violence, loss, pain, bloodshed and displacement in a country broken into two at the hands of the British empire. In 1947, when the British resident-lawyer-turned-cartographer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, carelessly constructed dividing lines across India, the nation and its lives were effectively cut in half. Zarina grew up in the charged atmosphere of Aligarh University where her father taught History. She, along with her elder sister Rani, who featured repeatedly in her work, would laze away in the gardens of this accommodation and ‘plot their journeys in life’. It isn’t surprising that Zarina, the youngest member of her family to witness the shock of Partition, repeatedly returned to this home in her work to salvage what she could.
Stories like Zarina’s have been narrated by my grandparents who, like countless others who lived through this turbulent time, also lived through the horrors of Partition. My grandfather was seven years old at the time. He rarely ever talks about his childhood, which to me, visually translates into the black shadowy homes of Zarina’s art, standing hidden in the darkest pits of my grandfather’s memory. That kind of trauma, which physically drags you out, leaving you alone and abandoned with neither concrete nor imagined walls to protect you, turns into flesh inside an individual. In her art, Zarina channeled this trauma to dedicate her life to finding a home she could feel secure in again. I often find myself wondering if her pursuit led her to finding home in a community, instead of the four traditional walls that she drew so frequently.
Perhaps, the making of each print was like reliving the memories of this lost life. Etching plates and carving blocks of wood served as a way to look back at the people of her past. The neighbours she had. The man who delivered the newspaper each morning. The couple on their nightly walk. And then, in a flash, have it all changed by the arbitrary but solid demarcation of two newly formed enemy states.
Even a casual glance at Zarina’s work reveals a lifetime of heaviness, of lingering silence that is so palpable that it has the power to cause a physical shift, a tangible unsettling in the human body. How does she go about achieving this sensibility in her work? Only someone who has borne the trauma of Partition, who could never return home and has had to live a life in exile can bring out the distress her visuals and colour schemes convey – always dark, always grey and so deafening in their indomitable pain. Even the titles of her work leave you aching all over – ‘Spaces to Hide, 1981’, ‘Ranis Garden, 1986’, ‘By the Mango Tree, 1988’, ‘Remains of the City, 2001’.
Ranis Garden, 1986
Image courtesy: Zarina Hashmi
Steeped in Islamic iconography, continually referring to the holiest house — the Kabbah, which is God’s home — her work, to me, reads like a prayer, a hymn she tightly holds on to, incapable of leaving it behind, like her house in Aligarh which started her on this path. She writes, ‘No one is left in our house at Aligarh, Rani is gone. My parents have gone. Home has become another foreign place’. This exilic state of being haunts an individual in inescapable ways. And her houses do seem a little haunted, standing like spectres in the shadow of what they could have been. They appear burnt and shrivelled and empty, much like the people and histories erased by the Partition. Zarina only draws the foundations, unable to inhabit the places in her drawing, afraid that they, too, will be taken away. She perpetually lived in the clutches of this unshakable feeling.
The simplicity of her artwork raises many complex questions. What happens when the compound figure, drawn in its most rudimentary state with tiny little squares that make up its windows and doors, is enveloped in an inky shade of black? What happens when you see ruptures and fractures in this seemingly solid form, when you see the home as a shell, or more fittingly, as a shadow of its former self? What becomes of the faintest trace of light in the corners of the paper that these drawings contrast? It is only when you understand the extent of the pain and helplessness caused by forced exile, that you begin to look at the home as Zarina did – something that can only exist, in its purest form, in the imagination. It becomes the one space no one can take away from you or uproot you from because it exists entirely within you. What is lost then is never truly lost because it persists in memory. Perhaps, that makes it the safest space of all.
There is always a faint trace of light seeping through the cracks of these homes. This warm, soft, yellow illumination makes me believe that there is still hope. These cracks begin to function as the cement that holds these homes together. In the wake of one of the most harrowing refugee crises the world has seen, the maps of India and Pakistan changed for ever, their geographies condensed and burned to a crisp. Zarina treats these in visualising her subject matter with the delicateness and nuance of a nurse treating someone injured, broken and in insurmountable pain.
There is a great lesson to be learned as one inspects Zarina’s work. Even when things are beyond your control, you have the force within you to reclaim a part of yourself and your history in some way. Zarina’s drawings channeled her memories of a more stable time, coalescing them with her present reality and putting onto paper an entire archive of her life after the Partition. She would often ask why people would look at her work and burst into tears. They would tell her that this is their story too. In all that is lost, she opens people up understanding their own experiences. She states “if you tell your story and someone comes and cries on your shoulder, that is sharing.”
Zarina Hashmi passed away in April of 2020 in the city of London, surrounded by the warmth of her family. Her nephew Imran and her niece Saima looked after her in these last days.
Zarina left behind a body of work that unites and links communities displaced from their homelands, their languages and their religions. Her work speaks to and moves us all. Its timeless nature pulses with this awareness, serving as a historical document for ages to come.
Silent Night, 2018
Image courtesy: Zarina Hashmi
Laiba Raja is currently a second year student at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she studies fine arts.