The Pardah Nashin is an exquisite lyric taken from the last section of Sarojini Naido’s poetry collection The Golden Threshold. ‘Pardah Nashin’ means a lady who lives or sits behind a veil. The lyric has been widely criticised for its alleged glorification of purdah. But it stresses one important aspect of Muslim Culture- or of the Indian way of life as a whole—which was very much there when the lyric was penned, and purdah still lingers on in conservative Muslim families.
The Pardah Nashin lives a life of ease, comfort and security in the harems of the rich. She moves constantly in a world of dreams. She has nothing much to do. She is well-sheltered from the burden of life. Her life is a life of perpetual ease and relaxation. She is bejewelled with diamond-studded girdles around her waist, and bright gems in her hair which shine like “changing fires on sunset seas.” This exquisite image brings home to the readers the scintillating brightness of her jewellery. Her dress also is soft likes the ‘morning mist’ embroidered with opal, gold and amethyst.
She lives a life of ease and comfort well-protected from the lustful looks which the wicked stealthily cast on a woman, from the scorching rays of the sun, and even from the touch of the hot or cold winds. She lives a sheltered and secure life behind the well-decorated windows of her room. She is hidden from the eyes of the world as jewels in the hair are hidden by a turban. She is as unknown to the outside world as “secrets in a lover’s breast”. Sarojini’s use of sensuous, concrete imagery is to be noted.
The Pardah Nashin leads a sheltered life beyond the reach of the wicked and the impure. None can dare unveil her hidden graces without permission; none can have a look at her beauty without first obtaining her own sanction or that of her guardians. But all her purdah, and all the security which she enjoys, are futile, for they cannot halt the march of Time. With the passing of time, even the sheltered and secure Purdah Nashin knows sorrow and suffering which leave their traces on her face. No purdah and no security can prevent the stealthy march of Time which robs her of her happiness and fills her eyes with tears. As purdah is ineffective against the sorrow and suffering of life, it would be wrong to call the lyric “a glorification of purdah” rather the lyric is an exposure of its futility.
This was a world within a world. Even in Sarojini’s lifetime this interesting pattern of life was fast becoming a thing of the past. Decade after decade Sarojini saw the gradual disappearance of this realm of beauty and splendour. “The interesting is not necessarily desirable. To be fascinated by something is not necessarily to approve of it.Sarojini, though actively engaged in the campaign for women’s emancipation, did not conceal her nostalgia for the world of the purdah. It was a world of courtesy and charm, in which women of delicate beauty, with henna tinted hands and ‘gem-entangled tresses’ reclined languidly on silken cushions, a world which enchanted her, like the alabaster box of which she wrote,
Therein I treasure the spice and scentOf rich and passionate memories blentLike odours of cinnamon, sandal and cloveOf song and sorrow and life and love.
But this wistfulness certainly cannot be taken to imply that she would have liked the women of India to opt for a life of this kind. She knew that the world of beauty and splendour and ease was also a world of inner frustration and pain.” The last stanza of Purdah Nashin is drooped in sadness and melancholy.
But though no hand unsanctioned daresUnveil the mysteries of her grace.Time lifts the curtain unawares,And sorrow looks into her face……Who shall prevent the subtle years
Or shield a woman’s eyes from tears.